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Engage is the lead advocacy and training network for gallery education.

We support arts educators, organisations and artists to work together with communities in dynamic, open exchanges that give everyone the opportunity to learn and benefit from the arts.

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Sharing Practice

Art and Us at MK Gallery

Art and Us invites families with children aged 5+ with complex needs to work directly with an artist, allowing family members to enjoy spending time together in an environment which is creative, accessible, fun and understanding of everyone’s needs. The programme has been developed in recognition of the unique strains experienced by families with a child or children with complex needs. The three-year programme is generously funded by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Milton Keynes Community Foundation and builds upon MK Gallery's expertise in 'whole family' programming and MK Gallery’s commitment to providing high quality arts experiences for all. 

Art and Us extends an invitation to any families who feel unable to attend wider gallery workshops or events based upon their children’s physical, emotional or sensory needs. It offers a welcoming, safe and stimulating space which is able to flex to the needs of its users, and as such offers a backdrop to responsive and meaningful activity free from fear of judgement or expectation. Having only a small number of families (up to 4) who attend any one session allows a flexible space to be created which can adapt to meet the needs of its users, allowing parents/guardians the opportunity to focus on the shared creative experience rather than on concerns around possible triggers or pressures of the setting or situation. 



Each session sees the space set up with care to offer both tailored working areas and free flow sensory inputs. Large scale projection, sound, tactile artist made resources and playable installation elements are inviting of independent investigation and further reinforce the shared ownership of the space and the multisensory qualities of these sessions.  Specific specialist resources such as sensory light equipment and a sensory black out tent enable the creation of break out space which allows children to step out and self-regulate as necessary, in doing so allowing them to attend a fuller session than they would have been able to otherwise. Further specialist kit such as a mobile hoist will soon enhance our provision and enable us to increase the depth of experience for older participants with profound and multiple learning disabilities.

The programme, managed by MK Gallery’s Curator of Inclusion is delivered by a skilled pool of Associate Artists who rotate on a weekly basis. By working closely with individual families they are able to offer bespoke, open ended creative activity which is based upon information shared prior to the session by each family and motivated in the moment by their interests and feelings on the day. Art and Us activity, although varied in art form and outcome (if any), doesn’t necessitate any specific way of engaging, instead it offers material catalysts, a shared space inviting of temporal transformation, and a fully flexible format held by considered facilitation. As such families can lead their experience supported by their artist to build confidence at a pace which suits them. Our artists have diverse participatory arts practices and experience which embodies skills in many art forms and modes of communication. Each have individually invested in this opportunity keen to question, test and explore their inclusive arts practices with a genuine passion and desire to develop high quality and impactful experiences for all.



This new family audience has been established via connecting with local support groups, organisation’s and local SEND schools. Through networks such as these we have been enabled to reach families who have found themselves to have limited cultural provision elsewhere and are thrilled to have discovered the quality and ambition of the work that we are doing. In a short space of time we have witnessed children who seemed unlikely to cross the threshold stay for the full duration of a session and leave thanking their artist by name or high five. Others who are non-verbal and non-ambulatory have shown delight at the sound of bubbles blowing or a ping pong ball racing around the edge of a salad spinner. Some with limited verbal abilities have spoken confidently when mediated by a playful megaphone and motivated by a dynamic session of movement and material exploration. The long term nature of this programme is fantastically fulfilling as we begin to build what we know will be lasting relationships and observe profound moments such as these of self-discovery in children, parents and artists alike. 

The launch of this activity is particularly timely as MK Gallery is currently undergoing a major expansion which is due for completion during the second year of the Art and Us programme. The main gallery building will reopen in early 2019 with state-of-the-art access facilities funded by MK Community Foundation and generous individuals. The expanded MK Gallery will include access routes of a generous width, accessible signage, a hearing loop, portable seating and a Changing Places toilet - a facility for those whose needs mean they are unable to use a standard accessible toilet. These provisions will hugely enhance the experience of visiting MK Gallery and the Changing Places toilet will open up the venue to families, such as those who attend Art and Us who currently would be unable to make extended visits to the Gallery.  We are thrilled to continue to grow the programme and the rich relationships with our local families that it informs.



Having the support of Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Milton Keynes Community Foundation to deliver this transformative programme is fantastic. Their support enables us to bring in specialist expertise and train artists and other staff to provide a positive experience of the arts for absolutely everyone regardless of their level of need. For families with a family member with complex needs, the opportunity to enjoy high quality creative activities together is very rare, which makes the new Inclusive Practice in the Arts programme all the more important. We are delighted to be delivering this crucial work as part of our commitment to providing the very best arts experiences for all.’
MK Gallery Director, Anthony Spira

Art and Us sits within MK Gallery’s core Family Learning Programme and as such has a full family learning philosophy at its heart. We value the impact of shared and intergenerational learning opportunities and recognise the enhanced benefit of such equalising opportunities for parents, siblings and other family members who may be focussed on caring for the needs of a child/children on a daily basis.  Creating a safe yet stimulating workshop space, with tailored, artist supported offers, allows family members to access the experience alongside each other, embracing their innate curiosities and propelled forward in joint inquiry by curious, dynamic and sensory materials and resources, many of which may not be accessible within the family home or their daily lives.



Families are being enabled the opportunity to extend their repertoire of creative encounters and experience each other in an entirely new context.  As such they are acknowledging moments of realisation in which their understanding of each-others capacities, interests and the possibilities of engaging with open ended creative activity together is expanding session by session.

The implementation and delivery of Art and Us is embedded within a far broader learning journey for the full MK Gallery team and Associate Artist pool. Art and Us builds upon the Gallery's long-term partnership with Hastings-based organisation, Project Art Works, working to create meaningful arts engagement with individuals with profound disabilities.  A training programme delivered by Project Art Works and their partners supports the full staff team in their awareness of the context of this work and specific inputs such as Positive Behaviour Support Training further equips the programme delivery team to confidently respond to the needs of all children and families.



Rigorous evaluation is paramount to the development of the programme as we keep the experiences of families at the heart of its growth.  In order to ensure we are well placed to capture the voices/feedback of all our participants, including those who may be non-verbal or with limited verbal ability we have sought support from local academic researchers specialising in capturing feedback via non-verbal evaluation methodologies.  As the programme develops participating families will be invited to further contribute to discussions around programme development and wider provision which may further benefit them as parents/carers and open up conversations and relationships across the sector and between local provisions in Milton Keynes.  A process of social care mapping, which gives a detailed overview into the social care landscape of the city surrounding the gallery will further support new relationships, audience growth and partnership opportunities into the future of the programme.

Bethany Mitchell
Curator of Inclusion, MK Gallery
http://www.mkgallery.org/

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