This week saw the first ever Birmingham Youth Arts Summit take place at the Birmingham Hippodrome, after feedback from the Birmingham Arts and Culture Summit suggested that young people were being underrepresented.
The BYAS is an all-day celebration of creativity, designed to reach out to children and young adults passionate about the arts. During the daytime, primary and secondary school groups watched performances and took part in discussions and activities. Then, in the evening, young people aged 16-19 (or up to 25 for disabled people) were invited to share the views on the local arts scene and the issues facing those currently trying to break into arts industries as part of The Big Debate.
The debate was peppered with performance pieces by local artists, including music from Call Me Unique, dancing from RDC Youth and performance poetry and storytelling from Polarbear and Laura Dedicoat. After playing us some music, singer/songwriter Call Me Unique gave a short speech in which she raised an important point about the relative lack of support and opportunities for artists in the midlands, forcing many people to leave the area and head for places with more thriving cultural hubs like London and Manchester. However, rather than following suit, Call Me Unique spoke about how she had decided to stay and try to carve out a career for herself in Birmingham, hopefully encouraging others to do so in the process.
Following this, the Big Debate itself kicked off, with attendees being given two themes or ideas to discuss in groups around their tables. Afterwards, each group fed back to everyone else with their thoughts.
The first prompt we were given – “Make it inspiring and they will come” was fairly vague, and so sparked some quite broad discussions, not only about what prompts young people to get involved in arts and culture, but also about what we understand by “inspiring” and what kinds of inspiration the arts can offer. Below are some of the ideas that emerged from this discussion:
- Costs for attending arts events and courses can often be prohibitive, especially to young people who earn little.
- There is a need to properly nurture new talent – there’s not much support for people in between leaving full time education and making it big.
- There’s a need to reach out to young people more in schools and in particular areas. They are often unwilling to step out of their comfort zones, so a supportive environment in which they are encouraged to participate in arts activities is important. Teachers and youth workers need to work to help dispel prejudices about certain kinds of art. This should be started as young as possible!
- Arts organisations should use young people themselves to communicate to other young people, since they’ll be better equipped to encourage their peers and to tackle the issues that others like them will be facing.
- It would be great to have a kind of social arts hub where young people can meet, collaborate and share ideas.
- There’s a general lack of awareness of already-existing arts events and groups. Quite often, you have to already be involved in something to know what’s going on with it, so there needs to be more work put into how things are publicised and promoted. The publicity for an event needs to be inspiring before the event itself can be so.
- It’s important not to focus only on young people, but to engage the rest of the community and gather their support – however passionate a child or teenager is, it’s difficult for them to get involved with something that their parents, carers and other adults around them don’t feel is worthwhile. If we can inspire adults, it will be easier for them to inspire children.
- There needs to be a particular effort focused on working with young people with disabilities, who often find it difficult to get out and get involved with things without help.
The second topic of discussion – “Young people already have all the need to enjoy a fulfilling creative life beyond education“, was a little more focused and more contentious. Some of the problems this statement highlighted were similar to those which cropped up in the first conversation, but in addition, it allowed us to explore issues relating to education and the arts specifically:
- Costs associated with training and events cropped up again. As well as the costs of training and networking, certain arts careers will involve buying or hiring expensive materials, equipment or venues, and there is little financial support available for setting yourself up in this way.
- Again, the role played by parents, family, teachers and the community in shaping young people’s lives is important: it’s difficult for someone to choose to follow an arts-based career if it’s not seen as worthwhile by the adults around them. Education professionals in particular ought to have a greater awareness of career options available for those interested in the arts so that they are better able to advise their students.
- Young people often find it very difficult to be taken seriously professionally, and tend to be offered endless amounts of casual voluntary or poorly paid work that doesn’t necessarily lead to anything better: these days, young people are often less able to work for free than anyone else, since rents are so high and most of them are burdened with masses of student debt.
- Creative jobs are often not available locally, forcing people to leave the area and thus making it more difficult for them to rely on support from family and friends.
- Funding for arts and culture is constantly being cut, forcing local groups that often provide all-important support networks and initial training to close down.
- Youth and community groups are often not taken particularly seriously by professionals, resulting in many dispassionate group leaders not providing good quality service and thus stunting growth and development. There is a need to professionalise the local, to some extent.
- It would be helpful to foster partnerships between small, local groups and larger organisations to allow young people access to professional advice and better facilities. It would probably be better to have more emphasis on making services, rather than money, more accessible.
- Often the best way to break into the arts-industry is through an apprenticeship, but many school-leavers are not aware of this, and go on to do degrees, which precludes them from these schemes.
