1 – Failing to build a Fun Palace

For years in the 1960s and 1970s the theatre director Joan Littlewood pursued a vision of a place where working people, like herself, could get involved in art, science, discovery, learning, pleasure……

‘Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.’

Littlewood wanted everyone to benefit from the social change happening around her and to have the opportunities to fulfil their potential. She drew on an ideal of the university and its capacity for self-development. New ones were then being built in Essex, Norwich, York, Sussex and Warwick to facilitate social mobility, though her description actually sounds more like the radical learning spaces that briefly flared during the student sit-ins of 1968 at Hornsey College of Art and elsewhere.

But she drew also on all sorts of other radical ideas and folk memories that were bubbling up at the time: socialism, her own theatre work, the pleasure garden, adventure playgrounds, mechanics’ institutes, community art and who knows what else. Littlewood called it The Fun Palace, apparently in response to Jennie Lee’s (Britain’s first arts minister) assertion that ‘What people want now is fun’. The phrase caught on, but it also caused difficulties. It was hard to explain, and it made some people think that this was all an indulgence – the fantasy of unworldly artists.  As her friend and biographer, Peter Rankin, writes:

‘Joan, just by talking, could create the Palace before your eyes but soon she would be talking to people who would go away thinking: ‘What was all that about?’; and those were the people who would be giving planning permission and providing money.’

It didn’t help that Joan Littlewood could be very difficult to work with. For all her commitment to the collective, she was not a team player. Still, she battled for her idea. With the visionary architect Cedric Price and the support of friends and colleagues, she campaigned for her Fun Palace for years, drawing up plans, raising funds, identifying sites, attending council meetings, persuading, arguing, coaxing…  in vain. There were temporary versions: a playground made on a bomb site, a colonised industrial building on Martin Street or Bubble City in the City of London Festival each explored aspects of the idea, but Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace was never built.

Which might have been a good thing.

2 – A Fun Palace reimagined in Farnham

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Farnham is a handsome market town in Surrey, an ancient place with a castle, Roman roads and hill forts. It is 45 miles from Joan Littlewood’s East London, where she fought to build The Fun Palace, but it seems a world away. London changes continually – the Olympic Park has replaced the post-war wastelands where artists and local kids once explored other worlds – but Farnham is continuity England, evolution not revolution. It’s hard to imagine Littlewood liking it much – if she ever came here.

But appearances can be deceptive, though we forget it. After all, Farnham sided with Parliament in the Civil War, and it was the home of William Cobbett, the great radical writer and MP, who would surely have enjoyed arguing with Littlewood. It’s also a town with a long interest in arts and crafts. Farnham School of Art opened in 1866 and it continues as part of the University for the Creative Arts. And in 1961, just as Joan Littlewood was imagining her Fun Palace, Farnham opened a free museum in a fine Georgian house on West Street. With its emphasis on local history, the Museum of Farnham probably felt more palace than fun to its first visitors. Still, in common with Littlewood, the museum wanted to involve people more in culture. The question is how.

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Half a century later, these two strands of thinking about the place of art in people’s lives have come together: the Museum of Farnham is hosting – not organising – a Fun Palace, one of almost 300 taking place this weekend across Britain and abroad. A group of activists has been given free use of the Garden Gallery, an attractive wood and glass building that is the museum’s education space, and everyone is welcome. When I get there, at lunchtime on a blustery Saturday afternoon in October, I can already hear happy voices.

There’s so much going on that it has spilled out onto the verandas, where children are busy making hand prints on paper. Round the corner, Bridget Floyer asks visitors to add themselves to a map of local creativity, as she develops her ideas about participatory art. Inside, Farnham Art and Design Education Group are hosting a Big Draw event; elsewhere people cluster round tables to make things with clay or from melted plastic. There are lots of families, and if the parents are often helping their kids, they’re having no less fun. Generous provision of refreshments makes a hospitable atmosphere as people move from one activity to another. Farnham’s radicalism is not forgotten either. I talk with members of the local Amnesty International group and sign petitions about refugees and political prisoners in distant lands.

