Youth, Change and Honesty

Test Risk Change, the conference marking the end of Circuit took place at Nottingham Contemporary on the 10th March and saw youth practitioners, gallery staff and young people coming together to disseminate the enormous amount of learning that happened in the last four years. Below is my provocation to the audience, inviting everybody to think about how young people can be agents for change within the cultural sector and how art galleries can facilitate and support this change.

I would like to very briefly introduce myself – I am Raluca and I work as a Circuit Assistant (now Youth Programmer)  here at Nottingham Contemporary. I have been involved with  Circuit from fairly early days (2014) but initially not as a member of staff, but rather as a young person – to be more precise I was part of Collabor8 Collective, which is Nottingham Contemporary’s young people’s steering group. Being part of Collabor-8 Collective and Circuit  gave me a real sense of purpose and belonging, which I found difficult to find elsewhere at the time, especially as a young person who has just finished university and wanted to work in the art sector, but the opportunities were very little and the support limited. What really struck me about Circuit was the focus on ownership and it’s aim to give young people a voice- but not any voice-  their voice, unfiltered, raw and authentic.

I started working professionally on Circuit about 6 months ago and I really valued the opportunity to be part of a programme that gave me so much. Becoming a member of staff has really opened  my eyes to the challenges of  delivering a youth programme that is responsive, ambitious and meaningful, but at the same time open and accessible to young people from diverse backgrounds. Diversity is something that we talk about a lot in the art world, to the point that it  sometimes becomes this abstract concept that we really struggle to make sense of. Diversity is about acknowledging that everyone is different, respecting the value these differences bring to everyone’s life and ensuring everybody can access the same opportunities. So, for cultural organisations to have their  practice informed by diversity is not progressive, nor it is ambitious, it is simply fair. It is how things should be – it is a representation of us as a society.  One of Circuit’s biggest achievements, for me, has been the fact that it bought such an influx of new, pertinent and interesting voices into the cultural sector in order to inform not only how youth projects are run, but also how art institutions can better represent diverse communities and diverse voices within their practice.

This is a start of a really important conversation and I would like to invite you to continue this conversation in your discussions today. Just a few questions to spark ideas:  On a practical level, how can we ensure the partnerships between the youth and cultural sector  continue post Circuit? How can cultural institutions make sure their work is always informed by a diverse youth voice. And ultimately, how does this diverse youth voice look like?

Now, except for my job here I work for a social enterprise called Communities Inc,  where I spend a lot of time looking at government policy and one thing that has become very obvious to me lately is that the youth and the youth sector are becoming a very topical subject for politicians. For example, a lot of the government’s  post Brexit hate crime policy is centred around young people and involving them in tackling inequalities. I think this is fantastic because we need this momentum and conversations to happen at the highest levels to move things forward. However, is it fair to put this amount of pressure on young people to be agents for change? What skills are they equipped with to tackle these inequalities?  We live in turbulent times, socially and politically, and within this context the younger generation are expected to be activists, to be forward thinking and have all the answers.

So my provocation for you is to use today as an opportunity to think about what role art institutions can play in supporting young people to rise up to these challenging times and discuss how the cultural sector needs to change to stay relevant for diverse young people. To take this one step further: Is institutional change even achievable taking into consideration the complex structure of art galleries and the uncertain nature of funding? Those are all very big questions that I am sure a lot of you have asked for years and I don’t think any of us expect to have the answers today-  however today is a great opportunity to talk about these topics in a honest and open fashion.

For the team here at Nottingham Contemporary, honesty is something that has been at the core of Circuit since the beginning and has been a multi faceted value that helped shape our work . When working with young people , being honest and transparent is crucial in forming sustainable and fruitful relationships. Drawing from this, I think one of Circuit’s greatest achievements is empowering youth practitioners to look at their practice and, when needed, to have to courage to say: This hasn’t worked, let’s change it up. I consider that the realisation that we can be open and we don’t have to pretend things always go right is huge and so meaningful.

To sum things, yes,  honesty  is important on an individual level and as a sector, but honesty is also vital today. I think we have all been to events before where people hesitate to challenge or voice their real opinions and that is not what today should about. Today is about honest conversations and it’s about looking inwards and outwards to really grasp the progress that has been made and all the hard work that has gone into Circuit, but also make a commitment to working together post Circuit, as this collaboration between sectors can be a catalyst for change.

So I would like to invite all of you to be open, not too politically correct and make your voices heard.