How a Student Opportunities grant helped Van Gogh House to deepen visitor engagement
Supported by a Student Opportunities grant from Art Fund, Van Gogh House recruited five students from the Student Art Pass network with experiences of migration to act as Community Engagement Guides during artist Harold Offeh’s commission We Came Here.
By talking through the exhibition in relation to their own experiences and backgrounds, the student guides offered rich layers of interpretation to meaningfully engage audiences in person and online.
The project allowed Van Gogh House to support routes for diverse candidates into the museum sector and embed young people’s voices into their programme.
About the project
Van Gogh House is a non-profit contemporary arts organisation in London, based in a boarding house where Vincent van Gogh lived from 1873 to 1874. It was established in 2019 as a site of creative production and is dedicated to preserving the artist’s career while supporting the next generation of artists and writers through a programme of exhibitions, residencies and events.
In autumn 2022, the organisation commissioned We Came Here, a sound and sculptural installation by Harold Offeh, exploring ideas of migration, place and lived history.
The exhibition manifested as an imagined conversation between Van Gogh, when he arrived at the house in 1873 as a 20-year-old migrant from the Netherlands, and Olive Morris, a 20-year-old Jamaican-born, Brixton-based community leader who was campaigning for feminist, black and squatters’ rights a century later in 1972.
Visitors could listen into this conversation while sitting on sculptures of large-scale map pins positioned throughout the house.
To help facilitate conversations and interaction with the historical materials on display, Van Gogh House hired students with experiences of migration – who were similar in age to Van Gogh in 1873 and Morris in 1972 – as Community Engagement Guides. The commission aimed to share young people’s stories of migration in Brixton, and the guides would add rich layers of interpretation from their own personal experiences to the exhibition.
The grant resolved a practical concern regarding a need for front-of-house support during the exhibition, but was really so much more than that from the beginning.
Harold worked the guides into the development of his work, and their involvement meant that we could create a greater space for community engagement, as they brought their own skills, interests and lived experiences to our visitors.
This paid opportunity appealed to a lot of people, with 135 students applying. Five were subsequently selected as Community Engagement Guides to help audiences connect with Van Gogh House.
Art Fund's support for the We Came Here exhibition helped it reach a wider audience, with 17% of visitors reporting that they had heard about the exhibition from Art Fund's channels.
The conversations between the Community Engagement Guides and visitors were frequently remarked upon in visitor feedback, positively impacting on visitor experience and resulting in visitors spending a significantly longer amount of time in the house than they had at previous exhibitions.
The guides’ diverse experiences of migration brought multiple perspectives, as well as the viewpoints of young people, into the centre of the exhibition, creating both highly engaged guides and visitors.
By working front of house, the guides relieved pressure on the wider Van Gogh House team by absorbing some of these duties.
They also created engaging content for the museum’s social media channels, bringing their perspectives as young people to these online audiences, including creating an Instagram filter for the exhibition and reels, which proved to be very popular.
Two of the guides were particularly interested in designing and facilitating workshops. Van Gogh House created opportunities for them to do this, which in turn increased outreach to the local community and forged a relationship with a new partner organisation, the South London Refugee Association.
As someone not deeply embedded within the art world, I was initially afraid I would feel out of place here. With the support from the team at Van Gogh House, I feel comfortable in this space and I have a stronger understanding of the arts sector. Through this role I have engaged with multiple artists and arts professionals that I would not have otherwise.
Top four takeaways
Host a training workshop with the artist
Centre young people’s voices
Create routes into the industry
We have strived to keep in touch with the Community Engagement Guides as they begin careers post-university, and feel immensely proud of them for their achievement in creating an open and engaged space for an array of different audiences at Van Gogh House during that time.
Benefits and outcomes for the museum and students
This paid opportunity for students at Van Gogh House was a highly successful initiative for both the students and the wider Van Gogh team.
For Van Gogh House:
The students' support on front of house duties alleviated pressure on the wider Van Gogh House team.
The students were incredibly positive and proactive, eager to get involved in responsibilities far beyond their roles, and far beyond the expectations of Van Gogh House when devising them.
The students provided insightful interpretation based on their own experiences, which resulted in a positive experience for visitors.
Each student brought a unique skillset which allowed them to thrive in different parts of the programme, from digital engagement to creative workshops.
For the students:
In feedback, students reported that the experience helped to build their professional confidence and communication skills. It also gave them opportunities such as being able to work directly with an artist, contribute to a gallery’s public programme, engage the public and work with a range of community groups.
One student remarked that the experience made them consider working in the art world, a career route they had previously not thought possible because of how excluded they felt from it.
As a result of the collaborative workshop with Harold Offeh, held prior to the exhibition opening to the public, the guides were highly engaged with their roles and the unique interpretation they could bring.