Youthquake 2018

On 15th January 2017, Nonsuch Artistic Director, Edward Boott spoke at Arts Council England’s Creative Case conference: Shaping Diverse Futures. Below is the transcript of his session Youthquake 2018 talking out the power of young voices and diversifying arts participation. You can find out more here.

Youthquake, if you didn’t already know is the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2017. A word which quite surprisingly doesn’t have origins in the recent years of social media and influencer culture, but actually can be traced back to the now, rose-tinted days of 1965 when the then editor of Vogue described the youth-led fashion and music movement of the swinging sixties, which saw baby boomers reject the traditional values of their parents and change the world.

According to the OED a Youthquake is: “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people” – or more explicitly a time when the collective power of young people is able to make change, or even more explicitly, when the young do stuff that the old can’t ignore.

Ironically now, the term youthquake was first used to describe the very group of people Youthquake 2.0 more often than not, are fundamentally opposed to: the baby boomers, but lets not to dwell on them too much and instead focus on why I’m here and a few key questions: What makes a youthquake?  And, what could a youthquake within the arts lead to?

But first, let me introduce myself. My name is Edward Boott and I’m artistic director at Nonsuch – a cultural studio and theatre company based here in Nottingham. It’s my 26th birthday in July, which means for the next 7 months I am still officially a young person according to Arts Council’s own guidelines, so I’m here milking this opportunity for all its worth.

At Nonsuch, our programme is divided into three core strands: Creative, in which we produce contemporary physical theatre performance, festivals and events for a diverse range of audiences. Community in which we extensively work with young, old and in-between people across the country to unlock their own creativity and our development programme which sees us run Nottingham’s artist led space for theatre and performance, Nonsuch Studios, support other artists through various opportunities and partnerships, and conducts research with our audiences so we can build the best programmes we possibly can.

Nonsuch is five years old this April and I feel it’s important to stress now that we’re not a big organisation – there’s just five of us in an office doing what we can, we’re not an NPO, we still haven’t even submitted an over £15k grants for the arts and so it’s easy to say that as performance makers we are an ‘emerging’ company. However, our work in communities, especially with young people is not. What this means is that although we’ve partnered with thousands of young people across the country over the past few years on some really very large-scale projects, all of what we’ve been able to achieve has been done with a moderate and sometimes frankly minute level of resource and cash, really highlighting that it’s about attitude and process and not levels of cash in the bank that can produce exciting, inclusive and relevant work for everyone, everywhere.

So let’s get back to a Youthquake, that power change that was brought to the fore in 2017, most prominently through the huge surge in turn-out and influence younger voters had at last year’s snap general election. Younger political opinions that had previously been ignored and not listened to by the establishment were enabled to make a stand and send shockwaves across the political landscape. One of the most popular of these movements was Momentum,  an offshoot of labour party activism, and now as a result of their successes, other political parties are beginning increase their attention on younger activism with varying degrees on success.  

Now, when we’re talking about a youthquake we’re inevitably talking about ‘the youth’ which evidently means that we are not part of said ‘youth’. Even I, as a 25 year old, in this context, am an outsider looking in. It also means that we’re immediately in the territory of young people vs old people on the binary scale of birth and death and that therefore makes young people different and removed from us, the not-young-not-old people, the arts professionals.

But the ideas of a youthquake and young people are ones that’s very exciting for us, especially at events like this, mostly because we believe that by providing access to arts and cultural activities to young people we’ll enable them to find their voice, find their tribe and live confident, successful lives – and the power of such an evocative word as ‘youthquake’ really symbolises the impact we want to support young people to have on the world.

We’ve also ourselves, most-likely been a young person once, who was inspired by the power of arts, our own creativity and the things culture allowed us, and our communities, to experience – our passion for those memories empowers us to endeavour to find those ‘spark’ moments for the young people who surround us and our organisations. We also acknowledge through events like this that there’s more that we can be doing to engage more young people in better ways. Before I even get into the detail of this, I think we wouldn’t be worse off after today if we all just spent 5 minutes to think what impact an arts sector youthquake could have, and consequently what effect such a youthquake would have on wider society and the lives of young people it activates.

However.

