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Nottingham Contemporary. Source: Paul Fillingham

Barriers to Engagement, Nottingham Contemporary

Art galleries and museums need to think about providing opportunities for older adults to engage with other older adults as well as people from different age groups. Inviting people to exhibitions and providing ‘talks’ or films and a social event afterwards to meet with others and discuss the interpretation of the event can help increase the sociability of the experience whilst also increasing the ‘accessibility’ of the art on offer.

Part of the purpose of The Bigger Picture research was to discover what engagement people aged over 60 residing in Nottinghamshire had with the arts. Our comic focuses on their experiences of Nottingham Contemporary. Here Dr Loretta Trickett discusses their responses and provides suggestions on how to reduce any barriers to accessibility.

The majority of respondents had visited Nottingham Contemporary when it first opened and some of them had visited one or two exhibitions since then. A number of respondents had previously attended Nottingham Contemporary as a result of another arts event; most notably through a writing group run by the Nottingham Playhouse around the American photography exhibition where respondents had to produce a piece of creative writing about the exhibition.

Nottingham Playhouse. Source: Paul Fillingham

One issue raised in the research was the Contemporary being a modern art gallery. This was not to say that older people in the interviews were averse to modern art or architecture per se. Indeed, a number of them were complimentary about the design of the building and interior spaces including the café. Rather there was a feeling amongst the respondents that some of the exhibitions were ‘not for them’.

One respondent pointed out that whilst he was open to new art forms and experiences, he did not feel that the art on display was made accessible and he gave an example of when he had asked a question of an attendant at an exhibition about the art which was on display. He reported that he was made to feel ‘patronised’ and ‘foolish’ which had resulted in him choosing not to return in the future. This issue is represented in the comic when Sue accidentally leans on the artwork and is briskly told to ‘step away’ from it.

Comic art panel from The Bigger Picture

The accessibility of the art was a key factor as respondents reflected on their overall ‘holistic’ experience of the visit including limited opportunities for engagement whilst at the gallery. It was suggested that a greater degree of ‘intimacy’ and interaction was required in order to make people feel ‘welcome’ and comfortable when in the building and in terms of interaction – particularly for older people. It is important to recognize that older people are looking for a ‘holistic’ experience in which they are made to feel welcome and comfortable within the venue; so that even if some aspects of the visit are enjoyable, problems in other respects may prevent people returning.

In terms of inclusivity it was stressed by respondents that there was a need for a much greater level of explanation and interaction with visitors in modern art galleries. This is not, of course, to say that individuals cannot bring their own interpretation to bear on an exhibition but more context and explanation perhaps of the artists in terms of their motivations and intentions as well as contextualisation within a wider framework of reference might be helpful in terms of thinking about linkages to the work of other artists and indeed to the wider world and social issues. Respondents felt that in browsing the exhibitions even with the addition of information cards the content was often too difficult for them to grasp and that therefore a much greater degree of interaction with audiences was required.

A connected issue in terms of inclusivity through being ‘made to feel welcome’ was to do with the lack of seating around the exhibitions which meant that for people with mobility problems they experienced difficulty in enjoying the exhibition. In the comic this is represented by Sue slumping against a wall. For some participants, the lack of seating had put them off going again and had meant that their friends and family were also unwilling to visit again. Within a very modern art gallery the issue of aesthetics needs to be considered – but the issue of providing seating is an important one for any visitors with mobility issues as well as pregnant women and those with young children. This fact also contrasted with the design and accessibility of the building which people felt was helpful to people with mobility issues in terms of their access in contrast to their experiences when navigating the exhibitions.

Broadway Cinema. Source: Paul Fillingham

One way to reduce some of these barriers to accessibility of the art was to provide accompanying information through films or engagement by staff. Respondents had particularly enjoyed information delivered through other mediums at venues such as the Broadway and the Lakeside which were praised for putting on accompanying films with exhibitions and also for a greater level of engagement between venue staff, curators and visitors.

Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham. Source: Paul Fillingham

Older people wanted to ‘share’ experiences so it was considered that group sessions should be organized during the daytime when older people could attend with others and extend their social networks. Therefore, a further idea to encourage accessibility and engagement was to invite groups of older people that were currently engaged in other creative arts activities elsewhere in Nottingham. A number of respondents were engaged in a writers group and theatre group at the Playhouse and Nottingham Theatre Royal and some were engaged in Music for Everyone. Building on such existing networks within the city to invite groups of people to other venues for particular events and exhibitions was considered to be a useful idea.

Theatre Royal, Nottingham Source: Alan Feebery  CC BY-ND 2.0

This would also serve to make attendance at an exhibition a ‘shared social experience’ - something Sue is desperate for in the comic. Our research found a ‘shared social experience’ was highly valued by older people and which was felt to be lacking at the Contemporary. Respondents often felt that viewing art either at a gallery or through attending a theatre production afforded little opportunity for social interaction with others which is a particular problem for people whose social circles may have reduced following retirement and sometimes bereavement.

Taken from Dr. Loretta Trickett Research findings on older people and engagement with the arts, January 2019

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