A gallery that is welcoming to everyone

Margot Heller, Issue 118/09, p17, 01.09.2018
The South London Gallery is shifting the white, middle-class bias in audiences
The South London Gallery’s (SLG) education work has evolved over more than a decade. It is founded on an organisation-wide commitment to providing a cultural and social space that is genuinely welcoming to all. This, in turn, has made it more appealing to artists, who are at the heart of everything we do.

Our education programmes are devised and delivered by a team of eight education staff, plus art and play workers, curatorial colleagues and numerous artists. They focus on people living within walking distance of the gallery. We offer school visits and residencies, drop-in family workshops, a young people’s forum and website, an ongoing project with looked-after children and, most recently, a new heritage-focused programme.

Over many years, we have also built up strong relationships with residents on three nearby housing estates, particularly Sceaux Gardens, where our dedicated children’s space, Art Block, attracts more than 100 visits each week. Many of the participants and their carers regularly drop into the gallery via an entrance that is an integral part of artist Gabriel Orozco’s design for his unique garden at the SLG.

We prioritise the quality of the experience being offered over the numbers reached, which combined with the nurturing of long-term relationships, has meant that perceptions of the gallery have genuinely changed. Different programme strands and audiences interweave in a variety of ways: some of the children attending Art Block are also part of school visits and/or drop-in Sunday family workshops; participants in our young people’s programme occasionally go on to become Art and Play workers and/or front-of-house staff; and parents and teachers often become regular visitors to the SLG or apply for jobs here.

It has taken many years to reach our current position, whereby we have made some headway in terms of shifting the white, middle-class bias in audiences, programmes and workforce. But we have so much further to go and a responsibility to do so.

The SLG is in a multicultural area with above-average levels of social and economic deprivation. The area has also seen rapid change and gentrification in recent years. In this context, the need to secure inspiring, free public space is all the more pressing, so the gift to the SLG of a former fire station to convert into an annex, opening this month, was particularly timely.

It will open up a host of new ways in which to collaborate with local audiences, provide new work and training opportunities, and enable the SLG to be more ambitious than ever before.

Margot Heller is the director of the South London Gallery