Project dates: April 2019 – July 2020 (ongoing)
Funders: Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Arts Council England and PEER Patrons
PEER Ambassadors and PEER Notices is a Hoxton-based (East London, Hackney) two-part programme offering local young people paid gallery experience and training, alongside the opportunity to work with an artist on a public art project that explores how art interacts with different members of society. It also involves bespoke artist/cultural worker talks, studio visits and exhibition trips. The project is partly funded via Paul Hamlyn’s Explore and Test grant for two years, and this case study will reflect on the first year of activity.
The PEER Ambassadors and PEER Notices programme offers local young people an insight into the (inner) workings of a small-scale public arts organisation by offering them paid gallery assistant experience, training and the opportunity to collaborate with an artist to explore how art interacts with the public beyond the gallery’s walls.
The programme was built upon a pilot where local young people were employed as gallery assistants. Citing extensive research in the 2018 report Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries that people from working-class backgrounds and people of colour are significantly underrepresented across the cultural sector, the programme aims to address this inequality of opportunity. It seeks to engage underrepresented local audiences, not wishing to limit young people by categorising them into boxes, but establishing deep relationships and creating paid work opportunities. It supports them to work with an artist to create high quality artwork, making a mark on the high street where they live, socialise or study. Also, within the context of the visual arts and the proliferation of unpaid internships – only accessible to those with certain privileges – the paid element is really important.
Eight Ambassadors are recruited every 6 months, but we have been flexible in keeping some on for longer. They are aged between 17-27, at different stages of their lives, but all united by their interest in art. We have tried to keep our recruitment processes broad. In non-Covid times we leafleted in local cafes, shops, chicken shops, talked to college students who hang out in front of the gallery and have made connections with the job centre and other community partners. We attend local careers fairs and former Ambassadors have talked in schools.
The application process is a short statement and we do not require a CV. When recruiting we consider advantages in education that some young people may have experienced. However, we also realise it is difficult for graduates to access entry level roles, so we try to have a balanced view depending on the individual.
What learning was involved
One essential piece of learning has been the necessity of giving space and time to programmes like this which work with a smaller group of young people over a longer period of time. Often, networks within the cultural industry are forged by privilege and access to opportunities are linked to ‘who you know’. Within this programme we recruit eight Ambassadors who, over six months or longer, have the space to form their own networks. This is vital in enabling them to continue to pursue a career in the art world and to feel that it is a place that represents them.
The first commissioned artist was the fantastic Rebecca Moss, whose playful and creative approach in presenting an idea to the Ambassadors and being open to how they would respond, worked particularly well. She had a ‘Zero budget’ proposal, encouraging the Ambassadors to embrace economic circumstances, and use low-fi, affordable, and often recycled materials such as cardboard and found household objects in their workshops, while encouraging discussion and critical engagement with the rapidly developing East London context we were working in. She introduced the work of international artists who worked with similar materials, showing them that it is a viable approach, valued in the cultural sector. PEER’s project space and adjacent car park became their studio; brought to life during their collaborations.
Dates and location
We are situated on Hoxton Street, within the diverse borough of Hackney, where in the 2011 Census 88 languages were recorded to be spoken. The Hoxton community consists of 48% black and minority ethnic including large Turkish and West African populations and the longer-established white working-class families who have been resident for generations. Hoxton Street has a mixture of residential flats (the Arden Estate), cafés, shops, takeaways, restaurants, the library, schools and the college. It is on the edge of the city and the edge of gentrification. The community locally are close nit and many have lived here for over 30 years, but people are starting to feel pushed out and, ongoing, it feels important to address that within the Ambassador programme and not to ignore its effect on young people, as well as our involvement and local responsibility as a public arts organisation.
After six months of working together Rebecca Moss and the Ambassadors took part in the ‘Open House Architecture Weekend’ where they presented ‘Open House Open Door’. In their gallery assistant role, the Ambassadors often have conversations, particularly with local people, about the architecture of the door and gallery space, and how for some people it can feel oppressive and unwelcoming. They used these conversations as a point of enquiry to create new propositions for doorways and entrances, using doors Rebecca found in Essex.
The programme also involves talks with leading professionals that are programmed in relation to the Ambassadors’ interests. Visits last year included artists Ibrahim Mahama and Elsa James, and Dr Lisa McKenzie had a profound effect on Rebecca and the group, visiting us twice. Last December she took us on an ethnographic walk around East London, encouraging us to look up and around, and explore locations that are actively pushing people out of the area, as well as those that have brought people to stand together and fight for one another, such as Cable Street Mural.
