The art of storytelling

Thurston Hopkins died this week aged 101.  He was a photojournalist whose images captured British life and its humanity and inequalities in the 1950s.  They say a picture paints a thousand words.

Credit: Thurston Hopkins

Credit: Thurston Hopkins

This got me to thinking about telling stories.  A crucial skill that when effectively wielded has people hanging off your every word, increasing the chances that they will act on the information, which in the think tank world desirous of influence and impact is the holy grail.

Make no mistake though, storytelling is an art.  But being an art doesn’t make it unobtainable and esoteric, instead storytelling is the reverse: crafted and considered; engaging and entrancing; a clear and compelling message to pass on to its audience. Read more

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.

Space for Delight

September 14, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society 

Last night in the Great Room at the RSA, there was a wonderful magic show and it felt like the space had truly opened up, not only for flexible use but also for a different kind of interaction. I sat next to an architect for the event and we had a good conversation about how space itself shifts how we engage with each other. In the arts world, the shape of a working space is almost always in some form of circle in an environment where it is evident that you can also get up and move, and create different formations of seating arrangements. But also, there is often an attention to the space itself as one of invitation to engage without there being a set interpretation of what this might look like; in other words, flexible and inclusive – anyone can enter and participate.  In this way, the arts are not only for those who know about the arts and the Great Room is not only for the great and the good.

This reminded me of the Creative Gatherings we have run in the Arts and Social Change programme in Citizen Power Peterborough which I have blogged about in the past. These gatherings are for anyone in the city who engages with the arts, whether this engagement lies in a professional or voluntary capacity and are held in a variety of settings (the idea of arts happening everywhere and belonging to everyone). So, we have held them in amongst other places, a railway museum, a community college, a pub, outside in a community allotment and this summer, as part of a walk across the city. As you will see from this last link to the Creative People’s Walk, they are about finding hidden resources in the city, creative gems that offer up a delight in being in this place. One of the guides for this walk was the Poet in Residence for the Broadway Cemetery – surely another unique aspect of Peterborough.

A key characteristic of these gatherings is that they are rooted in doing things together, a creative practice of one sort or another, and not simply a talking shop. They take as their prompt, the RSA theme of reflecting and doing, action and research, expressing something in new ways and then reflecting upon this with others. Without doubt, this has generated new networks, new friendships and new ways of thinking about the arts and the city itself. We have recently published a case study on this strand, More Purposeful Together.

But getting back to the magic show last night, it was a delight and it reminded me of our collective need to ring-fence a space for delight in our lives, not just because it is fun but because it offers a motivation to get together with others to experience a communal pleasure. An experience that militates against individualism and self-interest. Could this role of delight also contribute to Matthew Taylor’s notion of recasting individualism and paying attention to what motivates us to volunteer? Long may magic in the Great Room reign!

Exploring evaluation complexities

June 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society 

I’m in the middle of evaluating the Arts and Social Change strand of Citizen Power Peterborough. I don’t want to get into the details of the programme itself – read here if you’d like a primer – but rather, to talk about a few interesting problems that the evaluation has thrown up.

Evaluating something like Arts and Social Change isn’t about measuring ‘success vs. failure’ – if everything in the project was a ‘success’ in that narrow definition, then there would be no learning and the project as a whole would have failed. Citizen Power Peterborough has above all been an experiment – and nowhere more so than in Arts and Social Change. The goal is to find out what impact, if any, the arts can have on positive social change, and this has been pursued through a number of targeted arts-based interventions in Peterborough. Some projects have been hugely successful in terms of impact, others partly so (with important findings), and all have been able to adapt as they progressed, reflecting on-the-ground realities, new ideas and preliminary results.

The Arts and Social Change programme has run according to a set of principles; one of those principles is emergence. To paraphrase broadly, this is the idea that interventions in complex structures (like the communities of Peterborough) will lead to multiple, complex outcomes – the kind that can’t easily be predicted at the outset. These kinds of findings are extremely valuable, because they can only be brought to light through hands-on experimentation.

So, to recap: a huge experiment in a complex structure, where accurate prediction is all but impossible, where there are high levels of reflexivity, and where only the broadest of goals (increasing attachment, participation and innovation) were known at the start. How do you evaluate an experiment like the above?

One tactic is to do what many people would do when faced with a big problem: break it down into a series of smaller, more manageable problems. Arts and Social Change ran as a series of interconnected strands, linking with other parts of the Citizen Power programme: these strands were much smaller and more responsive, with fewer participants from all sides. They had more specific goals (such as ‘increasing community cohesion’) and tentative measures for their individual success or failure. Evaluating the strands themselves in this way will certainly be part of the final evaluation, and it’s incredibly exciting and positive to get to delve into the programme at that kind of level.

