Inside the Gallery Part 4: The Cultural Park Keeper

Francine Hayfron is the Whitworth’s Cultural Park Keeper and has been awarded by the University of Manchester for her outstanding contribution to public and community engagement. She sits with Ruby now as a part of her interview series, Inside the Gallery, which uncovers the amazing work that happens at the Whitworth and the fantastic individuals who make it. Today we talked about what it’s like to work in a newly developed role, representation and working with artist Ibrahim Mahama.

Ruby: Hello Francine.

Francine Hayfron: Hello Ruby.

R: So, everyone at the Whitworth knows you and what you do but for those who don’t, how would you describe you job at the Whitworth? Because if I’m correct, it’s not a very common job at all and is very specific to this gallery.

FH: Yes. Over the years I’ve learnt to simplify what the role is because everybody goes “oh my gosh, Cultural Park Keeper- what’s that?” but as the Cultural Park Keeper at the Whitworth, in a nutshell, I’m responsible for the outdoor programme. So, that can encompass quite a lot of things, from events to engagement activities to our health and wellbeing work. So, yeah that’s it in short.

R: So, how did you come to that job? Because obviously that’s quite a niche job and requires a lot of different skills.

FH: Yeah, totally. And I guess like you mentioned in your previous question, it is the first of its kind in a sense, in the UK but there might be people doing similar things, but I guess the title was conceived by the Whitworth. So, before I came to the gallery I worked for an arts and wellbeing organisation, that used the arts to promote positive mental wellbeing and who worked with people who were experiencing difficulties with their mental health. And, obviously, there’s loads of evidence for engaging in creative and artistic activities to help with that. So that was everything from using visual arts to horticulture, to music- you name it, and working with people with mild or severe difficulties with their mental health.

And so, I did that for seven years or so before working with the Whitworth. And in that previous organisation, I’d gone in first working as the Youth Coordinator, working with young people, and then gradually working a bit more within that doing some work around supporting volunteers, and then working a bit with the adult beneficiaries as well. And through the work with adults, I eventually got some work looking after the horticulture programme, which was really great as horticulture and gardening is a real passion of mine anyway. So that was really my first taste of seeing how the outdoors and specifically horticulture is a really powerful tool to help people improve their health and wellbeing.

Before doing that, I was a radio producer and I used to produce music radio shows on various different stations- commercial and doing stuff on BBC Radio as well. So, the reason why I’ve said all that is when the Whitworth was going through its capital development and the job came up to unify the park and the gallery together, for me not only was it a dream come true, but it was almost like the job was written for me a little bit. I was also at a time where I was really enjoying my current job, but my passion is really in the creative and arts sector and I was really missing being involved in that. So, when this job came up it was like “oh my god this is perfect!” this allows me to bring all my skills and experience of working events, of working with people within the creative sector, but also the Whitworth really wanted to make that connection to health and wellbeing and using the park. It was just a perfect fit.

R: What strikes me when you’re talking about all these different avenues your career has gone down, they all seem to have two things in common- which is a creative element and then there’s this working with people. Because, obviously, if you’re a producer you need to have not only people skills, but like working with people. And then with your engagement work there’s a lot of that as well, so can you think about where those skills have come from? Those two strands seem almost like your two passions.

FH: Yeah, definitely! I love working with people, I love meeting people- I’m the sort of person who, if I see the same person walking down the street every day, I will always say hello and acknowledge them. I just love it- I love meeting different types of people and I think people have so many interesting stories to tell about their lives, and to be in a role where you can find out more about people and how they tick and introduce them to things that are new to them that they haven’t tried before is fantastic. I didn’t study health and social care and maybe on paper at first, a role like that might seem scary or not right for you but if you love people and are passionate about the work, that stuff then tends to come naturally.

And I think the creative side, I’ve always been a creative person. From being a child, I’ve always wanted to work in the arts, I’ve studied dance and I’ve studied drama and I’ve always loved music. It was always a given that I was going to work in the arts. Obviously, music was a huge passion, which lead me to working in radio (I’m a rubbish singer so that wasn’t the road I was going to go down!). I think people who work in the creative sector, particularly working in production, generally have an affinity with working with people.

