Risk

An interview with Rebecca Argall, Programme and Communications Assistant at Tate St Ives by Marina Castledine, Circuit National Manager July 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: Tell me more about the ‘no’…

RA: I think there is something about being in an assistant role; you don’t feel you have the agency to go direct to the source of the problem to resolve it, so you have to leave it with other people. And in terms of my personality, I like going straight to the source. Can I just call the person who is the end point? That is not always appropriate because you have to let other people deal with things.

MC: And it sounds like the end point, or the source of the no, is different from your line manager, but they absorb it? So is the source within this gallery or Tate as a whole, or is it this mythical voice?

RA: Yes, I think it is a bit mythical! So to indirectly answer that…we had our team away day last week, which to be honest I was dreading. But it was so good. And I think just having relaxed conversations, hearing people talk about things they want to do and the problems they have, really helps. Often my line manager and I feel like we are out on a limb – our perception can be ‘it is Circuit against the world’, or ‘our team against the rest of the department’. But actually they were bringing up a lot of the same issues we were. I am trying to think of concrete examples to give you. But they were saying things I could hear myself saying. Like, when we have meetings, it will always be ‘ok this is happening this weekend, so we don’t have time to collaborate on this, we don’t have time to reflect on this’. Or ‘this is happening so we are just gong to do it this way now’. And to hear other people talk about that was good. I think it is just the structures or processes we have. The meetings we have are not super-dynamic and there is some practical stuff about our workspace too.

I don’t think it is a lack of will. So it is not people not wanting to innovate, be risky or welcoming people. I think people are actually very supportive. At least mentally, they really want the programme to be successful. That has been really encouraging, because I think at first I thought they didn’t care, but I have found they do and people want it to work. They might not have such a clear understanding of the aims as we do, or the real purpose, but I think there is a desire to welcome young people.

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MC: So that is a really good starting point. But there is still a block?

RA: I think everything is just slow. Everything takes a long time.

MC: If you could introduce something to remove a process that is unnecessary, or to change a meeting dynamic, or could just go ‘right, lets do this to make it quicker or easier’, what might you do?

RA: I think more relaxed times as a team. The thing about being on a project- funded post means you often don’t feel the integration of all pulling together towards something. But the away day was really good because you realise you are all part of a team, working towards the same vision, even if you can’t quite pinpoint what that is. So maybe more gatherings, more fun in the office, which doesn’t sound that…

MC: I think it sounds quite major. I don’t think you should underestimate either what a ‘water cooler moment’, so that unstructured informal time together means, nor the social aspect of that, because you then get to know people in a different way. Also you are also talking about fun. If you look at an organisation like ‘Google’, their offices in London have each floor themed in a different way. So instead of a meeting room, you might have a phone box that you go into. I would be interested to see how changes in a working environment, including being explicit about play, affect the decisions we make. So I think what you are saying is really valid. We are in St Ives and one of the reasons I like meeting outside or over lunch, is that there is a different dynamic to the conversation.

RA: I think there has been a lot of positive progress around that. Even working on the Late at Tate project, which I was indirectly involved in, was really positive because we were working with the adult learning team. At first it was a focus on separate youth events, but now we are talking about how they can be embedded – like we were discussing at the sharing event. So do we want to do a big youth event, or is it more like, we want young people at every point of the organisation…

MC:…so it is part of the core offer. Are there plans to do more?

RA: I think the next step is a review meeting to evaluate it, so not at the moment.

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MC: You mentioned having lots of ideas when you were first in post. Can you remember any?

RA: I would probably need to reflect on that.

MC: Fair enough. I keep notebooks and occasionally I look back at them. I am amazed by the amount of energy recorded at the beginning of a project or post. The amount of ideas, just as you said, and then how I try and realize that, or get things through, but perhaps in a different way.

And you talked about the office. Which is something that is coming up across a few galleries – how that helps or hinders – and we are having this conversation outside because we couldn’t inside. Do you think that is part of it?

RA: Yes, because it can lead to ‘whispered conversations’ because there aren’t private spaces, which creates an unpleasant atmosphere, even if nothing bad is being said. That kind of ‘whispery vibe’. It can just be a bit hard to concentrate. I worked in an open plan office in California, which had more of a start-up vibe. And in our office, it is quite dark, but I should probably just put a bit of TLC into my workzone!

MC: You talked about how Late at Tate is a shift, which is fantastic. It is a programmatic shift and then an audience shift. But what other shifts have you seen during the six months you have been here?

