In the UK we can be complacent about the fact that most arts organisations see it as essential to undertake education work alongside their main productions. Despite this commitment, most of the work that happens through education and participation departments still comes secondary and is not celebrated or marketed to the same level as the main programme.
However, it has been wonderful to see two projects celebrated through award nominations in the last two months. Opera North’s flagship participation project, In Harmony, has been awarded the award for Best Classical Music Education Initiative at the Music Teachers Award for Excellence.The project focuses on one primary school in Leeds, aiming to raise aspirations and learning outcomes for children through an immersive programme of high quality music tuition.
Welsh National Opera Youth Opera production Paul Bunyan was nominated for the recent Sky Arts South Bank Awards in the opera category, alongside Written on Skin and Peter Grimes. Despite not winning, this was a major achievement, as this was the first time a youth company had ever featured in any category at the South Bank Awards.
We exist in a political system that appears not to value the contribution that the arts make to society, and budgets are being slashed across Europe. But these award nominations signal a shift in the way that youth and education work is being viewed by the mainstream. There are research projects under way in the UK exploring the value of culture, and the health sector is now recognising the contribution arts can make to health and well being. It seems that, despite politicians taking the opposite view, society does believe in the value of participation in the arts.
For those of us who work in arts education and participation, it is time to stand up and be loud and proud about what our projects and initiatives achieve. Rigorously measuring and evaluating impact is important, but it’s the personal stories of transformation, profile through award nominations, and the use of social media to share good practice that will help the work we do to seep into the public conciousness. It should be the right of every young person to have the chance to get involved in high quality arts activities. And the art that they make should be recognised and valued.
Rhian Hutchings, Director of Youth & Community, Welsh National Opera