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In Conversation with Carolina Silva

We’re delighted to have Carolina Silva from Whitechapel Gallery in London joining us in Brisbane for MuseumNext Australia. We caught up with her recently about her work and what she’ll be talking about at the conference in March.

Can you tell us a little about Whitechapel Gallery?
The Whitechapel Gallery was established in 1901 in London’s East End, an area of the city with high levels of immigrant population. As stated on our website “Our history has always been the future”. For over a century the Gallery has premiered world-class artists, from modern to contemporaries, and is nowadays a touchstone for contemporary art nationally and internationally.

Education has been at the heart of the Whitechapel Gallery’s history and mission since the beginning. Located in one of London’s most vibrant communities we stage encounters with art and ideas, creating a space for collaboration, exchange and experimentation for people of all ages and backgrounds.

You’ll be speaking in Brisbane about your work connecting the gallery with the local community can you tell us about your approach?Our Community Programme has developed in direct response to findings from focus meetings held with local groups and organisations. It addresses the challenges and opportunities of our local context – bringing together and celebrating art practice, local knowledge, diversity and public participation.

My presentation will focus on our Community Workshops. These are free workshops co-developed with an artist for people with little or no experience of art. From our experience many factors can prevent people from accessing cultural organisations, including disability, language and economic or social exclusion. These are factors we consider when planning the sessions.

During the workshops all groups visit one of the Gallery’s main exhibitions, take part in conversations about the work and participate in a practical activity in our creative studio space. We encourage people to find connections between their experience and the art they encounter. Indicative groups include ESOL groups, adults with learning disabilities, older people, parent groups, rough sleepers and homeless people, and museum visitors dealing with mental health problems.

What surprised you about the project?
The Community Programme has allowed me to work closely with local organisations and expand the partnerships already established. I have also engaged with new groups in response to their specific needs and interests. My role at the Gallery has stressed how crucial it is to assert the social value of art institutions and the need for an in-depth debate on participatory art practices.

The Whitechapel Gallery’s Education and Public Programme contributes to the wider debate on the social and political role of art museums and galleries, the challenges of working across arts and formal education, as well as the ethics of working with underrepresented communities.

What advice would you have for Australian museums looking to actively connect to their local communities?
The Whitechapel Gallery focus on partnerships has enabled us to engage with a wider community locally, nationally and internationally. One of our ambitions is to continue to develop models for sustained engagement with audiences that effectively impact on individuals, organisations, and in the sector more widely.

Our extensive work with local communities stretches through all levels of learning and critical engagement and reflects the Gallery’s commitment to collaborative and participatory processes devised in close dialogue with youth groups, schools, children and community groups. To map and understand the local ecology is pivotal for the success of our programme.

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