Engaging Families

3 November 2017

In our latest blog post, Emma Bearman reports from the recent Arts Council Collection Curators’ Day event, Engaging Families, and considers new ways of engaging family audiences in art galleries and museums.


Recently in my guise as Chief Executive of Play at Playful Anywhere (self appointed!) I was invited by the Arts Council Collection team to contribute to their Curators’ Day: Engaging Families. Organised collaboratively with Yorkshire Sculpture Park the event explored the role of galleries and museums in developing relationships with families. Featuring talks from a range of gallery staff, artists and educators from around the UK, the day considered different approaches from programming and interpretation strategies, to working with families as co-producers.

Prior to the event I had the notion that families haven't historically driven what happens in galleries and museums and that decisions about what we see and how and when we visit as families have not been at the forefront of how galleries engage. Suffice to say, my own experience with two youngish children has been one where different exhibitions will dictate the ‘enjoyment’ factor of the visit. But we are also confident enough to dip into our local gallery for a loo visit or a brief visit to the art space.

So, parking my own preconceptions and cultural baggage at the door, I resolved to listen to the different approaches major art galleries have taken in putting families at the heart of planning for both regular and irregular visits and relationship building.


What did I learn?


Read on to find out...


Curators are Creative

The day kicked off with a talk by Yorkshire Sculpture Park Curator, Sarah Coulson, who discussed their recent National Partners Exhibition, Tread Softly, revealing the story behind how the exhibition came about, which added another dimension to my appreciation. Sarah and her team, developed the show in response to the Arts Council Collection, starting with the themes of home, families and growing up, and teasing out a strand that became more interesting when we think about the hidden stories and moments that define our childhood.

Sarah worked very closely with Emma Spencer (Family Learning Coordinator, Yorkshire Sculpture Park) on the related activities and engagement programmes. At a very early stage Emma introduced Sarah to the work of the acclaimed poet Jackie Kay, who has a fascinating personal story of her own. As a result, the curation and direction took on a deeply moving dynamic, involving newly-commissioned poetry by Kay. Emma also engaged with families from Mackie Hill, Wakefield, developing conversations that go far beyond the depictions we glean from the polarised “Benefits Street” portrayal.

The Arts Council Collection : Engaging Families

Children can be led to family engagement

The Arts Council Collection : Engaging Families

I was particularly inspired by the second speaker of the day, Kathy Coates Mohammed, Head Teacher at Pentland Infant and Nursery School in Dewsbury. Kathy spoke with complete passion about how her staff and pupils (99% from an Islamic background with very little experience of visual arts and dance) have devloped a relationship with artists and Yorkshire Sculpture Park over three years, as part of a funded pilot scheme to improve literacy.

The project developed far beyond immediate gains in imaginative and tactile art and storytelling to forging close relationships with the gallery and the school, with more and more parents who had never visited before becoming part of the experience, attending trips and joining in. Their interest sparked beyond attendance to being creative together. A contender for an inspirational TedX talk!. I loved how the children forged the way for ever more creative excursions, and helped ditch the notion of formulaic lesson planning. It is a delight in this day and age to hear how a school which had low expectations found a ‘purpose for talk’: the children wanted to tell everybody about their experiences and developed a curiosity to ask questions! 

Neon Discos & Art Buffets

Listening to Debbie Goldsmith, Curator, Early Years & Families at Tate Liverpool, and artist Denise Wright talk about their experience of the Family Collective at Tate Liverpool made me firmly believe locally rooted artists are key to developing meaningful two-way relationships between institutions and local people.

The example shared by staff from Tate Liverpool was of local families who had felt initially that the gallery was not for them. Over a period of years, developing trust and confidence, they began to feel that this was a place they could create art, and attend events with friends.

The success of this programme, was partly down to the will of the gallery to involve local families, and by investing in a very special, locally-rooted artist, Denise, who already had a trusted bond with families at the Kensington Children's Centre. Does every gallery have a director who wants to go on that journey, where outcomes are less about numbers through the door and more about personal and collective confidence, creativity and wellbeing? Does every community have an artist like Denise who wants to help connect?

The Arts Council Collection : Engaging Families

Swings and Slides

The Arts Council Collection : Engaging Families

I had visited the Playground Project touring exhibition last year at The Baltic in Gateshead with my family so I was keen to hear Sarah Bradbury, Community Programmer at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, talk about the fun and games involved. Imagine a huge gallery space turned into a playground, with exhibition and events programmed to reveal the social history of playground design from the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1980s. Fascinating stuff for anybody interested in how playgrounds have evolved through the ages to the rather formulaic risk averse spaces we encounter in parks today. The exhibition invited young and old to clamber, swing, touch, loll, look and feel the joy!

Whooooosh! The downside to letting people play with an exhibition is the need for extra resources and cleaning, and careful risk management, because the appetite is huge. In the case of BALTIC, the touring exhibition resulted in massive participation to play, to hang out and to physically enjoy the exhibition. Big problem… expectation management for future summer programming?!

Children seen but not heard?

Artist, parent, curator? Labels, labels labels. Are these helpful? Collaborative family unit Townley and Bradby create work with and in response to family life, exploring domesticity and the differences in creative expression for adults and children. It is fascinating to think about where our ideas, thoughts and creativity starts and ends when we have families.

Lawrence Bradby described a process whereby their children are the inspiration, the makers, the curators, the provocateurs. Some galleries are starting to see that this process isn’t just about presenting an artwork to the public but giving the family a full run of the gallery, and also connecting with the outside world. Lawrence’s talk is one I still reflect on when I think about the blurring of boundaries and the dissolving of labels. What happens when children grow up expecting to be part of the process of creating and curating art rather than irregular attendees? How do we truly embrace the complexity of family life, creative practice, authorship and, more importantly, involve young people in the design of great, welcoming experiences and art within and outside of the gallery space?

The Arts Council Collection : Engaging Families
The Arts Council Collection : Engaging Families

Our day ended with a visit to Longside Gallery to see the Arts Council Collection Touring Exhibition, Kaleidoscope: Colour and Sequence in 1960s British ArtWe heard from Natalie Rudd (Senior Curator, Arts Council Collection) and Emma Spencer about how they devised the exhibition’s fabulous learning resource space, which unites the exhibition with fun and playful activities and a programme of drop-in workshops.

All in all, my day of listening into conversations between curators, educators and artists made me pause to reflect on how much I presume that the experience and involvement of families should be at the heart of all programming. Not because I'm a parent, but because we all want our society to be inclusive, welcoming and creative, and for art and making art to be part of our everyday lives, not a remote once a year trip.

The blurring of boundaries between maker and audience is well on the way, and our social media, connected world has dissolved some of the hierarchy between curator and audience, between critics and bloggers. People these days expect to create content, to be content, to be included, to be heard and not just to consume and revere.

I'm glad to say the self selecting group of people at the event were there because they care to put people at the heart of the experience, to learn from each other's successes and challenges in achieving this.

I would love nothing more than to see more examples of art galleries and museums delving deeper into meaningful relationships with their local communities and families to develop programming, visitor experiences and confidence to create new ways to explore and grow together. The event certainly gave me much heart that this was already the approach of a number of organisations and might yet become more commonplace.


Emma Bearman is Chief Executive of Play at Playful Anywhere, a Leeds-based not-for-profit organisation who design and deliver public engagement and participatory experiences, projects and products.


The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.