Inside the Gallery Part 2: The Whitworth Young Contemporaries

In part two of her interview series, in which she talks to different people who work at the Whitworth about their roles and how they relate to our collection, Ruby talks to Sally Thelwell. Sally is the Youth Engagement Coordinator whose youth-led group, WYC, has been giving young people agency in the gallery for years.

Ruby: Hello Sally.

Sally Thelwell: Hello Ruby.

R: So, everyone in the gallery knows what you do and what WYC does, but for those who don’t know can you tell me a little bit about what your role is and how that fits into what the Whitworth is?

ST: So, I’m the Youth Engagement Coordinator and I work with young people between the ages of 16 and 24 and there’s a lot of different elements to the programme but the main element is the Whitworth Young Contemporaries. WYC is a group of people who meet, or met, weekly at the gallery and take part in projects and the idea of the group is that they get to know the gallery, the staff and the collections and they get a sense of ownership within the gallery.

It’s been running since around 2013, and I’ve worked with the group for seven or eight years, and Circuit was our first big project although there were earlier incarnations of the group. The name of the group comes from an old art competition for young emerging artists, of which David Hockney was one. And the idea is to give creative young people an outlet to be confident in a gallery space and we do loads of different projects. So, we’ve curated a festival in Whitworth Park (Warp Festival), we’ve done gallery takeovers and we co-curated an exhibition last year called Utopias. It’s just about finding young people opportunities, so since lockdown we’ve had quite a few sessions and we’ve been working with loads of different artists.

A key part of the programme is the emerging artists scheme, so we always have a strand where we employ a number of young artists each year to work with the group. So, the idea is that they’re a similar age and they’re at the very beginning of their career and they get the experience of working in a professional role within a gallery but they’re also supported and developed as artists and practitioners. Last year we had some lovely artists, Ruby-Anne and Annabelle, and when we started working online, they were running the sessions remotely.

So, when that ended, we started revolving our work around Black Lives Matter and started working on a zine to counter the narrative of the Utopias exhibition. So, when we were working on Utopias, we realised when we were curating it, there was a very singular, white narrative and we wanted to counter that. Obviously after going into lockdown we weren’t able to do that through public programming, so we decided to do that through a zine. I’ve been working with a small group over the last six months to create content and the zine is now published.

R: That sounds amazing, so the group’s still going despite all of the lockdown measures, that’s great, that’s really, really cool. Going back to the emerging artists scheme, what I find quite interesting is that they aren’t always visual artists; you’ve had MCs, poets and performance artists, as well as visual artists. So, in terms of what that brings to the group, what is the rationale of bringing on board artists whose work wouldn’t traditionally be exhibited in a gallery space?

ST: I think the idea is to be quite broad in what we classify as an ‘artist’, an artist isn’t just a painter or a sculptor, you can be a creative individual in music, or you can think creatively and be a scientist. I think as a team, as the learning team as a whole, we do try to bring that into our work and I think, in particular young people, what are art forms they particularly respond to? I think music is a key one, as well as poetry and spoken word, it speaks to young people in a different way than other generations. We try to employ just interesting people, who will bring a different perspective to the gallery and who will interpret the collections differently.

Over the years we’ve had poets, we had an MC, we’ve had sculptors and this year we have recruited some new artists to work with us and run some sessions online. And again, I’ve got a designer and maker who customises handbags or found objects with her unique designs and she’ll work with her client to bring them in, so she’s more of an entrepreneur in some ways so she’s going to be doing some sessions with WYC around brand identity and how you develop your brand and sell your stuff online. And there’s another artist I’m working with who works around augmented reality, so because we’re now working over Zoom, we’re looking at how we can work with digital artists and how can we do something we’ve never done before and offer young people something slightly different to the more traditional issue-based work in their weekly sessions. So, we’re really open and I hope that’s what makes the sessions really interesting.

R: So, a bit of background on us, I joined the Whitworth Young Contemporaries when I was around sixteen, and at that point it was during the year that the Whitworth wasn’t open and right now, the Whitworth is closed again, so I can’t help but feel that we’re in a similar time, in a way, in terms of the institution and WYC. And what I think is brilliant about WYC, is that despite the fact that it is the Whitworth Young Contemporaries, I don’t think that it has to rely on the gallery in terms of its physical space. The work we did before, during the refurbishment, was…it was ad hoc certainly, but was really inventive and experimental.

