We are going through a time of flux and, to borrow from the full title of the 2013 engage International Conference, a period of ‘extraordinary change’. As Jane Sillis, Director of engage stated in her introduction at Birmingham’s CBSO centre: “Education in galleries, museums and the visual arts is facing challenges in a period of uncertainty.”

Government changes to the National Curriculum in England, and constraints on funding, have impacted on the roles of artists, arts organisations and teachers, and are likely to continue to do so. In relation to this, the conference sought to explore three key themes through a series of ‘exchanges’ over two days.

The first of these themes, ‘Looking to the future: the impact of change in formal education on galleries and visual arts education’, brought out stark differences in Scotland and England’s curriculum.

Emily Pringle, Head of Learning Practice and Research at Tate, described the current situation in England as bewildering: “Change, then change to the change” was her summary of recent times. Lesley Butterworth, general secretary for the National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD), illustrated the need for a strong voice stating the case for the arts in England as plans for the new curriculum are developed. Questioning terminology, drawing attention to narrowness of learning areas and the almost blanket removal of film, craft and design, were all points raised when responding to the Government’s draft documents, she explained.

Lizzie Crump of the Cultural Learning Alliance (CLA) added that this was a difficult framework to work within and emphasised the need for teachers and artists to make the curriculum ‘breathe’.

In contrast, Joan Parr, Creative Scotland’s Portfolio Manager for Education, Learning and Young People, talked about the significant change for the better that has happened over the past eight years in Scotland. In the past, the arts were bolted on to the curriculum. A rethink of the purpose of education highlighted that there was no space for the teacher, and the curriculum was too prescriptive.

As a result, and after some rebalancing, the importance of the arts and creativity was recognised and four core aims were adopted for education as part of a ‘Curriculum for Excellence’: successful learners; responsible citizens; effective contributors; confident individuals. This approach is now being implemented, albeit slowly, and Parr suggested that a difference for the better is becoming more and more evident.

The session drew plenty of questions from the floor: Had the possibility of Scottish independence prompted the freedom in Scotland’s curriculum? Were there any checks and balances to monitor consistency in the Scottish system? Should museums and galleries work with teachers to empower them to argue for the arts within schools and to grow confidence for a more creative curriculum? Who has the access and language to influence policy makers and stakeholders? Greygory Vass from Camden Arts Centre pointed out that pupils with additional learning needs often benefit from creative, process-based learning styles, something that is not supported by the National Curriculum.

Change in an international context

The second conference exchange addressed the theme, ‘Change in an international context: learning from practitioners’ experience outside the UK’. Three speakers shared their experiences, including the inspirational Karen Gron, Director of Trapholt Museum of Modern Art and Design in Denmark.

Gron described how she implemented structural, hierarchical and institutional change in her organisation while also reducing expenditure. Introducing managers of learning, production, communication, direction and audience development, she removed the role of curator and changed contracts to 80% positions so that the remainder of time could be used for research, keeping the museum innovative and active.

To fully understand and grow her audience, Gron turned to research papers on social behaviours, intrinsic motivation, and Deci and Ryff scales of well being in order to analyse her audience engagement. As a result, audiences at Trapholt increased through projects such as Curator for a Day, which involved audiences curating their own shows from the museum’s handling collection.

Alisha Sadikot from the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, spoke of coping with extraordinary visitor numbers of 3million a year, and school groups of up to 300 at a time. Previously the Victoria and Albert Museum, Bombay, the museum sits alongside a botanical garden and zoo; unusually, it is run independently from government. As well as a postgraduate study programme, the museum runs privately funded workshops and has an embedded approach to partnership working.

This exchange clearly illustrated the benefits of working collaboratively in and outside the arts. It highlighted that there needs to be imaginative and creative ways of changing our often comfortable structures and situations in brave, radical ways that, if thoroughly researched, can be catalysts for positive change.

At the close of the first day’s formal presentations, delegates took the floor to present projects through the Soapbox platform. Artist Helen Ackroyd spoke about her Big Draw projects and how she has seen growing spheres of influence in the last five years, from community groups to children and parents, special schools and the public, and commercial paid-for training in the private sector. This was an example of artist-generated momentum, taking arts education in and out of formal and informal organisations.

Innovation, entrepreneurship, sustainability

Presented on the second day, the third conference theme, ‘Innovation, entrepreneurship and sustainability: exploring new models to support visual arts education’, asked how new ways can be found to make arts education happen in the future, as organisations increasingly need to focus on income generation and audiences.

Futurist Chris Barnatt talked of the challenges we should expect as finite world resources run dry, reminding the floor that thinking “we can do the same as ever, providing we can do it sustainably” is not enough. There were things to be positive about, too: 3D printing technology, for example, can enable localisation, allows repair instead of disposal, saves materials and can be used for synthetic biology.

Where, then, do the arts fit into a culture of survival? Is it time to rekindle our lost association with things, and to go back to the value of making, craft and repair in a collaged approach where small things add up and community and culture is valued over economics?

Sarah Thelwall, director at Mycake.org, presented her research into business and financial models of arts organisations. Her findings demonstrated that turnover makes the biggest difference to sustaining an organisation, with options to earn from venue-based income such as shops, cafes or space hire. Small organisations are twice as dependent on grant funding. Thelwall warned against relying on philanthropy, however, saying that private giving is not the big saviour it is made out to be.

Raising funds through philanthropy, however, was at the core of the presentation given by Melanie Keen, Senior Relationship Manager Visual Arts at Arts Council England (ACE), who illustrated philanthropic models. While not directly advocating this as a solution to funding struggles, Keen’s presentation indicated the time and effort ACE is putting into generating private income. The current government sees philanthropy as a new strand and ACE certainly recognises it as a part of the bigger picture.

My own presentation at the conference, on recent and ongoing research by AIR into paying artists, was welcomed. Several organisations agreed that recognising the value and worth of artists was vital, but said they needed evidence to make the case for freelance rates of pay. This was particularly important for small organisations that often create deferred value. Supporting an artist at the outset of their practice and seeing them go on to sustain a successful career is rewarding, but organisations need recognition for their part in the chain.

Jane Sillis acknowledged working together as a positive future action. She said: “engage will work with partners to support those working in the visual arts and education sectors, including artists. We want to insure that the visual arts workforce has the resources to provide high-quality educational arts programmes which benefit those who participate, and that visual arts education in the UK can continue to flourish.”

This was a positive, forward-looking conference with an open and sharing culture and an aim to work together for the good of the sector. In recessionary times, if there are any benefits as well as difficulties, then a more open arts culture is certainly one of them.

The 2013 engage International Conference: Extraordinary Change, took place at the CBSO centre, Birmingham 7-8 November. www.engage.org/engageconference2013