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: To introduce this, can you explain about being brought in to implement change because you thought the organisation was ready?
SN: Yes, I did presume if I was being brought in to manage a programme with organisational change as a key aim, then that would have been considered beforehand. That a need for and a willingness to be part of that, across the organisation, would be understood. I think I was surprised. And I feel in a very different position now as to how other people and programs view Circuit and it’s value. I think in those first months, I questioned why I had been brought in. Because if that is a key element of my role, but everyone is resistant towards change, then do you even want that? Its great to invite people in to change things, but you’ve got to want to do that as well. Change can’t just affect one small area, it filters out across everything – whether that is our own programme meetings, or teaming up with public programme or visitor services. It really requires buy in from everybody. However now, the more work we have done, the more respect and backing we have. And that is just as valuable, because it starts to feel embedded.
MC: So what are some of the things you have done to shift from a small percentage being ready for change, to the majority? And what are some of the things which mean you also feel differently now?
SN: I was in a fortunate position that prior to this, when I was employed as a facilitator, I would see and get to know gallery staff and programme. That meant I knew at least 50% of the staff – their names, we would say hello – so I have built on those relationships to make sure that now we are working offsite, [Tate St Ives was closed due to a Capital Project at the time of this interview]; I regularly go back into the gallery, I walk though spaces and if nothing else I am still saying hello. And that goes from assistants to security to cleaners. They are all very busy and our programme affects them all.
MC: So you had some existing relationships, but you also invest in relationships, particularly with new or non-learning staff.
SN: Yes, they are the people that on the day assist us to deliver our programme. Without their support things become much more difficult. Thinking back to one of our first events, I perhaps spent my entire day going round trying to alleviate concerns of gallery staff and deal with complaints; very little of that happens now. They know I am always available on those days, they just have to radio me and I will be straight there. I make sure all event plans and risk assessments are sent out via email, which theoretically everyone is meant to pick up. I ensure there’s a copy in the staff room, in the security room, I leave copies on gallery chairs. And in the morning I do a walk round to ask if Visitor Assistants have read it; if they have any concerns and reassure them I am available. And that personal relationship, knowing someone is there they can approach if they are uncomfortable or concerned and knowing I listen and take it seriously, has gone a long way to just alleviate concern. There is no need for them to feel so concerned, because I will alleviate that concern for them.
MC: Can you give me some examples of what their concerns might be?
SN: Generally about behavior in the gallery…
MC: …so specific to young people?
SN: I think so, yes, or certainly specific in people’s minds. Touching, that’s a big thing, especially with particular exhibitions. We have small gallery spaces, things don’t always have tensa barriers around them. Things like mobile phones. There is a perception that young people might start shoving each other, swearing, creating some kind of atmosphere that other people wouldn’t want to be around.
MC: And are there similar concerns with other programme or audience, such as children?
SN: To some degree, but because we invite them in as families, it puts the onus on the parents. It does seem to be centered on young people. There have been conversations about other people and behaviors. For example, if someone comes in off the beach, covered in sand in a bikini, what you do. And in the absence of specific rules, perhaps you have to accept that, unless there is a blanket rule that covers everything. But a lot of those concerns about young people have not played out. And now, should something arise, staff have realised if it’s not me that directly sorts it out, they may be there with their school or group leader. And actually just watching how young people self-police themselves in a group. So for some staff it’s just been a matter of time, to realise that their fears have not been played out and there are things in place if something should happen.
MC: I’m interested in where some of those fears around young people originate. So, is it how young people are portrayed in the media, which is something that Circuit is trying to influence, or are staff local and this therefore reflects a relationship between young people and St Ives specifically? That is a hard question…
SN: In terms of disruptive behavior, that is more how generations perceive generations below them. I think in terms of local young people and some of the partners we work with, there are some young people who are disconnected from the local community, who may have caused trouble in town, their names may be known…But it is a hard question.
MC: Sure. If we took the Science Museum as an example, rather than me knowing a lot about their specific practice, a ‘big national’ if you like: teenagers are a key audience and so they do lots of things to invest in that audience. What you are describing is a fear that seems opposite to that approach, a different starting point. So I am wondering if local staff and their relationship, or perhaps lack of relationship with young people, perpetuates that, and therefore their only perception is from media.
SN: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of lack of relationship.
MC: So it is the unknown? Which is one of the keys things about prejudice. It is the unknown and the perception of that, rather than any reality.