ST: Yeah, and we try to respond to what’s happening, with the Black Lives Matter movement, we started having conversations. And we had been doing some work around Utopias and what was missing, but we hadn’t planned to make a zine, and that came out of those conversations. So, I think quite often we’re quite like you said, ad hoc and reactionary because we want to be relevant at the time and respond to what’s happening

R: I think that’s always been the case, I remember going to training sessions ran by people from The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre and I think it has to be reactionary. Any youth group, and I hate the term ‘youth group’ because it’s kind of demeaning, but any sort of group like that you have to be responsive. Otherwise, what’s the point? You might as well go to any art group, but if you attend one that’s relevant then it has a point to it.

ST: Yeah.

R: So, there’s a real range of opportunities available to young people who join the group, both the artists in residence but also the people that just come along. You’ve done big festivals, Warp festival was probably the big, explosive sort of “we are here” event. But also, there’s been amazing opportunities to meet artists, you know, Steve McQueen, Cornelia Parker, you know all sorts of artists that as a young person in Manchester, you wouldn’t normally get access to. So, would you say it’s more than a youth group, and maybe more like training in a way?

ST: I would hope so, the people who come to us as artists are on a more formal platform, but I’d hope that the young people that come as a part of the group are getting quite a lot from it. I always hope this, and I don’t want to speak for them but, the thing is getting an opportunity to curate an exhibition, you know, to work with a curator up close to write your text and to have your opinions listened to, I think you don’t always get that in other places.

And I wouldn’t say that we do everything perfectly and sometimes we get things wrong, and maybe they don’t always have the autonomy that we want them to have, but I think you come into the group, as you know, and you don’t know the group and you don’t know the Whitworth, and you don’t know anyone, and then there might be something within the gallery that you can get involved with or there might be another opportunity that I get sent and share with the young people, and you’re just in a kind of network.

And also, you might meet some friends, you know we have a lot of people that become friends within the group, and they go off and do their own projects and collaborations. For me that’s what’s really nice, when you see that kind of progression where they’re leading on their own projects, they’ve got this confidence from working with the group but they’re doing it on their own and they’re using the skills they’ve learnt with us. So, yeah, that’s always a nice thing.

R: So, why did you join WYC, because at the beginning you were a facilitator weren’t you?

ST: Yeah, I was the assistant to Vicky (Clarke). I started off working in youth clubs and I did a Museums qualification, and I knew I wanted to work in galleries and I originally wanted to be a curator, but I realised I didn’t have the patience or the academic background needed for it. But what I really enjoyed was working in youth clubs, working in schools, and that was what I was good at; I just liked chatting to different people and hanging out. So, I applied for the assistant role, and then when Vicky moved on to other projects, I got the coordinator role. It’s been great, I’ve been here for seven years now, and we’ve gone through being a big shiny new programme to being more established in the gallery, who have been so supportive of the group.

R: Yeah, the Whitworth is a really good place for something like WYC, in the sense of- I think everyone in the different departments want to help develop the young people who go to the group. You know, I remember one time I asked a curator if I could shadow her for a day, and without hesitation she was like “yeah sure!”. And there is that kind of attitude towards people early on in their careers here, particularly now WYC is established and also since the reopening where we really flexed and made our mark. I think they see WYC as people they want to work with. I think it’s a really healthy, nurturing environment for young people to experience what it’s like to work in the arts. There is this attitude within the staff that, just because these people are young and inexperienced in working in the arts, it doesn’t mean that they have no value, they are still respected.

ST: Yeah, I think so. There was a lot of work done [before WYC] around how the Whitworth wants to be and who they want to work with and how they want to be a part of the community. And I think we’ve still got work to do around that, but I think the redevelopment was all about changing the physical space, but that was also about being more visible; having a Parkside entrance so that we’re not as intimidating and I think changing that physical space changed our mindsets as well as visitors’. And I think that change of the perception of what a gallery can be is continuing under Alistair Hudson’s directorship, as we’re giving over more spaces to constituent-lead exhibitions and events. We recognise that we want to be that kind of gallery, we don’t want to be a gallery that is just curator-lead, we want to work with the community and our environment and have good relationships with both.

R: So, the zine has just come out, do you have any other WYC projects on the go?

ST: We have this series of six workshops coming up, we’ve just employed three young artists to give workshops on augmented reality, brand-identity and looking at issues of today and how that connects to our collections. So yeah, some really varied sessions.

R: Well, WYC has a lot to look forward to over lockdown. Thank you for chatting with me and giving me your time.

ST: No problem love!

For more about the Whitworth’s work with young people: https://www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/learn/studentsandyoungpeople/youngpeople/

WYC Zine: https://civicengagementandeducation.wordpress.com/2021/01/27/other-utopia/

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