Kitchen Chats

An interview with Rachel Noel, Assistant Curator: Young People’s Programme at Tate Modern/Britain 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.

RN: If you use this, where does it go?

MC: Good question; it depends!

A bit of background…I realised that staff working ‘on the ground’, so coordinators, assistant curators [different titles for similar roles in each Circuit gallery], have a perspective on what is working and what is not working; and where change is happening in the organisation, in addition to impact on young people, that isn’t necessarily being captured. And so my role allows me to hear all this learning. I resisted recording those regular conversations for a long time. I think that was the right decision, because they were a ‘safe space’. So, staff generally went, this is not working, or what on earth is going on here, or this is working but can you clarify x; and when we were establishing the programme, honesty to question that way was really important. But we are now at a stage where some really interesting learning is surfacing and it is only when there is someone else listening, which I will do in a minute – so you enable a reflective conversation – that those things can come out.

RN: I guess that is a tricky thing with Circuit at Tate Britain and Tate Modern alongside Circuit as a national programme. You feel like we are all here, working in the same office, working more closely together than some partners, but dedicated time isn’t necessarily quality time because when we are in meetings we are usually catching up on programme.

MC: Does your team have any structured reflective meetings?

RN: Yes. The Circuit Programme London team meets. We receive an update from senior management and then we all give an update on our programme.

MC: So you update and then presumably there is a bit of trouble-shooting…

RN: Yes, actions, anything that comes up that we need to look at as a team. It is a chance for us all to be in the same room together. There are also moments when we might be reporting to Circuit National, there is a feeling of responsibility. So for example, being pulled into a Directors meeting after a couple of months working at Tate was so helpful and so valuable. It was incredible.

MC: What was valuable about it?

RN: Just to hear directly how both Directors of Tate Modern and Tate Britain see Circuit, what they want from Circuit. So interesting.

MC: I am sure it will be interesting to revisit that too when they happen again, with an increased knowledge of the programme and you have been in post for a year.
RN: So much has changed within our programme already. We were still in an embryonic stage of our partnerships, for example, whereas now we have activity to report on, relationships are building.

MC: Who are the partners you are working with?

RN: We are working with the Westminster Society (our project with ‘Involuntary Movement’). From February to March this year we took an existing workshop to them, it was really successful, they came back to Tate Modern and we had some really lovely moments of the peer-led model working in partnerships. So we brought the participants that performed the piece to Tate initially. Took them round the collection, got them to choose a piece that inspired them and they wanted to show the new group. So when the new group came, we had these guides, who were super-excited and offering food and drink, telling people where the toilets were, just generally hosting and feeling ownership over the space, which is really nice.

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MC: And would they normally do that within their organisation? Or was the model new to them?

RN: Completely new. And there would never be an opportunity to socialize with another group before. It was a first for everybody.

MC: So it was a group within ‘Involuntary Movement’?

RN: Yes, Involuntary Movement run a weekly inclusive dance programme. At Pembroke House, completely separately to Tate or Circuit. They developed a piece with six participants, as part of Circuit previously, in response to Matisse, which we used as a project to take to them as a taster. So they perform their piece and then perform that to a new group. They took this piece to the Westminster Society, which is a group with learning disabilities.

MC: Tell me more…

RN: So there was one young man in the morning. Ali and Nina, the artists with Involuntary Movement structure every session the same. We always start with ‘circle time’. And it creates a familiarity with a new group especially. And this young man didn’t want to be involved, sat in the corner of the room, as far away from everyone as possible. But then there was this really lovely moment when a participant from Involuntary Movement went up to him. This young person sweeps in and starts talking about how he loves this piece because it reminds him of tyres that have been melted, and part of it looks like a showerhead. And the other young person became excited and joined in. And that was such an example of how peer-led can work young people really get something out of it.

MC: That’s a lovely moment, when a shift happens. Part of the challenge that Circuit is looking at, is that those people in the room recognise that shift and the significance of that moment. But without hearing you, and that story, how would we capture or share that with anyone in a way that had meaning? And on one level, I think we do what we do because of those moments.

