Participate London is born

Last wednesday, I met my dear friend and colleague Anna for a morning coffee in our village-like neck of the London woods – East Dulwich. We are both freelancers, and this is a regular feature of our working week. We chatted about our lives, our cats and our creative ambitions. Anna has just started a food blog and is taking giant steps forward in her career as a caterer, chef and food writer. I am running several different arts and education projects for organisations and finding my feet as an independent arts manager after 6 years in one of the country’s largest arts centres. And so our morning coffees tend to run into the afternoon…

For several months I have had this idea about supporting organisations in their recruitment of young people for participatory arts projects. It’s such a common complaint in the industry; it’s hard to connect directly to individual youngsters, particularly older teens and those in their early twenties. Arts organisations or companies running workshops and courses tend to go through schools, universities and existing youth groups to recruit for their programmes, which sort of works a bit but relies on the goodwill and free time of teachers and youth workers to pass the message along. Not to mention, it means workshop organisers have to do a lot of emailing and calling round to make sure people are spreading the word about their opportunity. It’s exhasuting, frustrating and at times feels totally fruitless. When an incredible programme has only 2 people signed up but you know if more people knew about it you’d have a waiting list of hundreds… If only you had a spare £12k to put up loads of posters all over the tube, then you’d be drowning in applications.

If you’re a big organisation you can rely on your website to do some of the leg work, but then you’re only really reaching young people who know you exist already, and while pro-active participants are heaven-sent delights, any youth arts worker worth their salt will tell you it’s the hard-to-reach, never-taken-part-in-anything-like-this-before participants that are the reason we get out of bed in the morning.

As youth centres continue to have their budgets slashed, projects run by arts organisations big and small have an increasingly important role to play, not only in developing young people’s skills and confidence, but in fulfilling a societal need to keep our young people engaged, safe and respected.

And so, with all this soapboxing came a revelation. If there is a gap between young people and arts providers, let’s fill it! Let’s provide organisations with a dedicated place to showcase their projects, and a place for young people to find out what’s on offer. And while we’re at it, let’s make sure it’s the really great stuff that gets promoted – high quality, professional, well organised opportunities, after all there’s a lot of rubbish out there… And with that in mind, why don’t we offer a consultancy service to help people make their programmes better? And run some of our own to show we’re not all talk, and make sure we’re constantly practicing our skills, keeping in touch with the demographic and most importantly, doing what we love.

Um, maybe we’d also better consider things like child protection, health and safety, administration and budget advice for freelancers and new workshop leaders. And we could introduce them to each other, support skill swapping and create sociable networking opportunities for all those people who like us, spend a lot of time at home in their PJs working hard  to make youth arts a stronger, more creative and dynamic industry.

Once I’ve opened the floodgates of my brain, it’s hard to shut them and so when Anna and I meet for coffee, we often mull on these ideas and wonder where to begin. But last Wednesday, we had a brainwave… It had just occurred to me that for the first time in almost 10 years I wouldn’t have a work Christmas party to attend. No bad thing you may say, but its just a little lonesome to have no festive high jinks on the horizon to cheer the working week before the Christmas hols. And so we decided to throw a small Christmas Shindig for arts freelancers – part networking opportunity and part really good time. Oh yes. But how could it possibly succeed as a stand alone thing run by a couple of random individuals… And so within a few short hours, Anna had quizzed me all the way to a draft business plan for my new company, and luckily for me, had agreed to be a Director and work with me to get it started. And that’s where you find us today – right at the start.

So the short version would be:  Hello! I’m Sarah. I’m starting a company to promote arts opportunities to under 25 year olds in London. And to support the freelance community who feed the arts organisations that provide those opportunities. I’m doing this with my friend and colleague, Anna. We’re going to have a party at Christmas time to launch the company. We’ll let you know how we get on… and we really hope you’ll join us!

Image by Ross Chalmers