Test, risk, change – Circuit Conference

Our conference last Friday to mark the formal end of the four-year Circuit project was one of the most energetic, urgent and exciting conferences I’ve attended. Crammed into a single day were the fruits, tensions and ongoing quests of this experimental programme to build voice and visibility of young people in galleries and museums.


By the way, even the term ‘young people’ has been disputed throughout, and remains unresolved. It was not going to be your average conference!


I ferociously scribbled the many things that struck me as true, insightful, perplexing or provoking. Here are the ones where I can still read my handwriting. Read the #sparkchange twitter feed for more voices.



  • This is not about Circuit but about the future of museums.
  • “I’ve always been a case number. I just came along to keep my social worker quiet. But here I’ve been treated as a person. I finally have roots and friendships that can last. I’m even on the Board of Trustees. Weird!” – Charlotte, YAK.
  • Professionals: in whose interests are you acting? Really? – We need to police ourselves to check we are acting in the interests of the people we say we are rather than in our own or the organisation’s interests.
  • Funders could talk first-hand to ‘target’ groups about what the groups want to change or explore, then let them go out and find partners, maybe art organisation, to help create it with them. Ie to fund the people they want to impact on rather than fund arts organisations to find ‘needy’ groups.
  • “Big data is the enemy of participation. It is the result of a good project, not a reason for it.”
  • Why do we still use the term ‘hard to reach’ about people? What about seeing the organisations as hard to reach?
  • Youth sector organisations should feel they can demand more from the arts sector. Go to them and ask, ‘This is what our challenges and ambitions are – what can you do for us and our young people?’
  • An event will resonate if it can say something not just about who the young person is, but who they would like to be. What does going to this event say about the kind of person you are? – especially if you can relay that on social media.
  • Late at Tate Britain events, programmed with Tate Collective London, have moved away from a knowledge-based intellectual approach to art and towards an emotional, experiential approach to presentation. “This is what will start democratising galleries”.
  • Whitworth Young Contemporaries’ Black History Month attracted a huge turnout, much bigger than expected. They concluded there was a need for that kind of space for debate.


  • Don’t get stymied about what definitions of diversity ‘count’. It’s about reflecting the contemporary population around you as a whole.
  • It’s not fair to label people and chase after them just to get money.
  • Organisations open their doors wide if they think certain people will meet their ‘target’ requirements, but if those people push back against how something is structured or as a project comes to an end, there is a subtle but confusing withdrawal of that welcome and support. Some young or vulnerable people may choose to withdraw from a project early, to protect themselves from pain.
  • Programmes and approaches need to be more tailored and attentive to the specifics of people and their needs and what they consider impacts on their identity – whether that’s gender, ethnicity, religion, abilities, interest or skills.



  • Honesty is vital: about who it’s for, who has power, what’s expected, what doesn’t work.
  • How do museums and galleries support young people, not just use and exploit them – young people (indeed all audiences targeted as a demographic or group) are quite aware of being invited in to meet the organisation’s funding tick-box.
  • When looking to work with youth sector organisations, there needs to be a mutual respect for each other’s practice and priorities.
  • Care, empathy, understanding, kindness, listening, welcoming, time, commitment, attention, affection = the ingredients to help people feel genuinely wanted.
  • Adjust your practice to the audience. If a group finds it hard to keep quiet for long, don’t run a session in a way that would be disturbed by noise. Not rockets science, but it takes properly getting to know the group first.
  • Everyone involved has to relinquish some control, but also have ownership. Open up channels for conversation to shape a project together.
  • Conversations between arts and youth organisations should be in normal language like you use down the pub.  No jargon and shorthand labels.
  • Is it cruel to give young people power and control over decisions within a project, when in the outside world or in work they have none of that power – indeed may have it deliberately taken from them due to the fact of being young?
  • Creating relevance isn’t the same as creating entertainment and fun. It aims for a deeper connection to people’s lives.
  • Use multi-disciplinary practices and music gigs by all means, but use the art as a catalyst. Even if stealthily. “Art forms have a responsibility to include each other” – Mike Baines, Whitworth Young Artist. Stats show that the mixture of art forms is a greater appeal than music alone.
  • There needs to be something familiar in the offer and the publicity about the event for people to latch on to – whether it’s the artist, the format, the theme or the type of art. A known format (eg from festivals) of a mixture of activities and social elements is the strongest hook.
  • Tate Collective London’s role has transitioned from a consultative ‘focus group’ one when they were invited to comment on ideas from the curators and other staff, to one where TC has the ideas and staff help them to realise them. It’s a better learning experience all round. “The professionals aren’t speaking to them or for them but with them”. But it takes effort to “rip open the omnipotent institutional voice to create ‘outside’ spaces in the gallery to let other voices in”.
  • So much fluidity is happening around mixing up art forms. Galleries shouldn’t get so hung up on whether it’s right to bring music into the gallery.
  • What works:
    • A diverse staff creates a diverse audience.
    • Build resonance and relevance to audiences
    • Interdisciplinary approaches to programme.


