Creativity: the stuff of freedom

January 8, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Innovation 

Adam Lent, head of the Action & Research Centre here at the RSA, recently wrote about the crucial role of creativity for the 21st century. Of his four arguments, I want to elaborate on the first—on creativity as the realisation of freedom. Paraphrasing John Stuart Mill, Adam wrote that “taking the great historical gift of freedom in order to remain passive, ineffectual and conventional” is “horribly wasteful.”

Among the values of this focus on creativity is its reminder of the responsibilities that freedom and self-governance place on us. “A deeper happiness has got to come from using our freedom to be creators as well as consumers”, Adam wrote. I contend that this applies not just to economic and cultural activity, but to freedom itself.

This past December, UK audiences were spared one of those cookie-cutter free-speech ‘controversies’ that played out in the US. Someone on a reality TV show made an offensive comment about homosexuality, and the network—doing the right thing, and not wanting to lose audiences—removed him. Then the Republican clown car flew right off the tracks, with the likes of Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal saying things like “this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views… I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.” The network—doing the right thing, and not wanting to lose audiences—then rescinded the guy’s suspension.

People often seem to mistake ‘the right to free speech’ for ‘the right to have a TV show’.[1]

This episode illustrated a few things. First, politicians say things that don’t make sense. Second, TV networks are feckless. Third, people like to make a sport of saying offensive things.

But that’s the easy critique. The outraged talking heads’ misunderstanding of the First Amendment goes much deeper. The First Amendment isn’t about free speech, although it appears so on the surface. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion are all just foreplay to the main event: the right “peaceably to assemble” and “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
- US Constitution, First Amendment

The First Amendment is not about free speech. It’s about responsible citizenship.

It’s not just that we are free to speak and write and worship in the ways we choose. It’s that we have the responsibility to do all of these things, and to do so in the service of good and legitimately democratic self-governance. And while most other rights do not require action, this is the most demanding of the ten entries on the Bill of Rights, justifiably coming first. The provenance of power it describes was an absolutely radical break from monarchical and authoritarian rule. It mandated that laws reflect the will of the people rather than dictate it. It placed the onus of responsibility onto citizens, not the government, to behave – to speak, to write, to worship – in ways worthy of the dignity of their freedom. The quality of our society was to become only as good as the creativity we exercised.[2]

This is why people who like to ‘test’ their freedom of speech, and thereby beg others not to take them seriously, are not serious citizens. They abdicate their responsibility to take part in sincere dialogue, to behave responsibly and inclusively to create and refine the substance of a free society. Serious citizens produce freedom, rather than consume it. That, in my view, is the democratic essence of the Power to Create. It reminds us that we live in a society that is political to the core, and though there are rules and laws and competing interests, we as citizens are at the centre. Creativity is the realisation and perpetuation of freedom. Creativity is responsible citizenship.

Emerson once asked, “Are you for man and for the good of man; or are you for the hurt and harm of man?” This is not a question that can be left to any higher authority. Citizens must answer this for themselves—and then act.


[1] Madison was to quill this as the Eleventh Amendment, but succumbed to his crippling fear of prime numbers.

[2] Mistakes were made. Tocqueville: “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”

Creativity? That’s not for me.

In Adam Lent’s recent blog ‘Why is creativity the most important political concept of the 21st century’ he outlines the broadest definition of creativity as being ‘an act that is unique to an individual’s own capacities or vision’.

Why is it then that you’ll frequently hear people recoil in trepidation asserting ‘oh, but I’m not creative’?

Is it fear that they’ll be asked to draw? Or worse still, sing? Is it that someone way back told them they were no good at something and it’s stuck? Is it an excuse to get out of doing something? You’re creative, you do it. Is it an underlying lack of confidence in themselves? Is it a lack of birth right or sense of status?

Lent goes on to explain that creativity is important for four reasons:

  1. It’s good for us
  2. It’s economically more important than ever
  3. It’s the only solution to long term austerity
  4. It is under threat.

Do read his blog for more on this, am oversimplifying here to provide context, with this in mind I’d like to add two different thoughts.