There’s no denying that there is a big gap between our perspectives of young people and young lives and the actual experience of those who are under 25 whom we are attempting to work with.

This is probably due to the general rule of thumb for arts activity for under 25s being quite simple. If you’re a theatre, you make under 25s do more theatre. If you are a film centre, you make them do more film. If you are a gallery, you make them do more art. The equation is simple: my artform = your artform, or our culture = your culture – and this is generally how the sector functions and on the surface there’s nothing wrong with this. But when you put it in cruder terms it seems to make less sense and actually highlights some issues that organisations find when they try and engage new young audiences through both their participation and programmed offer. Even with the best intentions our offers are restricted to those who have some pre-existing awareness or interest in our artform and there’s little space for people who want to cross those boundaries or do something slightly different.

In an arts context this is something that’s quite difficult for us to illustrate, especially because we are so in love with, and passionate about, our artforms – we sometimes can’t see that that’s actually what may be holding us back from engaging with those who haven’t experienced what we have – and also assumes that those who don’t know what we know are at a deficit and therefore they’re not engaging in cultural activity – which is obviously not the case. It can be easier to look at this by leaving the arts for a minute and see what’s happening in the world of sport. In the quest to increase participation in sport, over the past couple of years you can observe a trend in which sports projects aren’t seeking to discover the next olympians or world cup winners, but actually looking at how they can encourage people to live active lives based on activity that is relevant to them, resulting in organisations working beyond their traditional remit and running, for example, football based dance sessions as part of This Girl Can. Could we do the same by focussing on ensuring everyone is able to live a creative life and developing programmes that are more nuanced and relevant to individuals?

Wouldn’t it be great if occasionally we forgot about the structure of our artforms to develop participation offers that used our skills as vehicles for the imagination and creativity of those we work with, saying yes to what they suggest to us and finding ways to make that happen which then in turn fulfil our goals and aims? Although scary at first, it’s amazing what having to say yes to a young person’s creative request teaches you, as we’ve found through a number of projects we’ve built in this format. To ride the youthquake and not be left behind by it we need to start saying yes a little bit more, see what happens, offer all the support our experience and expertise affords us and build on the results with under 25s as our partners.

Just think about the last time you or your organisation actively went and spoke to the young people you’d like to engage with, and not when you’re trying to shape a project you’ve already designed and received funding for, but actually talking to young people about their lives, their issues, their desires and their creativity.

Because funnily enough, young lives are not congruent with our assumptions and are changing all the time in ways you need to stay connected with in order to continue to produce relevant work. As part of our work as the youth-engagement partner of Nottingham’s Cultural Education Partnership through our programme Do Your Thing or DYT, we spoke to close to 500 11-25 year olds across Nottingham to gain insight in these areas.

The data we’ve gathered will form part of a Creative Youth Trends Report for the city which we will launch next month and become a yearly reference point to support organisation’s own insight to stay relevant and deliver appropriate programmes for under 25s.  One of the key things we found was that young people do not identify creativity as something exclusive to arts and cultural activity; creativity for them is sport, arts, technology and enterprise all combined around their passions and confidence – and the single most common attribute that makes you either creative or not is dependent on whether you do or you don’t have skills in a certain field. Which sounds great for us, as that’s what we offer a lot of as organisations; however, our offers are restricted to a group of top 5 or 6 artforms which aren’t surprisingly what the young people we surveyed were interested in. They were more interested in fashion design, video production, photography and craft, as well as the ways in which artforms can merge through interdisciplinary practice. There’s also the issue of cost, and more importantly the issues of location – most venues are in city centres, but the young people we really want to reach aren’t – and also given the fact that they need to get permission from parents in order to attend the activities we offer makes access a lot harder for them.

There is also a wave of young creators who aren’t turning to arts and cultural organisations for support because they’re already creating amazing work on their own and what we offer them is neither use nor ornament – for them, we are not the experts. If a young creator comes to us and wants to borrow equipment, get access to our space to test out ideas or advice on how to scale up their work to reach more people we often don’t know what to say, how to quantify it to our funders or make it happen through our internal systems of permission forms, facilities management or insurance – all of which are incredibly simple to overcome if an organisation wants to, but can stop us from engaging and collaborating. If a 29 year old is still more often than not called an emerging artist, what on earth do you call a 16 year old doing really groundbreaking work?

