Adrian Sinclair from partner Heads Together Productions looks at the ‘why, what, how and who for’ of training pathways for those wanting to pursue a career as participatory artists and reflects on the power of coaching in the UNION programme.
Artworks has always been an initiative aiming to strengthen practice in participatory settings. To do that it is imperative that we consider the training pathways for those wanting to pursue a career as participatory artists. How to do that is something that I’ve been thinking about over the last few years and it has been a privilege to develop both thinking and ideas amongst others committed to the sector.
It’s not just about how to do it (which I will come onto later) but also who for. One of the starting points for me was from a conversation with Hannah, a young woman I had been working with for a couple of years. My organisation, Heads Together Productions, has been working in East Leeds for 20 years now; it’s one of those urban areas that just don’t work for people, and I am talking about 150,000 people living in a series of decaying housing estates. Nurturing ambition with young people is key in our work and I’ve supported young people to enter all kinds of professions, even occasionally the arts. I asked Hannah what she wanted to do in the future and she responded in a flash ‘I’d quite like your job actually’. And whilst I was thinking – yes, I could kind of imagine you doing that, she’d already followed up with the key question: ‘How would I get it?’
The realisation that I had no idea what to suggest to her actually started us down a pathway that led to: UNION – the Northern school for creativity and activism.
Initially Hannah became one of a small team of researchers who, with a bit of PHF Artworks funding, did telephone research with a range of participatory arts organisations across Yorkshire and beyond. They spoke to senior staff in the different organisations, and asked that simple question: ‘What would I need to get a job with you?’
In a way it was good to realise I wasn’t the only one who struggled to give a succinct answer or a series of options. To paraphrase the research, the young people were told that they would have to be shit-hot at their chosen art form (and that might involve a university degree but it wasn’t necessary) and then they would need a bunch of other stuff, skills and competencies, and to get those? Well maybe they just needed to get stuck in and learn on the job, although, yes, they might have to do that as unpaid volunteers.
I still didn’t quite know what to advise Hannah, but she couldn’t wait around so decided to take herself off to do a community music degree in Sunderland. Not a bad option! But what about alternatives for those who didn’t want to enrol in a full-time university course? And what happens when those courses end? What about that ‘bunch of other stuff’ that still needed to be developed?
Over the years we had been working with an organisation called the Writing Squad. They aim to be ‘creating the next generation of writers in the north’. Steve Dearden, the programme director, likens the Writing Squad to a football academy, where people are all off doing their own things and come together for training and coaching from time to time.
And that was the inspiration for UNION. A football academy for those at the crossover between creativity and social change! We’ve taken on 20 emerging artists and activists from across the north. They will come together for five weekends during 2019 in five different places with differing themes (the first weekend happened in January in East Leeds…). It’s a blended programme with group work (the training weekends and online work) alongside mentoring, work placements and exchanges that are tailored to each individual participant. What holds it all together, and indeed what we talk about as being at the heart of the programme, is coaching.
We have a team of coaches trained by Relational Dynamics 1st up in Lancaster. As one of those coaches I can tell you it is a privilege to sit with someone and hold the space for them to talk, work out their goals and consider how they might get there. As one of the UNION participants said at the end of her first session… ‘I just don’t get the chance to think through my work like this.’ And then she added, ‘I suppose that’s the point really’. And she was right.
So I hope UNION is adding something to the training mix. But no one approach or programme is sufficient to nourish the diversity of artists and the potential ways of working within the sector. But what I have learnt from starting UNION is that lots of organisations are finding different ways to develop training opportunities which work for different people at various stages in their careers.
And we need to join those up and that’s where Artworks Alliance is key. To learn from each other. To create a narrative of the different offers. Not to reduce the diversity of the training being offered but to make sense of that diversity, not for us as providers but from the point of view of the potential trainees. So that if another young person in East Leeds comes to me and says ‘I want your job’, then I can sit down with her, do a little coaching and encourage her to discover the range of opportunities on offer and work out which one might be the perfect next step so she can enjoy the process of finding the right path, own it, set off on it and see where she ends up!
And that’s one of the ways we will strengthen practice in participatory settings.