Sean Gregory

Sean Gregory, Director of Creative Learning, Barbican and Guildhall School, considers a lifelong learning continuum for artists working in the world of 2020 and beyond. Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.

Committing to the ‘Golden Thread’

‘You can make your own path by walking on it.’ (Antonio Machado)

‘Artists of the future dont fill jobs…they create roles, build companies and influence strategy.’  (ArtWorks London Fellow)

The Barbican and Guildhall School’s Creative Learning division constitutes an active and radical alliance for artistic innovation, learning and research. A primary imperative for Creative Learning is to challenge assumptions about the role of the artist in society, interrogating the most appropriate and effective approaches to provide a coherent, flexible and sustainable professional development framework for the 21st century artist. I would like to consider the conceptual and ideological context of a ‘Golden Thread’ of training and development for artists that we have identified as one of our essential goals, and which brings with it the development of new paradigms of arts practice.

Through its partnership between a conservatoire and an arts centre that covers all the major performing and visual art forms, Creative Learning aims to contribute to broadening the remit of provision from a Higher Education institution, developing a translatable and fully reflexive model of a ‘golden thread’ of learning in the arts. This covers under-18, undergraduate, postgraduate and professional development for portfolio practitioners working in creative, collaborative and participatory settings. At the heart of this model lie the following values:

  •  Artists as entrepreneurs: leading in the development of their own pathways through a dynamic personalised learning framework informed by continuing conversations with people and places
  • Artists who raise expectations: bringing greater focus and a more consistent, higher level of quality to and output in participatory and socially-engaged settings
  • Artists who have critical capacity: capable of recognising challenges and applying critical capabilities constructively to both their own work and the work of others
  • Artists as part of a community of practitioners: committed to strengthening their sector through developing practice and joining up provision in participatory settings
  • Artists who are curious: keen to share and learn from new ideas, knowledge, skills, views and practice
    • Artists who are focused: capable of maintaining an intense, regular and highly energised work pattern
    • Artists who are self-aware: able to support themselves through reflective practice, and to make realistic, informed choices and decisions in complex and unpredictable situations
    • Artists as ambassadors: who promote the role and contribution of the arts to its function in society with integrity and attention to its ethical values.

I would argue that conservatoires need to offer a more coherent and robust training for artists to flourish as employable, enterprising practitioners in today’s society. As well as excelling in their ‘principal study’, graduates urgently need to represent a work force that is knowledgeable, and has relevant skills and understanding to be responsive to people and places in today’s society. Today’s artists require the skills as performers, presenters, creators, collaborators, leaders, and teachers, and may use these to meet needs in diverse sectors of society: cultural, commercial, health care, criminal justice, education and so on. Approaching the arts in this way will also help to secure audiences for the future. Research, however – such as that done through the Paul Hamlyn UK wide Special Initiative ArtWorks – has highlighted inconsistent opportunities, teaching methodologies and curriculum content in Higher Education for artists working in the world of today and tomorrow.

The Golden Thread was conceived to respond to these ‘gaps’. It represents a lifelong learning continuum for ‘portfolio practitioners’ committed to performing, collaborating, creating, leading and teaching in a variety of artistic and socially engaged settings. It is for artists at all stages of their careers, and captures both formal and informal opportunities through taught/led continuing professional development training, as well as experimental, explorative and self-led laboratory (LAB) environments. These are curated to relate to the shifting needs of the sector, as well as the individual needs of the artists.

The challenge with this conceptual framework of ‘next practice’ is establishing appropriate environments for students, emerging and established artists to experiment ‘without boundaries’ and to take risks across art forms. A ‘double edge’ comes with this aesthetic; on the one hand it gives permission for people to take risks, to create collaboratively across art forms, to reflect and think differently. You can relish the learning gained from your mistakes. At the same time, for the process to be robust, it requires artists to go out of their comfort zone and to allow their assumptions and beliefs to be challenged. Artistic practice – be it individual or collaborative, for its own sake or in a community context, can quickly become caught up in its own bubble, serving a particular audience ‘in the know’ but excluding many others. The learning environments we create have therefore to overcome this challenge, ensuring that students, emerging and established artists remain alive and responsive to our ever shifting and evolving cultural landscape. This means constant change – an exciting premise for artists to connect to – and with that comes only one certainty, that of uncertainty.

