Investing in the arts helps young people flourish

Over the past two years, Tate, working with Art Explora, has toured works from the National Collection across towns in the north of England and the Midlands in a purpose-built “mobile museum” truck. The project, which has seen the vehicle park in sports and shopping centres close to local schools, has sought to remove barriers in accessing art, in particular for young people.

Some rather sobering feedback from one parent neatly demonstrates the need for such a project: “Thank you for bringing things like this to the community. I had to give up the car after our rent was increased to more than my wages, so it’s nice that the kids still get some opportunities.”  

Each visit to the truck includes a hands-on creative workshop led by trained guides and has involved leading artists such as Jeremy Deller and Ingrid Pollard speaking with young people about their work and what it means to be an artist.

It’s a simple, straightforward idea – to ensure those children who have typically never visited a museum can have a rich, cultural experience on their doorsteps. 

At the start of each visit, the children are asked whether they have visited a museum before. Typically, fewer than 10% have, mostly due to the distance these children live to major museums and art galleries and the prohibitive costs associated with a trip to a city centre. 

With a curriculum that increasingly devalues the arts, and the costs of group trips becoming a barrier to schools as well, our experience with the mobile museum showed that making art accessible by placing it in the heart of communities made a vital difference in increasing opportunity and changing perceptions about “who art is for”.  

Young people need museums more than ever. In a changing world defined by constant noise from social media and declining mental health, not to mention financial worries (Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza has reported on “a real concern coming now from children about cost of living. They’re hearing it; they’re talking about it.”), the stories that children find in museums offer escape and inspiration, and art in particular has an amazing ability to transcend all manner of boundaries, encouraging sensitivity, imagination and curiosity.   

However, arts education in schools is in perilous decline, evidenced by a 47% fall in enrolment at GCSE level since 2010. Museums and galleries have stepped in with programmes to ensure that young people can access and develop their own creativity but with local authorities having slashed their spending on culture over the same period, they simply cannot meet the need.  Some regional galleries and museums are now planning to charge for entry – a disaster for stretched families who rely on these venues. 

The mobile museum is a tiny echo of a big idea. In the late 1980s, Tate made a commitment to share the cultural wealth of the collection across the country, so in 1988, opened Tate Liverpool in the city’s Albert Dock. It has since become the UK’s most popular modern art museum outside London.

Designed with an ambition of reaching 200,000 people a year, Tate Liverpool’s audience swiftly exceeded this, symptomatic of the enormous national appetite for culture. Its success within Liverpool inspired other towns and cities to invest in new cultural venues throughout the nineties and 2000s, fuelling the growth of what is now an enviable regional arts infrastructure that has made a step change to the British public’s relationship with art. 

Children in school uniform listen to someone talk about paintings on display
Schoolchildren from Our Lady & St Joseph Catholic Academy at the Art Explora Mobile Museum, in partnership with Tate and MuMo, in Nuneaton, during a 12-week tour of the area – Fabio De Paola/PA Wire

After 35 years of successful operation and more than 20 million visitors, we temporarily closed our doors last October to embark on a major transformation that will ensure we can meet the needs of audiences into the future. At the project’s heart is a recommitment to Tate Liverpool’s founding values, that opportunity and the cultural wealth of the nation must be shared widely and inclusively. 

The arts offer unparalleled value for money. Investment in arts and culture across the UK increases opportunity for every child, from every corner of the country, no matter their background or experience. The cost of all this is relatively low, and the benefits extraordinarily high.  

Helen Legg is the director of Tate Liverpool

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