- There ought to be more accountability for arts funding so we can trace where it is going and what it’s being used for. Many of the projects which are initially set up and funded are ultimately unsustainable, so we should have better ways of keeping track of what works and what doesn’t, to avoid wasting limited funds.
- There is also a problem with young people themselves not being particularly entrepreneurial: business and creative skills are often seen as mutually exclusive, but to be successful in the arts, one needs a mixture of both. There are ways of doing things cheaply and promoting your own work is now easier than ever. Perhaps better training in business and the art of self-promotion would be helpful for many people.
After this group discussion, a speech was given by two members of the Youth Arts Summit Steering Group, which explored the ways in which the movement towards greater openness and accessibility had already begun, with local groups of young people setting up themselves, putting on shows in pubs and small venues; with digital media making it easier to contact and organise things with other people; and with the shift away from traditional formalities in the world of industry – it’s often not really necessary to appear sleek and professional in the same way as it used to be, with honesty and transparency becoming more valued. Their final and perhaps most important message was that we should use the arts to “be together“.
The evening ended with a panel discussion and Q&A session with a range of creative professionals and local politicians. The thought with which panel members were initially presented was to imagine that “Arts and culture have been banned and made illegal. What is missing from life? Would you let it happen? How would you make your feelings known?” Below are some of the panelists’ responses:
- Val Birchall (Assistant Director, Culture & Visitor Economy, Birmingham City Council) thought that we would lose what binds us together. She also put forward that nowadays, young people are listened to a lot more than they have been in the past: they have power and they should use it.
- Sally Taylor (Service Director, Children’s Services, Education & Commissioning) said that we would have lost the things that inspire people to make big changes in their lives. For her, this is the most powerful and significant achievement of art.
- Anisa Haghdadi (Beatfreeks & Youth Arts Summit Steering Group Member) said that art helps to shape our identities. For young people particularly, art is a way of making sense of the world, growing up and understanding things better. Being involved in the arts can be empowering, helping young people to feel like valued members of a community.
- Barry Bowles (Labour Councillor for Hall Green and Education & Vulnerable Children Overview & Scrutiny Committee Member, Birmingham City Council) said that we would lose signposting in our lives, and talked about how artwork can be evocative of particular times, places and events, acting as memory aids and meaning something different and personal to every individual that engages with it. He also talked about how art is particularly inspiring for young people.
Next, a member of the audience quoted Oscar Wilde for a question about the practical value of art: “‘All art is useless.’ What specific uses have you found for art?”
- Richard Burden (Labour MP for Northfield) told a story about how, after a manufacturing plant had closed down in Longbridge, art had been used to help people move on, coming together to share their problems and help each other to get through the difficult time. He also said that this was something that could be applied more generally, echoing the closing “come together” statement of the earlier speech.
A second question related to arts organisations falling out of touch. An audience member asked panelists “If you thought that your organisation wasn’t doing well or servicing the public properly, would you consider giving up your job to someone younger?”
- Richard Burden said that he would hope to do this eventually, but that he had no plans to go anywhere just yet!
- Richard Hayhow (Director, Open Theatre Company) said that the issue was not about people giving up their jobs, but more about creating more new jobs for young people.
Other ideas that came up during the discussion were that we should have more young people in civic roles, taking a stand and acting as leaders. This was put forward by Anisa Haghdadi, who went on to insist that we must keep fighting for what we believe in, even when it seems like no one is listening, because if enough people say the same thing loudly enough, eventually someone will take notice. Sally Taylor questioned why arts venues didn’t always follow suit with sports events in selling off leftover tickets cheaply or giving them away for free when they didn’t seem to be selling – there always seem to be more empty seats in theatres than in football stadiums.
Finally, a young disabled member of the audience asked Val Birchall what her plans were to help young people with disabilities, to which she responded that she intended to make it more of a funding priority.
Our final thought from the day was from one of the event organisers, who said that earlier in the day, an eloquent ten-year-old girl had asked the poignant question, “Without the arts, how will we live our dreams?”
Overall, I thought that the event threw up some interesting points, including some that I hadn’t previously considered. However, I did feel that the debate would have benefitted very much from more time and structure for the group discussion to ensure that everyone got chance to say what they thought, particularly those who are naturally shy or quiet and less likely to get a word in edgeways when everyone around them has opinions to express. This is especially important when older and younger people are in conversation together, as some teenagers may not feel that their thoughts are as valid as those of the professionals. As this is the first time an event of this kind has been held of course, there are plenty of opportunities for improving things in the future, and it’s great to see that so many people feel passionately about the same issues and want to work together to make changes happen. I look forward to seeing if and how any of the points raised will be put into practice.