What can I expect from Art School Plus training?
February 15, 2024

On the fourth floor of the incredible building at 130 Tyers Street in Vauxhall, London, I joined a group of artists as we gathered around a table, each of us approaching Art School Plus with a buzz of enthusiasm and intention to learn, develop, and connect.

Art School Plus training brought us together with a selective group of supportive and generous speakers, who shared specialist knowledge from their field of work within the context of the arts and artistic intervention in the public realm.

The training was activated through a mixture of presentations, discussions, and exercises led by these experienced professionals. We learnt from lawyers at BRIFFA, who shared essential information for protecting your art and intellectual property rights; a detailed presentation on the logistics of exhibition packing and transportation from packaging experts at MOMART; and explored unconventional curatorial approaches to public art through an academic essay with researcher and curator Viviana Checchia.

Art School Plus training provided a week of intense, open-ended, and meaningful exchanges between the artists and speakers.

Expanding perspectives

Naturally recurring themes of leadership, responsibility, collaboration, and engagement were explored and challenged throughout each session from a multitude of perspectives. Each speaker offered an insightful contribution to both the extraordinary impacts and often overwhelming complexities of what it means to be an artist navigating a creative practice within the public sphere.

Another key theme raised during our training was audiences. As an artist, learning from my audiences has always been invaluable to the progression of my artworks, concepts, and thinking. Viewer experience is especially pivotal to artists working in public spaces as variables such as location, access, community, and context will greatly shape the direction of an artwork and the format of artist’s engagement with their potential audiences.

In a panel discussion on commissioning in the public realm, speakers Angharad Palmer, Design Director at LandSec; Petra Roberts, Assistant Director for Culture, Heritage, and Libraries at Hackney Council; and Shauna Bradley, Partner at Howells Architects, presented their professional outlooks of working with artists through commissioned projects, demonstrating the importance of incorporating audience in the design, consultation, and instalment of an artwork. Engaging with local communities and international visitors is often at the forefront of public realm commissions and artistic intervention is an agent to activate it. Our conversations with the panel opened a space to share personal experiences and evaluate the current processes and responsibilities artists are met with when commissioned by organisations to create art with a lasting impact for an audience. We highlighted the importance of commissioning bodies inviting artists to contribute to projects from the early stages of its development to promote authentic and in-depth developments with people who will be impacted and will allow for a wider range of creative formats to be envisioned in public spaces.

Discussing the role art plays in activating viewer interaction became a catalyst for a more considered line of thinking about the relationships between artists and audiences.

This was echoed in a talk by Gary Butler, the Director of Butler Hegarty Architects, in which he tapped into the works of Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna and the modernist sculptor Sir Anthony Caro to expand upon the significance of art in its ability to connect audiences with history and heritage. Although there is much to uncover in the complex layers of both Mantegna and Caro’s artworks, Gary identified aspects of their work that demonstrated the power of narrative in creative practice as a generative process to position their audiences within the subjects and scenes in their work. In addition, Gary’s fascinating work and research into historic building techniques and the restoration of heritage sites alongside his passions for the interconnections between art, history, and mythology, laid the foundations for an insightful session of reflection surrounding art and audience. Throughout his presentation I considered how artistic intervention can shift the way we can learn and interpret the past, where art and fiction can intertwine to offer new perspectives of the historic world.

Art can be a tool to expand a viewer’s perspective on a subject. It can abstract and conceptualise information through a range of creative formats, enabling research and discourse from other disciplines, such as science, history, and archaeology to be more accessible in the public realm.

The term access is integral to the development of art. It opens an opportunity to consider how art itself can be made more accessible to our audience’s needs.

Elinor Hayes built upon the significance of this relationship in her session on navigating barriers and accessibility in the public realm. Elinor is a Creative Producer at Shape Arts, which is a disability-led arts organisation. Throughout Elinor’s training session, we were exposed to a range of key tools and methods that encouraged us to critically think about how accessibility can be integrated into creative decision making. We discussed and evaluated accessibility measures of public art and spaces by incorporating a variety of ways to experience and engage with content. Examples of these are sites with additional tactile displays; large format texts, braille, and audio descriptions; and considered seating arrangements to ensure wheelchair users can experience video installations from the intended viewing position instead of off to the side.

It is vital to consider accessibility from the outset of a project. Key learning from this session established that transparency with your audiences is of utmost importance.

Defining leadership

At the heart of Art School Plus training lies the word leadership.

Leadership can be an overwhelming concept. Harmful social hierarchies can misinterpret the term leadership. But what would it mean to redefine leadership in context to our work as artists?

To guide us in navigating this complex challenge, Dr Adele Patrick, Co-founder and Co-Director of Glasgow Women’s Library, activated a space for us to collectively and openly learn, reflect, and question what it can mean to be a leader and what we want our leaders to represent. Over several fruitful sessions with Adele, we explored how to attentively align ourselves with our core values and guiding principles. Through active listening and collaboration, we practised and developed a range of communication techniques, exploring the potentials of coaching and initiating constructive discussions with critical friends. By readily engaging and supporting one another we built an enriching toolkit of strategies and resources to take forward into our personal and professional lives.

By being open and curious, I have developed meaningful approaches to lead my practice with my core values at the centre of my decision-making.

Image depicting list of our guiding principles, created during a session with Dr Adele Patrick.

One of the main reflections we addressed during our discussions with Adele surrounded the importance of activating these techniques and strategies to leadership as we leave the nurturing space created at Art School Plus training and return to the multifaceted workload that comes with being an artist. As a solution to this, we shared experiences of our learning, establishing which aspects of the training we wanted to develop further. We thought through possible frameworks, setting up achievable short-term goals and inviting speculation for longer-term ambitions.

During our final day of training, myself, and some of the other artists began to form the core values that represent the Art School Plus 2023 cohort. After much deliberation, we decided upon:

Activating; Creating space; Commitment; Generous leading*

We chose to add an asterisk to generous leading as we continue to deconstruct and reconstruct what leading means to us. As it stands, the asterisk acts as a symbol of the ongoing thought processes. The notion of redefining preconceptions of a word is difficult and is therefore being approached with deep consideration.

New networks

The real value that came with challenging what it means to be an artist working in the public realm was generated by the pure enthusiasm of each artist’s commitment to the reflective and critical discussions exchanged in the training sessions. It was incredibly inspiring to listen and engage through shared experiences, where every artist could express openly, without fear of judgement, enabling a space to be vulnerable in your thoughts and speak with confidence.

The power of observation and active listening enabled me to learn a great deal from the comments and questions of my fellow artists. Throughout the training I had noted specific dialogues that resonated or that I felt had sparked me to think from a different perspective. Even now as I write this post, I find my thoughts are still circling around some of these conversations and I am sure our discussions will continue to have a lasting impact into the future.

There was an opportunity to meet some of the previous Art School Plus alumni. We gathered around the table that hosted such rich conversations from our training week, as it did for those from the year before. In turn, we shared more about ourselves, our practices, and experiences of Art School Plus. It was a wonderful way to close the week and collectively reflect on the values and challenges of pursuing a socially engaged art practice.

This space enabled us to talk through issues embedded in creative intervention in the public realm and recognise that although these issues cannot be solved instantaneously, we can leave with much clarity and an invaluable network of support knowing that we will each be striving to impact what it means to be an artist.

Thank you to the all the amazing speakers, and to the supporters of the programme. Special thanks to the director and founder of Art School Plus, Ella Snell, for activating this incredible opportunity.