RN: It was definitely – hairs of the back of my neck moment. And everyone was stepping back, silently, gaping ‘wow’.
MC: And stepping back is, I think, one of the measures. Others are the excitement expressed by that young person; the fact that staff are both wowed and silenced at the same time; that there is a level of engagement that you didn’t see before. But what I don’t think we have is a way of articulating that beyond our sector, or even within our sector, so beyond ‘the room’. Those who experience shifts absolutely understand why such work should be funded and to a certain level, because it takes a huge investment to encourage those experiences; but if you are outside the room…

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RN: Yes, and that is something that I have spoken about a lot recently: the visibility of our partnership work. For us, the partnership strand is at the core; so our aim is to produce partnership activity, recruit young people into Tate Collective so it is reflective of a diverse audience within Tate and within London, who are then programming and have a voice within Tate. That is the structure of our programme. But it feels like the peer-led elements, like Late at Tate, have huge visibility. It’s a big event, its within the gallery, we have flyers, there is a lot press and PR….

MC: It is part of Tate’s main programme.

RN: Yes. But for the partnership activity it is really tricky to give it the platform it deserves, because it is very specific activity. And you want to shout about it and talk about this incredible work, without this influx of people that want to partner with you, for example. But is not necessarily part of a public offer yet. So how do we shout about it without it…do you know what I mean?

MC: Absolutely.

RN: Because there is also a tightrope with partnership working, where you want to engage with partners, but we have a limit capacity wise. We will be doing little projects with other groups and partnership organisations, but what is the right platform for making the work visible?

MC: And have you seen examples of other cultural organisations that have a reputation for ‘outreach’ work?

RN: I haven’t looked. That’s a really nice idea.

MC: Because if you think (and I will deliberately use London examples here) of the BFI, South Bank, Royal Opera House, the British Museum, Science Museum, the V&A and so on…If you think of their education/community/outreach programme, we have a sense of whether they are really current. Somehow that learning programme shapes the impression we have, whether we work in the sector or not, of who that organisation is. So that might be an interesting thing to consider. For example, I can’t think of Oval House Theatre, without thinking about their outreach work; to me that is key to who they are. So looking to how others have done it might be worth considering.

RN: My initial reaction was that every partnership activity has an article on the Circuit website. You should be able to click onto Tate Britain/Modern and be able to see it, because ultimately if this is at the heart of our programme then it needs to be somewhere. It just creates a portfolio of things that we have done; that’s in one place, that’s visible.

MC: That was the whole point of that site, to disseminate and archive learning, so that’s great. One of the things that other Circuit galleries do is ask their partners to add to the site. It sounds really simple. You know, it’s a blog and deliberately so. It isn’t daunting and there isn’t a style you have to follow. We post- moderate so you can literally put up an article and say what you want to say. And often partners are really keen to do that because it is promotion for them, their work and a space to reflect on it too.

RN: It is something that I have been thinking of and with every project I do, I am working that into it. It was great for Tate Collective to reflect on a recent project. There is also something for staff too because we can learn from others through that reflective space.

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MC: It was interesting when I asked you earlier about structured reflective space, conversations, or just time; your answer was programme meetings. And I wonder whether that is the space? Or whether there will be elements of reflection – where you discuss what worked and didn’t – but your main focus is on delivery. So a way for me to build the relationship with the team would be to just do a few of those reflective meetings. If we could schedule in, say one each quarter. Because I am effectively outside of the team. I am part of the wider team, but not the programming team. I can bring in some of the stuff that is happening within other galleries and we just see what happens. Perhaps I think of key questions that allow your team to see beyond delivery? Because that must be really hard.

RN: Yes. And I think that is what we have done previously, within sharing sessions. That really feels like a chance where we all step out and all think about it.

MC: But you can’t come to the next one?

RN: No. So Laura does a lot of that, she comes in and out, has to step back to report. Whereas Leyla and I are heads in delivering, delivering. So sharing sessions are one space. And the other is programme planning. They were quarterly, but now I think twice a year, and we block out half a day. And you came to our last one.

MC: Was that when I was talking about breakfast again?!