The group was particularly driven by the stark reality of private property advertising hoardings on this work and locally – their graphic, photoshopped visualisations offering an idea of who these developments are for, and, through their omission, who they are not for. Learning about, and imitating their photoshop form, Rebecca prompted the Ambassadors to create their own images of a future Hoxton.
Lockdown struck and their collaboration paused. A few months later they decided to embrace the circumstances and uploaded their proposals onto Google Street Map view, in private development locations that are in walking distance of PEER. Some of their images can be found relatively easily, others are subtler and the context of others appears unclear or confusing when you find them, much like the photoshopped mock-ups that inspired the project in the first place.
During their time together, the Ambassadors and Rebecca took residence in the noticeboard which we have, around the corner from the post office adjacent to the gallery. Situated on the street, it is open and on view to different people every hour of the day. Collectively they created changing artworks and a really strong work was inspired by Pipilotti Rist‘s humorous digital artwork, Open My Glade (Flatten), where images of her face pushed against glass, as if to break through, were shown on Times Square’s billboards. In their artwork, the Ambassadors repurposed PEER’s scanner, ordinarily used for day-to-day administrative tasks, and scanned themselves instead. Their faces are squashed and distorted; they look to be holding their breath as if floating in a dark body of water.
Partnerships and collaborations
Where possible we aimed to seek out other professional experiences for the Ambassadors such as Amida doing work experience with a brilliant freelance photographer and Devinya being commissioned to lead cameraless photography workshops for young people (including looked after children) at Standpoint Gallery and a family workshop at London Art Fair. Along with this, supporting art collective One of My Kind’s workshops at the library with local audiences enabled moments for upskilling. These opportunities worked well and valued the journey in confidence that these particular young people had developed along the way.
For me, experiencing the programme’s ability to broaden artistic access, learning from the Ambassadors, and encouraging questioning around who the gallery is for has been really impactful. Furthermore, encouraging the Ambassadors’ artistic interests, supporting them and introducing them to different cultural careers has been important. Seeing them go through the programme and signify that art is a viable choice by going on to study it at art college or Architecture at university has been brilliant.
It’s made me further consider the importance of how to enable conditions where the Ambassadors can forge their own networks beyond entrenched privileged cultural networks, to support them throughout their careers. While I believe it is very important that different worlds interact, with the opportunity to see where one another are coming from, I also know that it is important that we enable spaces for people with similar experiences to meet. A mixture of ages has worked well, enabling informal mentoring opportunities for some like-minded individuals.
For PEER, I think it’s realising that the Ambassadors are an integral part of our functioning, they are paid staff, they are not an add on to what we do, but hopefully embedded, or should have ambition to be, and are part of the team. Also, it’s been our proximity to younger local voices, properly getting to know them, and realising they are part of the fabric of PEER and where we are situated. Furthermore, the advantage of being such a small organisation is that we can endeavour to remain in contact with them beyond the lifetime of their participation.
- Organisational flexibility or change
This year of Covid has made me realise the importance of collaboration and being part of a collective. As an arts educator, I often feel that youth programmes can be sidelined, but, there is an opportunity to be quite radical when you are not the main focus. I think that the paid element of this programme sets us apart from other similar ventures.
Before Covid the programme had been so physical and relied so much on being in the space of making, be it in the car park or inside PEER. We resisted taking the activity online to begin with, as everything was such an unknown to everyone. We were also conscious that not everyone has the same access to online activity, be it with lack of access to internet, devices or shared living circumstances that make it impossible to concentrate.
- Monitoring / evaluation process
This is an independently evaluated project, which has been important, both as a critical friend to the programme and as a person who can talk to the young people involved objectively.
- Lessons learnt
The programme has made me further consider that while it’s important to have entry level programmes like this, how do we change leadership within the cultural sector? I think leaders need to take positive action with recruitment, ensuring at least some of their workforce represents the lived experiences of their audiences. Working practices and bias need to be interrogated. Leaders need to ensure that the future of their organisation makes space for more diverse voices to lead the way. They need to advocate for arts education in state schools, so that young people interested in art, no matter their background, are encouraged to pursue, be educated and hopefully work in it.
Alice White, Curator for Local Audiences
Twitter: @PEER_UK and @HelloHoxton
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