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June 20 2011

Art clubs target talented children

Saturday art clubs – a reincarnation of a 1970s idea – are inspiring disadvantaged children

See their work in this gallery

The young boy looks wistfully out of the window at the huge green expanse beyond, the darkness of his clothing – layered with tiny strokes of coloured pencil – contrasting with the airiness of the never-ending countryside.

This extraordinary drawing – which goes on show this week in a new exhibition at London's Somerset House – is not the work of a professional artist, but 14-year-old Leeds schoolboy Hafizullah Karim.

The exhibition spotlights the potential of more than 400 young people aged 14-16, showcasing their work in disciplines from drawing, painting and sculpture to photography, print-making, ceramics and digital graphics. All have taken part this year in the fledgling National Art and Design Saturday Club scheme, receiving free specialist tuition from their local art college.

The Saturday club is a modern version of an earlier incarnation, which bit the dust in the 1970s. The aim was – and is – to encourage disadvantaged youngsters to consider careers in the creative arts. So on Saturday mornings 14 art colleges – including Leeds, Plymouth, Hereford, Grimsby and Hastings – have been throwing their doors open to this group of young people who often struggling lengthy distances by public transport to get to the lessons.

Hafizullah seems surprised by the huge interest in his work since he won a place last year on the club run by Leeds College of Art. "I love art," he says. "It is my favourite subject at school, but I have learned so much from the Saturday Club. My tutors have encouraged me to be more adventurous in my style. In art, the more you do, the better you are. I have worked with clay, done graphics and also used watercolours." He explains that for this work, he originally took a photograph of himself sitting by the window at home but adapted it for the drawing – which he completed in about a week and a half – substituting the urban views outside for countryside. "The outside world and nature are so important to us all," he says, declaring himself an admirer of the Impressionists.

His love of the outdoor space may reflect the earlier restrictions in his life. Hafizullah's family left Afghanistan when he was three to live in Pakistan while his father went to find work in Leeds. The youngster honed his drawing skills at the afterschool Ghoighola Art Class in Quetta, which he attended for four years.

In February last year, he and the rest of his family moved to the area and he joined year 9 at City of Leeds high school. He won a place at the Saturday Club after the school's head of art, Catherine Walsh, recommended him as exceptionally gifted.

This year, more than 400 young people attending 100 schools in the UK have taken part in Saturday Club – funded predominantly by the private Sorrell Foundation to the tune of £150,000 a year – but it is hoped to increase this number to 500 next year. It is estimated that there are a further 100 UK colleges that could offer the programme using existing facilities, and the aim is to "scale it up" each year to allow more young people to take part.

The scheme targets 14- to 16-year-olds who have already shown evidence of artistic talent – many from challenging social backgrounds – who are still weighing up their academic options after GCSE and are yet to decide whether to pursue further or higher education. While the regular classes offer the kind of tuition and facilities that most secondary schools could only dream of, they are supplemented by "Master classes" given by renowned artists and designers such as Antony Gormley, Thomas Heatherwick and Naomi Cleaver. This brings the best of inspirational British art and design talent to youngsters from poorer backgrounds who might not otherwise be able to tap into such creativity, along with opportunities for longer-term mentoring. All students are also taken to London for a day – for many their first visit – for tours of major galleries.

Also studying at the Leeds club is Nida Mozuraite, a 16-year-old student at Morley Academy, who came to the UK with her family from Lithuania six years ago. She has been getting up regularly on Saturday mornings at 8am to travel to Leeds for the three-hour sessions. "I have got used to getting up early and I do it because I enjoy it," she says. "I have made lots of new friends and also been introduced to techniques I would not have been able to use at school. The tutors treat you like grownups, not children." Nida is just finishing her GCSEs and plans to study full-time at the college on its BTec national (extended) diploma in art and design in September.

The clubs' success is reflected in high attendance rates – no mean feat given that Saturday mornings are a time when you would expect most teenagers to be chilling out or hanging around with their mates – if they manage to drag themselves out of bed at all. Last year, Leeds College of Art received 80 applications for just 25 places, while at Plymouth College of Art some students happily undertake a 60-mile round trip to attend classes.

The clubs use existing resources, but the art college lecturers (helped by student volunteers) have to give up their valuable time on a Saturday to teach – a considerable sacrifice at the end of a busy week.

