Whitechapel, London, houses our scene today.
The Whitechapel Gallery is a sweet home to art and ideas from different backgrounds and perspectives. It sleeps in a building born in 1901, where it spends its days welcoming artists who have a passion for their work.
From exhibiting Pablo Picasso’s Guernica in 1938, to This is Tomorrow in 1956, the gallery today does not just hold exhibitions. They host participatory art experiences for families, schools, communities, and youths.
The Youth Programmes at the Whitechapel Gallery holds space for young people to venture into contemporary art and explore different artistic approaches. It allows for friendships to be made over similar interests and for young people to meet and collaborate with artists - all of whom share secrets and insights into pathways in the creative sector.
Amelia Oakley, curator of the Youth Programmes at Whitechapel, says,
“Through our programmes, we want young people to feel able to experiment and discover new things they might wish to explore further, to find their own creative and critical voice, and most of all to enjoy themselves.”
The programme comes in different elements: the longstanding youth collective Duchamp & Sons; free artist-led workshops and week-long programmes exploring creative skills and pathways, social Young Creatives Nights for early career creatives, and a new Young Writer in Residence opportunity.
As part of Duchamp & Sons, young people aged 15-24 collaborate with one another and with guest contemporary artists to create new artworks, curate exhibitions, and plan events. During term time, the group meets regularly on Wednesday evenings and works on two projects per year. Their regular sessions allow them to discuss ideas and experiment with different materials and concepts, as well as have snack time and plenty of conversation. The guest artist will contribute to the sessions by introducing concepts and talking about their own artistic work, but the collective's opinions will determine the direction of each endeavor. Notable undertakings include Escape the Slick, an exhibition/immersive environment developed by the group at a gallery after delving into “public space” with artist and Duchamp & Sons alumni Gaby Sahhar; Mapping the Studio, a one-day event that opened up access to D&S's studio; and Fire in My Belly, a new film made with Ayo Akingbade.
When asked why such programs are important, Amelia responded;
“Having youth programmes within galleries or similar organisations means that young people can explore their creativity in new, different environments, and meet peers that they might not cross paths with otherwise. Government cuts and recent curriculum changes have put a huge amount of pressure on arts provision within schools, meaning access to the creative arts can vary hugely for students, and so youth programmes like ours can offer another access point to visual arts.
As our programmes involve direct collaboration between our young people, contemporary artists and creative professionals working today, they create space for participants to understand more about what a future in the creative sector for them could look like personally, which can be a hugely beneficial experience. Youth programmes are also hugely important for initiating change within arts organisations. Traditionally, arts and cultural institutions have often been hostile spaces to certain audiences, young people included, but the existence of youth programming and wider education programming does a lot of work to challenge and disrupt the existing power structures at the root of this hostility. Youth programmes which ensure there is real space for the young people involved to take creative control, share their critical voice, and experiment freely, lead to more exciting institutions.”
Having space to explore something that a young person enjoys is a space they may not have. Some young people may feel that their lives are rushed to always make a decision and that having a space to just investigate in their own time is not an option to them.
Amelia explains why she supports young people:
“Supporting young people is at the absolute heart of my work. Your teenage years, and early adulthood, are such a formative time in your life, and everyone should get the space and resources to explore their interests and creativity during this period and beyond. I want young people to feel empowered and equipped to pursue a future in the creative world if that’s what they want, but youth programming isn’t and shouldn’t be a case of just funnelling people into creative careers. It should be about ensuring everyone can connect to their creativity and have a voice in culture and wider society.”
This was important for Amelia, as when she was younger, she wasn’t aware of many youth programmes.
“I grew up in Enfield which doesn’t have many arts or cultural organisations in the local area, so I wasn’t aware of opportunities in my immediate surroundings. I was lucky however that an art teacher recommended me for a widening-participation programme run by UAL which I took part in, and gave me a glimpse into what a future studying art could look like. As a youth programme Curator, Teachers are our greatest allies – they are so vital to sign-posting young people to opportunities, whether that’s getting involved in a programme like ours, considering higher education, or other pathways beyond school.”
Many youths of today may still not be aware of the opportunities around them to explore their interests in a safe environment surrounded by people who would help them and with their peers in the same situation. This is why programmes such as the one in the Whitechapel are even more vital.