A look back at Creativity & Life Chances – Artswork’s 2017 Conference
Date Created: 31st Jan 2018
In November 2017, Artswork hosted its Creativity & Life Chances conference at Euston’s Wellcome Collection. Following this, delegates, staff and special guests gathered to celebrate a milestone in Artswork’s history: its 30th birthday. Both the conference and the after-event presented great opportunities for people to expand their understanding of arts and culture and its benefits to the wellbeing of the under-25s, as they develop and grow into adulthood.
This year, we had three brilliant young people acting as comperes for the conference – all from Bitterne Park School in Hampshire. The day began with an opening keynote from performance poet, Kat Francois. Much more than a poet, Francois can also add playwright, director, actor, comedian, workshop facilitator, and personal trainer to her list of talents. Having performed globally from Norway to Trinidad and beyond, it was an honour to have her open our Creativity & Life Chances conference.
Kat’s background saw her growing up on a council estate in Kent, and she has since used her own experience of the way arts and culture transformed her young life to build up others, encouraging young people’s passion for creative pursuits across the globe. As a facilitator, she has worked directly with young people for many years.
Francois made clear her stance on creative expression from the get-go: “Being a performer, I won’t really be standing behind this lectern. It just feels a bit, you know, oppressive.” She spoke of the importance of arts and culture, not just for the privileged few, but for everyone. “Art is not to be laughed at. It is not to be sniffed at. It should be accessible to all, not only to those who can afford it. It should not be elitist, it should not be a locked door, it should not be a glass ceiling. It should not be a DO NOT ENTER sign.”
She talked of her own life candidly, touching on her childhood passions that ranged from reading and libraries, to dance, to drama, and back again, explaining that “dance was my true, real, first great love. Any reason to move, I moved.” What’s more, Francois unquestionably cites the importance of encouragement from her school as crucial to her becoming the person she is today: “I didn’t get to go to many dance classes; money was tight…but luckily my secondary school had a fantastic dance department and soon, I was holding classes for the younger girls during lunchtimes.” She went on to express how much of an impact that encouragement had on her growing up: “I think back to my old dance teacher and how much faith she had in me, how she refused to write me off when so many other teachers did, who knew dance and sport was a way for me to let go of all that pent-up energy”.
‘Dance was soothing, quiet, expressive; a way to connect with my body, a body that always seemed to be doing the wrong thing. It was meditative, emotional. What my mouth could not say, my limbs, my eyes, my face would. It calmed, focused, inspired, connected me to others, as well as being a welcome solo experience.’ (Kat Francois)
In one of the most hard-hitting moments of her keynote, Kat addressed several of the ‘fates’ other young people on her estate had met, including drug addiction, spells in prison, and even suicide. She wanted to make it clear to all listening how easy it is to fall through the cracks as a young person, particularly if you come from a background or environment considered as ‘disadvantaged’. What really hit home was the sentiment she so strongly stands by: arts and culture saved her life. Her passions for storytelling, for dance, for drama, for poetry, changed her life in countless ways – always for the better.
With all of this as powerful food for thought, delegates split off into workshops for the rest of the morning. This year, we programmed four sessions to run twice during the day (in the morning and afternoon) so that people might have a greater chance of being able to attend something their first choice clashed with later in the day.
Sessions were run by a range of arts and cultural practitioners, including Dr Ronda Gowland-Pryde of the John Hansard Gallery, alongside young people themselves – ART31’s youth board, and the Beano’s youngest ever artist, cartoonist Zoom Rockman. Zoom created a special zine about the event – you can read it here
The afternoon saw more speakers take to the podium – including Arts Council England’s Darren Henley (listen to his speech here, or read the full transcript here), and our very own Founding Chair Sir Ken Robinson beamed in via live video link from L.A. to talk about how we must continuing fighting the good fight for great arts and culture for the under 25s (and indeed beyond into adulthood), the world over. He explained that education organisations including schools and “certainly governments” have for a very long time not recognised the urgency with which “the arts shouldn’t be seen as some exotic addenda to education”. Rather, he said, they should be seen as “fundamental to the very purposes for which education is conceived”.
Robinson encouraged delegates to keep striving for equal and fair access to arts and culture, and for a more joined-up, creative way of seeing education: “If you’re feeling frustrated, this isn’t a new feeling. For a very long time people have been campaigning to try and get the arts further up the social agenda, further up the agenda for education…to try and forge a closer relationship between education and cultural organisations.”
“The origins and challenges that gave rise to Artswork had deep roots in issues within education, in the arts, in social policy, and the challenges are still there, that’s the point, and they’re going to be there for a good while longer yet.” (Sir Ken Robinson)
He went on to remind everyone in the room: “What you are doing is deeply important. It has been important, it continues to be important…don’t give up on it, because along the way brilliant work has been done – thousands and thousands of young people’s lives have been affected, have been changed. Not just through Artswork but through all the agencies that Artswork connects with. And what you’re doing is not unique to Britain, it certainly isn’t unique to England; we’re dealing with challenges here that are important and current across the whole planet.”
In a sentiment befitting of the conference as a whole, Sir Ken finished his speech by saying the following:
“The need for powerful arts programmes has not depleted. The need to transform our education system is as urgent, if not more so, than it ever was.” (Sir Ken Robinson)
The conference drew to a close with a performance from the wonderfully uplifting Lizzie Emeh, “the first learning disabled solo musician to release an album” (The Guardian), and Bangra group Four by Four led everyone into Artswork’s 30th birthday celebrations via a raucous procession from the auditorium.
Thank you to all who could join us for this inspiring event, and we hope to see familiar faces at our next conference too. If you would like to see what others said about the day, you can take a look at our Storify of the event here!