It reminds me of when I used to work with young offenders and literally the group we worked with were those on the spreadsheet of mug shots that would be behind every counter in key newsagents in town. And it was likely the list was the same as that on the third page of the local paper. They were our clients. But the reality of the relationship we had with them was of course totally different. So that was a hard thing to be negotiating.
What more could be done? You’ve talked about your relationship, so proving yourself if you like and we’ve talked a bit about having to prove the programme – the more you do, the more that generates at least an acceptance if not a trust around it – what other things would you like to do if you could?
SN: I think we’ve definitely got more to do with getting the young people in at the core of things.
MC: So bringing young people into where decisions are made?
SN: Yes. And now staff are willing for that to happen, but the work needs to be done with the young people. We have had young people on various committees, like Jess on the community liaison group or another young person who was involved but had to leave because he came to the end of his studies. Those who were interested did tend to be students – who were probably already engaged in the arts or who had graduated and wanted to get into the organisation at that level. Which is understandable. But how that feeds back into the programme is different because they might come with an academic head on, or there is quite an organisational vocabulary used within those meetings that those who wish to pursue a career in museums or cultural organisations want to tap into. And whilst that is valuable its not really representative of young people.
MC: So because their motivation is career development, they were trying to work with existing language and structures, rather than influencing them?
SN: Absolutely. And how comfortable I would be about bringing a 15 year old into that situation, I don’t know. It’s already a balancing act between those who are 24 and 25 years old with those who are at school for example. So there are lots of things to think about in terms of structure. Do we create our own project or programme group and invite staff in, or do it the other way round?
MC: If you could create from scratch, what are some of the things you would put in place at an oganisational level, to ensure young people were central?
SN: I would create a young people’s steering group and invite core staff in.
MC: Ok. Would they be paid?
SN: For some it would matter, we would definitely have a better attendance if it were paid. I wonder what the recruitment process might be to ensure that represented all of the young people – students from Falmouth to 15 years olds in St Ives. And organisationally we would need to work on how that group was perceived by staff. What’s the onus on a core group of young people? Say you have six young people and six core staff – how does the decision making happen? Because of course if you can override every decision the young people want to take forward, then where is the equality and value in doing that? And perhaps, they should be paid in a way. If we ask them to work like that: to inform the programme then of course it should be.
MC: And why do you think Tate St Ives thinks it is important, or wants to engage with young people?
SN: That’s an interesting one. I think there is a desire to change and be progressive…
MC: …and young people are seen as progressive?
SN: Yes. But also with a thought to future audience; so if we engage them now, they are visitors in ten years time.
MC: And why do you think it is important to engage with young people?
SN: I think all organisations should engage with young people. We have to move. And move all the time. In a gallery, we are looking to the past with artwork, but reconsidering its meaning in the present. And if you want to talk about the present, the younger generation is whom you need to be working with and through them re-understanding the artwork. They keep the artwork alive and refreshed. I think for Cornwall as well, young people are so geographically spread out, that access to culture is massive. Some people might never access culture in that way. Or a shared culture. We have lots of festivals from very particular areas. And that’s their culture from that area, but how do we share that, link up, almost how do you create communities across quite dispersed areas? How do you create mobility around that?
MC: A research question for year 4! Whilst you were saying that, I think there is some really useful international learning. Definitely there is some learning in this country and already some published material on working with arts and rural communities, but it would be interesting to make links internationally too.
So, there is something about being current, something about what you understand the organisation feels and something about the role of arts in society and young people being part of that – defining the present and visioning the future.
If Tate St Ives didn’t engage with young people and just put their resources into an older audience, for example, or a tourist audience, what would happen as a result? Or what might happen?
SN: In some ways it’s really interesting in light of this morning when I found out our local audience has gone from 10% to 1% of all our visitors. So our tourist audience is important and we value them. They will come.
But to me personally without local young people, we lose our values. We become something for people to come and look at and we are in danger of losing our local context. We always include St Ives modernists in relation to the exhibition and that helps us look anew at their role in the movement. I think we could lose that. Within that we lose the value of what art can do. Because then we could exhibit anything and some would like it, some wouldn’t and they would come anyway.
MC: You become a tourist attraction? Which is part of the role of the gallery but not all? There is something about the relationship you have with your audience and the depth of that relationship being important.