RN: Yes and we all talked about the tag line of Circuit, sparking change, it was our first meeting with you.

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MC: Ok, well I will chat with Laura about whether that is suitable.

So, just back to the visibility of the partnership programme, one of the things you said is that there was a thin line because you don’t want to be so visible that you have loads of people approach you. But presumably with something like Late at Tate, which is really visible, then loads of people do approach the team, and there must be a way of dealing with that. So I wonder what it is about partnerships specifically, or youth sector partners, that means that method isn’t’ right?

RN: I guess for us at the moment, it would be regular programme to direct them to. So people do approach us and we have target barriers. So for example, we had someone approach us from Tower Hamlets – amazing project – working with 10 artists and 10 ex-offenders producing a production at a theatre…Do you want to partner with us? We are at capacity at the moment, so…

MC: So why is a simple no, not ok?

RN: I guess because it is our key target audience and we want to be able to offer them something. If it is not being able to partner and produce together then what is that offer? So last year I ran the ‘Art for All’ project, where we gave out free tickets which worked really nicely. We just want to be able to say, to be this welcome, as an organisaton.

MC: So what would you like to see happen?

RN: The ticket scheme is happening again which we can dip into for instances like I’ve just mentioned. I would also like to see some regular programme or drop in sessions, or something light touch that people can come to.

MC: And doesn’t Late at Tate fulfill that?

RN: I guess so, but for a long time we didn’t have an event until April – so if someone contacts you in December then that feels too spread out.

MC: Ok, but I think there is something else there, in your face and tone of voice, there is a sense of responsibility that you feel with potential partners approaching you through that targeted strand of the programme, that I doubt someone who is programming core events would feel. So although the same approach might happen on both sides, for one it can be a simple no or a maybe – it can be dealt with; and on the other there is a sense of responsibility?

RN: Yes.

MC: And I think that is quite interesting to think about. And what we mean by the term partner and what we mean in the dynamic of that relationship – whose learning from whom, whose giving to whom, whose holding the money, why could it be a simple no there but not here. Because if that is key to preventing the visibility, it is worth thinking about. So you could have the partnership programme within the main Tate programme, in the same way schools programme is for example, and you have to book and not every school everywhere thinks that they can do it. And you have line that says, ‘we are working with ‘x partner’ or something that frames it, but also publicises it.

RN: Yes and I think that schools example is a nice one because a supported visit is something that would be so valuable for so many partners. That light touch, ‘We just want to come’. There is interest from partners for that. For me, saying a simple no feels wrong because it wouldn’t take much to offer them something more. It doesn’t take a lot.

MC: Great answer. So, it needn’t be a no?

RN: Exactly. I would rather offer something than nothing. I think a huge barrier for Tate with partnerships and least access groups, is Tate itself, its reputation. It is a huge organisation, for a certain sort of person, from a certain kind of background. And I think the more we can do to break that down and increase access the better. If they are not perhaps right for the partnership strand, or we don’t have capacity to work with them, fine. I appreciate we only have so many hours in the day. But for me, I would really like to see something we could forward them to. And whether that is working with the schools team to think about groups and if we could work together on this, pooling resources somehow….

MC: As someone who previously worked as an educator outside of Tate, the only way I could find to bring a group of young people was as a school group. I didn’t know where to go with a community or youth group or the resources available. With a group not in school because school is an issue, so therefore arguably they need that access and support more then…

But one of the things Circuit is doing at the moment is putting legacy plans together. I would be really interested to see how much your ideas are part of that and how much you guys can own it. So your insight really shapes it. Because I think you are right it wouldn’t take that much and it would be a fantastic legacy to be working towards.

So, with that kind of idea, from an outside perspective, it seems really simple. Just have schools and community groups…

RN: Yes and I have been thinking that the community team must have exactly the same dilemma and need.

MC: What do you think it would take to make that happen? And thinking about organisational change, what can you imagine some of the barriers to be? You can talk about that generically if that is easier.