Meanwhile, in the main building, Wendy Richardson is talking about Joan Littlewood with  Christine Jackson, who worked with her on Bubble City in 1968 and many other projects. Richardson has just completed a film, ‘In the Company of Joan’, which would have been shown too, but there are too many people having too much noisy fun to make that possible so, recognising what’s important today, that plan has been abandoned. Still, we get more time for conversation and it’s an inspiring reminder of the power of imaginative play and the creative freedom that can be found – paradoxically –when no one is interested in you. Christine Jackson evokes a world in which people do things because they want to, not to fulfil a carefully worked out strategy or meet a funder’s targets. And if that includes setting out to build a hovercraft, well – why not, if that’s what the young people are excited to do? At worst, you’ll discover that it’s beyond your resources, but you can have a fantastic time finding that out, and you might find what it is that you can do. This is art, science, creativity. This is fun.

And this is the heart of the Fun Palace idea: the spirit of saying ‘Yes!’.

That’s not naïve or careless. But it is the opposite of trying to persuade people to be interested in your ideas, a common trap for arts policy today. It’s knowing that good work begins with our desires – something that artists usually remember where their own work is concerned. We all have to adapt our desires to reality, but that’s the essence of learning: me in the world, exercising agency and discovering its limits and consequences.

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The photos I took at Farnham are pretty dull. Photography struggles to capture a creative workshop because what matters is invisible. What matters is the experience people get when they mould a piece of clay for the first time, or discover what oil pastel does, or see plastic cord soften with heat and become capable of making an expressive line, your line, that you drew. That experience cannot be shown. Six people sitting in a room, talking about long past events, make for a dull photograph. But being there, being part of the conversation – that was a great experience.

Art is only ever a route to experience of connecting minds. The object – painting, book, recording – is easily fetishized but it only matters because it has been charged by its maker(s) with the power to communicate, move, teach… Because the object is photogenic and tangible it is easily mistaken for what is happening, for art itself.

A Fun Palace is not in children’s drawings or happy faces: it is in discovering that you too can be an artist, and that no one else can be the artist you can be. That is an empowering experience, whatever you make of it.

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3 – Nearly building a Fun Palace in West Bromwich

‘But what is it for?’ was a question often asked by funders.

There has been at least one serious attempt to give physical reality to Joan Littlewood’s vision: The Public, in Sandwell. This huge, multi-disciplinary and interactive community arts centre was imagined by Jubilee Arts, who had been working in this part of the post-industrial West Midlands since 1974. The new building was conceived as an affirmation of community art as a cultural field that deserved equal respect with any other. It was to be a cornerstone for regeneration in West Bromwich town centre and a place for local people to develop and share their creativity. Like Joan Littlewood, Jubilee set out to say that this place and these people deserve as much as anyone else: the best.

Designed by Will Alsop, The Public opened in 2008, but by then problems had already forced changes of design, vision and operation. It struggled to gain the wholehearted backing of Arts Council England, which provided only project funding after 2009. But The Public did win strong local support – in a town with no other arts facilities, the centre attracted tens of thousands to exhibitions, theatre and comedy shows, tea dances, workshops and events. In 2013 Sandwell Council withdrew its funding and closure became inevitable; but, during its last 12 months, The Public had welcomed more than 450,000 visitors.

For many people – especially those who never visited it – The Public is just a symbol of how National Lottery funding can be wasted on useless cultural projects. It’s true that many mistakes were made during the project’s conception, construction and operation. Hubris, inexperience, fear and politics all played their part and the consequences should not be minimised. Many people were hurt by the project’s ultimate failure.

Does that mean it should not have been attempted? Does it mean that the vision was unachievable? The art world, usually so quick to defend its ‘right to fail’, said little about a project it neither understood nor liked. For me, and despite the mistakes and the failures, The Public was a brave attempt to make Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price’s vision real by creating  a permanent Fun Palace in one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. The idea of opening a first class arts space in such an area was already challenging: doing it in a way that valued all kinds of creativity was  too much. So, like Littlewood and Price before them, the Jubilee Arts team struggled to make their vision clear to the planners and funders. Graham Peet, who worked on the project from start to finish, writes on a legacy website:

‘But what is it for?’ was a question often asked by funders. In the end that question stopped being asked. It had become obvious to hundreds of thousands of visitors what it was for. It was about making West Bromwich a better place to live.

 The people of West Bromwich did not have the same difficulty. I visited the project several times during its troubled life and though the problems were plain enough, I thought that, with time and support, The Public could succeed. What always impressed me was seeing place full of local people discovering, making and enjoying art. These were very different visitors than those I might see in a conventional art gallery – local people, curious and open-minded, appreciative of what the strange pink building could offer them. They came not despite but because of the mix of art and activity that made The Public so incomprehensible to the art world. Work by Tracey Emin, Allan Ahlberg, Martin Parr, Shazia Mirza, Jeremy Deller, John Akomfrah, Jenny Eclair and countless others rubbed shoulders with that of young artists, amateur and craft groups, students and school children. And that made perfect sense to the people of West Bromwich.