R: What I find interesting with the Whitworth at the moment, is that it’s had various priorities over the years in programming and exhibitions, and the priority at the moment is connecting with people, specifically through Arté Util (Useful Art) which Alistair Hudson is a huge supporter of. I take it that your job very much fits into that ethos in a way?

FH: Yeah. I think one of the main things about the Cultural Park Keeper job and also embracing the park as part of the space as well was about a few things. The overriding theme of connecting people with nature due to being located in an urban environment where you will find more Nature Deprivation or Nature Deficit Disorder- where people are losing a connection with nature.

But also, it was about being more inclusive and actually recognising that there were loads of people in the community who weren’t engaging with the gallery for whatever reason that may be. Whether it was because art, as they viewed it, wasn’t for them or that the building might have been too intimidating for them to approach. So, it was about using the open, democratic green space of the park to engage with more people and so later on, off their own steam, they would come into the gallery because they felt that connection with the Whitworth, they were engaging with the Whitworth and would be curious as to what was inside. So that was definitely the focus of the role and the programme to begin with and I think as we’ve moved on, particularly under Alistair’s leadership, to being a more democratic space. I think another thing that’s interesting me a lot is after the past year that we’ve had with the pandemic but also with all the work around Black Lives Matter and the global protests. And I think about being more inclusive than we have been and being a true reflection of our neighbourhood so our visitors reflect the neighbourhood that surrounds us so that (the gallery) becomes more culturally diverse.

And that thing about also being inclusive, I think for me, one of the things that drew me to this job was- if you’d asked me 15 or 20 years ago, I probably never ever would have imagined that I would ever work in an art gallery. I didn’t study art or art history or anything like that and jobs like mine didn’t exist, so I wouldn’t have seen where I would’ve fitted into that picture.

But with the role coming up, it was definitely in my mind that “oh, it would be wonderful to see a person, and a woman of colour in that role” especially where that gallery is located and there’s been a lot of talk about representation and how important it is to see yourself represented within an organisation or within a workforce. So, to be able to achieve that, I think that was quite important. I’ve talked a lot about my experiences of talking to people in the neighbourhood and people at events and stuff, and there being an element of surprise- a little bit of “oh- you work at the Whitworth?” and that’s all really good.

It’s good to change that image and good to open people’s eyes and show them that they can do that job if they want to. And it’s also not just about being a woman of colour working at a contemporary art gallery, I think it’s also about the fact that it’s outdoors showing, that yes; there are people of colour working in environmental and outdoor roles, but it might not be as visible as it might be for someone who is white. So, all of that I think is really, really important.

Ibrahim Mahama: Parliament of Ghosts

R: I just want to put it out there that I probably know the tip of the iceberg of what you do, because you do so many different jobs with so many different people. So, you work with curators, with the visitor team, with the volunteers, with the Civil Engagement and Education department, the public, you run a podcast and you also worked with Ibrahim Mahama for his MIF show, Parliament of Ghosts, doing voice over. Could you tell me a little bit about how that came to be, what that was like?

FH: That was an amazing experience! So, I guess with many exhibition programmes that we have, there’s always a connection to the engagement side of it, which the CEE team get engaged with.

So, with the Parliament of Ghosts show, what was really amazing for me is that I am of Ghanaian heritage, so my parents were both born in Ghana and came over to the UK in the 50’s/60’s, and so for me it was great to be part of that and to find out a bit more about my heritage. As part of that, I and Dominique Heyse-Moore, who was the curator of that show, we travelled to Ghana to see the works that were going to go into that show and to spend some time with Ibrahim and I documented part of that in our first episode of our podcast, A Walk in the Park. It was wonderful to be able to go and build that connection with Ibrahim and to introduce my work colleague and Ibrahim to members of my family- it was a wonderful trip. You know, as a result of that, Ibrahim is still someone who I’d call a friend, so yeah it was an amazing experience- on many, many different levels.

Ibrahim Mahama: Parliament of Ghosts

And I think, to take it back to your original question, that’s what I love about my role is that I work with pretty much every part of the gallery. So, whether I’m working with the Buildings and Operations team because of the events that we’re doing, and obviously working with the Visitor Team for basically everything we do, and engagement and working with the curatorial team as well. It’s brilliant- no one project is ever the same and like as we said at the very beginning about being a people-person, I love to have a connection and some kind of relationship with every single person that works here.

R: On that lovely note, thank you very much for giving me your time.

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