Firstly, and perhaps crucially, does it matter then that people claim not to be creative? And often vociferously so.  Is it because they default to the narrow association of creativity = art?  Who are these people?  And what implications does this have for our growing mission of the ‘power to create’ and the broadest definition of creativity.

Secondly, and perhaps fundamentally, I have to throw into the concept driven mix that creativity is FUN!  Don’t we all want to be more creative?  Personally and professionally?

Creativity enables us to solve problems, to meet people, to feel more human, to relax, to use our hands, to express ourselves, to experiment, to get dirty, to learn a new skill, to be brave, to get something wrong, to have a laugh, to feel fulfilled, to innovate, to feel a sense of achievement, to take a risk, to grow inside, to allow us to think a bit bigger.

But in case you were wondering , think you are not creative? Oh yes you are. It is in us all, it is innate. Embrace it. Follow it. See where you go.

“Cracking good job, Gromit!”

November 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Fellowship 

Bristol, and indeed the west region, was taken over by Gromit fever over the summer.  Eighty different 5ft high giant Gromits  were painted and situated all over the city, creating an art trail and the opportunity for people to explore Bristol whilst searching for the Gromits.

(c) Roz Bonnet

(c) Roz Bonnet

It’s not exaggerating to say Bristol went crazy over these Gromits, Bristol Evening Post reported “The city’s museums have seen a 65 per cent increase in the number of visitors through their doors this summer compared to last, shops and restaurants have seen a rise in customers while Bristol’s tourist information centre has seen more than double the number of people through its doors.

Most of the businesses and organisations that are seeing a boost in visitors are crediting the Gromits.”

015 (2)

(c) Roz Bonnet

The Gromit’s were finally brought together in the Royal West Academy for a week and the queues were insane – up to 6 hours queuing to see them altogether, it caused chaos.This chaos was good however as the Gromit’s were auctioned off to raise funds for Bristol Children’s Hospital and over £2.3million was raised.

My question is why this fever for the Gromit’s, a similar trail was around last summer with gorilla’s and although popular it didn’t cause this kind of fever, not seen since the Banksy exhibition at the Bristol Museum.  Was it because they were Gromit’s (Nick Park’s Aardman Animations is based in Bristol and therefore it has a close connection to the city), was it because the Evening Post featured photos in the paper? Was it the gamification of the gromit’s and the fact you had to follow a trail to find them? Was it social media – so many photos were posted on facebook, twitter…. I’m not sure but it is something I would like to explore in the West region.

We recently saw how the focus of a key theme can bring Fellowship together (at the RSA Yorkshire conference) focusing around the Incredible concept, spearheaded by Pam Warhurst (FRSA), see blog about it from Matthew Taylor.  I would like to find what could ignite the Fellowship interest in the West – our key themes have been identified as environment, health and education – how can we create a Gromit effect for Fellowship?  All ideas gratefully received!

Lou Matter is the Programme Manager for West and South West. You can follow her @loumatter 

 

What might work? Making the case for a Cultural Endowment Foundation

November 5, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters 

Today the RSA and Arts Council England will launch Towards Plan A: A New Political Economy for Arts and Culture. This series of four papers which examine how the arts sector might play a full role in the UK’s economic and social renewal In the papers:

  • Martin Smith asks for a new industrial strategy for the arts, to make the most of ‘ the prickly, sometimes antagonistic but always necessary relationship between art and commerce’;
  • Alex Jones asks for cities to be more honest about their capacity to be so-called creative hubs – not all cities can be – and more intelligent about the way they understand the impact of cultural spending on regeneration;
  • Mandy Barnett and Daniel Fujiwara argue that ‘the cultural sector needs to agree a single framework within which to talk about value, whilst disentangling the social from the cultural in the process’; and
  • Sue Horner (chair of RSA Academies), in calling for a ‘grand partnership’ between education and cultural sectors, suggests how both sectors need to step up to harder-edged collaborations.

