Updated: Mar 12, 2020
Earlier this week I took a trip to the town of Galashiels in the Scottish Borders. Colloquially shortened to "Gala", this post-industrial town, once known for its textile industry, is roughly 30 miles south of Edinburgh. The reason for my visit was to work with Robin Baillie, the senior outreach officer for the National Galleries of Scotland in his collaboration with Works+, an organization that works with unemployed 16-24 year olds. Projects like this one are the reason I am here in Scotland. It is a true example of place-based education which connects students to their homes and provides real-life experiences from which they can learn from and draw upon.
I met Robin Baillie at the Portrait Gallery a while back and was thrilled to learn about the work he does to support the population outside of Edinburgh. Robin is a wealth of knowledge – of topics about Scotland, art, and life and is truly the poster child for museum education and community outreach. He explained some of his prior work at the Galleries, including community artmaking exhibitions, film-making, and a multitude of projects that encourage people to tell their stories and connect with their environments and localities. Robin is someone who works tirelessly to ensure that rural populations are engaged with the work in the National Galleries and I found it inspiring to tag along on one of his current projects with Works+ in Galashiels.
Works+ is Grant Pringle, Scott Wright, and Mark Timmins – three individuals who are working diligently to provide opportunities for young people who have not experienced typical academic or vocational success at this stage of their lives. The Works+ website describes their process:
We aim to get each young person into employment appropriate to their skills and attributes, or back into education to complete their learning and enhance their qualifications, or into training which develops new skills and confidence to enter the employment market.
Their program consists of 10-week projects with participants across the Scottish Borders. Participants experience increased confidence, improved social skills and a sense of general wellbeing. They leave the programs more able to find and sustain employment, further education or training. Mark states eloquently that their purpose is not to create a CV and resume, usher them to an interview and then pat themselves on the back. Their goal is to "fill the young people's vessels" by providing real experiences for the young people to draw upon. They take the participants out of their perceived confines – they plant trees, ascend mountains, create sand paintings on the beach, practice interview methods using robot design, all with the intention of encouraging them to feel accomplishment and pride. Mark states:
It's all about letting young people succeed at things. Art helps to celebrate success. They create a piece. It stands. It is. It comes to an end. It can be put up on a wall and people can have a conversation about it. There's a reaction to it.
These pivotal experiences spark the confidence and motivation to further one's education or career. Their methods are a shining example of holistic teaching – it is clear that these educators care deeply for the young people they work with.
After chatting with Mark about the great work they are doing at Works+, I caught the tail end of Robin's discussion with the participants about a National Galleries painting, General Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of Sultan Tippoo Sahib after having Captured Seringapatam, on the 4th May, 1799. Robin and the young people discussed the historical relevance of the painting and how every conflict has two sides to the story. The impassioned group used their discussion points to draw parallels to local historical stories.
The group descended upon the center of Galashiels to create a photograph with this concept in mind. They chose the Border Reiver statue by Thomas J Clapperton as their subject matter (Clapperton is the sculptor who created the familiar Robert the Bruce sculpture at Edinburgh Castle). They discussed the story of these raiders and how again, there may be many voices unheard in the telling of history. Young people mounted a carved pistol onto a long stake and positioned it in various ways to alter the story of the sculpted rider. Out of the three participants that day, only one had an interest in art, however all were engaged and willing to collaborate in their own ways. I was surprised at the level of commitment and willingness to step outside of their comfort zones. It isn't easy to create a piece of conceptual art in the center of a town, especially for a young person with little art training.
I left Galashiels feeling utmost respect for Robin and the guys at Works+ and was so grateful to see a prime example of place-based education and museum collaboration. Projects like the one the young people were exposed to are the reason that Works+ can boast a significantly higher success rate compared to other programs with the same goals. While the ultimate goal of Works+ is to carve a path to success for the young people, Robin's motivations go deeper than that. He states that he does not like the phrase "Make a difference" but that is exactly what he is doing. I'd like to think that most museum educators regularly drive an hour to deliver a university lecture on art history and a guided art-making tour to three youths from a rural area, but I know that just isn't the case. Robin's work bridges the gap between community member and museum visitor and lets a young person from a rural area know that the work in a museum is indeed for them, not just for a wealthy art patron from the city. He understands the value of art in a person's life and believes in its ability to inspire, motivate, and create joy. Robin's work with these young people will stay in my memory for some time and I will continue to be inspired and motivated by it.