What people does the future need?

This is a guest post by Karen Eslea, Head of Learning and Visitor Experience, Turner Contemporary

“It’s about 6 and 7 year olds making art instead of grown-ups telling us what to do”  Year 2 Young Arts Leader

At a recent meeting of inspiring people from the arts and education sectors, it struck me. Adults, even creative ones, can often be the biggest barrier to creating the kinds of people that the future needs. Standing in the room, listening to thoughts from my peers, I realised that our own ideas about education, skills, hierarchies of knowledge, ageing, wisdom, experience and leadership meant that many of us were reluctant to hand over power to children and young people. Can children and young people truly be inspiring arts leaders now, rather than the aspiring leaders of the future? Art Inspiring Change, a project at Turner Contemporary in Margate, is proving that they can be.

After today, I just feel as if I could do anything – talk to anyone, I think we know how to make big ideas work” Young Arts Leader, Holy Trinity and St John’s Primary School

Art Inspiring Change is a child-led project and Turner Contemporary’s most ambitious learning initiative to date.  We are working with 80 children from 4 primary schools – Holy Trinity & St Johns Primary School, Northdown Primary School, Palm Bay Primary School and Salmestone Primary School, between January 2016 and July 2017.  The Young Arts Leaders (YALs) are supported by their chosen artists, a philosopher and gallery staff to inspire the whole town to engage with art, transforming Margate through physical and social change.

Funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, The Art Fund and Southeastern, the project is exploring whether, with support from home, school, the gallery and the wider community, children aged 5 to 10 can lead the regeneration of their own town. This is about changing physical spaces, but more importantly about questioning assumptions and changing attitudes to the arts and culture. The children have already done wonderful things, from weekly art and philosophy sessions, to visiting Tate Modern, to taking over the gallery. In the coming months, they will attend a district council planning committee to ask permission to transform four neglected sites, and some of them will launch Turner Contemporary’s Social Value Research with the Children’s Commissioner at the Houses of Parliament.

Their inspiring ideas are already bringing adults to the gallery. In June 2016 they took over Turner Contemporary, welcoming over 2000 guests in one day to take part in their programme, which included a room of bread sculptures, doughnut boats and rainbow archways. During the Takeover Day, our YALs wanted children to be heard – ‘Speakers’ Corner’ was a space where children could shout through megaphones to the town – they asked for more ice cream, sunshine, and  a cleaner Margate…

“We all know that there are rules about making Margate a clean tidy place… but people don’t follow those rules so maybe we need to speak up more”   Visitor, age 12.

The extent to which children and young people responded to the day was unexpected – potentially powerful connections were made with a young audience through the agency of the Young Arts Leaders.

“My son’s description was ‘we are the bosses for the day’. I can’t believe that they let him loose!” Father of a Young Arts Leader

“Didn’t expect to do this – not in a million years!  I’m really pleased that there are so many people coming through.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, and they are really enjoying themselves, loads of parents are commenting on how they are having a good time, and the freedom of it all.  It just shows that it is so much more coming out of their imagination.  As an adult creating something in the moment is really great fun.  We can learn so much from children and it is empowering the children” Parent of Young Arts Leader

“I’ve been here to the gallery without the kids and to be honest I’ve found it quite boring, but this is really, really good” Father of a Young Arts Leader

As part of the project, funded by the Art Fund and in partnership with the Workers Educational Association, parents and carers are taking part in an accredited Creative Enabler course, giving them the listening, thinking, communication and practical skills to help children take the lead. As part of the course, the adults need to work with children to support them as they lead a public Christmas event at the gallery.

The adults expected the children’s ideas to include making wrapping paper and cards. Instead the children have proposed a Computer game playing Santa in a grotto who challenges children to beat him at games to win presents; an advent calendar treasure hunt; a snowball machine to blast the gallery with snowballs; a scratch and sniff game; a giant Gingerbread house that visitors can decorate; a rollercoaster and a corner where visitors can write prayers to the holy ghost.

I have no doubt that they will make these things happen. If adults can relax, and understand that whatever our age, we can learn from each other, our future has more chance of being creative, and full of joy.




3 thoughts on “What people does the future need?

  1. This is a really interesting project. I’ve sung its praises in The Guardian (here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/aug/17/coastal-towns-trendy-arts-help-local-community).

    With the Creative Enablers course, how are you* managing the parents’ progress? From my own projects, I’m aware that measuring this sort of experiential journey is difficult. You say that parents were expecting to make wrapping paper, for example, and were presented with much more ambitious plans – I guess you’re asking the parents what they were expecting before and after the workshop to get this sort of insight?

    And how is Turner finding the same journey, and the same letting-go of control you talk about? The children’s takeover day was a great experience, but it was restricted to taking over the learning studio and the foyer. If the children decide they want to take over one of the main gallery spaces during an exhibition, for example, would your team enable that to happen?

    It’s going to be great fun, as a social artist who works with different ways of giving communities power, watching this ambitious project unfold. Especially as because my daughter is one of the Young Art Leaders, and my wife is a Creative Enabler, I’m privileged to have a ringside seat!

    *I’m assuming Karen will read this and respond, obviously!


  2. Thanks Dan. Yes. We are working with brilliant evaluator Michele Gregson to track everyone’s learning, including the team at the gallery. The project can feel quite risky sometimes, but I suppose it wouldn’t be working if we weren’t challenging everyone involved at some point. To be honest I felt slightly nervous about the day that the children took over the gallery, but I couldn’t stand the idea of doing this in a half baked way, and not really letting children programme the day as they wanted to. So, with the support of the Director we went for it. My job involves caring for valuable artwork (not just in monetary terms) and so I was nervous but of course the kids were amazing, and our visitors so supportive. The project was set up as a genuine research project, and so we have to feel our way without knowing the outcomes in advance. Scary, but wonderful.


  3. Very inspiring to read this Karen. I think that children and young people hold the key for us and that if we can harness this positive energy and embrace it, we could do something really impressive across Kent. I am holding onto that thought but I think there is real momentum growing. Looking forward to the launch at House of Commons in a few weeks. Congratulations to everyone involved.


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