BALTIC Stars and other approaches

BALTIC aims to create greater understanding of the world through outstanding, experimental and inspiring contemporary art that has power, relevance and meaning for individuals and communities. 

BALTIC’s Learning and Civic Engagement Team work with a variety of different audiences throughout our region and nationally. We are committed to providing inclusive opportunities that enable individuals and communities to explore and exchange different perspectives and new ideas. We firmly believe that contemporary art provides a lens through which to view the world and that everybody should have the opportunity to access and enjoy it.

In Gateshead, 24.5% of working age adults identify as disabled and 15% of all school populations have a special educational need or disability (SEND). In line with our mission, it’s important that BALTIC is relevant and representative of our community and as such programming focussing on disability rose by 8% across the whole organisation in 17/18.

BALTIC Stars is a key part of our Learning and Civic Engagement team’s offer. This three year programme for school pupils and their families celebrates fun, creativity, choice and achievement through contemporary art.

Image courtesy of BALTIC Centre For Contemporary Art.

Over the past three years, 413 children, young people and their families from fifteen North East Special Needs Schools or Additionally Resourced Provisions, have worked with BALTIC artists to create their own unique projects exploring themes like identity, personal values, emotions, language and cultural belonging through painting, drawing, printing, ceramics, textiles, sculpture, animation, photography, performance and film. Their projects have culminated in exhibitions at BALTIC, showcasing a diverse range of ideas, imagination, processes and skills. Initially shared with family and friends, these exhibitions are viewed by hundreds of thousands of BALTIC visitors from the region, nationally and internationally.

It has been such an exciting opportunity for the pupils, staff and parents. It’s created more awareness about the positive impact art can have and students have just embraced it wholeheartedly.

BALTIC Stars teacher

A BALTIC Stars project provides authentic, artist-led opportunities for children and young people with disabilities to take creative risks that express individual and group identities, to grow in confidence and self-esteem through new experiences and to share their often misheard, or ignored, voices on a national platform.

I was working with one of our students and she said, ‘do you know what? I’m going to go to university and I’m going to be an art student’. To have such an effect on her that she thinks, ‘I can go to university, I can be an artist’, that’s massive.

BALTIC Stars teacher

This year, BALTIC Stars has been complemented by shorter residency opportunities for SEND schools and ARPs. BALTIC Sparks and BALTIC Stars & Spots have created greater reach, enabling 143 more children and young people to take part in a programme of 40 artist-led engagement opportunities.

Embedding disability-focussed programming and everyday equity into BALTIC’s informal Learning and Visitor Experience has also been a key development for the organisation in 17/18, particularly as a result of BALTIC Stars.

BALTIC’s Sensory Space opened in October 2017 and is accessible every day for free in Quay, our Level 2 Learning area. This designated, reflective and specially-lit space has since become a favourite destination for children and young people with special needs.

Image courtesy of BALTIC Centre For Contemporary Art.

Additionally, through a developing relationship with North East Autism and organisation-wide training to further awareness of autism and ASD, BALTIC has considerably extended its commitment to providing accessible opportunities to individuals that need a quieter, more relaxed arts experience with 500% more provision. 194 visitors have attended autism friendly artist-led workshops and accessible exhibition openings, now offered weekly, where lighting, sound and capacity levels are addressed and altered.

Spoke with a lady and her young son on level 4 today who appeared to be thoroughly enjoying the work. The visitor told me how her son absolutely adores the Susan Philipsz exhibition and they have in fact been to see the show several times. This was particularly surprising to them as her son is autistic and doesn’t generally react well to shrill or loud noises. He found that because all of the sounds were separated and coming from different areas in the space, it was less overwhelming and actually helped to calm him. The low level lighting also meant that there were less distractions, meaning it was easier for him to concentrate on one thing at a time. It was really great seeing him engage with and enjoying the work as he was dancing around the gallery!

BALTIC visitor comments
BALTIC Stars BP event. Image courtesy of BALTIC Centre For Contemporary Art.

So, what have we learnt?

Over the last year we’ve made decisions that have aligned our provision for audiences and participants with additional needs or disabilities as core to our programming. Obviously, this has an impact on capacity and resources; there’s only a certain amount of cloth to cut and inevitably, a multitude of patterns that we could craft.

Until November 2018, BALTIC Stars is an externally funded programme. Post November, we’ll realign budget resource to fund this internally, recognising it, in monetry-terms, as integral to what we do. This realigning of resource means that other programmes, those that have run for years with the same small set of people for example, are supported towards independent models of financing and delivery, starting new eras of relationship with the organisation.

Image courtesy of BALTIC Centre For Contemporary Art.

17/18 has really highlighted the need to take these creative risks in order to carve out space for engagement and experience that are more equitable across the audience spectrum. Our Sensory Space for example was initially trialled on a shoe-string; a collection of projectors and fibre optics bought for various different projects across the years, ‘popping-up’ in an un-used meeting room. The organisation’s Facebook and Twitter posts about it were our first to go viral and the resulting comments from visitors have since encouraged BALTIC to invest more money in making this a permanent feature that will grow further with time. This kind of investment, in highly-coveted BALTIC space, would certainly have required more considered conversation had it been a formally proposed idea. Having initially approached this as something temporary, we’ve entrusted our audiences with an asset that we know isn’t yet perfect, but through their input we can craft a relevant setting that meets a variety of needs.

It’s also worth sharing the value of persistence. Our weekly accessible openings are slow going. There isn’t an influx of people waiting at the doors to get in. But, there is an audience, and starting to build this as habit helps us to orient this audience, and ourselves, in the expectations we share in this offer. We’re by no means perfect and I still think there’s further can go, more understanding we can develop and more learning we can do, but, we’re on the road and that feels like a start.   

Vicky Sturrs
Head of Learning and Civic Engagement
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
@balticmill