RA: A shift in senior management. So a couple of senior curators gave a talk to Tate Collective and gave out email addresses, which was quite significant, really positive. That willingness to be in direct communication. And I think that has fed back into our programme meetings. So now it is more ‘how are we gong to work with Tate Collective on this, what is our role?’ I think peer-led practice can cause frustrations in that context, because people feel they can’t make decisions, so that’s a challenge. But there is more of an understanding of peer-led now.

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MC: And what are your thoughts on that decision making process you are describing in peer-led practice?

RA: It can feel convoluted. And I don’t know if that is just the way it will be because you are trying to involve young people who aren’t members of staff. I sometimes feel like we are over the top in peer-led. It is a bit of the struggle I have because I feel we could put on events, do more, if there was less emphasis on young people having to make every decision. But Circuit is about putting young people in that role. So we would be doing the ‘wrong thing’ if we put less emphasis on peer-led.

MC: What is the ‘wrong thing’?

RA: Clearer programme; communicating programme more clearly because we are making decisions in advance, so we could market exactly what was happening. So from a marketing perspective, sometimes I don’t know what I am marketing, because it hasn’t been decided yet, because it is going to be decided by young people, which takes longer because they are not members of staff or available to talk to.

MC: So if you were in control of that, what changes would you make?

RA: Realistically I would make more decisions, but if that’s the right thing, I don’t know. So I am thinking now about if we can communicate with young people earlier.

MC: And do you wait until you can communicate with young people in person?

RA: No, I email them. And we have online methods like a closed facebook group just for Tate Collective members so they can directly post responses about which version of a design they like for example. It is not always convoluted. So I am bringing up the worst cases.

MC: And I am deliberately asking you about it, because it has come up several times during my visit. So it is a conversation to pick up again. I am also quite interested in the strap line, or short-hand, I use for peer-led which is ‘by young people, for young people.’ And in my experience when groups are small or disparate, then we can get bogged down in the ‘by young people’ and also might miss the ‘for young people’. So in your example, ‘what design do you like best’, (and there is another conversation about whether that is peer-led), there isn’t the next step ‘and who is the target audience, what do you know about them, and how do you think your chosen design would meet that?’ That seems to be more common when the group is smaller.

RA: Yes and when we have taken that pressure off, so for example the summer project has loads less emphasis on project planning, it has been better attended and there has been more interest in it. And there are a number of things involved in that – we have marketed it better, communicated what it is more clearly and simply – so artist-led workshops for this set amount of time; rather than ‘come and do what you want to do’. We have elements of that. But it can lead to vagueness when we say ‘you guys dictate what happens’ because it is less obvious what the point of it is. Young people don’t know what a session is about – why you would come to something when you’re unclear about what you’ll be doing?

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MC: So that is a really fantastic learning point. Do you think that will feed into future programme development?

RA: Yes. I think putting on the festival is a big thing and there might be a feeling of anxiety which will pull us back from that learning. So rather than be entirely organic and wait for people to grow into leadership roles, the festival may derail us slightly. But…

MC: There is something there that is really valid and if you are considering it a year in advance, worth considering more. And if you look at the learning from the other festivals, some young people have left as a result of that pressure. So it is brilliant you are picking up on it now.

RA: I really loved the progression route map presented at the sharing session [by Alice at Nottingham], because there are some similarities. I think we might be trying to recruit young people too early for [the equivalent of] a Steering Group role, which is essentially what Tate Collective have been. So [they have] a lot of planning, a lot of responsibility, which is great and an amazing opportunity for the four young people who have taken it on, but not many have wanted to. It’s a big job. So I wonder if we can bring in the more social element and make it more positive.

MC: So the next few questions are hard, but I think you are up for them! A couple of things around marketing and comms which you would change if you could?

RA: Some weird, intriguing things around town. So we talk about local and there are some obvious things like Freshers Fair in Falmouth where you can pay money and rent a stall. But very locally (i.e. in St Ives town) it can be harder to know what the channels are and how we can reach people. So we could do creative installations in the town, visible things. Even the local press could be more informed. Because those obvious things aren’t visible to young people.

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MC: Two things you could change, introduce, or remove, to the learning team?

RA: We have a weekly catch up but I would make it more of a brainstorm, ideas space. Also I would remove the whispered atmosphere.

MC: Last one: two things you would change that Tate St Ives could do to better engage with young people?

RA: I do feel like visitor experience is friendly, so continuing that. But we lack the out of hours type-event, like Tate London has. So I would introduce a ‘cool offer’. Which is really hard, to generate cool, it is organic. But we could try more of that. Young at Tate tries but it is during the day…

MC: Thank you.

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