The drive to expand the programme into a fully national one is given extra impetus given the cuts to arts education funding that threaten to constrict the supply of talent to colleges, universities and, ultimately, the creative sector in the UK. Similarly, many teachers fear that art GCSE is at risk if schools have to comply with the new EBacc curriculum – which for the same reasons could also lead to design technology being downgraded.

Plymouth College of Art's club has been running for five years, and last year 38% of club members went on to take up courses at the college. An enthusiastic "veteran" is 15-year-old Ben Lintell, whose striking photographic work for a magazine project features in the exhibition. "I have done everything from old-style poster printing to pinhole photography, which has been great," he says. "The sky's the limit in terms of what you are taught, and I have also enjoyed the chance to work collaboratively."

Fellow member 14-year-old Eleanor James-George says: "I would very much like to go on to study at Plymouth College of Art. I have really enjoyed screen-printing T-shirts with photographs, and using  darkroom equipment, enlargers etc that we do not have at school."

Alumni of the original 1970s art clubs included designers John and Frances Sorrell (who went on to form design consultancy Newell and Sorrell and who set up the Sorrell Foundation) and advertising genius John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Sir John Sorrell reflects: "This strikes me as something the government should support as it is all about localism in action. Frances and I were lucky that we could start our careers in a Saturday morning art and design class when we were 14 years old, and by the age of 19 I was running my own business. We believe the club offers a real pathway for youngsters to develop their skills and confidence, and find worthwhile and rewarding careers. Just as we did."

• The exhibition is open until 17 July, admission free.


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Arts on Saturday

Disadvantaged children are being nurtured in the creative arts by the fledgling National Art and Design Saturday Club scheme. An exhibition opens this week at Somerset House in London of the work of more than 400 young people



April 13 2011

Will Turner Gallery help Margate to a brighter future?

Once a thriving seaside resort, Margate has recently become a 'dumping ground' for vulnerable people. But the opening of the Turner Contemporary Gallery could revive the town's fortunes

This weekend sees the much-publicised opening of the Turner Contemporary Gallery on Margate's seafront, built on the site of the boarding house run by the painter's lover, Sophia Booth. Boarding houses and hotels have been this Kent coastal town's blessing and its curse.

During the 19th century, visitors flocked to the resort in their thousands by steam boat and railway and the hotel industry boomed. A new cinema in the 1930s and a Butlins holiday camp were followed by the mods and rockers in the early 60s. But when tourists fell out of love with Margate and sought fun and sun farther afield, hundreds of seaside hotels and guest houses were left empty. Unable to attract paying guests, unsuitable for family accommodation, but cheap and easy to convert into bedsits and small flats, many once elegant, tall, terraced buildings with many rooms were converted into high-density, poor-quality accommodation.

This has become a magnet, not just to individuals in need of a cheap place to live, but also to external agencies and local authorities who, according to the British Urban Regeneration Association, have used Margate as a "dumping ground" for vulnerable and highly dependent people. Such inward migration has created a huge imbalance in Margate's population with a disproportionate concentration of vulnerable people, including homeless families, care leavers and ex-offenders. Half of all ex-offenders in the Thanet area live in Margate and four ex-offenders are released into the town each week.

"Services – statutory and voluntary – are close to collapsing because of the concentration of highly dependent people in Margate," says Derek Harding, director of Margate Renewal Partnership, the town's regeneration body.

There are also high numbers of looked-after children who have been placed in the town by other authorities. Of the 500 looked-after children in Thanet, more than half have been placed by 58 out of area local authorities, including many London boroughs. Secondary schools are now refusing to admit looked-after children from other local authorities.

"We think it's wrong to place the most vulnerable children in England in an area that already suffers from significant deprivation and where our schools are under pressure to meet the needs of local looked-after children," says Andy Somers, chair of Thanet Secondary Heads Group and principal of Hartsdown Technology College. "It simply doesn't help the life chances of young people who are placed miles away from their homes, where their difficulties may in fact get worse and future prospects are limited."

Margate is also a popular destination for migrants, but without adequate resources to manage their arrival and integration, there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest economic migrants are easy prey to unscrupulous landlords and employers and victims of racism and crime.

Andres Balog comes from Slovakia and with his three children and their aunt Iveta lives in a rundown, squalid flat in Cliftonville, a once afflluent suburb of Margate. There are hanging wires, lethally gaping holes in the floor, a pipe that leaks into the flat below and the tiny kitchen bears the scorch marks of a previous fire.

