An interview with

Alice Thickett

Circuit Coordinator

at Nottingham Contemporary

by Marina Castledine, 

Circuit National Manager

June 2015

A series of interviews are being conducted with Circuit staff to unpick conditions that make change happen – on an individual, organisational and sector level. To represent the context of each interview and that of the programme at each site, interviews are being shared in full. The honesty that defines this series is in itself a condition for change.

MC: What are some of the most useful things that have enabled you to make the programme happen?

AT: Freedom and I think agency might be the right word. Because I have definitely been trusted to make decisions, but also they have trusted me to implement what the group are saying as well.


MC: So it is trust of you and trust of the young people?

AT: Definitely. Allowing me to make those decisions. I have never been listened to like that before. And the more I was showing I was creating a successful programme, the easier it got to implement things because they could see that worked.

MC: And who were the people that were listening to you?

I can go and talk to whoever I want about events now. I think that is a massive thing within an organisation actually.

AT: Kay (my line manager) predominately, but it is the whole management team. And I think I have good relationships with heads of staff, so I don’t necessarily need to go through Kay anymore. And I am trusted to do that as well. I can go and talk to whoever I want about events now. I think that is a massive thing within an organisation actually.

MC: Was there a time when staff weren’t aware of the programme and if so, did you play a role in making it more visible?


AT: I think I played made a very small role, in that I am quite loud and I am going to tell them anyway. But updates to staff…

MC: Via email, to all staff?

AT: Yes, to all staff. Updates, like, this is what happened on Saturday, it was really great and here are some pictures. They might not respond, but it doesn’t matter because the email has been sent. I think that’s a small part in it, because really there has always been a genuine interest and Kay just pushes and pushes. She is very vocal about the learning team and we are all very proud of what we do. And when you are proud you tell people.

MC: Has there been any difference in understanding of what success is? Because you may feel very proud, think it is successful and want to share, but if it doesn’t match, for example what the marketing team think is successful, do you just share anyhow?

AT: I feel very differently about that, then when we started the programme, because I think there are a lot of different things that could be counted as success. And it might be ticking the boxes and meeting the aims, because when you come to a job, that is what you’ve got to do. But now I have got a bit more experience in what is going on, it is different for me now. I didn’t articulate that very well…


MC: It sounds like you have got more confidence in what you are doing?

AT: Yes. And if something hasn’t met one target it doesn’t matter, because actually we learnt and it did something else, and that might be more interesting than meeting that target.

MC: Which is absolutely at the core of what Circuit is about…

You have to know why it was a success, or why it was a failure and why it was important…

AT: Yes but that is difficult. And I think you have to let a lot go. You have to be very confident; because if somebody comes back at you and says, but you didn’t do this, you have to know why it was a success, or why it was a failure and why it was important. You have to know that. And that is a massive confidence thing.

MC: Yes, I remember when we talked quite a bit in the early days about where you ranked, actually where the gallery ranked alongside other galleries, and there was a sense of worry behind that question and that competitive spirit. Sometimes I think that spirit can be really positive, but it felt like that was a concern for the organisation. And now I look at the risk register and you are the ones in the green. And I just think that is quite a big shift. And confidence must be part of that. We talked a bit in the earlier conversation about Kay as a manager, and she used words like you are, such as trust and generosity – that is one of her key words generosity – so that is almost an ethos which is fantastic. But what we struggled to do is break that down practically, into what that might look like, and I wondered whether you, being line managed by her, have any practical things which you can think of which demonstrate those values?

So, for example, does she turn up at events, does she ask you about how things went, does she encourage you to take part in wider team meetings, can you go to her if things are totally too much. I don’t know, I am putting works in your mouth. But do you feel she is available to listen?

AT: All of those things. I can always get a meeting if I need it. If it is particularly important, things will be dropped so she can talk to you, or she will squeeze you in to talk to you. She listens. Again, it is a trust thing. She listens and she lets you implement. Definitely, if things are going very wrong I would go to Kay. There was something else you said, and I thought that is exactly what she does. Oh, inviting me to things. When Alex couldn’t go to a Board meeting, I said, send me instead as a joke and she said, ‘Would you want to go?’ I was really taken aback by that. Because I would love to do that; any opportunity she gives out wherever she can. And that is really important.

MC: You haven’t been to our Board meetings! No, I am joking. Some of what I am hearing, is a big focus of her role, and I am aware we are talking about her behind her back, but a big focus of her role is managing her team and by managing her team, i.e. by supporting her team effectively, the programme gets looked after.

AT: Yes!

MC: As opposed to, managing the programme and the staff being the people who deliver that. There is a real lack of hierarchy in what you are talking about.

AT: Yes. I would find it really frustrating if I didn’t have the chance to programme the way I have and I think it is the other way round now, so if I don’t get what I have asked for, I am like, ‘Oh, ok then.’ That’s new! But sometimes I need to be checked you know.


MC: Do you have budgetary control as part of that?

AT: I do. I couldn’t do it any other way.

MC: There is just this amazing sense of team that I am getting. Anna Cutler (Head of Learning at Tate), has developed a formula to look at conditions of success within learning programmes, and organisational change as part of that. And there are things like place and space. Now they sound quite simple, but one of the things that came out of the conversation earlier, was the whole team is within one room, within one office space. And sometimes it is totally silent because you are all working, it doesn’t mean you are all chatting, but what does that enable? And how different that is from a much larger organization, where you may never know members of your department, where coming together is a real challenge – despite having the structures and intentions in place. So, the physical space and the difference that makes here. The fact you have a café with room for things to happen. The fact you have a performance space and a meeting room. There is a sense of team almost within the architecture itself, unlike some other Circuit galleries. For example, I have been told you don’t have to fight to use a space, it’s a discussion.

 I still think it is a confidence thing, you still have to approach other team members, you still have to be a voice within the team, within the organization.


AT: Yes. And confidence. Because I still think it is a confidence thing, you still have to approach other team members, you still have to be a voice within the team, within the organization. From observing going to Engage conferences, and the women at them and the women in learning teams – and we have spoken about this before – the confidence is so low, they hardly speak and they haven’t got voices. And I think, until that changes, I think it will be really difficult for learning teams. Although the recent speech about diversity and that being the focus from Arts Council, I wonder if curators will be approaching learning teams. I hope they will.

MC: So do I.

AT: Because they realize that access brings in the funds, so possibly that will change the confidence in the learning teams. I hope it does because I don’t see how it will change otherwise.