Around the UK, the National Saturday Club’s cultural partners afford Club members inspirational opportunities to experience diverse cultural spaces and activities. We invited some of our partners to share their views on why this access matters and what it means to their organisation. Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, Director of V&A East, opens the floor:
I grew up in a very untrendy London suburb, long before music conferred those neighbourhoods with any kind of coolness. It was a place that even in early childhood felt far away from everything. We lived on a street where the buses terminated. At first, I adored it, loved how everyone looked out for everyone else, but then slowly I began to begrudge the suffocating quiet and dislike that suburban tranquillity that sits in tension with the young.
I could not afford to travel. It was the arts that opened my mind – first books, then exposure to the success of my siblings, then good arts teachers and eventually art school. These things simply made me. Much of my experience was free at the point of access – schools, museums and arts education – and what came with it was a respect for publicly funded arts; a responsibility to give back; a sense of the important role of the arts in building successful societies.
One of the truly great pleasures of my role as Director of V&A East is spending time with young people. Shortly after I started in post, I rather rashly made a commitment to visit every secondary school in the four boroughs that surround our museum and collection centre – a mission designed to give me the chance to meet and to learn from young people in the 100-plus schools that encircle the Olympic Park in Stratford.
So far on this glorious odyssey, my biggest take-home lesson is that I am the main beneficiary of this schools’ tour. During every visit, I learn new things about this incredible generation of secondary-school students. They teach me about our history and our changing nation, and I am reminded of just how poorly we often serve them and yet how hopeful they remain despite the obstacles placed in their path. I am struck by how many beautifully equipped arts spaces in high-achieving schools are being shuttered because of a lack of resources; of how the visual arts are not regarded by many as core to a rounded education; of how communities are discouraging children from studying the arts for fear of how it will affect their future employability; of how the mental-health benefits of being exposed to the arts are not being shouted from the rooftops.
After each visit, I cycle away ever more determined that my institution will unstintingly put young people at the very centre of all that we do. We will address their needs; make them feel important and heard; reflect their interests and priorities in our exhibition and learning programmes; and aim to thrill, inspire and be useful to them. These are critical aspirations, yet they are also elusive, complex, subtle. The very notion of what culture is, is shifting, as the demands of the digital-first young change the way that culture is constituted and distributed, and how it connects us across geography and demography.
The creative industries are important to our economy and the arts are vital to our wellbeing. They are drivers of social cohesion: they build empathy and foster the kind of curiosity and understanding of others that is often sorely needed. My experience of meeting young people today is that they want the institutions they engage with to reflect current values, and to lead rather than follow in making critical changes in the areas of sustainability and diversity. They want to know that museums are interrogating collections and collecting ambitions to ensure that they reflect current concerns and principles – and ultimately that we are open propositions that embrace both iteration and change.
It is a huge gauntlet that Gen Z has thrown down to institutions like the V&A. We must see it as a great opportunity to shift our thinking and our ways of working, and to reflect the profoundly changing needs of society and young people. We must see it as a catalyst to re-engage with our sector’s founding aspirations of offering universal access to some of the world’s finest collections and deeply thoughtful curatorial narratives created for the broadest possible audiences.
We are hugely grateful to our collaborators across the UK who share the richness of their collections and deliver exciting workshops for Club members. We hear comments from a selection of partners about the importance of engaging with young people and what it means for their organisation.
“Creativity and culture can have transformative effects on a young person’s life. From visiting museums and watching live theatre to taking part in an art class, these experiences can encourage curiosity, spark imagination, and develop their empathy and understanding of others and the world around them. Arts Council England believes every child and young person, no matter their background, should have a chance to be creative and have access to a remarkable range of high-quality cultural experiences.EMMIE KELL, DIRECTOR, MUSEUMS & CULTURAL PROPERTY, ARTS COUNCIL ENGLAND
“We know that people want to see more of the Arts Council’s funding directed at widening these opportunities. We want to support cultural organisations, community partners and the public to come together to make creative experiences available for all children and young people. Through our work, we see first-hand that, for most young people, access to cultural opportunities outside of school and the home is too dependent on their social background. This must change. We see the success of the National Saturday Club as a critical part of the solution, to help ensure that all children and young people in this country can develop their creative potential.”