It is crucial that artists and arts organisations keep seeking out new and more effective ways of connecting with society as a whole. The quality of self-awareness and critical awareness an artist can bring to any reflexive cycle of learning (project planning, delivery, evaluation etc) should not be underestimated. Paulo Freire stated in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) that human nature is dialogic, believing that communication must always play a leading role in our lives. We are continuously in dialogue with others, and it is in this process that we create and recreate ourselves.   The profession needs enabling frameworks and models of support which encourage and celebrate the potential for collaborative and participatory work in a context of critical reflection, and I would argue that conservatoires are well placed to provide them.

Building on the work of Guildhall Connect (developing creative music ensembles for young people with mixed instrumental line-ups – 2002-2009) and MAP/Making (creating new landscapes in music, art and performance – Guildhall School and Royal College of Art – 1999-2009), a key consideration for us at Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning has been to advocate the integration (rather than separation) of artistic and participatory practice in order to help strengthen the viability of a Golden Thread of training and development for artists in today’s society.

Based on our work so far, a key success factor appears to be the creative, collaborative learning environments at the heart of the Golden Thread which bring out a range of qualities in an artist, consequently supporting them through different career stages. These learning environments embedded within the Golden Thread help to underline the value of exposing young people to this sector of work, and support them in developing essential skills at an early stage in their careers. A resilient learning continuum should also help to reduce the number of artists simply ‘falling into’ participatory work with insufficient skills and experience. This is an ongoing challenge to avoid this work being seen as ‘second tier’, as something to take up if you are not going to succeed as a ‘specialist’ in a principal study canon.

In this context, creative, collaborative partnerships are critical for organisations, as well as artists, employers and participants. We are seeing a new creative partnership ecosystem at play for everyone involved with the arts, cultural and education sectors. This requires us to focus on interrogating and breaking down the meaning of ‘community’, returning to its derivative parts: ‘cum’/together and ‘munus’/gift. Our aim is that the Community of Practice emerging through Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning should be an outward-facing, diverse nexus of existing communities; the point at which they can collide creatively, and so generate productive ripples back into artistic and other communities regionally, nationally and internationally.

The Golden Thread is a locus for both the acquisition and creation of knowledge. Its associated Community of Practice not only shares existing knowledge, going beyond technique to examine fundamental cultural values (a ‘gift’ that partnership can bring), but also draws on the knowledge, attitudes, values and behaviours of the practitioners and their own individual artistic ‘gifts’ to generate new thinking and practices. Artists who are creative and collaborative in their approach – who thrive on connecting to people as well as their contexts and needs – are helping to ensure that engaging with the arts is a genuinely and dialogic and mutually beneficial experience for audiences, participants and artists.

This potentially shifts the priorities when preparing artists for 21st century society. At the heart of any training – conservatoire based or otherwise – there lie two fundamental principles:

  1. Complexity – not only within your chosen specialist area of study/craft, but of life, individual and collective behavior, organisations and systems.
  2. Respect for the person – always treating people as ends in themselves and not as means to an end.

Acknowledging and embracing these two key principles effectively alters the way we exchange and work together as a sector: the diversity of any artistic community is central to a healthy ecology, enabling artists from across all disciplines to take risks, deepen knowledge and understanding, develop practice and learn from each other.