SN: Yes, there are lots of galleries in St Ives. But if we don’t invite new generations in and local young people, then we lose our history. If we are talking about St Ives modernists, this is the background and history of the young people we are talking about. And their families. I can go to my in-laws and talk about meeting Barbara Hepworth, what it was like to work with her and I can find out all of those stories. How St Ives modernists were regarded in town at the time. I think we stand to loose all of that, despite things being archived and documented, that depth of local history and the context for the art. That is the relationship. To know those stories and to be told them by your parents and grandparents. And then to be able to go and see work in the Hepworth Museum, or in the gallery in conjunction with international art and to be thinking about it differently. That is the depth of relationship.
MC: That cultural heritage.
SN: To have such a significant organisation in what is essentially a fishing village; to me there is a need to link to the local community. We have to. Ethically.
MC: I was asking to stimulate you, being deliberately provocative. And that answer was superb. So thank you.
What are some practical things, because that is often an interesting thing to think about, that the gallery could do, regardless of the challenges of implementation, to make the gallery more relevant to the local community? So not age specific, because we have gone broader than that.
SN: I think the new building will go a long way. For the first time we will have a permanent exhibition and interpretation of St Ives modernists which will be free to attend. Fantastic. So whilst there is a paid exhibition we can honour and foster that. But it takes more than a gallery. There needs to be a specific invitation to the community to engage with that. Even down to the café. We could make it even friendlier, so it was ok to just have a coffee when it was quiet. Friendliness and acknowledgement of the community. The Eden project for example, do a locals pass. But it needs to be a permanent offer throughout the year. Especially for the winter months, but also in the summer. So I am not really thinking about income generation…
MC: Well, many would argue that you develop that offer and through that you then generate income.
SN: Yes, I would much rather have the galleries full in the winter rather than empty galleries. And perhaps they will go and spend money in the bookshop. But it is all about a relationship. And the gallery is young. It has only just celebrated its 21st birthday. So it is about creating a history with people. If we work with young people what does that influence now and in future generations? That shared history means we move from ‘we are local we don’t go to Tate St Ives’, to ‘this is what we do, we go to Tate St Ives’. And how you change that thought. Even if they don’t come for two years, the possibility is there. Just me working at the gallery has for example, changed my families perception. There is a tension locally that we imagine everyone comes down from London.
MC: So articulating whom in the workforce is local? Not necessarily to make the usual economic argument, but to link to the community…
SN: …yes and local staff are doing gallery tours. I think we are so privileged that our local staff devise our tours. Each time you get a different tour. That is so valuable because their own thoughts, interests and stories can come through.
MC: Have you done any tours led by young people?
SN: We did in spring. It was a ‘fact and fiction’ tour. They were clear at the beginning that some of the tour was going to be fact and some fiction. They encouraged dialogue about what that might be and then at the end revealed what was fact and what was fiction. Young people led audience around works they had identified throughout the galleries and encouraged different interpretations. They were very popular. I would love to work with Visitor Services on our future events, especially so we can incorporate tours. At the moment, we have to work around any tours that are happening. It would be great for young people to regularly lead on tours.
MC: So why can’t you just implement that?
SN: I think we could but it requires negotiation. Tours are a hot topic.
MC: Ok, tell me more about the decision making process.
SN: It’s a discussion between visitor services and learning.
MC: So you need a conversation. Where does the permission then lie? Is it in dialogue?
SN: I would say it begins within dialogue then eventually goes up to the Artistic Director. I feel confident enough to begin that process and if we could come up with a collaborative idea we could take that up higher as a proposal. If we didn’t quite agree, then that would be different and would need escalation upwards. Also, sometimes decision making is not always clear-cut. I might have responsibility to instigate change or dialogue and have good relationships on which to do that, but I don’t have authority to implement decisions. There is a bit of a gap in that authority sometimes. You might need decisions to come from top-down. Suggestions of what we might do without that can often stall in the face of practical or other challenges. And so much of this is about capacity. We are all stretched. If we had more capacity we could think more about how we work together more effectively.
MC: Yes, I understand. Capacity is also to do with priorities. You can be really really busy being collaborative. Or you can be busy being collaborative.
SN: Making sure we have the same aims is important. And ensuring those aims are running through everything. They are understood across all of the teams. So making sure Circuit is recognised and organisational change is an aim. Because that very fact means some things might feel uncomfortable at first, unexpected perhaps, but if we are expecting the unexpected that we can find a way through it, rather than it just becoming a barrier.
MC: Tell me about the values required.