‘My roots are in West Brom I just loved all of the photographs as they captured every aspect of the wonderful, warm hearted Black Country people. Thank you. I shall revisit the Public again and again’

(Comment left by a visitor to Martin Parr’s exhibition)

It didn’t quite work – but it was on its way to working. Its closure was a sad moment for many people, including me. It also seemed to underline how difficult it is to do something actually different. We’re told nowadays to ‘Think outside the box’ – such a cliché – but try to think creatively, though, really leave existing assumptions, and you’ll soon find the boundaries.

Joan Littlewood would have understood The Public, I think. She would have recognised too the difficulty of getting the powerful to accept such a different idea. Was it worth the cost?

4 Imagination is free

‘Yes. No idea. I don’t know. Who knows? Yes.’

Since I heard about Fun Palaces a few months ago, I’ve been intrigued by how this idea has grown so far, so fast. What started four years ago as an open question at a conference has snowballed into something like a social movement. In the first year (2014) about 3,000 people were involved in making 138 Fun Palaces. There were a few more (142) in 2015 but this October there were 290! How does that happen? When I asked Stella Duffy, who struck the first spark at the conference, her reply was intriguing.

The people who made the Fun Palaces in Whitstable and in Farnham – who were following me for my books – both said to me on Twitter “Can anyone do this?”  We’re just going, “Yes. No idea. I don’t know. Who knows? Yes.”  Then it became a thing…  

Sandwiched between permissive affirmations, she was open about not knowing – indeed, about not feeling responsible for knowing. That culture of shared ownership, backed up with light and consistent support developed by Fun Palaces HQ, has empowered thousands of people to have fun with Joan Littlewood’s belief that art and science is open to all.

It’s too soon to have details of what happened in 2016, but the Fun Palaces team (4 people, all part time) did produce a report on what happened in 2015. Three things particularly struck me in that:

  • First, half the Fun Palaces were made by community groups or individuals; less than a third were produced by arts organisations;
  • Secondly, just 30% of the Fun Palaces took place in London (which still gets two thirds of the Arts Council’s funds);
  • Finally, the people involved belong to all social groups and backgrounds: makers and participants reflect the nation in terms of ethnicity, and 54% of them were in the more deprived half of the country.

If cultural policy and spending achieved anything close to such an equitable reach many things might be different in Britain today.

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Trapped by thousand tiny ropes

It’s not from want of trying, of course. Arts and cultural institutions have been producing plans to increase ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’ for – literally – decades, with not much to show for it.  Arts Council England is now investing £37 million in Creative People and Places to get ‘more people choosing, creating and taking part in brilliant art experiences in the places where they live’. The initiative supports 21 partnerships of cultural and other organisations and is undoubtedly creating many fine new projects and activities. (I’ve even made one of those projects myself, in the Lincolnshire Fens.)

q_352_550pBut it’s really hard to spend £37 million.You need plans and controls, relationship managers and auditors, advisors and committees and evaluators. You need expertise, knowledge and contacts. You need resources even to manage the resources. You have to take people with you.  You have to justify your decisions. Select committees and tabloid papers will tell you  (in their ignorance) where you’ve gone wrong. Before you’ve made the first grant still less put on an event, you’re bound with a thousand threads, like Gulliver on the beach of Lilliput. It’s nobody’s intention: it’s just what happens when you’re responsible for millions of other people’s money.      

Then it became a thing

But it is also the antithesis of Fun Palaces, which are fuelled by enthusiasm, gifts and volunteering. The campaign itself has received about £100,000 a year since 2014 – perhaps 1% of the Creative People and Places fund. The funding brings some obligations, but the Fun Palaces team manage those without passing the burden on to the makers. It has also received a lot of help, including from the Albany in Deptford, which has provided a base and much free support. That has helped it stay small, informal and fleet of foot, placing the attention and control where it belongs – with the communities who make Fun Palaces.

funpalaces_say_yes_-300x300Most of them happen without funding, though they get heaps of help from local people and groups. They are discovering how empowering it is – to others – when you ask for help. Not knowing, not being the person who has the solution, not having the resources: such weaknesses become strengths when they open doors, build partnership, create friendships. If ‘Yes!’ is the spirit of Fun Palaces, so is asking for help, sharing, improvising, problem solving…

And this is where Fun Palaces are most creative. Of course, activities on the day can be creative, but it is making the event itself from clothes pegs, old newspapers and neglected space that is the really creative act. Where arts organisations spend months preparing a banquet before opening the doors and persuading people it’s what they want, Fun Palaces announce the date and place of a picnic and ask everyone to bring what they can. That’s why each one is different. If you know what’s going happen, it’s not a Fun Palace.

