An interview with

Alice Thickett

Circuit Coordinator

at Nottingham Contemporary

by Marina Castledine, 

Circuit National Manager

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.

This interview follows on from a residency by Alice Thickett, and an interview prior to this:


Residency (part I)

Residency (part II)


MC: We were reflecting on the commission, which you are responding to by visualising organisational change…have you kept it going alongside your main job, or is it something you are waiting to go back to?

AT: When I did it the first time, I was in the middle of getting the programme up and running, so it was a space to be away and think about it all. But now, after the festival, it feels like a year to prepare for Circuit’s legacy and I have the space and time to think about things here and now. It has come at a good point, to relook at the work, and within Nottingham Contemporary, so I would say it is alongside my main job.

MC: Our last interview ended on this. We talked about the importance of getting away from your work environment because otherwise you couldn’t find the mental space to create artwork; so a less heavy programme means you have the space here?

AT: Yes. And support from Kay, which I’ll go back to again. Because she is already talking about what we can do this year so that I am able to move on if I want to. We are finding ways, for example, for the group to facilitate themselves, so I can step back from that.

MC: Brilliant. And are you looking for any kind of facilitation as part of the commission? Because for both you and Sally, when you are in thick of it, getting out is important, as is being able to discuss your work with someone, so you have support to navigate through thinking. I often talk about someone else holding up the mirror so we can reflect. Or do you just want to get on with it now?

AT: There are parts I want to get on with, but I always like a discussion about things and if it was with someone beyond the context of Circuit that would be interesting.

MC: I will have a think who might be able to give you a different conversation.

Tell me about what you are hoping the end product might be? When we started, I felt it was important to not have an end piece of work as a requirement, but actually that is what it going to come out of it.

AT: I hope to put a resource box together for Sally, to pass the commission on. There will be a zine that I made in the residency and I’m working on the diagram that featured at the end of that zine, with the hope to make it more coherent. So there will be a print of that final diagram. Then I want to look at what I personally do in the programme, and make a piece of work out of my to-do-lists.

MC: And what would you hope for someone looking at the final piece of work?

AT: I’m hoping that I make a diagram that can be helpful. I’m not sure that’s what will come out of it, but I’ll try my best! It would be brilliant if it was used in archiving or nationally. That would be amazing.

MC: We are aiming for the pieces of work to be exhibited at the final celebration event; that’s the thinking at the moment. But I am conscious there are partners for whom this might be useful now. I wonder whether doing a sharing or some kind of event, that focuses on change – the processes and values behind that, the skills and characteristics you might need, external speakers – with your work as a starting point, is a good idea. Sally could use it to observe and absorb in her work as part of the hand-over. So for some, seeing your work at the end of the programme would be wonderful, but it would be more wonderful to see it now, because of where they are in their programme. And if we feed this into the development of the programme is a digital version needed?

AT: I think it has always been interesting that with Circuit, it involves learning on the job. And so feeding the work back in to the programme is interesting. It feels very much like a last year and we are talking about legacy; but to realize where other people are, is useful. Circuit started with a framework, which was based around conversations rather than the actual doing, and that has changed.

MC: Tell me more about that framework based around conversations!

AT: Ummm…

MC: Ok, so we are talking about final year and I am in my final two weeks. What might I take with me? Some say we should use words like ‘next steps’ and I love where that is coming from, but it is also powerful talking about ends when there needs to be an end to something, or a start of something else. We will both take our learning on. If you did this diagram in four years time in a different role, I imagine aspects of it at least would look different. Tell me what you thought at the beginning…

AT: I feel in such a calm place at the minute. I was so angry about everything at the start; now I am like, it’s cool, it’s working. I feel like I’ve got used it. Maybe I’ve been conditioned, I don’t know! I’m not sure whether Circuit could make up its mind at the start – was it experimenting, and aiming to be something else – or was it just, what it was. I don’t think it has ever made up its mind about how it wants to function as a programme, which can be dangerous because the funding is very real. It’s not like osmosis, you can’t move from one thing to another if the money is not there at the end of the project; funding is a very definite thing. I think it was an interesting way of doing things.

MC: Was that an uncomfortable place to be? And is that where some of the anger came from?

AT: I didn’t feel secure because I wasn’t sure people knew what they were talking about. But now, I’m calm because I know how it works and it’s ok that it’s a little bit flexible, we are very stable here and know what we are doing. So maybe it was needed, and that is what made the change happen here; when we were nervous about getting the aims done, or working the framework well enough, that was when a massive change happened in the second year. And it is what spurred the festival on as well.