Where next?

  • How much has Circuit been about projects? And how much about longer-term organisational and sectoral change? Much of the learning had seems to have been about project behaviours. How can it be used to influence bigger change?
    • give up ownership. Don’t consider ‘what’s in it for us’ but ‘what’s in it for everyone?’
    • projects need to be developed together from the start, so no one side’s agenda takes precedence. There needs to be plenty of time allowed for this getting to know each other’s needs to happen. Both things will need a shift in approach and emphasis from funders.
    • are our targets and incentives different? We’re both in the aim of social justice and human flourishing. Aren’t we?
  • There’s a difference in how galleries treat an artist who is installing work, and a young musician or other practitioner playing a gig.
  • Galleries shouldn’t exploit the gig economy from which young people suffer too much already – through a culture of volunteerism, internships, zero hours contracts. That should be applied not just to their ‘youth group’ engagements but to all roles where younger workers might be employed, eg in the café or as gallery assistants.
  • “We shouldn’t be talking about getting young people into the galleries but getting just people in who don’t normally come.” – TC London member. “It’s best to get all ages in a room together. We should be seen as just part of the staff.” “Bring in all generations and make it a real community and a real representation of your community”.
  • We need to formalise informal approaches – ie get them embedded in our practice.
  • We need to professionalise the skills and responses of young people, youth sector workers and gallery staff.
  • We need to influence cultural policy, youth policy and society at large with what we’ve learned.
  • We need to build advocates in our organisations.
  • We (young people and staff) need to learn to be social agents.
  • We need to provide places for young people to hang out and talk to each other.
  • “As young people, some day we’re going to take over from you!” So why not take a young person under your wing – in your professional and your personal life – and teach and guide them. At least you’ll know that when you’re old, you’ll be leaving things in safe hands!
  • “Circuit should disappear and become the norm – people should expect that kind of great programming.” Move away from a project time-frame to forever.


Summary (Anna Cutler):


  • The importance of the architecture and the space on the experience
  • The impact of the architecture of our behaviours and language
  • Where is the trace of the event left in the space?
  • Make the social space apparent
  • Is it a space for everyone or for everyone to have a space?
  • Is it a mutual space? No-one wants to be someone else’s sideshow
  • Who has to come where?


  • Little time
  • Have to give lots of time to this kind of practice
  • Take time to save time in future
  • Move away from the project time-frame to the forever


  • The group vs the individual experience – Circuit has been weighted towards the group, though we want individuals to flourish
  • Interdisciplinary approaches work
  • The change in the room is as important as an organisation’s change
  • We wanted a radical and critical edge but this has been largely absent. Perhaps we’ve now reached the tipping point where it can happen?
  • Who is creating the content?
  • Criticism is the way we learn and is a signal of trust


  • Peer-led practice is not necessarily democratic
  • What do we mean by democracy?
  • We need to be transparent and completely clear about that can and can’t be achieved
  • There has to be honesty and trust
  • Free labour by young people versus their need or opportunities for paid work – we need to reflect seriously on this for future models
  • Be human, kind, attentive and affectionate
  • The importance of listening, practicing it, the skill of it. Everyone has a voice but is anyone listening?