It would be missing a trick, though, to evaluate the whole programme by the success of its parts. Talking to people involved, one of the programme’s real (and if we’re not careful, hidden) successes has been its impact upon the ‘bigger picture’. To give an example: one of the first documents I came across whilst researching, was a letter to the Evening Telegraph (Peterborough’s local paper) from a resident, describing an intervention that had been quite strongly criticised by the paper: “…I found it one of the most enlightening and thought-provoking activities that I have ever taken part in. I still find it hard to believe that the city council had the courage to help fund this, but I am very glad that they did.” Read her words carefully once more, and try to recall the last time a Council-funded programme made you feel that way. How do you measure enlightenment? Was it ‘good value for money’? The author measures the cost favourably against some other council spending (and she makes a convincing case), but could you price the “most enlightening and thought-provoking” events in your life? I know I couldn’t. Impacts like this, if they can be nailed down and cogently articulated, give the lie to those who see the arts as an ‘optional extra’ – a luxury to be cut when money’s tight.

Consider this: I like knowing my neighbours, but I have enough social capital that I don’t rely on them – if I have personal or professional difficulties, I have plenty of places to turn to. I like where I live, but if I had to move, I’m pretty certain I’d be fine. It’s not like that for everyone. We’re talking about real interventions in places where community ties, family bonds and professional networks are all under incredible strain, and where without support, a space for dialogue and the ability to explore together, things are unlikely to improve. Art can make that happen, in a way that little else can, and Arts and Social Change is in a unique position to show how. I’ve heard neighbourhood managers talk about how an intervention has fundamentally altered how they see their work, civil society leaders tell of a re-invigorated sense of collective self-belief, and residents describe moving from isolation, to feeling that they are involved in a shared project – a shared life – with those around them.

But how to capture all that? We’re all going to face some extraordinary pressures over the next few months and years, and Peterborough will face as many of them as anywhere. If we can articulate the many things that have been learned by Peterborough’s residents, then we can share them, and play a part in handing powerful tools (for free!) to communities who need them most.

Latest Winners of a Citizen Power Award

April 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

This post was originally posted on Project Dirt, where we are building a cluster for all the community-led environmental projects in Peterborough.

Here at the Citizen Power Peterborough* project we’ve been working with community groups that have ideas which could make Peterborough a greener place. One way we’ve been doing this is by running workshops that allow people to develop their ideas and meet others, then help them apply for a Citizen Power grant that will allow them to test that idea on the ground.

So far we’ve funded further development of a well-loved community garden in Paston and a group who are in the process of assuming responsibility for a section of ancient woodland in Bretton. The latest decisions on funding were made at an event last Friday, when eleven individuals and groups applied for grants to allow them to put their ideas into action.

The three judges were environmental innovators Pam Warhurst of Incredible Edible Todmorden and Hermione Taylor of The DoNation, together with Councillor Sam Dalton – the member of Peterborough’s cabinet with responsibility for environmental issues. The judges heard from each group, who pitched the idea of their project for the chance of a grant.

People developing project ideas at an earlier workshop (photo by Adrian Stone)

Among others, the judges heard from one group who wanted to replicate the success of a Cambridge paint upcycling project in Peterborough. Rather than sending paint straight to landfill, they planned to collect waste paint from local recycling centres, store, sort and redistribute it to community groups and families.

A group of students from Peterborough Regional College presented a plan to convert old unused bicycles into safe and usable bikes. The improved bikes will be available for college students to buy at low weekly cost over the course of a year – making travel a more active and healthy experience, as well as being better for the environment.

The judges also heard from another individual who wanted to demonstrate the effectiveness of alternative energy systems like hydrogen power to people at public events. He planned to use an education fuel cell to power a low-energy projector, at the same time demonstrating and explaining the physics behind the post-oil future.

In the end, the judges opted to fund all eleven projects for amounts between £300 and £500 each. Each project will be creating a profile on Project Dirt (if they don’t have one already), so in time you’ll be able to keep track of their progress through the Peterborough cluster on Project Dirt.

Well done to all involved!