MC: So you are talking about motivation to change and that is fascinating. Your artwork shows what happens as a result of change, but what motivates change to happen?

AT: I think ambition to do well and being put in a place where you are nervous.

MC: And the stability and support here is crucial, so that is not too overwhelming or uncomfortable? So change is a positive rather than negative thing.

AT: Yes.

MC: So if you were in a position where things were stable, everything was ok and there wasn’t the ambition of, say, a legacy year where you need to be thinking ahead, but you were just doing what you were doing – would that be a hard place to be making changes from?

AT: It’s a personality thing too, because I really love to start things and I am a bad finisher! But when you were talking about ends, I enjoy that too. I am the sort of person who goes, ‘no, stop, lets move on’. Because I want that new start I guess. So it depends who you are and if you like going along with things and need stability.

MC: It’s fascinating that the two people, you and Sally, who are doing the commission, like change. If you read Sally’s interview she talks about the need for change in a very personal way; relating that back to childhood and comfort. So you are both identifying something that actually likes change; you call it a new start, but that is another form of change. It’s brilliant that we are generating work out of that.

Sally mentions how useful the commission is, to provide an environment that makes change more comfortable. The sketchbook is providing her space at the moment, a form of stability. So you are both saying the same thing, but perhaps finding it in a different place and I wonder what the work is giving you? What good things you are getting from it?

AT: Funnily enough, I think the residency is a good example of what we were just talking about, because it was really comfortable and also really terrifying. I was on my own with this work, thinking about this national programme and I had never used diagrams in that way before. So I had to be a bit nervous to make something. But I had the stability of the place I was in and I was relaxed enough to make it.

Talking about this has made me think. Because I wouldn’t say I like change actually, because I am a nervous person. So for example, staff changes can really shake me up. But that makes sense, because for me the staff structure is the stability. So if that goes, then it is all a little bit chaotic. But if that support is fine, I‘m comfortable to be flexible.


MC: In the last interview, we talked about you wanting to do an MA in Visual communication. Is that still an ambition?

AT: Yes

MC: And have you learnt things about the process, or techniques, which have been helpful, or was it more about getting stuff down?

AT: I make notes and diagrams and it is very natural to do that. So going away was very different, which is why I want to go back to it. I was using processes that weren’t really logical. I might be doing myself a disservice! I was using words that I had taken from conversations but I was trying to make links naturally in an unnatural way. Does that make sense?

MC: Yes, you were being asked to do something which you do normally.

AT: Yes, so when I go back I hope to do it more naturally.

MC: I am also interested in what we produce visually which can be used or understood by someone else, without interpretation. And I love both. There was an immediate response to Sally’s diagrams that was self-contained. Nobody needed anything alongside them, people enjoyed that immediacy. But I also quite like the diagram, which Anna had made, which needed interpretation. It made total sense to Anna and there is some huge thinking in there, but it doesn’t make any sense without interpretation. I just wondered what your thoughts are?

AT: I don’t think it matters. I think you can overdo these things. You can overlook at words to the point that words have no meaning – what do you do then? So to make a diagram, put some words down, people can make of that what they will. People don’t have to understand it. If it makes sense to them, it does the job, if it doesn’t, that’s fine.

MC: Can you talk me through your diagram? What was some of the thinking behind it?

AT: What I mainly concluded- and I couldn’t decide if it was a really big breakthrough or just stating the obvious- was the link between the collective being a group of people and staff being a group of people. At the end of the day they are just two communities and they function in very similar ways. I can’t decide if I was trying to fit the idea into that box or if there was something in it. So I was making these comparisons and then I tried to make a diagram to represent each one. The headings I used were from previous work. So all the words relate to each other from the beginning. There are four diagrams under four headings, then I put them together into one diagram.


MC: And right in the middle, is community. Which is an interesting word. And it is not a word we often use in Circuit. Whereas partners, diversity, advocacy, are. How did that come about?

AT: I do remember it coming from somewhere. I’ve put here ‘community, the missing link’. It was obviously something that was in my head at the time.

MC: It is there at the beginning, middle and end of your zine. What communities do you think there are within the programme?

AT: I don’t know, you can take it different ways. There is the collective of young people, then young people as a wider community. There is the learning team, then the whole of Nottingham Contemporary staff team. I don’t think there is a national community. But maybe if I looked at that end diagram again, there might be clues as to how it could have worked, as a community, but didn’t.

MC: And I am checking that you are using community in an inherently positive sense?

