Our average age is increasing. Sherry de Wynter calls the arts and cultural sector into action and reveals the intergenerational projects already bettering lives in Manchester

By 2150 demographers estimate that a third of the world's population will be over 60 years old. This shift in population makeup is so dramatic that Ambassador Julia Alvarez, member of the Permanent Mission of the Dominican Republic to the United Nations, termed it an ‘AgeQuake’. The arts and cultural sector must respond to these changing demographics and intergenerational arts practice is a marvellous tool to begin the conversation with. I would like to re-phrase this phenomenon for the arts sector – an ArtsQuake is on its way.

A great deal of arts activity could arguably be described as involving intergenerational practice. However, this aspect of projects often happens as an add-on or by-product; few large-scale, long-term arts projects are conceived with intergenerational practice at the heart.

Much is being done in Manchester to focus arts projects on intergenerational issues. The Valuing Older People initiative was launched in 2003 by Manchester City Council and NHS Manchester. After running 13 intergenerational projects, as part of the Department for Education’s Generations Together programme, the initiative developed an Intergenerational Practice Toolkit, which is free to download. The Valuing Older People Cultural Offer Working Group was formed in 2007 with the aim of reducing health inequalities and improving quality of life for older people through participation in cultural activity. It counts as its members: The Manchester Museum, the Hallé Orchestra, Manchester Art Gallery and the Royal Exchange Theatre, amongst others.

Manchester Museum has long championed a family friendly brand. When feedback indicated that grandparents felt excluded from arts activity where the main participants were parents and children, this focus was expanded to include a focus on grandparents.

In October 2011 the Manchester Museum launched its first ever Grandparents' Weekend in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Art Gallery. The venues developed a programme with arts and crafts workshops for all ages and combined these with a family friendly film club, which screened short films about grandparents, including Diary of a Spider and Grandma Beijing. Introductory taster sessions were laid on for grandparents in the Ancient Egypt galleries.

The strength of this approach lay in the fact that the core offer of the organisations was targeted at an older audience to increase engagement, as opposed to conceiving an entirely new programme of activity. Manchester Museum secured a new audience, with grandparents continuing to visit the venue long after the initiative ended.

Intergenerational practice can also emerge when the original perspective of a project is broadened. For example the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is involved in the delivery of a two-year project called The Truth about Youth. Launched in 2010 by the Co-operative Foundation, the programme is creating opportunities for young people to challenge and change negative perceptions about their age group by highlighting the positive and inspiring things being achieved in their area. The programme is taking place in seven UK cities and the Royal Exchange Theatre was selected to help deliver the project in Manchester.

When the project team designed the delivery, it became clear that a strong intergenerational element would need to be included throughout. After all, how can negative perceptions about young people be effectively challenged without the presence and contribution of those who hold such views?

A series of interventions were devised to maximize creative outcomes. For the Gift Exchange, two groups of older and younger people met separately to discuss their attitudes and preconceptions about the other generation, and what was meaningful for them about the age they were. Each individual created a gift to exchange with someone from the other group, this could be a letter, a story, an object or a piece of advice, but had to have a meaning behind it. On the 5 May 2011, in the Royal Exchange Hall, members of the younger and older groups were paired up to exchange gifts. These included a haiku, a mirror (to always remember you are beautiful), a song and even the ability to spin yarn. Working with the director Cheryl Martin, some of these exchanges were later recreated in a piece of theatre called My Generation.

At Truth about Youth: The Festival, taking place this July, the Royal Exchange Theatre will put on a performance of My Young and Foolish Heart. Seven people aged 15-20 and seven adults all over 60 will work with ITV Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme member, Max Webster and local writer Sonia Hughes to devise and perform the show. So far 1,170 young people and 1,244 adults have been involved in these intergenerational activities including many that were not previously engaged with theatre.

The Royal Exchange Theatre showcasing the best of young creative energy, and finding inspiration through interventions with older creatives; the Manchester Museum throwing open its doors to grandparents; these are good examples of imaginative creative responses to the issues raised at the outset of this article. This all goes to show that if we are indeed facing an AgeQuake, arts creativity and imagination need not be in danger.

 

Sherry de Wynter is Cultural Offer Manager for Valuing Older People
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