Richard Clark explains how Bridge organisations are enriching children and young people’s experience of the arts.

Image of child making music and art

The Mighty Creatives is the Bridge organisation for the East Midlands. Funded by Arts Council England (ACE), we are part of a national network of ten organisations using our experience and expertise to connect children and young people with the arts and culture. The Bridge network provides direct support for Arts Council England’s ten-year strategy 'Achieving great art and culture for everyone', prioritising our work around Goal 5: “Every child and young person has the opportunity to experience the richness of the arts, museums and libraries” (ACE, 2013).

Rather than provide arts and cultural experiences directly for children and young people, their families, school and communities, the role of all the Bridge organisations is a combination of strategist, relationship-broker and champion, initiating programmes and partnerships that build capacity, extend infrastructure and promote quality standards, including Arts Award and Artsmark.

We are asking arts and cultural partners to move beyond short-term projects to act both as partners in community development and as gateways for children, young people and their families

The Bridge network, which includes a further four 'associate Bridge organisations' in London, was launched in April 2012 and will continue in its current form until March 2015. Additional funding from the Department for Education has extended our remit to include a wider cultural footprint, embracing heritage, film and places of worship, and to work with the new generation of Teaching Schools. Like all organisations funded by ACE, all Bridge organisations will reapply for funding in 2014 for a further three years (2015−18).

The Bridges work to a common framework but find local priorities and solutions. All of us are tasked with building cross-sector partnerships designed to increase arts participation. This involves engineering new revenues for the arts and culture, and overcoming complex dependencies upon both the boom and the bust of project-funding cycles. Key achievements for the national network so far include securing new funding from the Department for Education for the Strong Voices programme, working with young people from disadvantaged and vulnerable communities, and a partnership with Creative & Cultural Skills to promote new traineeships.

Regionally, each Bridge is working with Trinity College London and its appointed training agencies to promote Artsmark and Arts Award. Responsiveness to local contexts is creating a body of intelligence, networks and knowledge-sharing activities designed to make sense of the seismic shifts in the public sector.

Our aim in the East Midlands is a simple one: more children and young people experiencing more high-quality arts and culture more of the time. When set among the defining challenges of the day – austerity, ever more radical efficiency, financial and environmental sustainability, not to mention considerable changes to the public service infrastructure, and a suite of new cultural education initiatives – such an aim is far from trivial.

The Mighty Creatives Bridge programme started by gathering insights and intelligence about the diversity and complexity of young lives (State of the Region Report 2012). We then looked to leadership, our Goal 5 groups (of adults and young people who prioritise working with children), our Board Academy (providing training for young trustees of cultural organisations), and a new series of summits (more of which below).

We are piloting pioneering partnerships with Teaching School Alliances and investing in experimental projects which seek to find new and different ways of working, especially focused on generating new revenues. We are also investing in new partnerships in 18 priority places across our region where participation in the arts appears to be low. Highlights include work with traveller communities in Leicester, economic migrants and very young children in Lincolnshire, faith communities in Nottingham, young creatives with disabilities in Nottinghamshire, and children in and leaving care in Derby. While many of these communities have previously benefited from specialist arts interventions, we are asking arts and cultural partners to move beyond short-term projects to act both as partners in community development and as gateways for children, young people and their families to access the full range of cultural experiences open to them, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Sustaining the lifetime benefits of arts participation has often been the stated legacy of cultural programmes, but this is not backed up by evidence of participation. To address this, we are hard-wiring long-term relationships from the beginning, working with Locality and other partners to undertake development planning, community and capacity building.

The Bridge network often gets asked the 'What’s in it for (insert cultural form of your choice)?' question. Amplify this across multiple forms, and the challenge of crafting a unified approach increases. To establish coherence in complex environments, we have set ourselves the challenge of looking at how we put children and young people at the heart of our approach. Focused on the cultural life of the child, we want to change the way the cultural sector plans and delivers arts and cultural activities for children and young people. By defining children and young people as the central focus of this work, we also want to achieve a joined-up conversation across sectors, strengthening thinking about the value and role of culture in young lives. In a socio-political context where children are increasingly treated as just passive consumers and the precious qualities of childhood run victim to national anxiety about academic performance (see response to the Pisa results for proof of this), the arts and cultural sector's capacity, indeed obligation, to be a leading voice in promoting the richness of play, wonder and imagination as the rocket fuel of childhood has never been more important.

We are driving this work in the East Midlands with a series of summits named, appropriately enough, ‘The (Cultural) Life of the Child’. This series of four events, one for each major phase of childhood, is being overseen by a national advisory board from the arts, health, education and youth sectors. Our stubborn use of parentheses asserts our intention to balance our core-funded purpose – to promote the arts and culture – with our core intent: to increase the quality of many more childhoods. Framing our thinking around children's cultural lives and their own cultural communities allows us to place the whole child (their physical, social and cognitive development) at the centre of complex plans and systems. This is not about erecting a Trojan horse for our cultural concerns, but creating a platform for ideas and influence based on a deep-rooted social engagement.

The summit series is built around a bold series of questions:

  • What is a good childhood?
  • How is childhood changing?
  • What do children and young people want and need from their childhood?
  • How can we work together to give every child the very best start in life?

Each event is tasked with generating ideas and stimulating innovation, uniting professionals from a range of backgrounds to create a new blueprint for collaboration. The first event was held on 18 October 2013 in Derby and focused on the early years. It attracted over 80 delegates to experience a series of keynote provocations, case study presentations and creative challenges. The second event will be held on 5 February and will look at the primary years. Two further events will look at the secondary years and the transition into adulthood. The outcomes will be published and disseminated widely.

We are asking cultural sector leaders and providers to rise to a very contemporary challenge and to be a distinctive voice for opportunity in young lives. We do not know where this work will lead, but that is the value of throwing our doors open as widely as possible, of not being afraid to ask the big questions and of working collaboratively to find long-lasting solutions to some particularly stubborn challenges.

Richard Clark is Chief Executive of The Mighty Creatives.
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