The family pays no rent, Balog is unemployed and the local authority taskforce helping them has had great difficulty in tracing the landlord. When asked how they found the flat, 15-year-old Andres junior, acting as translator, vaguely says "friends", who also help to provide food. In effect they are squatting, although Andres says his father "wants a job to pay for a better place".

Beneath them live 19-year-old James Thompson with his girlfriend Josephine Brown, 18. Their six-week-old baby is in foster care but the couple are splitting up in order to improve the possibility of the child being returned, so Thompson needs to leave the flat and find somewhere else to live in the next few days. He has lived in Margate all his life and is currently on bail for burglary, awaiting a court date. Brown was placed with relatives in Margate, but was taken into foster care in the town following a violent relationship in her early teens.

"It's complicated. Our son is in foster care and my history is not too good," says Thompson. "I used to live with my sister and from the age of 10 I helped to bring up her kids. I'll be a brilliant dad." He hopes to get a community rather than custodial sentence and wants to find a job and a way to be part of his child's life.

Margate's problems stem from the fact that like many coastal towns, its economy has been over-reliant  on tourism. When that dried up, so did the jobs, and changes in farming meant that seasonal agricultural work was also lost. Unemployment in the poorest parts of Margate is around 38% – more than 10 times the south-east average. The recent announcement of the closure of the Pfizer pharmaceutical plant in nearby Sandwich will see another 2,500 people in the Thanet region looking for work. Some 63% of Margate's population are dependant on welfare and more are on incapacity benefit than jobseeker's allowance. What jobs there are tend to be in retail and administration.

Dependency industry

"Deprivation and dependency are an industry in Margate," says Sarah Woodward, director of the Margate Task Force, which brings together the district and county councils, police, probation, local NHS, housing and employment services.

Efforts to regenerate the town have so far only been a partial success. Some £40m has been poured into the area since 2007 to kickstart the regeneration programme in which the new Turner gallery is the centrepiece. While there are signs in Margate Old Town of a different type of business – boutiques, cafes, studios and workshops are springing up – sections of the main seafront remain a swath of boarded-up arcades, and parts of Margate have yet to benefit. 

Thanet's public services have struggled under the growing burden of care while the cycle of decline outside the old town continues, inextricably linked to social problems of worklessness, benefit dependency, poor health, crime and antisocial behaviour. Now, in an attempt to stop councils sending so many vulnerable people to Margate, Thanet district council and Kent county council are trying to dissuade external authorities from placing people in Margate.

Meanwhile, the taskforce is trying to improve life and prospects for residents at a grassroots level in the two most deprived wards in the town – Cliftonville West and Margate Central. This part of town is one of the 3% most deprived areas in the country.

Unemployment is running at two in five of the working population in these wards and Margate is seventh in the national rankings for welfare benefits dependency, with 63% of residents on benefits. When JMW Turner died in 1851, he was 76. The life expectancy of a man in Cliftonville West today is 69.2 – 17 years less than a man living just 15 miles away and more than a decade less than the national average of 80 years.

Woodward says despite a multiplicity of public services, agencies and initiatives over the years, little has been achieved apart from "fire-fighting" immediate crises. "More of the same simply isn't going to work, so we have to take a different approach using community-based programmes," she says. The taskforce is focusing on housing, employment and skills, health inequalities and street cleanliness and antisocial behaviour.

It is tracking down absentee landlords and enforcing regulation to deal with the estimated 800 vacant properties, in the hope of driving down the number of small, privately rented flats which represent 82% of the two wards' housing stock. It wants to get rid of dreadful landlords and owners by forcing them to improve properties, to make housing more suitable for families instead of numerous small flats and bedsits.

And it has introduced several neighbourhood initiatives, working to deal with issues ranging from flytipping, dog fouling and litter, to cracking down on truancy, and criminal and antisocial behaviour.

"We're on a journey and we've a way to go but I can see the fractures that exist between services. Now we're talking to each other, building relationships and that means we can respond more quickly so both long standing residents and the most vulnerable can see we are listening and responding," says Woodward. The taskforce has been operational for just six months but it has successfully enforced antisocial behaviour measures and issued arrest warrants for drugs trafficking, sex offences, theft and assault, inspected over 600 homes and carried out truancy sweeps. The visible presence is helping reassure people in the poorest parts of the town that they are not being ignored.

But the long-term prospects for Margate depend on whether the town can make itself more attractive to business. Richard Samuel, outgoing chief executive of Thanet district council says he is optimistic and pessimistic in equal terms.

