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Art for everyone

IT is Friday night. A group of teenage boys sort out where they are going to meet up on Saturday afternoon. "See you - three o'clock - down the museum." It is just not a likely scenario. The local multiplex cinema or shopping centre is far more probable. The Government has a stated commitment to "combating social exclusion" in the arts and culture, "300,000 new chances to experience the arts" and "200,000 new educational sessions", to be precise. Yet the divide between young people and cultural venues is immense. "Crossing the Line", the recent report commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation, shows how deep the divide is.

Museums and galleries come out worst. It is just not cool to be seen in either of these. Dance, too, is seen as the world of the white middle classes. Only the theatre is perceived as a place where it is possible to have fun.

The report outlines a number of initiatives which venues have adopted to bridge this gap - youth-orientated marketing strategies; link projects between youth services and galleries; mobile exhibitions; music programmes that incorporate popular and youth music. It is significant, though, that not one of the young people interviewed for the report had personally experienced such a programme. Their cultural experiences had, in the main, been mediated through school. But school trips currently seem to have as much chance of putting off young people as inspiring them. While the painstakingly prepared worksheet may satisfy the school's need to coverthe curriculum it simply is not going to generate a life-enhancing experience.

To bridge this gap we need a dialogue between the two worlds. Cultural venues must listen to what interests young people and respond. The requirement for change which emerges may not be comfortable for those venues. The needs of different audiences may not sit happily together. The solutions are likely to be radical - redefining the boundaries of culture; rethinking the design and schedule of programmes; changing the ambience of the venue; creating ways of mediating between young people and the exhibits or productions; making greater interaction possible.

There may be a fear that responding to a youth audience means lowering creative and artistic standards. In fact it does quite the opposite. Young people are stimulated by projects which enable them to work alongside skilled creative professionals and by access to challenging materials they learn the rigour that is an integral part of such a process. They start to see themselves as participants in that world. They also learn that "art" can be accessible and meaningful to their lives rather than something for "other", "older" and distinctly "boring" people.

Pat Cochrane is chief executive of Creative Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE UK)"Crossing the Line. Extending young people's access to cultural venues" edited by John Harland and Kay Kinder is available from Turnaround Publishing, tel: 0181 829 3000, for pound;5.99 plus postage and packing

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