AT: Yes. And I hate the word. You go through arts education and community art is such a taboo thing. I have hated it for a long time. I also don’t think it is that relevant anymore in cities; sometimes there is no sense of community or it is relative. So it is a bit of a dirty word I think, but I am not using it in that way. I’m using it to describe a group of people.

MC: I want to hear a bit more about young people. This sounds obvious when we are talking about young people’s programme, but when you and Nottingham Contemporary talk about Circuit you always put young people at the centre. And I pick up on that in all sorts of ways, but it really comes through in language and conversation. Which demonstrates to me that they are genuinely at the centre of what you are doing. Which is a hard thing to achieve when you are not working in a young people organsiation, when you are working in a gallery that has a different main agenda – young people can become part of that, but it is not the overall aim – hence it being a change programme. So where are they at the moment? And what might happen to that community post Circuit? What’s the legacy of a community?

AT: I’ve been thinking about that quite a lot. At the minute we are in limbo because we haven’t committed to future programme for young people to work on. The festival is a massive thing that brought them together for a year, so the fact they are still coming is brilliant. I expected a drop off and we haven’t had that.

MC: We have experienced that in some other galleries.

AT: It makes sense. They’ve got what they want out of it, why wouldn’t they want to move on? It is a bit of an issue for us at the moment, because they want to be here all the time and we can’t magic jobs up. Jobs have always been key for this group. And getting them to a position where they can leave is a big thing.

MC: I have spoken to Tate Liverpool about the same issue. They talk about it as a very painful process, something they have to navigate, because the young people don’t want to leave. Just because the funding ends or you reach 25, how do you force the relationship to end when it isn’t naturally going to do so? And what is our responsibility providing those opportunities? And again I think we need a wider conversation about a consequence of the success of the programme is such that we need young people to move on, so we can pool ideas and support.

AT: Definitely. We have two very different situations, but the moving on is still important. So we have young people who are arts educated who want employment. And young people from partnership groups who need something, not necessarily employment, but they don’t want to move on from the group. They are different situations but they both have a need. I have also been thinking about it a lot because I watched a documentary on Kids Company.

MC: Yes, I did too.

AT: And there was a woman supported past the time she should. And it is so dangerous. I am not saying I didn’t feel for her. And of course it is different because we are not that kind of company, but it is important people can move on and we give them ways to do so, otherwise you can end up in really difficult situations. That is where we are at at the minute.

MC: And you have the support here, but it would be great if we, as a programme, could be thinking about tools and resources we could put in place. I agree, I don’t think there is a national community, but there is a network through which staff support other staff. For me, that has always been a sign of success, when that happens organically, particularly when people are so busy. Because we will need to remove the scaffolding of support, however much that has worked or not, it won’t be me going ‘what about if we did an event to talk about that’; it needs to be self-generating. So there is a similarity in what we are saying about self-generating communities. And it is an incredibly hard thing to achieve, particularly when there is something very specific that has brought you together that is coming to an end. For some galleries, there won’t be anyone to support those young people when the funding finishes, so they are talking about the end. So what responsibility do we have as a programme? It would be useful to talk about at Board level.

Ok, we have gone from change to legacy and change. Is there anything else that has come up which you would like to chat about?

AT: I was going to say something about the group continuing and how I am trying to pull away. We are employing a young person to facilitate the group partly because she has gone past the age range and also because there was a need. It is a bit awkward because I can’t do that for everyone. I will have a more safeguarding and pastoral role at meetings, because we need that now. So we have written into our legacy plans for one paid person at least for those meetings because I am not convinced the collective could keep going without a paid person and something that I keep thinking about is, does it actually work having groups of young people in a collective in an institution? Because they need support and more support than if they were setting up or in a group themselves. So even though they have money here, they actually need more support in an institution and is that limiting?

MC: So to recap, you are thinking about how an institution is limiting? If young people set up their own group, outside of an institution, then they will find ways to eat, somewhere to meet and ways to support themselves: it will be self-generating. But because we are setting it up, it is less natural and because it’s in an organisation, then is that why they need support?

AT: Yes.

MC: Good question. There was a presentation at the engage conference that argued peer-led practice isn’t diverse, it creates an exclusive environment. She had many good points and Circuit has proved we are struggling and I agree we need more critical discussion. I find MOMA Teens very interesting; how they appear, certainly from the perspective of social media, to be a self-generating group. And I wonder if there are some lessons there.