"Turner, housing initiatives and regeneration will move the area on but I'm hugely nervous about the impact of benefit changes which will take £20m out of the local economy," he says. "It is not public money that will change places like Margate. Private investment creates wealth that creates jobs."

One of the major barriers to attracting inward private investment and creating more highly skilled, better paid jobs is transport and Samuel hopes the council's bid to upgrade and extend the rail line so that it services Kent's Manston airport is successful. Extending the high-speed rail link from London, which currently goes as far as Ashford, would cut the journey time from London to neighbouring Ramsgate to around an hour, opening up huge potential for Margate. It would cost £50m but the economic impact in the area could be enormous, he says.

The hope is that the Turner gallery will act as a catalyst for more regeneration. But Samuel is not getting carried away. "If Turner wasn't there, Thanet district council would still be tackling the problems," he says. "It [Turner] is the jewel in the crown but it is not the only thing." 

Some names have been changed.


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July 23 2010

Points of culture

A series of debates at the Southbank Centre shows how Brazil understands things that supposedly 'developed' countries don't – not least about the transformative social power of art

Twenty years ago, it seemed as if Brazil couldn't stop dreaming about its future. Now the future has arrived; Brazil is an economic and political world leader with a seat at the globe's most influential table. Yet the country still faces the fundamental renegotiations of power – between rich and poor, women and men, black and white, indigenous and immigrant, city and rural communities. Recognising that without a new and radical approach Brazil will never achieve its promise for a just society, engaged artists in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Salvador and in rural areas across the country are pioneering new approaches to giving communities a real voice. But their work doesn't spring randomly from unconnected initiatives – it's part of a strategic plan to create an entire network of socially committed cultural projects.

In 2003, the Brazilian government created an initiative called Points of Culture: thousands of community and arts projects of all sizes and types that would work to strengthen people's involvement in the life of their neighbourhoods and the larger society. The idea came from the legendary musician Gilberto Gil who had agreed to become culture minister for a five-year period under President Lula. The very act of having artists in the centre of government sent a signal of serious intent. Throughout his ministry poets, playwrights and philosophers worked in the executive, bringing a new language of aspiration and inventiveness to that of government.

But what does it mean when politicians pledge to put "imagination at the service of the people", as the Brazilian government has done? First, it's a recognition that culture and positive cultural expression is the foundation of identity and pride for all of us. But culture isn't simple, and one size doesn't fit all – it's very personal, particular to individuals, groups, tribes, neighbourhoods and regions. It has to spring from the circumstances of place, economics and tradition, and be captured in vivid and powerful ways. Second, politicians in Brazil believe that professional artists can play a key role in developing people's confidence, happiness and sense of self. Third, it's a declaration of their respect and love for the people of Brazil – regardless of their economic or educational privilege – and a desire to improve the lives and opportunities of all those millions of citizens who remain marginalized and unable to fulfil their potential. It was a bold, demanding mission to launch and to sustain, but one that has proved so successful it is now spreading to other parts of Latin America.

When I was creating Southbank Centre's summer-long Festival Brazil, I wanted to reveal what Brazil was thinking about; how its artistic vitality is bound up in its democratic urge to transform and reinvent the world, and how much the artists of Brazil believe in the creative capacity of everyone. Tonight, in a debate entitled The Edge of the Future: Renegotiating Power, Jose Junior – who founded the powerful AfroReggae movement – discusses the choice of young people to turn away from drug and gun culture and towards music, dance and poetry as a way of finding status and "family". Tomorrow, Luiz Eduardo Soares, formerly Brazil's National Secretary of Public Security, a man who dealt with some of Rio's most alarming clashes between police and gangs, will talk about how hip-hop artists and photographers helped him forge communication between lawmakers and young people.

For both these debates, there will be weighty contributions from some of the UK's important cultural projects, too. We will hear from the Koestler Trust, who work with prisoners and young offenders, about why the arts serves as a unique tool of rehabilitation. And Camila Batmanghelidjh brings her experience and vision of Kids Company and the central role that the arts can play in supporting young people to manage their circumstances differently.

The UK currently has the finest arts ecology in the world, including many outstanding cultural initiatives that work at grassroots level. But it doesn't have a comprehensive programme that offers communities – and particularly young people – the right to work with artists in ways that would substantially change their sense of what is possible. Britain is a society in flux, and we need bold ideas that strengthen our communities. Brazil's belief in the importance of culture to the lives of its people is far-sighted, and can provide inspiration to us all.


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