John Knell’s excellent introduction also offers recommendations to inform future policy and practice. This includes the idea that: “ACE should commission, in partnership with DCMS, DfE, AHRC, key trusts and foundations, and the sector learning network, at least one ‘high burden of proof’ study – involving if appropriate randomised controlled trials – which would explore the impact of particular arts interventions in a key impact area (for instance health and well-being, education or community cohesion).”

Having spent several years leading probably the largest ever ‘high burden of proof’ study ever undertaken in the arts, the Creative Partnerships learning programme in thousands of schools across England, it would be tempting to show John my wounds and medals. As, over the years,the quality of our research, evaluation and outcomes improved, it actually became more difficult to make the case for continued investment. However, I think John is onto something, and his proposal could be even more ambitious.

Could the cultural sector create something similar to the Education Endowment Foundation – a body dedicated not just to commissioning rigorously evaluated projects, but also to improving the way that evidence is built and used across the education system? Importantly, the EEF exists and is funded through an endowment – from the DfE – which secures both its independence and its long term stability. Although it is too early to judge the impact of individual projects (and my prediction is that only a few will show statistically significant impacts on closing the attainment gap), the Foundation’s processes and toolkits are already informing school decisions. Many schools are finally moving from a culture of data use to a culture of evidence use.

A Cultural Endowment Foundation, perhaps funded through a small percentage from the recent 4G auction, should be entirely independent from Government and Arts Council England. ACE is too invested in demonstrating rather than understanding the impact of its spending. It should support programmes to be externally evaluated against cultural as well as social or economic outcomes, possibly using Mandy and Daniel’s single framework, so that the arts are not just the servants of other public policy masters. Finally, it should be prepared to go public when the cultural sector engages in poor quality, advocacy-heavy evaluation processes – I’ve got a few favourite worst evaluations, which I won’t name and shame here. Understanding value should not be a compulsory activity for all in the arts sector – some will just want to get on with making great art for everyone, to use ACE’s mission statement. A Cultural Endowment Foundation could help cultural organisations make the choice between either doing evaluation properly or not doing evaluation at all.

Joe Hallgarten   Director of Education     @joehallg

Can you help make ArtSpace Bath happen?

October 9, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Fellowship 

IMG_0936This is a guest blog by Penny Hay FRSA. Penny received an RSA Catalyst grant to help run a contemporary arts event in Bath. She is currently running a crowdfunding campaign through the new RSA curated area on Kickstarter to further develop the project.

 

Next Spring we plan to organise four action-packed days of immersive, multi-sensory, creative experiences in and around Bath, providing an opportunity for all ages across the diverse community of the city to engage with creativity.  It will be packed with exciting contemporary arts, performances, and workshops. There will be a world street cafe and a kaleidoscope of surprises to engage all ages: a place of serious creative play.

The idea of a need for a permanent creative arts space in Bath had been discussed for a while, and we came to a decision that one way of launching this would be this 4 day event.  We drew the RSA Fellowship into the concept in its early stages; speaking at the local Bath network about our vision for the project.  We were given really helpful feedback and gained a number of additional Fellows becoming involved with the organising team.  Over the summer we worked on the idea and the concept of the project, and were subsequently supported by the RSA with £2,000 Catalyst funding.

The objective of the permanent space and the 4 day event is to promote culture change through engagement: the reinvention of Bath, and the promotion of well-being, cultural, economic and public value without conflict.  An art space is a unique opportunity to revitalise the culture of the region, being a stimulus and a hub for innovation in co-creativity, co-design and co-curatorship.  Engagement with leading contemporary arts both directly enlivens the local culture, and draws and retains the creative professional individuals the region needs to sustain and expand the knowledge industries, which are already taking over the main commercial support of the region.

The objective is to promote culture change through engagement: the reinvention of Bath, and the promotion of well-being, cultural, economic and public value without conflict.