RN: I guess just the structure. So we have a Young People’s Team, a Schools and Teachers team for example. If we run collaborative programme: who works on that, who funds that, how do you monitor that kind of collaboration? And it is not crazy, we all work in the same team, I am sure that is doable. But in terms of an organisational structure, that doesn’t reflect the outside world, how to we communicate that, how does that happen?

MC: And just to take that one specific – so there is a sign up in the welcome room saying school groups – if you wanted to change that to school and community groups, literally the sign, what are the steps you can imagine you would need to go through?

RN: So it would be a meeting. A meeting with schools and teachers team….

MC: Ok, so two departments come together and have a chat?

RN: Yep and we would then need to propose it. Depending on the outcome of that meeting and who was there, would determine how it went higher up. Also who funds that programme and who supports it? They have school bookings assistants and supervisors. How do we have a say in who those artists are? Who creates that programme? So the logistics of putting that together. How do we go about changing the artists job roles, or briefing the artists – do they have experience of working with vulnerable groups?

MC: Ok, so programmatically there are some key things to consider. But at the moment, if you are a school group of a certain size, then you are asked to contact Tate beforehand, but you can be a self-led group; leave your stuff in a room, use that as a meeting point, eat lunch in a room and you can move around the building knowing that you have checked in and told someone…

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RN: Yes, and you speak to a member of the team on the welcome desk…

MC: Who welcomes you! So, back to the sign, if it was just ‘schools and community groups’ on a sign, what would it take?

RN: Well nothing, I could just go and do it now! But how do you work backwards from that? Is it a collaborative programme? Are we ready if we do that?

MC: So all of that is good. And who has permission to change the sign?

RN: It is high up. My inclination would be that staff higher up would meet and then it would need to go even higher; and then it needs to be a funding conversation, a staffing conversation, a capacity conversation. But not impossible. I guess pooling resources at Tate, whilst it can seem simple, can be like a web. That’s the structure.

MC: Thanks for bearing with me and I was aware I was pushing you. However, it is really interesting when considering organisational change. If you think about another Circuit partner for example and someone in your equivalent position, they run the whole programme. They run the Circuit programme, doing peer-led, partnerships, festivals, the budget, the reporting…and then they would say…and we need to do this here. And it happens. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but understanding different structures is part of understanding organisational change.

RN: A flat structure?

MC: I have concerns about that phrase because I have worked with organisations that talk about flat structures and nobody ever quite owns things, which is a challenge. So, with the partner I was thinking about, there is a structure but alongside a level of responsibility that person holds, so they can run their own programme, they check in, but they have decision-making power. Devolved leadership…

So, how long have you been at Tate and what are some of the tips you have learnt to make things happen?

RN: Since September, nine months. When you say make things happen, what do you mean?

MC: I suppose on a day-today basis, within or outside of programme, if you want to get things done, then what are some of the things that make that happen quicker or more successfully than others?

RN: Go and find people. Go and find them because you are sometimes sat right next to them and you have been emailing them and you can just go and say hi, get an answer in five minutes! Which I imagine is the same in all big organisations…
…Agendas for meetings can be helpful. Something really important and I think we need to do, is review our meeting structure. And how regularly we meet and what they are about, who is going and the purpose. So a regular meeting might have been set up a few years ago and reviewing those would be good. There is a tendency to meet at Tate and it is a huge organisation. You need to meet and check in with people but is it always the most efficient way for getting stuff done?

MC: And how do you find out about stuff from other areas or departments? So what works for you personally in terms of internal communications?

RN: I think that kitchen chats and being around informally, because that is where you really get an insight into what people are doing. Rather than a formal meeting with an agenda and minutes. But that might be because of my freelance background. There is an honesty talking to people outside of a tight agenda.

MC: And what do you think we could do more of or differently within Circuit?

RN: I think sharing sessions are really valuable. It is chance to come out of the space with the team, somewhere else. A safe space but also one to reflect. It happens a lot if I stay late and Mark is still there. The office is quiet and it is a chance to hear about things that are coming up or ideas. And it is a nice reflective space and we can communicate on a very real level. I don’t know how we create that within the working week when everyone is back to back.

MC: Lets work on it. Thank you.

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