Janette Robinson — Head of Learning, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The most important qualities a person needs in the field of arts education is a passion for making art accessible to all, a deep understanding of the creative process, and an interest in the multitude of ways people learn and enjoy the world around them.

What do you most enjoy about your role?

Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) is a beautiful, inspiring and challenging environment; I feel fortunate to work here. I love the constantly changing seasons and exhibitions, the interactions with peers in arts and non-arts sectors, our audiences and understanding the wider context in which the organisation sits. The problem solving inherent in creating sustainable, meaningful experiences in people’s lives, broadening choices and deepening understanding of self is a remarkable challenge and privilege.

What are the main challenges you face in your role?

The biggest challenge is raising funds to realise the aspirations of YSP Learning’s programmes.

What’s a ‘typical’ day in your working life like?

Members of the Learning Team might find themselves working closely with schools, colleges and universities to explore the links between the curriculum and the arts, utilising creative learning methods. This may include the delivery of hands on workshops, tours and developing teaching resources which encourage teaching staff to embed new skills within their teaching practice. Developing unique events for the general public and for targeted audiences such as family or adults is an interesting aspect of the roles. Each event offers a new area of research and delivery, working with artists to interpret the exhibitions, heritage and environment of the gallery and museum. A fulfilling journey can be undertaken through long term projects with hard-to-reach audiences where a close working relationship, which engenders trust between the participants and museum, creates bespoke and responsive projects.

As Head of Learning I work closely with curatorial, marketing, visitor information and other teams, to develop implement the public-engagement programme. This includes raising funds with the Development Team, and devising company strategies, policies and business plans. An important element of my role is to maintain a national presence within the profession and representing the Sculpture Park where appropriate on a local, national and international platform. This may include contributing to professional bodies such as Engage, Arts Council England and local authority advisory services.

Why did you decide to go into gallery/visual arts education?

Learning teams in an art gallery and museum aim to make art, and in the case of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park the landscape, accessible to the whole community, and to offer opportunities for people to engage with the arts in a creative and meaningful way. This brought together my interest in art and a wish to work with people to improve quality of life.

How did you get where you are today? What skills, experience or qualifications have you needed?

Qualifications accepted in this sector are a BA in fine art or related subject (as a minimum); it is common for people to hold an MA with an arts / gallery / education / environment focus. Postgraduate qualifications in cultural management are also beneficial. In the United Kingdom this is a low-waged sector.

Volunteering with many different organisations provides an invaluable insight and understanding of the sector, and often leads to employment. Placements offer similar benefits. Working as a freelance arts education practitioner is useful in helping you gain the required breadth of knowledge and experience. Freelance project coordination is also a recognised path to more permanent full-time roles.

It is essential to gain experience in working with people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. This includes working in a variety of settings such as formal and informal education, health care, criminal justice, and social and economic support services in local authorities. The skills that are needed for project coordination include marketing, writing, fundraising, evaluation, documentation and design. In programme management, the additional skills of finance, and the training/management of staff, placements and volunteers are required.

Establishing a body of quality work, creating workshops, events, projects, exhibitions and initiatives with a broad range of people and organisations is necessary when seeking employment or funding. A professional approach to administration, an ability to communicate well, and flexible working methods are key skills that can be built upon as work experience grows – from volunteering to leading large-scale programmes of work.

It is also important to keep abreast of comparable work in museums, galleries and arts organisations, as well as new developments in education, government policy and relevant areas of research.

What advice would you give to those thinking about a career in gallery/visual arts education?

It is generally acknowledged that the most important qualities a person needs in the field of arts education is a passion for making art accessible to all, a deep understanding of the creative process, and an interest in the multitude of ways people learn and enjoy the world around them. This sits alongside a motivation to open doors for those who may need a helping hand, and a will to investigate the many layers of society that shape how people live around the world.

My advice is to understand what your motivation is for working in this field and to choose the path that reflects who you are, what you are passionate about and where your strengths lie. Get to know yourself and go on a journey exploring the threads of your interests and talents.

Engage often receives enquiries about how to gain work experience in the sector. What advice would you give to these people?

As mentioned above, work experiences, volunteering, placements and internships are incredibly useful processes for understanding the reality of working in the sector. It is important to appreciate the unique opportunity arts education can give to a diverse range of people. Flexible ways of working which adapt to individuals needs can create accessible routes to employment. For example, at 24 years old I became disabled, I was able to continue my career in arts education through volunteering and freelance work as an artist and project manager. Later an Access to Work Scheme supported me to make the transition to a full time role in an arts organisation. The experience of being disabled enriched my understanding of engaging audiences, confirming people’s ‘differences’ can be a strength when working in this sector.

What have been your career highlights/best moments so far?

There have been many wonderful moments on my journey, the following are a small snapshot: the successful implementation of significant long term programmes in the fields of arts and science, arts and health, arts and social inclusion, family learning and formal learning; raising substantial funds to realise the above dreams; finding wonderful people to work alongside me; travelling to Kosova to work on post conflict regeneration; professional development with the Eden Project and YSP winning Art Fund Museum of the Year 2014.

How has being an Engage member helped your career?

Engage has played a significant role in my career, I have been a member for over twelve years. It is invaluable for being aware of national arts education agendas, finding inspiration from examples of best practice and understanding government changes to the sector. The Extend Leadership programme was incredibly beneficial and as an Engage Representative for Yorkshire it has enriched my involvement in arts education regionally and nationally. It gives support, a sense of belonging and is a touchstone when creating new work.