But as well as talking to lots of under 25s to understand their context, we also spoke to venue staff, teachers and those who work with young people in their everyday lives, and something became incredibly apparent. Big NPOs and small independents alike all said more or less the same thing: our participation offer and targets do not match up with the programme we present, we work hard to inspire the people we work with, but there’s nothing to push them on to because the work we present isn’t relevant. Young people equally weren’t particularly aware of the cultural offer and even those who engaged with arts activity weren’t themselves interested in the programme available. This surely highlights that for the youthquake to take hold we need to also think about what we put in our theatres, galleries and arts centres, our means of communicating to wider audiences and also the format in which the work itself is presented.

At Nonsuch, we’ve run or worked on a number of programmes that have been aimed entirely at areas of low engagement and have therefore adopted an approach of youth centred design, through which we consult with, gain insight from and co-create programmes with groups of the end beneficiaries of the programme.

What’s even more exciting is that after testing and trialling this approach through a number of youth programmes, we’re now adopting this process across our organisation in how we shape programmes for older people, communities and also our artistic programming as we begin to find ourselves able to commission and co-produce with artists.

The strength in this delivery is partnerships and this approach to work is one that is crucial in order to ensure that our offer is successful at engaging with those in communities where disadvantage is common. When trying to reach out and work with new communities in areas of lower engagement it’s often hard to make contact with and recruit participants, but beyond the realm of our funded arts and cultural offer is a whole raft of community organisations, youth clubs and informal sessions ran by community leaders, parents and carers which probably outnumber our programmes 10-1. What’s more these groups would put our diversity targets to shame because their offer is shaped around a relevant interest of their participants and are based in local areas where it’s easy for people to attend. These sessions are run for the benefit of their community and despite their lack of resource achieve great things. Over the past year we’ve developed some key partnership with a number of these groups across North Nottingham and we’ve learnt an immeasurable amount.

It’s vital to remember that under 25s are not just one homogenous group, they are as diverse and as different from one another as the rest of our audiences and so in the same way that we cannot put on the same plays, same exhibitions, same programme for them, neither can we provide a one-size-fits all offer for under 25s.

Now is an incredible time for the arts sector to ride the youthquake because there’s so much momentum behind it and there are already so many great examples out there from which we could learn. There’s the Tate’s evaluation report on Circuit, the Gulbenkian’s report on the civic role of arts organisations, Cultural Education Partnerships are growing month by month, Music Hubs are achieving some incredible things and the youth sector is actively looking for new partnerships to bring fresh activity to the young people they work with.

Also young people are energised, activated and aware of what they can do if they come together – even those in areas of disadvantage and disengagement understand the power they have, but maybe don’t have the confidence or tools to express it – but building that confidence and developing those tools are what we do best.

I’ve hopefully spoken through a number of practical examples today with the aim of avoiding thinking too much about this approach to working. Like any good devising or creative process is inhibited by too much thinking, this is too. If you don’t go and do stuff or talk to people you can’t learn stuff or gain insight. Young people’s interests and imaginations can’t be found at a desk or in funding briefs.  It’s by talking to people that your own imagination is inspired, and really simple solutions could make a massive different to creative young people. Your venue could be the perfect space for a group of young dancers to rehearse in, your cafe may be the exhibition space they’re desperately after, or your ideas on how to pull together a show could be the perfect thing they need to put on a festival for their whole community.

A youthquake isn’t about many voices making a single statement, it’s about a number of individual voices from across groups and backgrounds unifying through a shared focus to disrupt the status quo and influence the systems that they occupy. So if we activate our young people by engaging with their creativity, saying yes to as many ideas as possible; providing them with a platform to get their voices heard then maybe we’ll be able to activate a new, trail blazing generation of artists who learn from our mistakes and create great art with everyone they meet.

It’s January the 15th, the very start of the year, and so I think I can quite comfortably paraphrase Diana Vreeland, the Editor of Vogue in 1965, when she said: The year’s in its youth, the youth in its year. … More dreamers. More doers. Here. Now. Youthquake 2018.