However, a challenge remains in that we still tend to present our art forms as ‘canons’, which in turn can lead to a ‘one way’ provision of expertise that is neither collaborative nor responsive to needs. Consultation with young people, schools and families through the Barbican Guildhall East London and City Culture Partnership, as well as with artists regularly working in collaborative and participatory settings (through the Paul Hamlyn Foundation ArtWorks special initiative) reveal that:

  • young people today are sophisticated, savvy and entrepreneurial. They are looking for clear career paths and opportunities to improve their employability skills and develop their individuality. They want the opportunity to drive and define their career path
  • artists like to learn through doing. Experiences should be varied and practice based to reflect the nuances of the sector
  • artists need to develop business and entrepreneurial skills as well as their artistic and participatory practice in order to be responsive and resilient in a shifting sector
  • artists need space and time to experiment as well as more structured learning opportunities
  • every artist is different and has varying needs; reflective practice is key to supporting lifelong learning and continued professional development

More than ever in today’s contemporary cultural landscape artists are effectively ambassadors, promoting the role and contribution of the arts to its function in society with integrity and attention to its ethical values. These are people who have the artistic and reflective skills to thrive as a portfolio practitioner – performing and communicating, creating and collaborating, leading and teaching.

The increasingly organic link between ‘learning and engagement’ and the artistic programme (in our instance the Guildhall School and the Barbican) is acting as a catalyst for new forms of performance, participation and audience development. Nothing is standing still – innovation, experiment and creativity are increasingly the norm. Young people and emerging artists are becoming more creative and enterprising in their approaches to their thinking and actions; they consequently have the confidence and imagination to confront the challenges of working together and can be more adventurous in working across art forms.

If we accept these ideas and embrace the situation, then two major questions arise:

  •  How can conservatoires, in partnership with professional arts and cultural organisations, commit to creating ‘laboratory’ environments that enable learning through both direct and collective experience?
  •  How can they meet the wider growing respect for the notion that artistic practice, as well as personal and professional development, needs to be underpinned by critical reflection?

It is a challenging scenario, but it is a space that I believe conservatoires can fill, becoming an ‘R&D engine’ of the arts by 2020 that drives the development of professional practice forward.

Sean Gregory is Director of Creative Learning at the Barbican Centre and Guildhall School of Music & Drama. He is responsible for developing and delivering a range of world-class creative learning programmes involving music, theatre, visual arts, cinema, dance and literature, across these two organisations. Alongside working as a composer, performer and creative producer, he has led collaborative arts projects for all ages and abilities in association with many British and international orchestras, opera companies, theatres, galleries and arts education organisations.  Gregory previously held a number of roles at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama including Head of the Centre for Creative and Professional Practice and Head of Professional Development. He set up and ran the Guildhall Connect programme which won the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2005 for its pioneering music leadership and creative ensemble activity with young people in East London.


1 thought on “Sean Gregory

  1. Carlos Lopez-Real (@carloslopezreal)

    Thank you Sean, you’ve vividly captured some of the most important and, at the same time, exciting challenges facing conservatoires. How can we facilitate artists to become part of a community of entrepreneurial, reflective practitioners who not only act as ambassadors for the arts but are highly responsive to the society in which they live? How can we facilitate the integration of (high quality) artistic practice and dialogic participatory practice, so avoiding the exclusive ‘bubble’ you refer to?

    As you suggest, both critical reflection and ‘laboratory’ environments are surely a crucial part of this process. The challenge for conservatoires is not only to create the structures that facilitate these processes, but also the environment that stimulates and supports a change of culture and attitude within the organisation. Crucially, this needs to be done in a way that doesn’t alienate existing staff and students, but rather allows change to grow organically from the grassroots.

    A related challenge is to do this in a way that doesn’t diminish the essential core of artistic craft. This challenge is as much to do with managing perceptions and expectations as anything else, for the reality is that craft develops in response to a particular need. The fact that craft may develop in response to the needs of participation and social engagement, rather than the needs of the canon, may mean that it develops differently, but this difference in no way implies lesser quality. The ‘Golden Thread’ of learning has a crucial role to play here. By providing a continuum of learning from under-18 through to CPD, it supports artists to grow their craft:
    – in the context of creative, collaborative and participatory settings;
    – in a truly integrated and holistic way, continually relevant to their society;
    – to the very highest artistic standards.


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