In 2019 the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), Glasgow, established a programme to engage with young people aged 16–25 in a co-production and co-curation approach. The resulting GoMA Youth Group (GYG) worked with GoMA over one year to deliver a youth-centred programme of activities and events.
In collaboration with Glasgow Museums’ staff, the young adults in the group have proposed, developed, and delivered their own events aimed at an audience of peers, culminating in an exhibition in the main gallery at GoMA, GROWTH – Disruption, Resilience, and Resistance.
Established in April 2019, the GoMA Youth Group (GYG) is an initiative of young adults aged 16–25, created with the purpose of affecting change in GoMA by influencing our exhibition and public programmes. Over the past few months, the group has worked alongside our learning and curatorial teams, producing a programme of workshops for young people and a short exhibition in GoMA’s main gallery around the theme of ‘Growth’.
The programme was created to address the shortage in Glasgow Museums of meaningful engagement with young adults. A Learning Review in 2017 showed that even though we provide a varied programme for early years, families, schools, and adults, there’s no provision for the ‘in-between’ age of early adulthood. The GYG aimed to enhance engagement with this target audience, whilst playing an active role in developing our young people’s skills, capabilities, and creativity.
The first phase of research allowed us to understand GoMA’s current state of engagement with young people, look at other and previous projects aimed at this age range, and agree on the approach to apply to any new programmes.
Visitors’ figures showed that we were not effectively engaging with this age group. In 2016 only 16% of our total visitors were aged 16–24 — evidence reflected by social media analytics gathered in 2016–2017. Our Facebook Audience Demographics reports indicated that only 9.3% of our followers was constituted by people aged 18–25. Similar numbers were shared by our Twitter account, with 5.9% of followers aged 18–20.
This evaluation, accompanied by similar research at other institutions, revealed two main issues in engaging with young people. Firstly, this age group tend to assume that galleries are ‘not meant for them’, whilst also being socially or intellectually intimidating. Secondly, by the nature of this age group, they grow up and move on quickly, so it is difficult to retain participants over time.
However, research also showed the presence of several successful programmes for young adults at cultural institutions, including GoMA itself. Indeed, in 2015, our learning team founded GoMA’s first ‘youth panel’, which had a consultancy and advisory role. It intended for the gallery to become more youth-friendly in their approach to all aspects of exhibitions and facilities. That project, even though successful, was brought to a halt after the first year by the end of funding and inadequate staff levels. This example, with many others, highlighted another common issue in creating youth-friendly programmes at museums and galleries. Therefore, in resuming the programme in 2019 we acknowledged all these challenges and proposed a fresh and more sustainable approach. The new youth group was to take a more active role, working together with the GoMA team in all the steps of the programme, in an integrated co-production approach.
A sustainable co-production approach
This kind of approach allowed the young adults in the group to actively collaborate with museum staff, in a process where both parties would share balanced influence over the programme itself. We gave them almost complete agency over the project, providing them with the tools to develop content and communicate their programme to an audience of peers, whilst giving them a certain degree of independence. This allowed us to keep the group engaged and capable of working even in the absence of staff members.
As for the issue of retaining participants, we envisaged refreshing the group at the end of each year with the older and more experienced members (with the help of museums staff) recruiting and mentoring new members. By doing so, we guaranteed relevance and accessibility whilst breaking down perceived barriers.
At this point, we only had to establish a sustainable budget model. We received a small grant from Museums Galleries Scotland to start the project, but we then accomplished to allocate a small percentage from each exhibition budget to support the group. This model will be kept in place for the next iteration of the group as well. Together with time-bound and well-defined results, it will allow us to distribute limited but stable resources to each iteration of the group.
After the first three months of discussions, collaborative workshops, and training opportunities selected by the group themselves, the young people started to propose their own events and initiatives. It soon became clear that they wanted to have an impact on how the art sector perceived them. Often, during the meetings, they expressed frustration on not having been ‘taken seriously’ in previous endeavours because of their young age. Instead, they wanted to make sure that all young people felt welcome, heard, and represented at GoMA.
They decided to do so by, firstly, organising a series of monthly workshops for young people to be creative; secondly, putting up an exhibition featuring young artists. During the six core months of the programme, they worked with up-and-coming artists and crafts-workers to deliver workshops featuring creative writing, pottery, printing, card and costume making. They also invited a special guest, Lawrence Chaney, young Glasgow-based drag queen, to perform and talk about the Art of Drag.
In the meantime, they worked on developing their own exhibition. In a first phase, they had a chance to meet and talk to different artists exhibited at GoMA, such as Alberta Whittle, Mitch Miller, and Hal Fischer. They then worked alongside all the different departments at Glasgow Museums (curatorial, technical, conservation, loans) to design their exhibition. As a result, they took over our main gallery space for one week in February 2020 with the exhibition GROWTH. Disruption, Resilience, and Resistance. The show included six young artists, selected through open call and direct approach by the group themselves. The exhibition aimed to explore how this generation deals with an increasingly complex and fluid world. Young people are growing up with feelings of risks and uncertainties caused by global trends such as the current climate emergency, large scale conflicts, globalisation and inequalities. The six young artists in this exhibition were selected by the Group for the nature of their practice, in which they discuss their search for a sustainable path.
The private preview of the exhibition attracted over 300 people, mostly belonging to the age range 16–25, whilst the total footfall over one week was of almost 6,000. During the exhibition, the six artists and members of GYG organised and delivered different activities of public engagement. Some of them staged performances, others delivered talks or practical workshops, offering a varied programme of events. Feedback from the exhibition was excellent, with visitors praising the initiative and commenting on the show as being relatable, original, and inspiring.
A final evaluation of the programme is still under way. However, from previous evaluations with the group, carried out regularly during the programme, all members felt that their participation was beneficial to acquire important transferrable skills. They all appreciated the collaborative approach because it fulfilled their desire of being heard and acknowledged as well as for providing them with useful experience for their CVs. They also commented that were surprised to learn of the variety of of careers and duties involved in museums and galleries. Many of them, whether coming from a background in practical arts or having an interest in museums and galleries, now express a feeling of belonging to GoMA and to contemporary art galleries in general.
As for the benefits to Glasgow Museums, GYG allowed the service to better understand how to engage with this target audience. We significantly increased the number of young people involved in our programme, both as active co-producers as well as visitors. Preliminary figures have shown that in the past year (March 2019–February 2020), the percentage of people aged 16–25 visiting GoMA grew to 23% (from the previous 16%). Our social media demographics reflect this increase during the same period, with Facebook’s followers aged 16–25 amounting to 12.8% (from 9.3%) and Twitter’s to 10.4% (from 5.9%).
Both qualitative and quantitative results, therefore, show the positive impact of the GoMA Youth Group on our audience and the service. Moreover, the programme produced a clear skill development for all staff members involved, especially the learning team. Our staff has increased their confidence in working jointly with a group to produce a mutually valued outcome. We have improved our ability in listening carefully to what the young people have to say and support them in giving them not simply what they want, but what they need, based on our experience and observation. We have also learnt other valuable lessons, such as making sure that expectations on both parts were clear at all times and to be open to the mutuality of the co-production process, learning from the group as well as allowing them to learn from us.
We are already starting to recruit for new members to be part of the 2020/2021 iteration and we hope to keep building on this programme to inspire more and more young people. We will keep working to instil feelings of shared ownership and pride in the gallery and, therefore, overcome the barriers that prevent an audience of young adults from engaging with the arts sector.
Learning and Access Curator
Gallery of Modern Art (Glasgow Museums)