Steven Roper — Primary School Coordinator, The Whitworth, Manchester

I don’t think I’ve had the same day twice in all my six years here

What do you most enjoy about your role?

I particularly enjoy the development of resources here at the gallery. From working alongside children to design guides connecting to current exhibitions and themes to collaborating with digital artists to commission a virtual gallery in Minecraft for users to build, shape and shift their own experiences. The process of learning that takes place during these projects are a huge bonus to the actual end outcome that helps younger audiences connect to our collections.

What are the main challenges you face in your role?

elebrating the subject of arts, for the arts and not necessarily having to think alternatively to ways in which we can enhance other subjects simply by taking a creative approach. We do enjoy linking to areas such as science, literacy and local history but I crave the times where we have schools booking in with us due to current art thinking and planning back at their settings. Thinking outside the world of ‘art’ has helped us connect to many fascinating faculties and departments within the University of Manchester and from that, some truly thought provoking work has been delivered in recent years since our reopening and we’re grateful for new partnerships that have been formed.

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

It really does vary but I would say a typical day would start with me meeting a practitioner in one of our gallery spaces in anticipation of an arriving school class. We have an array of talented artists who deliver workshops ranging from dance and movement to printmaking and I like to check in with them in the morning and support where necessary. From there we would hold meetings with curatorial teams to hear about any upcoming exhibitions, have planning talks with operation departments to ensure all equipment and booked spaces are in place and then spend the afternoon devising new programmes with external partners for the next terms. I don’t think I’ve had the same day twice in all my six years here at the Whitworth but that gives a general idea of a day to day.

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

It was purely by chance. I worked at the Urbis in Manchester and was heavily into photography at the time. Like many before me in the arts creative sector, I did all I could to get into an organisation and worked on the gallery floors for a couple of years before approaching the learning team with an idea for a origami inspired worksheet for younger visitors. A short while after I was appointed Media and Exhibitions Learning Officer. It’s still a title that I adore to this day.

I never set out to directly go into the world of learning. Through my creative work I happened to have an opportunity to have my work published and shared and that was a fantastic feeling. It was only after a year or so that I discovered the world of cultural education and the possibilities within it. A reason why I couldn’t think of a better place to be right now than the Whitworth and what a platform to be on in order to really make a change with local schools in Manchester. Grateful to have been given the chance in order to do so and feel very fortunate to have had supporting managers to allow me to express ideas and see them through.

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

First and foremost whilst I don’t consider myself to be an artist, I do believe I’m creative and this approach helped me acquire a voice in this world. I studied ‘Design Studies’ as a BA at Salford University and that paved the way for having a career in the arts. My passion is actually graphic design and it’s steep learning curve sharing offices with colleagues who have backgrounds in art history. My guess would be that I started my role here with fresh eyes and a different perspective and was able to shape a new programme and modernise what was already a strong looking learning offer for schools. In my short career I’ve been a facilitator, officer, workshop leader, project manager and reps for various groups – it pays to be flexible!

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

Keep at it as it’s well worth it. It’s can be tough but if you’re passionate enough and willing to volunteer time and energy then you can get noticed. I was always taught, ‘don’t come to me with a problem, come to me with a solution’ and this exact approach was what got me my first job in gallery education. I had seen the number of children enter our building and needing something hands on to help support their visit and experience. I could easily have received a ‘thank you for your time’ and seen the idea dismissed but I gave it a go and here I am today. The experiences and world that opens out in front of you in the arts can sometimes really take your breath away and to able to enjoy these with work colleagues you can count as friends – it’s a career path that I would encourage with anyone interested in visual arts.

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

Institutions and organisations approach work experience in their own ways that work for them. Here we have our very warm and amazing visitor team handle enquiries from people willing to gain skills in this field. We actually have a dedicated webpage for such applicants as well as a volunteer programme that has a dedicated team of people working in areas such as art garden management to helping and facilitating our collections centre. Only last week did we meet with two new additions to the Whitworth family who are on their first steps to working in this sector.

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

Helping to produce our ‘goodbye for now’ festival named the Whitworth Weekending in August 2013. The work involved was at such a pace I wasn’t accustomed too and I genuinely got a buzz from seeing all the hard work pay off when thousands of our local communities came into our park for a weekend of art, music and performance for all ages. I recall some build up nerves that became adrenaline fuelled, and quite frantic, energy levels that was a feat that I’ve not experienced since or doubt I ever will. It’s at times like these where you realise the importance of team work and the vision of our director, Maria Balshaw, helped create an atmosphere and excitement with visitors that was a perfect send off before the new Whitworth that opened two years later.

How has being an Engage member helped your career?

Being an Engage rep simply allowed me the luxury of being able to stop and observe. I’m guilty of sometimes being trapped in a Manchester bubble and working for Engage enabled me to see further afield in the region at the great cultural education work that is being delivered around us. Throughout my time as an Engage rep, I always felt that I could switch off from my day job and enjoy the time spent making new contacts, establishing relationships with other organisations whilst developing skills such as presentation and finance management. Being able to visit such venues acted was, and still is, very therapeutic for me. I had a wonderful time as acting rep and I know for sure that the North West reps in place now have some really intriguing ideas upcoming for our members in this region.