1) So for the last three days I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of being part of this years engage International Conference: Different Game: Young people working with art and artists

Taking place in and around the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall  and coinciding with this years Turner Prize the main conference took place on 19 and 20 November, with fringe events starting on 18th and finishing on 21st.

It’s a well established conference renowned for being full-on, jam packed, stimulating and (in many ways) topical…

Young people as a theme and focus, and issues surrounding work with them, for me has been a ‘steer’ waiting to happen for many years. And I’m guessing, as this year’s conference was fully booked, it has been for many others working in this sector.

2) Attended by a great cross-section of gallery and museum professionals, educators, artists, academics and young people the conference main programme (avaliable here in-detail) took place over two days and was broken up into the following main sections:

Conference key note by Darren O’Donnell, Artist and Director, Mammalian Diving Reflex – Giving the Kids the Keys to the Car

Plenary 1 – Is the Gallery a School?

Plenary 2 – The importance on cross-disciplinary engagement

Plenary 3 – Peer-led practice and its ethics

Plenary 4 – Evaluating Participatory Practice

Three short Artist Thinking presentations

Breakout sessions



3) The engage International Conference 2015 set out to explore how young people engage with art and artists by looking at practice from the UK and internationally, presenting examples of work featuring young people where traditional hierarchies may be overcome and where deeper levels of collaboration, between young people, artists and culture may occur.

I guess whilst this is of huge interest and significance to many, like me who have worked to initiate and develop young people’s arts opportunities, there was a glaring omission – far too many people talking about their work (and sharing experiences) were not young people!!

In fact the only young people to feature on the ‘main stage’ for the entirety of the conference were in the first Artist Thinking session of the first day. Two young women joined artist Barby Asante to deliver part of a re-worked version of a speech that featured in Baldwin’s Nigger, Horace Ove, 1969 (ref), a work that Barby has been working on alongside Teresa Cisneros and the sorryyoufeeluncomfertable collective since 2014.

The project proposed to develop an artist-led practice and research group, looking at ways to explore and interrogate dominant discourses inside public institutions and outside within greater society through contemporary artistic practices.

The scripted performance was a powerful telling of some of the discourses and contemporary issues faced by (young) people surrounding cultural identity, gender politics and multi-multiculturalism.

4) I took a lot from the presentation by Dr Esther Sayers, Lecturer, Goldsmiths University of London, BA Education, Culture & Society, MA Artist Teacher programmes and a PhD supervisor. Currently Esther also works as a Participation Producer and Researcher for Southbank Centre and other public arts organisations.

Esther’s research interests are around arts participation; in particular, pedagogies that enable the production of knowledge locally, where equality and emancipation are foregrounded. For this conference she proposed the pros and cons of peer-led practices within the context of young people and cultural institutions (namely gallery, museum and higher education). The pros included many obvious ways in which young people and artists can work together, the innate benefits and good things that come out of partnerships.

However (refreshingly) Esther also made the point that I think may often go unsaid – that peer-led isn’t necessarily the best way – that one of the many problems with peer-led working models is to do with diversity and a distinct lack of. If young people are encouraging other young people to join in and work with them the kinds of young people they might attract (argues Esther) may well be the same kinds of young people doing the inviting.

5) This year the breakout session I attended was led by Gabrielle Macbeth, Volunteer Coordinator, Glasgow’s Women’s Library and William Nelson, Coordinator, Tramway Visual Arts Studio and Development Officer for Art and Design, Glasgow City Council Education Department and the topic was ‘Professional Progression for Young People in Creative Practice’.

I was actually late for the beginning of the session and therefore missed a little of William’s introduction – to paraphrase he is an experienced student and teacher of art, after graduating from Glasgow School of Art he has taught extensively in school, worked as an assessor for the Scottish examination board and most recently worked for the council as Development Officer, a role in which he strives to do much of the ‘lacking’ joined up work between different organisations, services and agencies within Glasgow.

While the studio was originally established as an extra curricular programme for Senior Art and Design pupils interested in applying to Art School the studio now runs a wide variety of courses for students from a wide variety of backgrounds. The Studio is highly respected for our very successful and unique Art and Design Portfolio Presentation Courses. Since the Visual Arts Studio took up residence in the Tramway in 2000 we have formed strong links with Tramway’s visual arts team giving our students the wonderful opportunity to benefit from the unique resources within the venue.

William’s passion and experience, and the Studio’s location within the Tramway itself, makes for a vibrant environment within which to work. After the session I had many more questions (of course) which I would wish to ask now, mostly to do with how the work of the Studio links back in to the city? What are the council’s priorities for young people and culture and does the Studio support them? Finally, how do William and his team select the young people that take his courses – someone did ask this but I’m not sure it was answered…

6) Finally Gabrielle from the Glasgow Women’s Library talked to us about their work and in particular the Young Critics programme she has been running now for just over a year.

Young Critics are our fabulous team of young women who use social media to promote and review GWL’s exciting events and activities while developing their own skills and confidence and getting behind the scenes with artists, writers and creative women involved in our programme of talks, exhibitions and cultural activities.

Inspired by the a desire of GWL to reach out and make a specific invitation to young women the Young Critics programme has so far been well attended. The group meet regularly to share their own stories and experience as well as reflect on the work of GWL. The young participants are invited to attend all of the GWL events and are then encouraged to share their opinion on what they’ve seen and heard… the intention is to make the programme of GWL as accessible to younger and culturally diverse an audience as possible.

It’s a simple but effective model. There’s nothing quite like young people advertising opportunities to other young people.


Conclusion: I’m still trying to work out exactly what I made of it all this year. It’s been a few years since I attended conference. I always left feeling mostly optimistic (in the sense that there are those, like me, who think ts important to meet and discuss these kinds of issues).

This year in fact I’ve just completed the engage Cultural Leadership programme, extend. This fascinating not-quite-a-year-long course puts together educational and cultural workers from arts venues, museums, theaters etc. Our group project was exploring artists as leaders, the possibilities (and problematics) of practice-led leadership and young people’s roles in all of this. The course itself was useful in so many ways – I think it was one of the most rewarding professional experiences I’ve ever been part of.

Anyway… what’s this got to do with anything?

Well I suppose it’s that having worked with lots of young people and lots of artists to make work together, now for several years, I’m almost slightly enthused by examples of good practice and claims that ‘traditional hierarchies are going to be broken down’, it leaves me feeling unconvinced – also, I’m just not sure that that’s where the exciting work with young people can happen is it? I think setting out clear intentions about working practice is what really helps.

The hierarchies will always be there, within the cultural sector, wont they? Surely the only way we’d remove them at all would be to look at young people’s own, self-made work, akin to the peer-led panel discussion but beyond that even… Examples of peer-led experience and / or learning, within cultural infrastructures, will simply take one way of working and make it look like another.

I’m going to keep thinking about this for a bit longer – maybe a bit more time away from it will help me work through the things whirring around in my head.

All in all I had a very inspiring few days – what engage do really, really well (and its a hard thing to get right) is ‘host’ others. They think of everything, transport, food, accommodation… you name it they’ve got it covered. The engage team are a wonderfully, passionate group of women who deserve to be shouted about, a lot.

Thank you once again engage!

Enough for now.