The theme of this year’s Engage Conference was Unlocking Culture: an entitlement for children and young people and contributors included a range of young people talking about their views and experiences. For me, my key take homes were broad ranging.

It’s about now

Engage Conference 2019One of the speakers representing the National Youth Arts Advisory Group made this point, much more eloquently that I can explain here, but it really made me reflect. As museums we often spend a lot of time and energy consulting with young people about how to improve what we do in the future. But what young people need is for that action to be taking place now as by the time we write the action plan, start a youth panel, apply for funding, appoint the staff, and then start to deliver, these young people have grown up and we’ve missed our opportunity to improve their access to arts and culture. The other point raised related to this is that that there is so much good work with children and young people going on, but where are the legacies? Why are these projects so often short-term, rather than put at the heart of an organisation’s work? As the speaker said – I’m a young artist now, I need support now.

Children and young people’s services are facing cuts

A consistent and urgent issue mentioned throughout the day was the devastating impact of the current austerity drive on children and young people. We heard heart breaking statistics of the numbers living in poverty – from 1 in 4 in parts of Edinburgh, to almost 50% of children in parts of Newcastle and Gateshead. We heard the voluntary and charity sectors had been hit the hardest in the past few years and that in turn many projects and centres for children and young people had therefore closed or disappeared. We heard from Kema Sikazwe that the youth arts project that first introduced him to music and changed his life has now closed its doors. The message was clear – if we want to provide access to the arts and culture for children and young people, we need to make urgent and wide-reaching changes.

Visit the Site Gallery in Sheffield

Engage Conference, 2019, GEM, Keynote, Speaker, SheffieldTo end on a slightly lighter note, thanks to Sharna Jackson’s keynote, I now need to visit Sheffield urgently, to see the Site Gallery IRL. Her passion about working with young people and making them a key part of the gallery made me (and I’m sure many in the room) want to work there. I want to hold Closing Parties at the end of exhibition runs with a candy floss machine in the gallery for young people and their parents to come to! I want to have an engaged group of young people with a name like the Society of Explorers! I want to work with my wider community, knowing that we’re targeting a key age group within the vast demographic of young people because we know others in our city are providing for other age groups. And, I know now, I never want to use Comic Sans again.

Wider context reading list

So, if this topic interests you, I’ve pulled together five places for you to explore online next:

1. Based in West Midlands, but so many key points for those working in culture across the UK. Engaging with the YouTube Generation – Young Cultural Journeys Report 2018

2. Draft Curriculum for Wales being developed at present so there’s still time to read and respond with your thoughts

3. Recently published Durham Commission on Creativity and Education

4. An inspirational project in Newcastle and Gateshead for young people, City of Dreams

5. Engage’s Reading and Listening list – what a great idea for a conference, here’s where a variety of interesting content is added before and after

Thanks to Engage for an inspiring and thought-provoking conference and for ensuring young people were part of the presentations and conversations throughout. You can also read the GEM Twitter page to see the live feed from both days of the conference.

Sarah Cowie
GEM Trustee
@sarahcowie / @gem_heritage