AT: I feel like we are working with ‘on paper’ privileged young people who are the most unconfident people I have ever met. They have a range of anxiety issues and are unable to support themselves financially, but wouldn’t be seen as diverse. We aren’t getting the ones out of Uni who are totally confident and go off and do it themselves. We are getting this ‘middling ground’. And how do you support that when you are supposed to be diversifying the group and looking after those with ‘other’ issues?

MC: I think you have hit the nail on the head. Some partners are struggling but I don’t think we have surfaced it as an issue, therefore are not collectively looking at it yet. The categories we have to measure diversity are the same we use for ‘hard to reach’. And all those arguments aside, which have been going on for years in the arts, (I sometimes think we undermine ourselves – the youth sector don’t have an existential crisis talking about vulnerable young people, they know who they are and get on with it); anyway, they are not ticking those boxes but there are some very real needs. Therefore what do we do as a programme? And what does it say about society where there are young people who don’t tick any of those boxes and yet are in a very real and needy state. What role do we play as organisations? Until that is recognised as a need in society, the work won’t be valued and funded.

AT: Absolutely. I am so glad we are having this conversation. It is so apparent, so resource draining and you think: this programme isn’t for you, why am I doing this? But really it’s got to be for them because the need is so real! I keep thinking I want to go and work with vulnerable people outside of an arts organisation because it is so real but then I also think I want to be a lecturer. If I could get to them in education and build their confidence at that point, then maybe they wouldn’t leave University feeling like crap. Which is what I am seeing. How is that allowed to happen?

MC: And why do you think we are in that position?

AT: We build aspirations excessively high. There is a huge amount of pressure on people to perform and get jobs immediately. And there are so many young people, especially in the arts, who think there is a magic formula; to be in the in-crowd, to get a job…there is such pressure. And why is nobody having honest conversations? Because there is so much completion. Nobody wants to reveal it. Jobs are really limited. Why would you reveal there isn’t a magic formula and you just slipped into a job? There is no transparency at all. It is incredibly political.

MC: Maybe there is a hangover of a magic formula? Networking did used to work, it had real currency, but the reality is there just aren’t the jobs anymore. So it is not necessarily that there isn’t a magic formula, it’s that it doesn’t work now because of the government we are under. So you can have the magic formula and still not have a job. That is different. And the competitiveness is hard. I have often thought I would love to tell my story, partly because I struggle to be honest about it. There is a real vulnerability in saying, I don’t have a degree, I haven’t studied art at that level, I don’t have a formula. But working your butt off, in a way I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, reading extensively and building knowledge that way – my version of going on YouTube – so being self-taught. But that is less valued in careers and certainly not in the arts world. And most people don’t know that’s part of my story. Many of the skills I bring are based on relevant life experience, especially when working with vulnerable young people. I can’t talk about that in an interview. For some young people, early on in their careers, it would be really empowering to hear those stories. To say this was not my trajectory; you can look at me now and think certain things, but those are assumptions. I see someone like Hannah, who has to balance a very difficult line at Tate, because she does talk about where she has come from, in an appropriate way, but she has to be very conscious that it could put her in a box. And do we stop her therefore, or do we go, that’s amazing, we will not only enable you but learn from you too? We are talking about a privileged world at the end of the day.

AT: I have just written a careers presentation, which I am delivering to 40 students, and it is really harsh in some places, although I am trying to balance it, because I feel in two minds. I worked so hard; I volunteered seven days a week for years. I didn’t struggle, because I was supported, but I also wasn’t made and it didn’t come easy. I feel like telling young people, but that isn’t fair, because of the pressure they are already under. So half of this presentation is saying this is what I did, I worked hard and you should too, teamed with, don’t worry about it. Things will happen for you if you are there and doing something. You just have to keep going. That’s ok too.

MC: It feels we are close to some important issues. The ‘middling ground’. One of the things you identified was lack of confidence that can undermine everything else. You can have all the money in the world, the right networks, but if you don’t have confidence, you have nothing. And you can have none of that, but if you have confidence, you can probably still get somewhere. I wonder if we should look harder at that and what the programme is enabling. Is that the main thing we are working on? I know we all mention it and the evidence is there. But we aren’t going ‘hey the number one thing in society for young people now, is confidence.’

AT: Definitely. The presentation ended with ‘don’t forget your self worth’. And that is what the young people I am working with are lacking, self-worth. And it is so sad. We ran a project called ‘Look Up’ for people who had been unemployed for some time, working with artists to specifically build confidence, and we are thinking about doing something similar for the collective. I will share the results.

MC: Thank you.