What is socially-engaged curating?
Our gallery, Radiant, is the only professional contemporary art gallery we have been able to identify in Europe that is curated full time by groups of vulnerable children and young people.
For us, the descriptor “socially-engaged” is a distinct discipline that combines, but goes beyond, traditional engaged practices such as youth arts, arts for health or community arts.
At Effervescent, “socially engaged” means a line of enquiry in which groups of young people collaborate with us as equals through design, arts and curatorial practices to articulate “truths” for the group and for society. The purpose of this practice is manifold:
1. To create exhibitions and cultural products, which are authentic and meaningful to the group but also to the target audience for the work – bringing new audiences to galleries and cultural events
2. To support groups of children and young people who have lived through trauma, misfortune and structural disadvantage to heal from painful experience; to give voice to a collective experience which has hitherto been unsafe or unavailable to be articulated; to reduce the isolation and sense of self-blame which the children or young people feel about their experiences; to support the group to develop critical thinking processes and, therefore, new neural pathways which support them to cope better with – and react more sophisticatedly to – the world around them; ultimately for children and young people to go on to live healthier, happier, wealthier lives as a direct result of our work with them.
3. To address ongoing social problems and challenges, public opinion, or status quo, with cultural product which is specifically designed to create behavioural or attitudinal change – whether at local community level, local government, or national policy level.
We believe that this intention to create positive social change through high quality cultural product co-designed with people with lived experience is fundamental to a socially-engaged arts practice.
At Radiant, as of June 2016, we have curated seven shows with children and young people aged 9 years old to 25 years old. Young people have presented with a range of experience including poverty, surviving sexual assault and exploitation, domestic violence, caring for parents who are unable to care for themselves or their children, mental ill-health, substance misuse, homelessness, and criminal activity.
Shows have been nominated for local and national awards, been listed in arts journals as top-ranking in the UK, and have influenced local policy including in particular how children can be included in social care service design and how participation can be valued at commissioner level; our partner Barnardo’s has evolved its view on how cultural engagement and activity can be used as a means to achieve recovery and engagement, as opposed to an “activity” running alongside the main intervention.
(c) Eloise Malone 2016
 My meaning here is that many people use the term “socially-engaged” as a term to describe what is, in fact, youth art, public art, community art, or arts in health practices (for example). These are distinct practices, with clear ideals and a long provenance. Socially-engaged arts practices sit in this cluster of engaged practices, but are a distinct way of working and we believe the term “socially engaged” shouldn’t be used as a trendy nomenclature for what is, in fact, something else.