* Citizen Power Peterborough is an initiative from the people of Peterborough, the RSA, Peterborough City Council and the Arts Council, East

The full list of winners:

  • Peterborough Repaint Scheme from Kevin and Fiona
  • The Backyard Food Group Shop from Sophie
  • Green Backyard Woodskills from Renny
  • Rake and Bake Gardening Club from Parents United
  • P£anet Bikes from Peterborough Regional College students
  • Pond & Frogs project from Peterborough Regional College students
  • An Introduction to Hydrogen Fuel Cells, HHO and Alternative Energy from Jordan
  • Bike workshop from Dominic
  • Slow Sewing from Lorena
  • The Little Miracles Peterborough Sensory Garden from Michelle
  • The Olive Branch Community Garden & Allotments from Mark

Promoting recovery in Peterborough

February 2, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Recovery 

Talk about ‘recovery groups’ can often lead to a discussion of 12 step based groups, SMART groups, service-user groups and so on. These types of groups are fairly easy to understand from the ‘outside’ and thanks to the media portrayal of some recovery groups, there can sometimes be a narrow view of them. They can follow particular formats, they can have certain traditions or rules and they can aim for specific outcomes that may be measurable.

But there are also those recovery groups that are simply individuals that come together on a regular basis to a venue with no particular objective other than to have something fun or different to do and meet like-minded people.

The FREE group in Peterborough is a good example of this. The group, which developed out of a series of activities for the Recovery Capital project, has doubled in size since forming just 8 weeks ago, they now have a new permanent home and are beginning to meet more frequently.  As one member put it at our co-design event in mid-January: “we get together and have a giggle!”

The group are already having a big impact on each other’s recovery and lives and want to do more to help others in the city. But they have found – as we did in our Recovery Capital project research – that people are reluctant to get involved in activities like this; they have preconceived ideas of people sitting around in a circle and talking about their addiction generated by years of myths, few opportunities available in the past and the media representation of recovery support groups.

So together we made a short film to tell people about FREE – which stands for Free Recovery for Everyone Everywhere – and what to expect if you attend and the impact it has had on their recovery.

I hope you’ll agree they’ve done a great job!

You can find out about when and where the group meets by visiting or contacting

Expressing recovery

November 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Recovery 

It has been quite an eventful week for the Recovery Capital project in Peterborough which accounts for the semi-radio silence on the blog front.  But as the week draws to a close I thought I would share some of the excitement and ease you into the weekend.

On Monday I took six people in recovery to the Key Theatre in Peterborough to meet the writer, Director, producers and actors of a play being developed for Eastern Angles called ‘I heart Peterborough’.  The play tackles issues of addiction and recovery in Peterborough and they wanted to make sure that they portray a true and not wholly sensationalised version of it.  The cast and crew are committed to not perpetuating the stereotypical ‘addict’ who cares for nothing and would be happy to mug a granny, and to use the play to educate a broad audience.

The play tackles issues of addiction and recovery in Peterborough and they wanted to make sure that they portray a true and not wholly sensationalised version of it

We spent nearly three hours talking through a few of the scenes, with the cast asking lots of questions about the realities of using and recovering in Peterborough.  It was amazing to see how quickly changes were able to be made to the script to incorporate the ideas and suggestions put forward. The script is still being developed and we look forward to contributing further and seeing the final play. You never know, it might come to a theatre near you one day…

On Wednesday we had the first ‘Expressing Recovery’ activity which is designed to get people in recovery talking to one another in an informal setting; start to build relationships and strengthen the links between one another; provide the space and time for participants to think about their own recovery, talk about it and express it in a variety of ways including through painting (check out the pictures); somewhere to come into the warmth and have a cup of coffee; provide information and a Q&A session about the new CRi Recovery Service coming in January 2012; and then end with a recovery peer group meeting with the local Recovery Champion.

This is the first of three initial events. If they’re popular then we will look to continue them. I certainly enjoyed myself and got to meet some incredible people who are chomping at the bit to be at the forefront of the developing Recovery Community in the city.

I can’t wait to see what next week brings!

Getting people together isn’t the challenge – it’s getting things done…

November 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

In my experience, whenever a new local Fellows’ network launches, there is always a mixture of curiosity, enthusiasm and trepidation. Curiosity about who other local Fellows are; enthusiasm for getting involved in the good work the RSA is renowned for; and a trepidation that is only natural when meeting a room full of strangers. Thankfully, the trepidation soon dissipates as the ideas for how to make a difference locally begin to flow and the Fellows leave full of optimism for what the network can achieve.

But that’s the easy bit…

How do you then ensure that initial enthusiasm turns into constructive action? How do you decide which of the ideas to pursue before people stop coming along because nothing’s happening?

Read more

Introducing Amie

November 1, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society, Recovery 

This is my very first blog post (inside and outside of the RSA) and it seems fitting that my opener is on a subject about which I am fiercely passionate.

As one half of the Recovery Capital Project internship team, my focus over the next 3 months will be to come up with organise a range of artistic (I use this term loosely) activities to engage and inspire current and former problem substance users in Peterborough. The time-frame is dizzyingly short, but having had a look at the creative endeavours the city already boasts, I feel confident that we can pull this off.

