BLOG: Being a Creative Apprentice at Culture Bridge North East

17 September 2018

BLOG: Being a Creative Apprentice at Culture Bridge North East

By Melissa Gillespie

I feel very lucky to have been Creative Apprentice for Culture Bridge North East (CBNE) for the past two years. Since 2016 I’ve gone from a painfully shy newcomer to a professional about to take the next step in her career in the cultural sector. Now that my time at this amazing organisation is almost at an end, I thought I’d share some of my experience with you.

When I first started at CBNE I was a rabbit in headlights: I was so nervous about starting this new job I could barely drum up the courage to answer the phone, and piping up to asking questions was almost unthinkable. I was sure I would mess it all up somehow and leave without completing my Level 2 qualification in Community Arts Administration. Obviously, that didn’t happen – I’m just coming up to the end of my second year at CBNE and my Level 3 qualification in Community Arts Management, and it’s thanks to the support of CBNE that I’ve been able to do it.

This apprenticeship has given me the chance to try so many different aspects of working in the cultural sector. In my first year I learned the ins and outs of our finance systems and databases and learned so much about administration and customer service – the really vital stuff that keeps an office running. I went on all sorts of in-house training, from Core Museum Skills to Equality, Diversity and Access to Autism Awareness. I even trained to be a Fire Warden!

My first big achievement was leading on the logistics for Imagine If…, CBNE’s annual cultural education conference, in 2017. I had never worked on an event before – the closest I had come was booking rooms for meetings in the few months I’d been at CBNE – and this was a conference for nearly 120 people; to say I was nervous would be an understatement. But after months of liaising with venues, writing up contracts, organising catering, processing invoices, managing registration pages and emailing delegates, it all went on without a hitch, and my confidence in myself grew by miles.

The thing that has really made the difference during my apprenticeship – and the thing that I’ll remember long after I’ve left Culture Bridge North East – is the unwavering support. I was encouraged to seize any opportunity to gain experience in the cultural sector, from attending training and conferences to looking for work experience in different venues. As my background is in visual art, a few months into 2017 my manager Elvie and I met with the Learning team at the Laing Art Gallery to see if I could gain experience with them. Working directly with children and young people wasn’t something I’d considered before and certainly not something I thought I’d get the opportunity to try, but this meeting led to me co-delivering several of the gallery’s Art Academies and Art Schools – and earlier this year I planned, developed and delivered my very own three day Art Academy for 7-10 year olds based on the Laing’s collections. It was an incredible experience and a huge learning curve. I learned so many new skills, not just in terms of arts practice but in working with children and supporting them to be as creative as they can be. I also got the opportunity to train as an Arts Award Adviser and have successfully delivered and assessed Arts Award at Explore level, and have been delivering Bronze and Silver at the Laing’s monthly Saturday Art Class. Arts education, including Arts Award, is now something I’m looking into seriously as a freelancer; I’m hoping to get my website up and running by the end of this year.

This encouragement to gain experience extended to secondments as well: I’ve just finished my stint as Schools Programme Assistant for the Great Exhibition of the North, which saw 21,000 school children visit Newcastle and Gateshead over just 23 days.

It was this support and the opportunities to gain all of this experience that led to me being awarded Creative Industries Apprentice of the Year at Gateshead College’s Edge Apprenticeship Awards in 2017, and being a runner up for Apprentice of the Year at the Creative and Cultural Skills Awards in 2018. That was a really exciting experience; my colleague Eileen and I got to attend the award ceremony at The Lowry in Manchester and I spoke on the Apprentice Panel at the Creative and Cultural Skills Conference, advocating for apprenticeships in the cultural sector alongside three other apprentices to an audience of nearly 300 people.

As my apprenticeship has come to an end I’ve received a huge amount of support in applying for jobs. The whole team have been incredible in sharing opportunities, helping me fill out application forms and preparing for interviews. This help has paid off - I’m lucky enough to be staying in the cultural sector and am moving on to be Programme Assistant for Creative Learning at Sage Gateshead this October. This support is an essential part of an apprenticeship, it all would have been so much harder without my colleagues there to give help and advice.

To CBNE’s next apprentice – to anyone starting an apprenticeship or thinking about one – my advice to you is this: don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to share your aspirations, your interests and your goals – this is how your team will help you get to where you want to be! Don’t be afraid to take opportunities in areas that you hadn’t considered before – you never know where things will take you, and it might be what gets you your next job. Notebooks and to-do lists are a life-line, as are post-its! Make sure to take note of all the training that you do so that you can refer back to it when applying for jobs at the end, plus any significant experience – like organising a cultural education conference, for example. Build your contact list – you’ll learn a lot about networking over the course of your apprenticeship, so make sure you don’t lose any contacts that could be helpful to you in the future. And most importantly – believe in yourself. If I can do it, you can do it. Whether this is your first job, or you tried university and it wasn’t for you, or you’re changing careers, take every opportunity that comes. If you do, I guarantee that this will be one of the best experiences you’ve ever had. It certainly has been for me.

Could you be Culture Bridge North East's next apprentice?