Circuit training

Simon Stephens, 16.03.2017
Connecting young people to the arts
Of all the audiences that museums and galleries try to get through the doors, 15-25 year-olds are traditionally seen as the most difficult to attract.

The four-year Circuit programme is trying to change this. The initiative, led by Tate and funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, is an attempt to create real change in the sector, both in terms of practice and attitudes, by connecting this age group to the arts.

A conference I attended last week at Nottingham Contemporary explored what has been learned from the Circuit project so far and what the next steps might be. The event felt very different from many museum conferences, with an energy and dynamism that reflected the hopes and aspirations of those who attended.
It also had ambitious aims to identify how to make programmes more socially inclusive, politically relevant and creatively diverse. One of the original drivers for the programme was the fallout from the riots in Tottenham in north London in 2011, and a growing sense that young people were becoming disconnected from wider society.

The Twitter hashtag for the event was significant - #SparkChange. Ideas being discussed included democracy, honesty, authority, trust, respect, disruption, utopia and anarchy – not your usual conference fare.

The youth organisations that attended were also an important part of the mix. We also heard from Maria Balshaw, the incoming director of Tate, whose current role includes leading the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, one of the Circuit partners.

So, what came out of the conference? It is fair to say that, despite the positive atmosphere, there was also a degree of frustration about the pace of change. Delegates were concerned that programmes developed by and for young people are often dependent on project funding rather than being embedded in the core work of institutions.

This is something that the Paul Hamlyn Foundation is aware of in the sector more generally, and has tried to address through its innovative and ambitious Our Museum programme, which aims to create organisational change within museums and galleries that are committed to active partnership within their communities.

Balshaw said that the event in Nottingham was not about the future of Circuit, but the future of museums. As other delegates pointed out, young people grow up, and if museums are to flourish in the future they need to welcome, involve and support this group now.

Mark Miller, Circuit:national lead and convenor, Young People’s Programme, Tate Britain and Tate Modern is among the speakers at Future of Museums: Audiences, a Museums Association conference being held on 29 March at the Wellcome Collection, London.