 

Research has shown there is particular need for this kind of space in Bath: it was recognized by the City Identity project from Bath and North East Somerset Council, which aims to support and foster the cultural climate in which the creative industries flourish and prosper.  A report by Nesta (2010) identifies this area as a creative hotspot, but also that there is a need to retain creative talent from Bath’s universities and colleges to foster the local culture (Florida 2002); and research by Mickeldore (2012) which demonstrates the need for a creative hub to grow the city’s creative economy.

artspace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have built up a remarkable array of partner organisations involved: Bath University, Bath Spa University, 5x5x5=creativity, Illuminate Bath, Bath Festivals, Bath Film Festival, Buro Happold, WOMAD and Real World Studios, TEDx Youth Bath, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Demuths’ Cookery School, Grant Associates, Bath & NE Somerset Council, Patrick Woodroffe Lighting design, Invisible Studio, and Niki Turner Designs. We also have Stuart MacDonald, founding Director of the Lighthouse, Glasgow, and Toby Jackson, former Head of Education at Tate Modern consulting on the business case to take the artspace concept forward.

Bath is already an extraordinary city, evidenced by the remarkable achievements of our two universities, the scale and significance of Bath’s creative and technology industries, and the talented national and international figures who are based in the area. Blessed with an outstanding heritage of radical entrepreneurialism, human creative genius and wellbeing, the city of Bath is ideally positioned to build on the existing strengths of the community to achieve recognition on the international stage. Artspace will be a powerful catalyst in making this happen, engaging the latent creativity and talent of the local culture by hosting and showcasing the best of global cutting-edge art and innovation, fostering a uniquely attractive and vibrant city culture.

ARTSPACEHow you can get involved

In partnership with the RSA we have launched a crowdfunding campaign to support this initiative.

Our funding campaign is live on kickstarter and we are aiming to raise £10,000 by 16 October. We would be very grateful if you could pledge your support, or help spread the word by sharing our campaign with your contacts. To find out more please contact me by email (p.hay@bathspa.ac.uk) or via Twitter @PenAHay.

Take advantage of a special launch offer to the first 200 crowdfunding pledges made by RSA Fellows. The RSA will match the campaign(s) you have backed to a maximum of £10 if you tell your network which project you’ve backed via: a comment in the RSA Fellows LinkedIn group discussion on crowdfunding; tweeting using the #RSACrowdfunding hashtag; or posting a status update on the RSA’s facebook group.

 

What’s the secret to learner engagement?

At the RSA Family of Academies we are working with four schools in the West Midlands who are about to embark on an arts audit.  By reviewing what activities are already taking place across their schools they will be able to examine the ways that the arts and arts experiences could be woven through the curriculum and the school day.

One of the priorities for RSA Academies is ‘enabling learners to achieve a broad range of qualifications, skills and competences’ which poses some interesting thinking.  How do you enable learners to achieve not just qualifications but also a broad range of skills and competences – and further still, confidence.  And how do you get the disengaged interested in learning again?

A new report from the Arts Council of Wales explores arts and creativity in schools and the impact that arts experiences which take place in schools have.   The headline figures are conclusive and striking.  Of the 42 schools and colleges involved in the research, 99% said they felt that an involvement in arts activities had improved learner engagement.  Dai Smith, Chair of the Arts Council of Wales follows this: ‘teaching in and through the arts, far from detracting from literacy and numeracy should be seen as an enabler to driving up standards in academic priorities’.

The research also identified that 98% and 99% felt that the arts developed emotional wellbeing and interpersonal skills of the pupils.  The report provides evidence of the enrichment and progression of learners as a result of arts organisations coming through the school gate and through outside visits to theatres, galleries and exhibitions.

Which thinking about it, most of us will have our own experiences for which this rings true.  I can still vividly remember a trip to the Barbican to see Romeo and Juliet with Tim McInnerny just mesmerising as Tybalt.  The act itself of the trip to a big city, visiting the vast concrete megalith that is the Barbican and then to be wowed by the strange language of Shakespeare is the sort of stuff that stays with you at the tender age of 13.

Ben Kelly with Arrow Vale RSA Academy students

Ben Kelly with Arrow Vale RSA Academy students

Beyond this, the arts enables young people to explore identity and self-expression, to create and to experiment.  Last week one of the RSA’s Royal Designers of Industry, Ben Kelly joined Arrow Vale RSA Academy in Redditch for the day.  Designer of the interior of the Hacienda, Ben is a real life example of a rule breaker and innovator, and he inspired years 9 and 12 students with a new sense of what’s possible and attitude to success.

