Moments of Joy

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Almost imperceptibly participatory art is becoming an ordinary dimension of social programmes. It has happened quietly over two or three decades, and it is not a done deal yet, but it is becoming more and more common for actors outside the arts world to integrate arts activities in their work.

Take the example of South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA), a social landlord with some 5,700 homes across the Sheffield City Region, let on average at 21% less than private sector rents in the area. A third of their properties also offer support of specialist care staff, while its LiveWell services help customers in different ways, from accessing mental health support to training or finding work.

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Two years ago, SYHA began to explore how the arts might add value to what they offer their customers. They also wanted to see if it would build relationships between staff, volunteers and customers and with the arts and cultural sector locally. Finally, they hoped that it would enhance their operating model. SYHA were prepared to invest their own resources into the work and they began talking with their customers and local arts organisations about what they might do.

The result was a pilot programme called Moments of Joy, which has just been completed and evaluated. It involved several projects in different parts of the region. Two were environmental art projects in which residents and staff worked with artists to create landscape markers. An Open Cinema project offered 30 events in two seasons in Sheffield. A theatre project with Cardboard Citizens and other partners, which involved about 70 customers and staff and culminated in three performances. A community journalists project to train volunteers to document the programme.

In themselves, these projects may not seem very ambitious or important. Some also worked better than others. But that is to miss the point. What is important is the commitment from a social housing provider to support the wellbeing of its customers and staff by investing its resources in arts activity. The individual projects will change individual lives – the evaluation has already shown that starting to happen. But it is the programme that has the capacity to change approaches to housing and social care. Already, this first experience has convinced SYHA to continue the approach. A new phase is now offering visual art, dance and music sessions, Yorkshire Artspace and darts (Doncaster Community Arts) with funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation supporting 50 of the Association’s most vulnerable customers to take part.  In Doncaster, SYHA is integrating the work is with its Social Prescribing service.

There are some who do not like the idea that art should be part of a social programme like this. They fear the instrumentalisation of art, although it is hard to see a time or a culture when art has not been used by a king or a pope or a banker to advance their interests. Personally, I’ve always thought art was stronger than that and what worries me is the instrumentalisation of people. What impresses me about the SYHA experience is that it is another step towards art being part of everyday life, bringing its creativity, its fun and its questions to places and situations which need them. I love that the housing association decided to call this programme ‘Moments of Joy’. It speaks of a clear-sighted confidence in what difference they are trying to make in people’s lives.

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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 the same 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 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, yet – 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?

…Part 4 tomorrow

More information

  • The Public Story, a website by Graham Peet and Linda Saunders, with whose permission the second block of photographs is included.

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 a Fun Palace, one of almost 300 taking place this weekend across Britain and abroad. A group of volunteers has been given the run 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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Part 3 tomorrow

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I’m very grateful to Carine, Alex and everyone I met at Farnham Fun Palace for their welcome, openness and encouraging me to have fun…

Older artists working with older people

The Baring Foundation (of which I’m a trustee) has prioritised arts work with older people since 2009, supporting the a huge range of work in the UK and Northern Ireland. It has all been participatory, though that word has covered an equally broad range of practice, much of described in a rich library of free publications.

The latest project that is now coming to fruition is a series of commissions for older artists – not necessarily people with an established practice in participatory work. I’ve just seen these two contrasting films in which Ron Haselden (commissioned by Fabrica in Brighton) and Robert Race (commissioned by New Brewery Arts in Cirencester) talk about their very different work. They’re short but fascinating insights into ways of working with people – and the artworks are beautiful.

Ancient roots of community art

La Pléchie - 1March was traditionally the month for hedge laying in the part of rural France where I have roots. The hazel hasn’t yet begun to bud nor the birds to nest. Cutting into the upright stems so that they can be pushed flat and woven together with stakes creates a stock-proof barrier that will last 20 or 30 years. Growing up on a farm, I saw the end of hedge-laying as machinery replaced human labour. Nowadays, the hedges are shaved from tractors, but the result is ugly and ineffective: it’s barbed wire that keeps the cattle in the fields.

So hedge-laying has become a conservation issue, and people organise events during March throughout this Natural Park just to keep the skills alive. Yesterday I worked with neighbours to do a stretch, just for the pleasure of it. It was a convivial morning, as people who didn’t always know one another got stuck in; and this being France, the mid-morning break for bread, ham and wine was as important as the work.

I had thought hedge laying was difficult until I was shown how it’s done. Actually, it’s quite straightforward: cut into the wood enough to bend it easily and then weave the branches together. Hazel and hawthorn are tough and forgiving, even of clumsy hands like mine: they grow back with the spring. As in any human art, there are those who become very skilled and capable of producing beautifully regular hedges from a wild tangle. Competitions abound and, across Europe, there are stylistic variations reflecting local geography and culture.

What we did yesterday wasn’t art, though it might be culture. But it has much in common with the community art projects you find in post-industrial communities searching for connections. Like a lantern parade or a community theatre production, hedge laying is open to everyone, though some do it better than others. It’s a shared enterprise, through which people benefit individually because they benefit together. It’s an expression of values: working with rather than against the natural world, and working together, creating community by enacting community. It leaves a visible trace in the world, but in doing so it produces a change in how we live that is more profound. It’s unnecessary – and that’s why it’s so important.

And then another parallel came to me today, as I read something that the American poet, Theodore Roethke, once jotted down in his notebook:

‘Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.’

Community art, in its essence, really is as old as people, as old as community.

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