Our top takeaways from the ENGAGE 2017 conference…

December 14, 2017

Maya Sharma – Learning and Participation Consultant - went to this year’s ENGAGE Conference on 29-30 November in Hull. Here’s her summary of the conference and her top takeaways…

Reaching diverse audiences through place
Martin Green, Director of Hull City of Culture 2017, spoke of how Hull 2017 created a sense of pride in place, as well as successfully engaged traditionally under-served communities (one of my favourite quotes of the whole conference was: "If you want to bring boys and men together, burn stuff")!

There's clearly no doubt that Hull 2017 has been a huge success, but perhaps the burning (no pun intended) question is where do they go from here – now they’ve successfully engaged people from all walks of life across the city, how to sustain the momentum and keep all of Hull actively contributing to its cultural landscape?

The importance of using data to think about diversity
Simon Mellor, Deputy Chief Executive of Arts Council England (ACE), spoke about ACE’s push on diversity in the arts. Unsurprisingly, as The Audience Agency Consultant, I was delighted that he emphasised the power of using data to increase diversity in the sector.

This lead to an interesting exchange during the question and answers section about the responsibility to collect and use data (on workforces and audiences) and underlined the need to improve data collection practices. I sensed anxiety in the audience about this (if you too struggle with why or how you could collect data -and the big one: how to use it- please do contact us for a chat about how we can help you become more confident in this).

Reframing the value around diversity
Rommi Smith, poet, playwright, academic and educator, told the conference how a black film-maker's funding application to make a film about an African Caribbean community was rejected because it was: "of no commercial value". The debate about the value of the arts has raged for many years (intrinsic versus instrumental, anyone?) but this single story highlights a still pervasive attitude in the arts, where art that tells: "diverse stories" is often seen as less important or less commercially valuable.

Final thoughts
Hearing from delegates about the exciting learning, engagement and participation work going on across the country reassured me that the arts sector is making a difference in some lives and there are some pinnacles of innovative practice that we can learn from and build on.

Perhaps a crucial issue, however, when our sector is increasingly squeezed financially, is how we can advocate within and outside the sector for the intrinsic value (commercial and otherwise) for our work. Cultural learning and engagement work with diverse audiences may not generate income like blockbuster exhibitions or performances can, but it does keep organisations culturally relevant and places us at the heart of our communities - plus long-term it is the only way to be truly sustainable. This belief, for me, was the spirit of the conference.

You can find a conference report and Storify, capturing online conversations about the conference here. See also the pre-conference reading list, a thought-provoking list of articles, reports, podcasts and blogs.

Maya Sharma - Learning and Participation Consultant