Whitley Academy head boy, Prince Chivaka leads a series of podcasts in a project with RSA Fellow Fran Plowright called Frontline Voices.  Across the RSA Family of Academy schools, Prince and his fellow students explored questions of what it means to be a young person today growing up in an uncertain and changing world.  Fran explains more about the project in her What about tomorrow? blog.

And take a look at Whitley Academy in Coventry.  Their art website, Whitley Arts was created to showcase and sell their unique student artwork.  It has also opened students’ eyes to the possibility of their work being in the public realm.  The site acts as a focal point, a potential destination of work whilst underpinning learning and personal development.

We are working to create more of these moments of inspiration and practical projects where creativity is fostered as a core skill, and where hopefully more learners become more engaged as a result.

The RSA Whole Person Recovery, Co-Design Learning Journeys, June / July 2013 – Some reflections…

September 9, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Design and Society, Recovery 

As Lead Recovery Community Organiser within the WPR programme, one of my responsibilities is to ensure there is a quick and responsive capacity on the part of my team, to meet the emergent requirements of the community of c.600 service users within the west Kent region that we work in.  Earlier this summer in June, I had a seemingly random conversation with one of my colleagues from our principle partner organisation CRI – www.cri.org.uk about the prospect of somehow transforming the rather standard and corporate ‘social care facility’ non-aesthetic (that is a space designed and decorated, without any real design-sensibility informing the look, feel and function of the space) at the Tonbridge hub.

I jumped at this opportunity as I immediately saw it as a chance for us to work in a genuinely co-designed / co-produced approach with the service users in the programme. I was quickly able to speak with other colleagues within the Hub, specifically the key workers who are the principle formal point of contact between service users and the WPR programme. From these informal conversations, a meeting was scheduled to explore with service users that had expressed interest in what such a project might look like in terms of the process, timeframe and the outcome(s). The meeting was very dynamic, lively and really good fun. Many of the service users at the meeting commented on how exciting and positive it was to actually feel they were involved in shaping the direction of a real project that would have concrete outcomes and reflect their ideas and concerns. We explored quite a lot of possibilities as to how the design / build project could progress. Some of the ideas were pretty crazy, some of them were rather tame, but a lot of them were really creative and achievable – given the real constraints in terms of money (low thousands) and time (just three months) to get from first meeting to post-snagging of designed, built and installed solution…Heady stuff!

The agreed outcomes of this kick-off scoping meeting were to recruit a team of service users interested in continuing to contribute to the project (about 10) and agree a process – this consisted of a mood board workshop session and a number of visits to some (hopefully) inspiring working-spaces in London that demonstrated a pared-down fairly minimal ‘boot-strap’ / up-cycling aesthetic. It was also agreed that a good move on our part would be to find a partner organisation that could help us to take the project forward. Enter The Glass House Community Led Design! – www.theglasshouse.org.uk We were fortunate that Maja Luna Jorgensen, Strategic Projects Manager with the charity was able at very short notice to be available to help us with design and community engagement input. She helped to shape a schedule of appropriate buildings and locations around London that we could visit for inspiration and insight, into what makes a successfully designed creative working space, able to accommodate multiple uses, designed and built on a shoestring budget that works well and looks beautiful. Not only did she help shape a schedule, but she accompanied us on our first visits and provided us with the very capable input of her colleague Melissa Lacide for our second trip. The first  journey consisted of our co-design team visiting the following organisations / locations:

• The Arcola Theatre – www.arcolatheatre.com • Eastern Curve Garden – http://dalstongarden.org • Global Generation – www.globalgeneration.org.uk

Our second Learning Journey consisted of our team visiting:

• Camden Collective – http://camdencollective.co.uk • Hub Westminster – http://westminster.the-hub.net • Myatts Fields Park / Playground – www.myattsfieldspark.info

All of the organisations, buildings and environments we visited delivered! Where we were hosted by representatives of the organisations, they were friendly, open and generous in sharing their time and some of the backstory of how their projects had developed, and how they’d come to make the design choices they’d made. We were definitely inspired as a team by what we saw and we gained a real sense of the creative possibilities open to us through the diverse examples we got to see across the six sites, in terms of materials, scale, construction methods and feel.

