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The 2017 Engage International Conference: what did we learn?

The 2017 Engage International Conference: what did we learn?

  • Programming a conference is incredibly hard work, made easier by the support of a great team at Engage and Artlink Hull.
  • Online polling is a great tool for harvesting questions and comments for plenaries.
  • Contributors’ feedback has been really positive:

‘…it was a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful event. Thanks for all your hard work, together with Engage and I look forward to seeing the questions that emerge’  (Dr Nigel Morpeth)

‘Thank you for inviting me to participate. I had not attended Conference or known much about Engage before this, so I am now aware of its work and will seek to stay involved with the organisation. Your conference design and prep work was impeccable.’ (Tonya Nelson)

‘I thought all of the discussions I was involved in, informally and through the plenary session, were really useful because you had framed the questions and staring points such that discussions got straight into useful areas, rather than reiterating the same old stuff you often hear at conferences. Well done and thank you once agin for organising such a great conference’ (James Hill)

Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s…

Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s…

We’re making final preparations for the Engage conference in Hull. We’re looking forward to meeting delegates and contributors. For those of you who can’t join us, the following should give you a taste of what we’re hoping the programme will deliver:

We’re delighted to have been asked to programme this year’s Conference and to have been given the opportunity to invite a range of artists, academics and activists to join us in exploring what diversity means in the context of education, learning and the arts and culture.

The arts and cultural sectors have not always been exemplars in respect of equality and diversity. The workforce is unrepresentative of the wider community and there remains amongst many a feeling that the arts exist for the elite, the educated and the wealthy. Many criticise equality and diversity activity for its outward facing, project- based approach and its reluctance to turn the gaze inwards to internal structures and organisational practice.

Conference opens with a keynote speech by Baroness Kay Andrews entitled A Commonwealth of Culture. Baroness Andrews will reflect upon her experiences of working with the Welsh Government to mainstream access to arts, culture and heritage for the most disadvantaged communities in Wales.

Not least of our challenges in programming Conference has been conceptualising what it is we mean when we talk about diversity. This is why we’ve passed the enquiry – and the first theme of Conference – over to a panel, which will explore the question, What do we talk about when we talk about diversity?

Diversity is only the latest of many terms which has attempted to encapsulate efforts to create a more equal and fair society. In decades past, policy makers and politicians have discussed equal opportunities and business cases for equality. Activists have more usually taken a rights-based approach and have considered issues of equality, social justice, power and privilege alongside efforts to bring about systemic change.

For many, the lexicon of diversity represents an attempt to sanitise issues. For others, diversity feels like an inclusive term which acknowledges individuals’ multifacetedness.

The second key theme of Conference is, Nothing about us without us is for us. This is a rallying call which will feel familiar to disability activists but it’s a slogan which chimes for many minoritised groups who feel that they are sidelined in discussions about what is best for them. Chaired by Tonya Nelson (Head of Museums and Collections at University College London), the panel will provide opportunities to explore issues of power, privilege and intersectionality.

On the morning of 30 November, a choice of breakout sessions will enable delegates to engage more closely with the conference themes. Amongst the themes which will be explored in breakouts are trans allyship; power, privilege and anti racism; and the ways in which a travelling exhibition that tells untold stories of the US civil rights movement can be used to explore contemporary issues of ‘race’ here in the UK.

Returning from lunch, Simon Mellor of Arts Council England will introduce the afternoon’s plenaries and will provide us with an overview of the Arts Council’s values and practice in respect of diversity.

Our third plenary, chaired by writer Anthony Clavane, will focus on agenda setting. Once we have the right people in the room, how do we decide what should be the focus of discussion and action? Anthony will joined by Professor Kevin Hylton of Leeds Beckett University, artist Ivan Liotchev and Bryony Bond, Artistic Director of contemporary art space, The Tetley. We’re expecting that the panel will touch on issues of intercultural dialogue and that delegates will learn about how artists and institutions can make manifest their commitment to equality and social justice.

The final plenary – Are we there yet? How will we know when we get there? – will examine how it is we can measure progress. Over the years, there has been a multitude of frameworks and templates which seek to enable organisations to assess practice and to benchmark against others. How effective have these been – what tangible differences have they made? Wendy McGuinness of Lloyds Bank will reflect on the drivers for change within her organisation whilst other panellists will bring to the conversation their insights into what success might look and how we might recognise it.

In developing the shape and content of Conference, we have been guided by an interest in making opportunities for conversation and for listening. We have tried to avoid a ‘got to’ and ‘not to’ approach, which can inhibit discussion and we are resolutely not going to provide delegates with a standard toolkit for change. Delegates should leave feeling they have learned more about how diversity can be actualised in their particular settings; they should feel more able to be effective advocates for change and should feel more confident to challenge practice where this is necessary.

Derrick Armstrong and Dawn Cameron

Conference Programmers