SN: Something around movement, around change. The artist programme is fantastic in terms of that. Because we are a smaller organisation we can embrace research, and can understand the local context within a national picture. Ensuring everyone is on board with a vision, which includes change and ensuring that is a comfortable place for people to be. Movement and change can be daunting.
MC: Its funny because you talk about how young Tate St Ives is and yet how movement can be difficult. And when I think of St Ives, movement is a massive part of that for me. Not just travelling to get here, but the ocean and the sky. Whether there is restfulness to that movement, or howling gales, there is an inherent sense of movement. And for artists that are core to your identity and history, movement again is crucial. So I find that interesting.
SN: It’s interesting when you are geographically on the edge of something! You are between land and sea. You are at the edge because to get somewhere can take several hours. And yes, mirroring artists who worked here, international exchange is the reason why some of them were here. I think being on boundaries, being on the edge, you become the flanneur almost. You can view things from the outside. It’s that thing you can see beyond or another. So what does it mean to be looking backwards and having this exchange all of the time?
For Cornwall, a lot of young people leave. How do we create an environment where that is coming back too? So it is not just one way. What’s the incoming thing? What are a community and a place when you have students who study and leave, with people who stay for a season then move on? And what is the value in that movement? Rather than young people leaving being a problem, what’s the value we can learn from, be that contextually or online. No matter where you are, you can be connected. What are those connections when you are on the outside of something? What is the difference in connection when you are not in a city?
MC: The economics and therefore the politics of what you are saying are significant. And much is inherent in small coastal towns, or ex mining communities as we were discussing this morning. It is the local context but I am conscious we are also sitting here the morning after Greece has just voted ‘No’ and the role of young people within that and what that might mean. So it goes further.
SN: And not everyone here is remote or in poverty, but we need to understand what the restrictions are to accessing our culture. You can be in poverty culturally without it being social or economic, despite the links. And I am aware I am in Cornwall and I have a job, a car and there have been times when I haven’t had either of those things. And lots of people aren’t lucky enough to achieve that down here. So I’m also aware of my own position.
MC: It’s partly where your passion comes from and therefore your motivation.
SN: And that passion and knowledge can only really come from living in it. You can come and study it, but if you don’t have that history with a place…
MC: …so we are back to relationships.
SN: I have a fear of static. When I was asked at school ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ The whole concept of knowing what I would be doing in ten years time really scared me. Whereas for many, they like a constant and change can be quite difficult. So I try and be as sensitive as I can in understanding that. Why is the unknown fearful for people?
MC: Well, there is huge theory around this, which I am not qualified to describe, but on a simple level, for many the familiar is comfortable. And for others, the familiar is uncomfortable. And if your starting point is that the familiar is uncomfortable, then your need for movement is often driven by that. Because if you are comfortable, then why do you want to move? So I’m in a really big bed with covers and pillows and my cup of tea is on the other side of the room, but my goodness me that seems like a lot of effort. Not because I don’t want the cup of tea, but because I’m really comfortable. So often comfort and familiarity go together. If they don’t then you have a different relationship with it. If you get out of bed, get the cup of tea and you come back and your bed isn’t the same anymore, or your bed was not comfortable in the first place, then you are going to keep looking for cups of tea. That is probably a ridiculous way of describing it!
SN: I am aware that for me, I need to acknowledge what is working and what doesn’t need changing. And thinking about change with young people is interesting. Because you can out own the best plans in the world, but you have to respond and change depending on who is in the room and their responses at the time. So it might become something completely different. In those situations, the ability to change and change fast, really works. But there are other situations where you need to consider what you hold onto. So it might be something I would personally like to see shift, but if that is working for the organisation or another team, we might need to keep that.
MC: So not change for changes sake. But you talked about co-learning there – so learning with and from young people – that is a whole other thing we could discuss. There is also evaluation, which is at the heart of Circuit. So we know what we know because we know it, not because we think we know it. What is actually working, not because you or a team think so, or someone has had a good idea, which is normal and often how decisions and changes are made, but because we know it and that knowledge is shared. Within that stats are powerful. So 1% of your audience is local. If you can have similar stats that you can be talking about as a result of and through Circuit, however ‘big’ they are, it is powerful. I remember at the beginning of the programme, you surveyed young people and there was a percentage that said they didn’t see Tate St Ives as relevant. Those stats can help bring in change.
SN: You contrast the 1% to how we have just recruited for the summer project and about 70% of those young people are local.
MC: So we are proving success. And the focus can then change. It’s raining, shall we go and get some lunch?