The next stage for us in our design process is to get down to the actual designing bit of the project. We’re all very excited and I know that within the team we have some very creative and considered thinkers and makers. Check back in a month’s time for an update on how the project has developed. By then we should be a good way through the fabrication stage and maybe have even started installing the Pods too.

A big thank you to all the generous staff and volunteers form the six organisations / locations we visited. A big thank you too for the expertise and guidance we received from our colleagues Maja and Melissa from The Glass House.

ABW

Stuart

 

Are you ready for an extraoRDInary journey?

What do the iPhone, the Millennium Bridge, Harry Potter film sets, and the World Wide Web have in common? They were all designed by the RSA’s Royal Designers for Industry (RDI), a cross disciplinary collective of designers who have shown sustained design excellence, work of aesthetic value, and significant benefit to society.

The Royal Designers are planning a Summer School which will be held at Dartington Hall, Devon from 5 – 8 September 2013. This event will give 24 young designers and 12 wildcards the chance to work with them in an intensive 4-day collaborative design experience.

Designers of any discipline with between 5 and 15 years’ experience, and wildcards – people who intersect design, as commissioners, public servants, users – are invited to apply for a place. We are seeking applications from people whose work has the potential to be an instrument of beneficial change, from whatever field. If you are up for a bold new challenge, and would like to be one of the designer or wildcard participants, you still have a week in which to submit your application.

Set up in 2000, the Royal Designers’ Summer School brings together a group of people from diverse, cross-disciplinary backgrounds who can learn from one another and are inspired to think differently and creatively. Open, conceptual challenges are set to mixed groups which are discretely choreographed by the Summer School Directors. Exhibition designer, Dinah Casson RDI, Master of the Royal Designers for Industry, and Millennium Bridge engineer, Chris Wise RDI, are co-directing this year’s programme:

“The summer school is both touch-stone and touch-paper, reassuring at first, and then a fuse is ignited. Flashes of insight come when nurse, designer, economist, engineer and neuroscientist face each other openly. It is a well-spring for understanding how ideas are born, and why design is at the core of our being.”

Click here to apply and submit to the RSA by Friday 28 June.

Melanie Andrews is the Manager of the Royal Designers for Industry at the RSA

You can follow her @Melanie_Andrews 

Event twitter hashtag #RSARDIsummerschool

Plan A for Arts: Time for some zero-based budgeting?

Whilst obviously significant for all of us, today’s budget feels like a bit of  pre-2014 Spending Review foreplay. So, provoked by Peter Bazalgette’s inaugural lecture as Chair of Arts Council England here at RSA this morning, the fantastic questions from our new Chair Vikki Heywood, and the launch of a new RSA-ACE project called Towards Plan A: a new political economy for arts and culture, here is an attempt at the real thing: a zero-based budgeting exercise for the arts.

Zero-based budgeting is often threatened across public services and departments, but in reality rarely happens – there are too many powerful, vested interests in maintaining some sense of status quo. It, (or usually the Treasury in some form), essentially asks the question ‘what would happen if this programme/initiative/whole area of public spending was no longer funded? Rather than tweaking spending decisions, zero-based budgeting gives the chance for more radical solutions to fiscal challenges.

Whether you are lover and hater of public spending on the arts (and please let’s not call it  ‘investment’ – it’s spending, stupid), try this scenario.

Imagine that the Government decides to withdraw all national funding for the arts (apart maybe, from a tiny amount of art education in schools), and also bans local government from supporting the arts. What do you think would be the consequences of such a decision, in the short and long term?

Your predictions will, of course, only be predictions. But they may still help you to understand what ‘market failure’ in the arts might really look like, and build a clearer picture of the purpose of state subsidy for the arts.

I tried this with a friend, and we came to a simple conclusion… which, in a crude attempt to get some comments on my blog,  I will promise to reveal once I’ve got five predictions from other people.

