In a recent speech to a delegation of London teachers, our Chair Professor Maggie Atkinson, former Children’s Commissioner for England, talked about culture being ‘done unto’ young people – the idea that culture is all too often served up, pre-formed in whatever shape it exists, to young people who may or may not be receptive, and if they’re not then tough – that’s the offer folks!
At A New Direction, we have spent the last couple of years trying to understand the barriers that young people in London experience when engaging in the arts and culture, and to learn more about their experiences of cultural education through school or other learning settings.
We understand there are economic factors to engagement, geographic factors – a tension between inner and outer London in terms of concentration of quality provision, proximity and the willingness of cultural providers and organisations to move beyond their locations to communities of young people further afield. We also know about the ‘it’s not for me’ factor, imbued by either family or cultural emphasis on the importance of the arts and culture, the often alienating, unwelcoming vibes some organisations and institutions give off to young people, and importantly the notion that traditional art forms and practices that largely constitute the current cultural offer of the city might not map as closely as we thought, against what young Londoners see as the creative and cultural experiences that define their lives.
Through a piece of ethnographic research entitled My Culture, My London we have explored the cultural lives of young people in depth, and understand this gap to be a significant issue in how relevant young people see the cultural sector. The term ‘arts and culture’ simply doesn’t resonate with young people, and they don’t particularly connect with traditional art forms and institutions – however, they lead creative lives and have access to the digital tools that give them unprecedented opportunities to create, consume, innovate and grow communities with other young people with similar interests and skills.
So it can be said that those young people with the drive, confidence and tools to map their own creative paths can and are succeeding often despite of, not due to the creative and cultural offer that’s out there currently. It presents an interesting question – is the cultural education / youth offer fit for purpose? What needs to change to connect with this audience in a more meaningful way – a way in which young people can influence and shape the arts and culture as co-contributors, artists and leaders – as well as audiences or receivers being ‘done unto’.
Over the past year, the My Culture, My London research has taken on a new life, as an emerging campaign for creative young Londoners to unleash their creativity and do something that is very much theirs. We want to hand control back to young people, and in turn challenge the creative and cultural sector to question its relevancy and capacity to serve this savvy and creative generation.
We’re currently working alongside young people to develop the campaign, and will launch it in early 2016.