This year’s engage International Conference is in a disruptive mood. With innovation and subversion as its parallel themes, Disruptive Influences? Innovation and Gallery Education takes place in Leeds from 10-11 November. It will look at the approaches of many of those working in gallery education, explore the new digital tools they are using to enhance relationships with audiences, and uncover the ‘disruptive influence’ that innovation can have on an organisation’s planning and programmes.

“We started very much from the point that gallery educators are innovators, and that education is fundamentally about doing new things – experimenting, taking risks, learning new things that lead us to learn about the world,” explains conference programmer Michael Prior, a freelance curator, arts project manager and educator based in Bristol.

“But innovation doesn’t come about easily and often causes disruption on the way. Gallery educators can be, in my experience, the most innovative people within an organisation, but if you are going to try something new, to test ideas, then it might unsettle things. We want the conference to explore these parallel ideas.”

Prior’s background, working across both curatorial and education roles in galleries including Birmingham’s Ikon and Arnolfini, means he’s well aware that gallery educators can be made to feel they should ‘take the safe option’ in the present climate.

“Some gallery education teams are under enormous pressure now to perform in terms of bringing in huge numbers of people. So we want the conference to reignite that excitement [of innovation] and reflect that education, learning and innovation are very much at the heart of what gallery education should be.”

New technologies

This focus on innovation and ideas means new technologies will be a key topic of discussion throughout the conference, with speakers looking at how technology can both enhance and shift an organisation’s relationship with its audience.

Speakers exploring this relationship include Sarah Ellis, who will discuss how the Royal Shakespeare Company has developed a very different approach to audience through social media, and Matt Locke who will talk about his project Storythings that challenges our idea of ‘the story’ by creating a new kind of narrative using social networking and digital platforms.

“It isn’t just true in gallery education, but right across the arts and right across culture as a whole, our relationships have shifted so much through the digital,” Prior explains.

“There’s a huge opportunity there for gallery educators to pick up on and exploit the digital, in terms of getting feedback from audiences and having conversations across social networks, that just wasn’t possible a few years ago. Digital is no longer something that you can just opt in or out of, it has to be very much a part of what we are doing.”

Playful subversion

The digital thread will be apparent through a number of conference sessions exploring playfulness and collaboration, with speakers focusing on how they are using and developing digital platforms to enable their work both as gallery educators and in other fields.

Alex Fleetwood, who founded the games company Hide&Seek, will propose ways to bring playfulness to potentially everything we do, while Amanda Phillips, learning and access officer at Leeds Art Gallery, will – along with artists Kate Genever and Steve Pool – focus on playfulness within gallery education, exploring the role of playful subversion and disruption in innovation. Coming at things from a different angle, climate change activist Tamsin Omond will be discussing her project The Future, a new approach to collaborating internationally in order to ‘keep watching those people in charge’.

But, as Prior is keen to point out, there will also be plenty of non-digital content and ideas to take away from the conference too. “I didn’t want to fall in to the trap to assume that this is just a digital conference,” he says. “We want to look right across the board at different approaches to innovation and different strategies to innovating.”

And, he says, it’s also important for the voice of artists to be apparent throughout the conference discussions: Leeds-based artist Ben Eaton will lead a session to crowd source innovative ideas as delegates work together to create a ‘Manifesto of the moment’, while Bill Drummond will take part in a panel discussion that’s all about looking to the future. “He’s always looking ahead to the next project and thinking about the next thing, rather than just looking back to what he has achieved in the past,” Prior explains.

Learning new skills

While networking and knowledge sharing are important elements in the mix of any conference agenda, Disruptive Influences? is aiming to give delegates something more practical to take away through a series of breakout sessions focusing on new skills.

“The idea is that delegates will pick a session where they can learn a skill to take back to their organisation or the context in which they work. It might be quite a straight forward digital skill, like learning how to make an animated gif with Tom Goddard from Glynn Vivian Art Gallery. Or it might be more of a skill around strategy, so Rohan Gunatillake is going to run a session on how to get your organisation to do something really innovative.

“Sometimes you want to try out all these ideas, but you can’t convince your boss to take the risk. Rohan is going to skill people up in how to make the argument to their boss that ‘yes we should be more innovative and take risks… and can we test this idea out?’”

The engage International Conference 2014 takes place in Leeds, 10-11 November, with fringe events across Yorkshire 10-12 November. For full programme and booking information see

As part of the engage conference programme, a-n and AIR will present ‘Paying Artists – effecting good practice across the visual arts’, 5-5.45pm, Monday 10 November. Led by Joseph Young (AIR Council) and Jack Hutchinson (a-n), this informal session will present a-n and AIR’s Paying Artists campaign, outline achievements to date and consider how fairness and equality of opportunity within artists’ pay can best be enshrined in working relationships, both within publicly-funded galleries and across all visual arts opportunities.