The idea that artistic expression can be an effective way to spark, support or even sustain recovery has become increasingly accepted on the treatment circuit. Art therapy and relapse prevention role-play are often included in the programmes of facilities that take clients beyond detox – although I hear these will be the first for the chop in the wake of spending cuts. Beyond treatment, there are a number of independent theatre companies that champion recovery and produce impressive, widely respected work – just look at The Outside Edge Theatre Company.

But what’s in it for the service-user? I can only relate my own experience, but the creative arts were an invaluable part of my own early recovery. Whilst I might not have taken it wholly seriously at the time, I only have fond memories of the art therapy sessions I attended in my first weeks of treatment. It is the sense of fun, the sudden exposure to colour and the license to create and emote without censure that was so appealing. Others found their artistic home in moderated creative writing sessions, where some of the pieces produced were mind-blowingly dark, beautiful, poetic or a combination of all three. I know of still others who regained their confidence (and their sense of humour!) through participating in the aforementioned relapse prevention role-plays. Further down the line, I was lucky enough to get involved with Clean Break, a theatre company that works exclusively with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system. They support women of a shared experience to develop personal, social, artistic and professional skills and provide opportunities to enter into further education or work placements.

The point is, there is everything to gain and nothing to lose when it comes to getting creative in early recovery

The point is, there is everything to gain and nothing to lose when it comes to getting creative in early recovery. Whether it is an opportunity to share your experience, connect with others, play to your strengths, regain self-esteem or just break the isolation of active addiction, the creative arts provide a non-discriminatory outlet.  Anyone can get involved and no-one can get it wrong – essential when you consider the shame and sense of judgement an addict might feel about his or her past and present.

My hope is that by bringing similar activities to Peterborough, together with the collaboration of the city’s thriving artistic community, we can start to change the tide of how recovery is experienced and viewed.

Mutual Attraction

October 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society 

Welcome to the arts and society blog. The voices you’ll be hearing most from will come from the Arts and Society team of Jocelyn Cunningham (Director) and Georgina Chatfield (Senior Developer) but we also have an extended team that lead on various parts of our programme.

This first posting very appropriately is by Michaela Crimmin who was previously Head of Arts at the RSA, and curated Arts and Ecology. She is co-founder of Culture and Conflict, a new brokering agency developing networks of people across disciplines and sectors to build the role and recognition of cultural activity in conflict and post-conflict situations. 

Michaela is programming a key event in Peterborough this week and offers her reflections:

Reflection for too many of us comes fleetingly, often at the wrong moment, and tends to stay within our own heads. But for me, now, a pause as I look back to Arts & Ecology, a five-year programme I ran for the RSA from 2005 until last year. It is the week before a related event is presented by Citizen Power in Peterborough. Entitled ‘Cross Pollination’, this takes place next Wednesday 19 October. We have the rising star artist Andy Holden talking, together with the ingenious Marcus Coates. They will both bring, I know, everything that I value about art. With them Peter Holden, a remarkable ornithologist, who does a double act with his son demonstrating that connections reach from within families to the natural world with consummate ease, imagination and astuteness.

Despite the gamut of evidence, there are always too many people shrieking ‘Why Art?’ as soon as you take art beyond the confines of a gallery or museum as we do next week. Max Andrews (someone who both ‘gets’ art and the complexity and wonder and terror that is sometimes called ‘The Environment’) edited the book that was one of Arts & Ecology’s consummate successes and this is his riposte:

Whatever its mode of address, art always exhorts an infinite capacity and context for our critical acuity. And as we look to the future, it would seem that a keen aptitude for sensing what we really value is more invaluable than ever.

Arts & Ecology was all about value in its biggest sense of the word, with artists exploring its various meanings. It was about a network, about mutual support and about collaboration. These will be demonstrated afresh next week. The exchange of interests between different, shall we call them, disciplines, only serves to amplify that what is seen by an ornithologist is not always registered by a politician; that what is made visible by an artist, can be an entirely fresh perspective for that same ornithologist – and so it goes on. We know why we compartmentalise and ring fence and build barriers, but so must there be opportunities for exchange as are fostered variously by the mighty Wellcome Trust that runs awards expressly to encourage this; and the small but potent Wysing Arts Centre that particularly welcomes non arts people into its domain. There simply are not enough of these opportunities. Not in higher education, not in civic life, not in environment circles, not in the arts.

There is a talk available online delivered by dramatist and politician Vaclav Havel that I recommend reading. Havel, a poet and a politician, writes of both value and connections. In a modest way Arts & Ecology sought to amplify perspectives on diminishing natural resources and the conflict that often results, on fragility, but also continuously to reassert the joy of being genuinely related to the world around us in ways that will help to ensure it flourishes.

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