“Access to cultural experiences enables young people to find their own creative pathways and patterns. Physically, it allows their brains to make new neurological links and build new ways of thinking. Cultural experiences help young people move beyond the pushes and pulls of the digital age to generate an expanded sense of self. Personal resilience and mental health are live issues for young people today, and cultural experiences help build toolkits that can support them well into the future.LAURA SILLARS, MIMA DIRECTOR AND DEAN, SCHOOL OF ARTS & CREATIVE INDUSTRIES, TEESSIDE UNIVERSITY
“There is evidence to suggest that we don’t have a full sense of reflective, consequential thinking until we are over 25. Cultural and creative opportunities enable young people to speak and be listened to; they step into the shoes of another human being and imagine the world through their eyes. As well as building confidence, this can help shape a world in which a capacity for empathy enables tolerance and equity.
“We believe that art and creativity keep us all young at heart, and at Teesside University we want to be here for people throughout their creative lives. Whether a young person is seeking a safe space outside of their formal education in which to grow, or they are destined to become an artist, a film- maker, a designer or a media producer, we can offer them a platform for experimentation.”
“As budgets are squeezed, school trips and access to the arts get cut. Half of teachers surveyed by the Sutton Trust in Spring 2023 reported cancelling outings, with the most disadvantaged schools worst affected. If young people are not part of our great, and small, arts institutions, and do not have the tools, space and support to create and perform, everyone will miss out. Young people will lose the cultural capital that could transform their lives and the UK’s creative industries will lose their spark.
“The Clore Duffield Foundation is working with the National Saturday Club and exploring how we can partner with schools to help ensure artistic talent can be nurtured and supported wherever it exists, and that careers in the cultural sector are open to all. We also support Clore Learning Spaces in museums, galleries and theatres so that more children and young people can benefit from art, culture and heritage, and the inspiration, knowledge, joy and wellbeing they bring.”KATE BELLAMY, DIRECTOR, CLORE DUFFIELD FOUNDATION
“Every day we see the transformative effect of creativity on young people, which helps them to develop skills that will benefit many areas of their lives, such as their confidence, communication and self-esteem. With creativity crowded out of classrooms and our daily lives, it’s vital that we invest in cultural opportunities for young people. At the Roundhouse, this means providing a range of music, performing arts and broadcast projects alongside other creative initiatives, all underpinned by the brilliant youth work team in our iconic venue. We are delighted to be partnering with the National Saturday Club to run its new Performance&Theatre Club, which represents an important part of this mission.”MARCUS DAVEY, CEO AND ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, ROUNDHOUSE
“At the Science Museum Group, our mission is to inspire futures. We do this by adopting a ‘science capital’ approach, so that everything is designed to encourage people to feel more comfortable and confident with science, technology, engineering and maths. We recognise the vital importance of opening up opportunities for all young people so they can explore different cultural and scientific activities and find those that excite and inspire them. By working together with the National Saturday Club – introducing Club members to great career opportunities in our Technicians Gallery at the Science Museum, for example – we can reach out to even more young people and provide them with positive experiences that can help shape their futures.”SUSAN RAIKES, DIRECTOR OF LEARNING, SCIENCE MUSEUM GROUP
“Cultural experiences can have a profound impact on a young person’s perspective and view of the world. They can also encourage a greater self-confidence and willingness to express individual creativity. It is vital that cultural institutions of all shapes and forms are seen to be opening their doors to everyone, including those young people who feel they do not belong in certain spaces. If these perceived barriers are overcome, particularly at a young age, diverse cultural practices and a wealth of creative opportunities can be made available to as broad a community as possible.
“At Manchester Museum, we value and respect young people and are committed to making their voices heard by encouraging them to develop relevant content for museum programmes and supporting them within the museum and beyond. While enjoying a range of cultural experiences, young people tell us that they grow in confidence, widen their friendship group and feel a greater sense of belonging. Our partnership with the National Saturday Club will allow us to continue our work in showing how creative young people can be, how they can learn new skills and bring about real change.”ESME WARD, DIRECTOR, MANCHESTER MUSEUM
This article first appeared in the National Saturday Club’s 2022-23 Annual Review
Features edited by Rachael Moloney