A Fun Palace is not a fucking fete. People sometimes want it to be a fete. It’s not a fete. If it’s a fete it’s not a Fun Palace. It’s not about coming along and having a lovely time. It’s not audience development. It’s like when I was 15, and met someone from my working class background, my town, who was an actor, who told me I could do that too. It’s saying to everybody, “You can do this. You are allowed to make arts and make sciences.”

Freedom to make your own sense

Fun Palaces have become a movement so quickly because the people behind it have not tried to control it. They have only said what the idea is and given some principles to guide people who want to make a Fun Palace. They should be:

Free – Local  – Innovative – Transformative – Engaging

That’s enough to be getting on with, though the information provided to potential makers gives a few more helpful words:

Fun Palaces are also LIMITLESS. They are INSPIRING. They are about TAKING PART. And, ideally, they are EASY. We want you to ENJOY making your Fun Palace. And they are also, as far as possible, SUSTAINABLE

(And notice how clear that is: everything I’ve read on the Fun Palaces website, including the admirably readable evaluation report, embodies a wish to communicate and to show that people who work in the arts or sciences are no different from anyone else.)

Crucially, every maker or group is encouraged to interpret those ideas as they wish. Everyone is invited and everyone is interested in what others has to share. The result might not look impressive from a distance but talk to someone who is involved – or take part yourself – and you see that its value is in doing and being, not watching or listening. It is a first step towards rethinking art, science and creativity, what those things might be and how you relate to them. If you never do anything else again, it will be a pity, but never mind: you won’t think about art and science quite the same way either.

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The difficult freedom of neglect

In 1962 Joan Littlewood tried to explain the Fun Palace idea to ‘the absurd Arts Council‘ who replied that she would not get support because ‘they were interested  in something which did not interest Miss Littlewood – Art.’  The Theatre Workshop Archive records that she replied ‘They are quite right!‘. But she might also have gone on to say that ‘Miss Littlewood is interested in something that does not interest the Arts Council – People.’

I’m not surprised that Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price couldn’t make The  Fun Palace in 1961. I’m saddened that The Public got so close, only to fall at the end; but not surprised. It’s what happens when you depend on other people’s money. They want to say how it will be spent and – because they have the money – they always think they know what you should do with it. If Littlewood had built a Fun Palace, she’d have lost control of it in days. She would have refused to do as she was told and stormed off. The building would have become just one more arts centre trying to meet its funders’ expectations. Luckily, it never happened so  she made temporary Fun Palaces instead – Bubble City  in 1968 and Stratford Fair  in 1975. In the difficult freedom of neglect she tried things whose influence continues decades after most well-funded theatre productions have been forgotten.

One way of thinking about Joan Littlewood’s story – and it’s only one: hers was a complex story – is to be glad that the Arts Council didn’t get her. Difficult as her artistic journey was, it’s hard to believe it would have been improved by their support. The truth is that we are most free when power is not interested in us. Perhaps community art has flourished – and it really has, despite its difficulties – in the past 50 years because it has never been smothered by the institutional embrace of the art world. Instead, it has – sometimes, often? – won the support and affection of people, by working with them, involving them and empowering them.

It’s hard to work without resources and without the respect of people you think of as peers. But it’s harder still to have your creativity directed, your choices limited and your work colonised. Art is too precious to be kept from people – and what they make of it when they have the chance is more precious than power understands.

‘I do think that art has to reach others. What I hope for is that they are encouraged to create through art rather than to go “I could never achieve that, so I won’t try,” which I think is really painful and really damaging. If everyone was trying, we would have fixed the world by now. If we were educating everybody, we would have cures for all of our diseases.’

More information

I’m very grateful to Stella Duffy and Sarah-Jane Rawlings, Co-Directors of Fun Palaces; Carine, Alex and everyone I met at Farnham Fun Palace; and Graham Peet.