(Image credit: Creative Learning Networks website)
The key objectives of the programme, an initiative from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, are to develop and embed an infrastructure of new training and continued professional development (CPD) methods for artists working in participatory settings and to share best practice.
In collaboration with Barbican Guildhall, the leading delivery partner for London Artworks, A New Direction hosted a series of seminar discussions to enable consultation with key stakeholders across the arts, Higher and Further Education sectors that would support the objectives of the programme.
The sessions proved a dynamic forum where many of the pressing issues around the current state of training opportunities for artists working in participatory settings were discussed but also where, in the spirit of cross sector cooperation, potential solutions were put forward.
Arts in participatory settings - the perspective of arts organisations
The first of the three seminars took place in January and involved a number of key London based arts organisations in a discussion about how they currently support artists and practitioners working in participatory settings and what the opportunities in terms of collaboration to deliver training and development to artists may be.
Much of the discussion focused on the 'demand side' - what are the challenges when it comes to training and CPD for artists working in participatory settings and what are their related needs?
The session kicked off with Neville Gabie, a visual artist sharing his experience and challenges of recently completing a two year project at the Olympic Park in Stratford and a three year project as an artist in residence at a large commercial shopping development in Bristol. Neville set the scene for the discussion that followed by shedding a stark light on the challenges that are inherent in participatory work through a vivid account of both projects.
The tension between working creatively with participants and having 'clear' outcomes spelt out for commissioners right from the start of the project, having the freedom to develop an idea (often at odds with commissioners' risk adverse attitude) and maintaining its integrity as the project unfolds were among the key challenges that Neville's introduction touched upon and that were carried further into the discussion during the day.
Key issues that were at the forefront of cultural organisations' mind and that emerged from the debate ranged from the need and value of accreditation, to providing spaces where artists can easily network and collaborate when it comes to sharing experiences of working in participatory settings.
Higher education – expanding artists' critical framework and providing opportunities for collective reflection
The following discussions with the education sector offered an interesting and complementary perspective to that of arts organisations, where many of these issues where reinforced and new ones emerged.
When Higher Education leaders came together in a round table chaired by Sally Taylor, Executive Director at Cultural Capital Exchange and introduced by reflections from Sylvan Baker, Collaborative Doctoral Researcher at Queen Mary's and Associate Director at People's Palace Projects, the discussion was a lively and involved one.
What can the cultural and the Higher Education sector do for each other? Can Higher Education play a role in expanding the critical framework for participatory work? What else can it offer the cultural sector and how well is it able to respond its changes? These were all questions that the group tackled over the course of the two hours' session.
Much of the discussion was set in the context of the role that academia – an environment that is inherently focused on critical thinking and reflection - has in preparing artists to work in an applied setting such as the one of participatory practice and reflecting on the apparent dichotomy between an artist (the person who practices the art in its pure form) and practitioner (the artist who engages with the community in a variety of settings).
Throughout the debate, one of the most acknowledged strengths of Higher Education institutions was their ability to provide artists with a critical framework for their work which can be revised and expanded through participatory practice. The role of research – not just as a means to an end in demonstrating impact of the practice but also as a way of feeding the practice itself - was recognised as key in this process.
Academia was also highlighted to have a comparative advantage in providing artists with a space to reflect on their own practice and nourish it – both before starting their own practice in the 'real world' and as continuing professional development for more established artists working in participatory settings and returning to education.
It was recognised that Higher Education institutions constitute an ideal setting for artists to do this collaboratively, by sharing best practice across art forms and even across career stages in a neutral space. The notion of intergenerational mentoring whereby Higher Education institutions could serve as platforms for a dialogue between young and established artists was also welcome by many.
Further Education – flexibility, numbers and whole practitioner focus
But the picture wouldn't have been complete without the perspective of Further Education institutions. Chaired by Pauline Tambling, joint CEO at CCSkills and MD at the National Skills Academy, the conversation with leaders of key institutions in London was based around the question of how Further Education and the cultural sector can cooperate to create or enhance existing training for artists looking to work in participatory settings, both in the context of education post 16 and adult education.
The conversation highlighted a number of factors proving the strength of Further Education institutions in complementing the opportunities already embedded in the Higher Education system. First and foremost, the increasing importance of Further Education institutions in the provision of arts subjects in the current economic climate and in the context of recent cuts to university funding.
The relative flexibility of Further Education institutions in terms of resources and infrastructures, their ability to reach out to more vocationally minded young people in large numbers and their tendency to see the young artist as a 'whole practitioner' in all their key operational (e.g. technical, managerial, administrative) as well as artistic functions highlight that they could be important hubs for delivering training in collaboration with the cultural sector.
Many ideas for what cooperation between the cultural sector and Further Education institutions may look like in practice were put forward.
Among the most significant was a more systematic approach in the creation of alternative pathways in the arts to Higher Education, a theme that also emerged prominently in our earlier discussions with cultural organisations. As well as this, a focus on whole artist development, an active involvement of young people in the dialogue informing provision of opportunities and a joint effort in developing a consistent and well understood language that could help articulate training options more clearly were highlighted as possible solutions.
Sitting in the Fountain Room at the Barbican on Monday watching the last of these sessions draw to a closure I couldn't help noticing how much food for thought these discussions had generated, both for all of those involved in the delivery of ArtWorks and for those key stakeholders that took part in the discussions.
While some of these ideas may take more time than others to be shaped into solutions, the momentum that was generated is remarkable and has certainly set the wheels in motion for many exciting changes. Artworks London is currently developing a series of informal learning pathways, mentoring models as well as planning to pilot new formal learning pathways with Higher and Further Education partners identified through the seminar discussions.
It is also designing and piloting a series of CPD models for artists working in participatory settings in partnership with Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and Entelechy Arts. Going forward it plans to continue to engage and strengthen their community of artists through debate platforms, Labs and CPD opportunities.
If you would like more information about Artworks London or if you would like to get involved you are welcome to get in touch with Louisa Borg-Costanzi Potts, Partnerships and Project Manager at ArtWorks London.