I’m 34 years old and I’m still too scared to go into my local Arts Centre. I don’t feel posh enough, arty enough or clever enough. Arts Centres are for the elite, and that certainly doesn’t include me. It’s a weird paradox because I have taken part in the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa for four years running. I have had exhibitions in the fringe festival and given talks on the Think!Fest programme. So what’s the difference between the National Arts Festival, South Africa and the Wexford Arts Centre, Ireland? The difference is that I learned from a very young age that I am on the outside of that specific space in Wexford, I saw ‘those’ people go into the Arts Centre and was told (silently and by implication, by stealth) that I was different, not good enough. Those unspoken messages have stayed with me.
I have come to realise that having an Arts Centre on the corner of your street means very little if a child cannot feel that he or she has a right to enter it, has a role to play in the culture and business of the Arts Centre. In a way, its proximity to my home only served to reinforce my exclusion because I regularly saw other people, ‘better’ people go in and out of its doors. I was constantly on the outside looking in, sometimes literally. Stealing glances through the windows or an open door as I walked past.
I must clarify and add that I have, on occasion, gone into the Arts Centre as an adult and even did some things there as a child when they had art groups for children. I even did stilt walking in a circus workshop there once! But those occasional times spent there did not have enough impact to override the sense of elitism and exclusion that I felt then and still carry with me now.
People might say that times have changed, that art centres have much more community outreach now. And I am sure that is true of many Arts Centres and Art Galleries. The MOMA in New York has brown bag lunchtime talks and these feel accessible and welcoming. But today even as an adult I do not feel welcome or feel that I have a right to go into the Wexford Arts Centre. I don’t know what’s inside – is there an active exhibition, are they setting up, will I get shouted at for going into the wrong room at the wrong time? The signage doesn’t make sense, doesn’t explain, and doesn’t afford entry. Today the side window has what I think is an exhibition with ‘Woven into memory’ written alongside colourful flower displays. Is this a current exhibition? Am I, a random member of the public, allowed to go in and see? I don’t know and so don’t try, don’t venture inside, I’m still wondering what is happening inside.
Two students I was working with last year told me “just because you give us permission to speak and encourage us to use our voices, doesn’t mean we will be able to. We have had histories of being silenced and oppressed and speaking isn’t as simple as being given a space to speak into”. I think art centres and children are a bit like that. Just because there’s one in the neighbourhood doesn’t mean that a child will believe he or she has a right to enter. Arts centres need to do more than exist, they need to afford entry and engagement.
Whilst the Wexford Arts Centre is inaccessible from the outside for a passer-by, I should note that it has a very nice website