Find a mentor — someone who is further along in their career who is willing to talk to you, encourage you, give advice about career decisions and point you in the direction of opportunities.
What do you most enjoy about your role?
My current role involves working with practicing architects to support them in the delivery of creative learning activity in primary and secondary schools. My background is not in Architecture, so the opportunity to learn more about this field within Art & Design has been really interesting. Architects seem to really relish the chance to work imaginatively and playfully with children and young people in this way – thinking, talking and making together.
What are the main challenges you face in your role?
As a whole Learning team, a key challenge we face is in making the most of our collection. RIBA is an accredited museum with over 4 million objects, drawings and artefacts across 3 sites in London. We share this resource nationally through a digital portal, but we are always looking for innovative new approaches to make the most of what we have and use it effectively to inspire a greater appreciation of architecture and the built environment.
As it is a national programme, I do travel around a lot — which can be time-consuming. However, within this role I have visited so many new cities and worked in an incredibly diverse range of school contexts — it has been enriching to my practice in many ways.
What’s a ‘typical’ day in your working life like?
I usually start the day by checking in with any ongoing projects in the regions, making sure that the schools and architects have all of the resources and support they need for whatever activity is taking place that day. Then, I may have a meeting with a project partner, such as a cultural venue, to discuss upcoming activity in their region, and to talk about working collaboratively. Or I might spend some time researching resources and projects to feed into the CPD training that we deliver for Architects. I try to get out to see as many of the regional projects as possible — travelling to the schools, chatting to the teachers and architects and then getting stuck in with supporting the children to create exciting drawings, models or digital artworks.
Why did you decide to go into gallery/visual arts education?
I studied Fine Art for my undergraduate degree and at that stage I knew I wouldn’t be the sort of artist that spends all day in a studio alone. I have always enjoyed working with people — and considered going into teaching at first. However the flexibility and variety of working in the gallery/visual arts sector really suits me. I work with a diverse range of participants and partners, and have had opportunities to test, develop and lead my own programmes and initiatives. I have also been able to maintain my own artistic practice alongside my professional career, which has kept me connected to contemporary art theory and practical art-making.
How did you get where you are today? What skills, experience or qualifications have you needed?
After my undergraduate degree, I undertook an internship at a contemporary art gallery. This opened a lot of doors for me into the sector, and helped me to get a clearer picture of what area of work I was most interested in. Shortly after that found some freelance work coordinating and supporting arts programmes and events, where I was able to build experience in the project-coordination and administrative side of things. I also went on every relevant piece of training and CPD I could get access to (e.g. autism/disability awareness, safeguarding, Arts Award), which put me in a good position to secure my first full time role in a gallery two years after graduation. I have continued to seize every opportunity for CPD that comes my way, and as a result have developed specialist knowledge in access/inclusion, formal learning and working with young people. Employers seem to really value this demonstrable commitment to my own learning. I’m currently undertaking a 2-year fellowship with Curious Minds on Cultural Education Leadership with support from my employer and studying a part-time Masters degree.
What advice would you give to those thinking about a career in gallery/visual arts education?
When I graduated I didn’t really know what a gallery educator was. I think it’s a good idea to research the variety of programmes and approaches out there already by looking at the learning/education pages on gallery websites and the Engage resources. This will give anyone new to the field a fuller flavor of what current practice looks like, and the potential diversity of the role. If these programmes sound exciting to you, and you feel you have something you can contribute, then a perhaps career in gallery education is the right choice.
Engage often receives enquiries about how to gain work experience in the sector. What advice would you give to these people?
I can really recommend working front-of-house in an arts organisation initially. It will give you a good understanding of the operational side of things, and a picture of what the different departments do. Employers may help you to gain experience in other areas by shadowing team members or undertaking training. In my experience, small organisations are more flexible and therefore better places to learn and grow at this early career stage. They are also more likely to give entry-level workers greater responsibility and adapt to your interests and skills.
Find a mentor — someone who is further along in their career who is willing to talk to you, encourage you, give advice about career decisions and point you in the direction of opportunities. My internship line-manager from 6 years ago has been my constant mentor, and friend, throughout my career so far and we still catch up over coffee once a month.
What have been your career highlights/best moments so far?
Two years ago, I was working at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool, which is has an incredibly ambitious artistic programme in an interesting and challenging context. I had the opportunity, with funding from the ACE NW bridge-organisation, to work with a small group of young people aged 16-18yrs to explore their own perspectives on quality in the arts. We visited galleries, museums and theatre shows together, and they evaluated, brain-stormed, discussed and mapped their experiences. They quizzed audience members, and met with other young peoples groups. Towards the end of the project, we managed to use some of the funding to take them on a supervised trip to London to visit Tate Modern and the Hayward Gallery. Most had never been to the capital city before, nor seen contemporary art galleries on that scale. Returning to Blackpool, they presented their ideas to the whole team at Grundy, and created a pop-up gallery-takeover event in response – which included a mini-rave!
How has being an Engage member helped your career?
When I was just starting out, joining Engage enabled me to really consider what I was doing professionally within the context of gallery education. It was helpful to learn and understand the programmes, projects, and theories that had come before and to connect with best practice elsewhere. I attended the Engage Summer School in 2014, and that felt like a turning point – where I really started to understand the broader implications of gallery/visual arts learning on children, communities, society and think about my role within that bigger picture. More recently, I joined the Engage Council as an Area rep for the North West which has helped me to feel more connected to my colleagues in the region and starting to think more strategically and collaboratively.