Ten years of Making conversation at Manchester Art Gallery
A creative and social space
Making conversation has been an integral part of the adult learning programme at Manchester Art Gallery for ten years. There have been some magical moments of connection between the works of art on display at the gallery and people from all walks of life. It’s success lies in creating a workshop space, physically and conceptually where the fundamental elements of all creative activity are able to flourish amongst participants: inspiration, response, developing ideas, experimenting and creating. It has also become a very social space and participants return again and again because of the connections they feel to other people, to the artist, Naomi Kendrick and to the gallery during the workshop.
Making conversation is open to all adults and includes audio description and guides so that adults who are blind or visually impaired can access it fully.
Workshops take place monthly on the third Thursday of the month. You can see lots of images from Making conversation on Flickr.
Meg Parnell, Learning Manager, Lifelong learning and Volunteers.
Naomi Kendrick reflects on her experience as lead artist on the programme
When we have new people joining Making conversation, as participants, volunteers, researchers or managers, it is always a case of “just come along and participate, then you will know”. It is hard to define in words what makes this workshop so special.
It is a workshop for adults at Manchester Art Gallery that was established ten years ago by Lifelong Learning Manager Meg Parnell and myself. At the time I was running my arts council funded national project ‘Elephant’, for which I developed and delivered workshops and exhibition tours in museums, galleries and community settings for groups of people who were blind or visually impaired. This had grown out of my own art practice which was, and still is, rooted in a multi sensory approach, as well as research carried out during my desgree (1999) into what opportunities were available to people with visual impairments to access and create art (at the time this was incredibly limited).
Alongside this multi sensory approach I believe in enabling workshop participants to learn for themselves, to interpret art on their own terms, without being told how to think about it. (This had grown out of my earlier training with the French education organisation CEMEA whilst employed at Fabrica Gallery in Brighton).
A multi sensory approach
After a short time running Making conversation, Meg and I opened the workshop up to all adults, realising that what drew people to the session was a particular way of looking at and responding to art through making and that this appeal was not exclusive to those with a sensory impairment. In any one session we may have retired people, students, someone just visiting the gallery that day from another city or country, artists and those who haven’t drawn since their school days. Many of the participants are visually impaired, blind or have other disabilities.
Separating people into different workshops because of a disability doesn’t make as much sense as bringing people together through a common interest. Though it is an accessible workshop, sight loss has never been at the centre of Making conversation, it is people’s pre-existing relationship with art and their confidence in experiencing and creating it that drives it, this is the starting point and often the challenge.
I witness the participants who, like magicians, turn whatever we have to hand in the studio into something incredible.
Each workshop begins with an exhibition tour, where I provide audio description of a selection of the work. We then return to our studio for tea, coffee, biscuits and a discussion around our response to the exhibition. There is a multi sensory activity inspired by the exhibition around this time, where sound, touch, smell, taste are used in various ways to provide an additional ‘way in’ to the art works.
Our discussion is then continued through making, at this point the room becomes alive with action. Through choice, participants often work collaboratively in small groups with support, if needed, from volunteers and myself. The brief is always to make work in response to the exhibition and subsequent discussion, what has the work evoked? How can this be captured in what you make?. The results are incredibly diverse; performance, poetry, drawing, sculpture, sound art, painting and more. I witness the participants who, like magicians, turn whatever we have to hand in the studio into something incredible and often in a very short time frame. We then spend time at the end of each session discovering what has been made – a whistle stop tour of the fascinating, provocative, playful, moving, humorous, revealing and heartfelt. I think we are all, always, a little amazed at what has happened in those few short hours, of what has been discovered and said.
A supportive and collaborative environment
There are so many ingredients that come together to make Making conversation it is about the process of absorbing, discussing, sharing and creating (an end is less important). And we are a team, where the lines between volunteer, participants and workshop leader are happily blurred. Everyone supports each other and multiple collaborations are formed whilst making, perhaps just for one session or over months and years. New comers have been visibly moved by the welcome they receive and the joy in the room.
The art we all share a passion for has enriched us individually over the last 10 years but it has also been a catalyst for bringing us together – It provokes us to share our own stories, and as a consequence to know each other better.
Running Making conversation, being part of the group it has become, is such a privilege. The participants, managers, volunteers and myself are rightly proud of what we have achieved. Making conversation is a constant affirmation of how powerful art can be in this context, of its ability to move us, remind us, inspire us, test us and bind us. I can say with certainty, with the many remarks from participants, colleagues and researchers past and present still echoing in my ears, that it makes our lives better. Isolation is such a huge problem in our society and certainly for many involved in this workshop, and that is why Making conversation is special. It has people’s relationship to art and to each other at it’s core. We have created an extraordinary space where the two are interchangeable.
Making conversation is the people who have been a part of it over the past ten years. We are constantly joined by new people, new views and experiences, people have come and gone, sadly some have died during this time and we remember them always in what we do. Thank you to all of the participants who have attended over the years! We have also had amazing managers, invaluable assistants and an army of incredible volunteers. I would like to thank them all for their support and hard work, for ‘getting it’ and for standing by us all the way. Especially Meg Parnell, Rob Blundell, Kate Day, Helena Lee, Mary Gifford, Ticky Lowe, Ed Trotman, Helen Newman, Gemma Lacey, Charlotte Tupper, Elaine Matteer and Ronan Brindley.
What participants say about Making conversation:
It gets your brain working. You’ve got to respond to something and every month Naomi pushes us in a nice way to make something related to what we’ve seen. I really enjoy it when Naomi pushes us to think more. What’s classed as art, what you think about it.
I find I connect to programmes on the television, I’ve heard about an artist or something has come up in conversation at the gallery and then I see a programme about it. It stimulates me.
When someone first said to me do you want to go to the art gallery, I said why would I want to go to the art gallery, I can’t see the pictures, I don’t know what’s there. When I first heard about it, I thought, that wasn’t a place for me. And now I’ve been coming for 6 or 7 years, so somebody must be doing something right. I’m not sorry I started coming, I’m sorry I didn’t start coming before!
Tony, participant for 8 years
I enjoy everything about it, getting out the house. Meeting other people and I enjoy making and drawing things and seeing the art. The way that it gets described to us. I knew a bit about art before I started coming but I enjoy it more now that it is described to us. It’s important that there is both the appreciating art in the gallery and making responses.
The social side of Making conversation is important as well as the art. If you don’t meet people and if you live on your own you are isolated. It helps me to feel connected to people, they like to talk about and make art. It’s really interesting to hear other people’s opinions.
Nicola, participant for 3 years.