Manchester Art Gallery
Manchester Art Gallery is becoming a ‘Useful Museum’. With the new leadership of Director Alistair Hudson (previously MIMA) we are exploring what this means for a city-centre, city council gallery. Within the learning team particularly, what does this mean for the work and partnerships we’ve built and how do we take that forward within the Useful Museum context?
After a period of discussion and reflection it felt like we just needed to begin. Being a Useful Museum means making art work for the people who do, and might potentially, use us. This idea isn’t new within gallery learning, and the Creative consultants project (a programme for 14-19 year olds outside of school) at Manchester Art Gallery is based on the idea that through art we can develop our social skills, visual, verbal and written communication skills, creative thinking skills, self-confidence and skills of collaboration. We actively consider how this work can build CVs and provide experience for education, job applications and interviews). We’ve been told by young people that this is what they need at this point in their lives. However, the challenge of calling ourselves a Useful Museum feels like an opportunity to re-analyse what we do.
We’ve been told in feedback forms and conversations that young people care about their careers but is there another way to find out what else might be important to them? What are the processes by which we find out how a gallery can be useful? And, can we use art and creativity to find out the things that you cannot get in a more traditional consultation? How do we get under the skin of what people, in this case young people, really care about and how do we take that forward and imbed it in what the organisation looks like, feels like and does on a day to day basis? I used this project to help the gallery understand what we need to do to make us useful for young people, and to help me to understand my role as instigator / collaborator / facilitator of that. Of course, I wanted the three day project to be useful for the young people involved too.
We’re very fortunate that due to the longevity of the Creative Consultants project (which was originally set up as part of the Tate’s Visual Dialogues partnership project over 10 years ago), we have been able to recruit a lead artist who comes from Manchester, went to school, college and art school here, and was once a Creative Consultant herself. At 25, artist Carly Bainbridge, is a young person who faces the challenges of balancing a fledgling arts career with independent living, job and home insecurity, and experience of the effects of cuts to youth and health services that young people are experiencing nationwide.
As Carly puts it: “I believe in free education and this project is a modern way of addressing hierarchy of education. It’s about skills exchange. This is the education people need now, to be able to present, discuss ideas, to develop their own self-esteem. These are the skills we need to promote – not just in the school environment but outside in the real world. It’s about mixing people together of different backgrounds but with shared interests and ways of seeing things”
Carly has her own arts practice and is well networked within the arts community in Manchester. Drawing on an ambition to understand the workings of the bigger arts network and a justification that everyone has a right to ‘free education’, Carly introduces the young people to people, places and artwork both within Manchester Art Gallery and across this city. This summer Carly invited peer artist and curator of Manchester’s Scaffold Gallery (https://scaffoldgallery.com), Will Marshall to take part in the project.
We ran recruitment during July and had 27 attendees, plus two young volunteers and Carly and Will as project collaborators on the first day. The group introduced themselves through objects belonging to them. This was both a way to share surprising reflections on themselves and an introduction to the idea that we can interpret an objects in many ways. Later that day we posed the brief: ‘What could happen in a house like this?’ The question referred to our Platt Hall branch gallery (previously Gallery of Costume and currently closed to the public). The parameter we gave the group was to create a site specific art work in the windows of Platt Hall which would present their response to the question.
The group then headed across the city to visit Platt Hall, explore the space and collections – in particular, objects from an early 20th century collector Mary Greg, which includes dolls houses and paraphernalia, unfinished quilts with paper templates still attached, strange puppets in glass presentation domes, Victorian silhouette family portraits, and a child’s kid leather glove.
On day two, Will introduced his curatorial and artist work which uses words, mind maps and interaction with gallery visitors to explore what it means to be an artist. Will shared a word block art work that he’d adapted to include words and phrases that had been used the previous day and the group explored the meaningfulness of language through playing with synonyms and word order. Later that day each group member chose an art work from the first floor galleries (incorporating Victorian, 20th century and contemporary work which could represent their thinking) and talked about their choices to the rest of the group. Later small groups worked on design ideas for the windows and pitched these to the rest of the group.
Soon it was time for decision making. Carly had devised a voting process and the selected designs were then brought together based on previous discussions. The group was satisfied with the process and split into the making team or the engagement team. The making team created six full size window pieces ready for installation at Platt Hall and the engagement team produced a flyer and discussion notes for the Festival which was taking place in the park where Platt Hall is situated the following Saturday.
The final design was both figurative and conceptual. It was made up of a stained glass path which ran across all six windows. Tree silhouettes deliberately brought a sense of scale, and therefore, journey. Both elements were designed with the ambition to foster a sense of welcome to what the group considered an austere building within the natural landscape of the park. The art work was underlined with the words ‘Change My Mind’. Was this a direct challenge for Manchester Art Gallery or an ambition for what the role of the Gallery should do for all visitors?
On the day of the festival, the art work drew in a steady stream of interest and conversation from park visitors throughout the day including gallery leadership staff and local councillors. The questionnaire feedback from the young people involved surpassed our expectations in its positivity with written comments following the third session such as:
The brief was very different and refreshing, e.g. the idea of a space.
The summer school went beyond my expectations, everyone was so welcoming and polite and the creativity was awesome.
There was lots and lots of ideas gathering, I like that.
Everyone was different ages, everyone worked together and no one excluded people.
I thought it was a ‘come in, sit down, shut up’ kind of thing but it wasn’t, it was amazing.
I was surprised by how much input we actually had into the process, I have done things like this before but didn’t feel like I had much input, this was the opposite!
Observationally and anecdotally Carly, Will and I felt we’d met our aims for the group in terms of their self-development. One young person was filmed saying ‘I’ve learned how to work as part of a team and to work more outside of the box’. They have documentation of the project via photos and the @MAGcreatives Instagram page, and each person received a certificate recognising their participation and a digital copy of a professional photograph of their installation. We also commissioned a film which will help the Learning Team and the wider gallery team to further understand how we meet our ambition to become a Useful Museum. The film is also a document that the young people can reference themselves. But did we manage to further our thinking about what a Useful Museum might be for young people?
A journey, a connection to the park, a welcome and a provocation to ‘Change My Mind’ all featured in the art work. The art work is a manifestation of a rich and playful few days. There were elements that I thought were missed in the final piece – the sense of humour which ran through the group (visually referenced in a meme idea suggested at one stage but which did not make the final cut), an interest in horror, the presence of people (many of the discussions had been about valued events which take place in the city such as Pride), and connections with other people in Manchester present and past. So we have a beginning for this new way of working.
I see work as a process. The group has given us the metaphor of a path, the idea of being welcomed and offering welcome, a nod to our need for connection with the natural world around us. We need to remember the joy of humour and the thrill of fear. We’ve been able to use art to discover these things, they are less tangible counterbalances to the responses we have come to expect when we ask young people directly what they would like to do at an art gallery – “drawing”, “photography” etc. Of course we can offer those things, but there is a potential to do things differently. I can’t wait to find out where our young people will take us.