You can have this for free – a paper I wrote on ‘art as evidence for public policy making’, titled Speaking Doubt to Power.

Working in communities and the arts: being part of the group

November 20, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society 

Every now and again I have a really inspiring meeting that draws together common threads from our work in Arts and Society with thinking from other people and the wider world.  Yesterday was one such day. I was meeting the artist Lucy Steggals about the Creative Intersections project we are doing with King’s College London and our recent event showcasing the journey of this work with participating artists and academics – and recent learning and reflection from Arts and Social Change in Citizen Power Peterborough came flooding into the frame whilst hearing about Lucy’s experiences in Gravesend and the Isle of Sheppey.

Peterborough Street Pastors comic strip. Credit Grennan & Sperandio

We’ve just published a case study on the artist’s residencies.  Called ‘Context Matters’ this is a reflective and observational document by Richard Ings about the experiences of the two residencies that I have curated for Arts and Social Change. Very much intended to be about sharing learning and experiences, this takes the first-hand views of the two artists, Joshua Sofaer and Simon Grennan along with the two community groups they worked with; Morland Court Residents’ Association and Peterborough Street Pastors respectively.   This coupled with the Made in Peterborough commissions programme; the first with Encounters who devised the Take Me To project and the second with Joanna Rajkowska’s Peterborough Child sculpture – consolidated much of the fascinating consideration and challenge that needs to be borne out when working in ‘Any Place’ successfully where there are mutual outcomes needed for the many parties involved from the funder to the commissioner, from local residents to the artists themselves.

In embarking on the journey of working in communities with the arts, much of the consideration lies in where and how the artwork is conceived.  Initially informed by the brief given to the artist and underpinned by the strength of support to the ideas within it from the local partnership, there needs to be a framework with which to engage at the beginning.  This is then followed by flexibility so the ideas can be shaped and informed by local conversation and context.  This need for flexibility and open acknowledgement across the stakeholders is crucial. We don’t know for sure how it is going to proceed until we’ve met the local people.  If the first path chosen is not working then another needs to be taken and this takes time.

Establishing the trust for this to take place with the people you are working with is also paramount – and as an artist (and in our case, commissioner/producer) you give something of yourself to that.  Friendships are established, mutual professional bonds develop, time (and sometimes budget) is spent way beyond the project brief to get the job done because you become invested in it and the people involved.  You become part of the group.

Different artists work in different ways of course.  For some, their approach means engagement locally begins once the work is installed and for others the work is informed entirely through local people making the decisions on the artwork.   There exists in the middle and at the edges a process of co-design and co-creation.  In introducing an artist to a place, much is led by the nature of the introduction to the local community.  As an ‘outsider’ in many cases, whether it is as a facilitator, workshop leader or artist, this can play a significant role in the expectations and understanding of people locally – who if to be engaged need to have a sense of:  Who are you?  Why are you here? Who is the work for?  Why should I bother to get involved?

All of which needs to be skilfully woven with the artist’s own integrity and practice.  This is not about the artist dictating direction necessarily but about having a voice to shape and lead the project among all the parties involved.

In turn, this throws up the fascinating subject of where the art is created and where the real value of the work is held for the different people and stakeholders involved.  In ‘socially engaged’ projects, sometimes it is necessary to pull back from the final product as being the end game (and therefore the sign of success) to instead consider the journey and process that has been crafted and experienced.

To quote Richard Ings in the case study “there is, in artist residencies generally, a creative tension between the artist’s prime function, which is to make art, and they social role they may be asked to play (or find themselves playing) – and about the role that the group or community they are working with should play in the realisation of this art

If you are interested in these considerations and challenges, socially engaged artist Hannah Hull and ixia are exploring these ideas through the Critical Spaces network.  Hannah is bringing together artists and conversations along this socially engaged arts/artists working with people theme to generate an artist-led critical voice and practice in the public realm.

There will also be more to follow from the RSA as the full suite of case studies and evaluation of Arts and Social Change, and Citizen Power more broadly are published online in the coming months.

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