Q&A with Miranda Ballin

Why museums must give young people the power to create change
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Rebecca Atkinson
Miranda Ballin is the artistic director of ArtWorks at Valleys Kids, a charity working with children and young people, and their families, in the South Wales Valleys. The charity is part of the Tate Exchange Associates Programme.

Ballin will be speaking about breaking down barriers and championing young people at the forthcoming MP seminar, Future of Museums: Audiences, on 29 March at the Wellcome Collection in London.

How is Valleys Kids involved in the Tate Exchange project?

I went to the first Tate Exchange associates meeting in June last year and I had no idea what to expect. It was an extraordinary event and I began to grasp the simplicity and enormity of the ideas behind Tate Exchange.

Perhaps what was most striking was the open hearted and generous spirited way that the whole idea has been conceived.

It has been incredible that my organisation, which works with some of the most marginalised communities in Europe that are so often invisible and forgotten, has been able to work and exchange equally alongside universities, major arts institutions and community organisations.  

The group of partners I am working with cuts across the east and west of the UK, linking two former mining communities.  At our first encounter there was a spark and energy in the room that left us all feeling that we could contribute equally and on our own terms.

The results of this work will culminate in a week of programming at Tate with our theme of Fairground – a site of exchange that enabled traders to buy and sell their goods, but also drew together diverse populations in carnival, excess and play.

As the week unfolds there will be unusual stalls, unexpected tours, pop-up performances and plenty of opportunities to get involved. One element of the exchange is between young people from Valleys Kids and students from Dover working with artist Kelly Green to explore capitalist exchange and social marginalisation. 

Opening doors and allowing people to participate in this way feels exceptional in a time where all around us borders are being erected and barriers are being firmly put in place.

What impact is this work having on young people you work with?

The South Wales Valleys is one of the poorest areas in the UK and Europe, and yet its industrial history is one of the richest in the world. The past year has presented unprecedented challenges with regard to the political and economic landscape, bringing attention to how beleaguered and forgotten people feel within our communities.

The nine young people who have participated in the Tate Exchange project come from areas characterised by multiple deprivation – and this directly impacts on their quality of life. Most of them have learning disabilities and mental health issues; they also lack self-esteem and confidence, so more intensive support is essential to successfully engage with them.

Our project links school, community and home, enabling the young people to move beyond their immediate environment, encouraging a growing resilience.

The process of creating work for the Fairground at Tate has been a remarkable one in terms of their development. Working with Kelly Green has been a deeply collaborative experience encouraging creativity, problem solving and risk taking. This is particularly noticeable when they consider engaging with the public, pushing them even further out of their comfort zones.

The young people have been deeply reflective with regard to the subject matter, involving discussions about poverty, homelessness and isolation, which are areas that directly affect their everyday life. They have avoided stereotypes and focused on engaging the public in fun and extraordinary ways.

Working in this way gives them a window to explore everything around them and places them in the role of decision maker. It also makes them much more appreciative of other people’s work.

In your recent research you identify the importance of listening and talking to parents. Can you tell us more about this?  

Recently I began a research project supported by the Clore Leadership Programme and the Arts and Humanity Research Council called If Only We Asked, which focused on parents predominantly from working class communities whose children had been involved in long- term arts engagement.

Artworks at Valleys Kids has built up excellent relationships with parents who attend meetings and performances. But I began to question why we have been reluctant to involve parents directly in artistic practice or to consult with them more formally.

Initial findings already reveal that parents have a significant and important contribution to make with regard to unlocking understanding as to how young people are affected by arts engagement.

The research explores the idea of creating networks for parents where they can contribute to policy making and decision making, meeting with funders and people of influence.

Parents were aware of undertaking this role in a way that compliments the growing autonomy of their children but again they welcomed the idea of greater involvement and the opportunity to advocate for the arts, moving beyond family friendly work and towards a more equal and in depth exchange.       
You will be speaking about young people at the Future of Museums: Audiences conference – what do you think young people of tomorrow will want from museums?

There was a key moment at the Tate Exchange launch where people were invited to say what exchange meant for them. One provocation encouraged us to look to a future beyond words like inclusion and outreach, and develops the idea that museums are increasingly places of exchange.

“Exchange” suggests a greater equality, a sense that the other person has something of value to offer and that they are not simply the recipients of ideas and knowledge.

The young people I work with talk about the importance of co-construction and co-learning – they emphasise how working in this way develops trust, gives them greater agency and ownership and enables them to feel more adult in their approach.

Future museums must remain free if they are to include all young people, removing one of the most significant barriers to engagement for communities such as ours.

Young people want to collaborate, interact, make, learn, participate and offer - both physically and digitally. They value quiet reflection and the chance to have fun, they also want to be stretched and challenged.

If museums to remain relevant to young people, then they must be involved in decision-making and for this to move beyond listening to a process of enabling and participation.

They want to be asked, not always by consultants and questionnaires but through relationship building, open conversation and in forums where they have the power to create change.    


Booking information for Future of Museums: Audiences

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