Guest post: Arts and older people in Wales

David Cutler, the Director of the Baring Foundation (of which I’m a trustee) has been reflecting on the strength of art work with older people in Wales. Here he describes some of the work that has been developing over the past decade and suggests some reasons for its success; the original post is here

Welsh magic: what’s behind the magnificent work taking place in arts with older people in Wales?

I have been asking myself this question after participating in the excellent conference at the stunningly beautiful new Royal College of Music and Drama in Cardiff on 6th April. The conference was organised by the Arts Council Wales and Age Cymru with financial support from the Baring Foundation. It culminated with a strong endorsement from Ken Skates, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure. The day showcased arts activity from the length and breadth of the country, but clearly showed that practitioners did not want to rest on their laurels but see how this could be improved.

Wales has many treasures when it comes to arts and older people. Central to this is Gwanwyn, the month long creative ageing festival in May. Gwanwyn means ‘Spring’ in Welsh and renews the landscape each year. Run by Age Cymru since 2006  it reaches over 11,000 people in around 500 events. Gwanwyn gives grants to pump prime activity.  It continually develops with local Gwanwyn year-round clubs as its latest manifestation.

Gwanwyn’s management by Age Cymru has meant that it is able to benefit from that organisation’s knowledge of the wider scene of older people’s work including their My Home Life programme of training for the improvement of care homes. This has very much helped the brilliant cARTrefu (meaning ‘to reside’ in Welsh) programme also based there and funded by the Arts Council Wales and ourselves. The programme works across four art forms (performing arts, visual arts, words and music), with an expert artist  mentoring four others. cARTrefu has already placed artists in residence in around one quarter (122) of the care homes in Wales. This makes it one of the largest arts and dementia schemes in Europe.

cARTrefu-residencies-project_Michal-Photo

To take one moving example, one of the artists, the photographer Michal Iwanowski, has worked with residents to make their dreams to come true. For one resident, this was identifying and photographing the grave of her first husband who died in Austria on the last day of the Second World War. Unable to visit the site and for many years silent about this loss to her second husband and family, the photograph taken by Michal has been deeply important to her. cARTrefu will run for another two years and an evaluation is about to the published by Bangor University.

cARTrefu and the wide range of projects in Wales are captured in this short film.

Last year, I had the pleasure of seeing two great theatre pieces the Foundation had the privilege of supporting. Re-live, run by Karin Diamond and Alison O’Connor, produced a powerful new play written by Karin called Belonging/Pethryn, which was developed from numerous interviews with people living with dementia and their carers. I went to a performance mainly attended by professionals working in social care, many of whom were struggling with tears by the end. It has toured wales and won several awards and is part of a growing body of work by the company with a focus on dementia. We also funded the National Theatre of Wales, which created a new play called Before I Leave which arose out of playwright, Patrick Jones’s encounter with a dementia choir in Methyr Tydfil. NTW worked with a number of dementia choirs on a new work piece called I’ll Sing this Song by Manic Street Preachers, Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield – there’s even an app! As elsewhere in the UK, theatres and other venues in Wales are beginning to programme dementia-friendly performances.

There is also much to celebrate in the work being undertaken by local authorities, despite the immense pressures on resources in Wales as elsewhere. Denbighshire Council has been running the Lost in Arts project (with support from ACW) for over five years. Artists work with people living with dementia in a number of sites and with local primary schools. Partnerships between local primary schools and care organisations are also central to a Gwynedd Council project to tackle loneliness among older people in rural communities: Memories through Music – Connecting Generations is delivered by Canolfan Gerdd William Matthias Music Centre.

Museums in Wales are also engaged with this agenda. Perhaps one of the bolder examples has been the dementia friendly trips organised by the Big Pit National Coal Museum. Singing and coal mining, two pillars of Welsh culture, came together in a commission we funded by Live Music Now in our Late Style programme (promoting the commissioning of work by older artists). Jon McLeod, the composer (himself over 80) produced a haunting piece, partly based on the memories of people who were children in the Aberfan Disaster (and coal mining communities in West Lothian). Called Songs from Above and Below, the song cycle was premiered at the Wales Millennium Centre. (You can listen to excerpts of the music here in this short video about the making of the song cycle.)

So why is Wales winning an enviable reputation in participatory arts with older people?

Clearly the collaboration of and leadership by the Arts Council Wales and Age Cymru has been crucial. It strikes me that key arts organisations and older people’s organisations are better networked, certainly than in England. This will only be improved by the launch of the Age Friendly Cultural Network, an initiative of Ageing Well in Wales and the National Museum Wales.

Wales has some structural advantages, not only in scale but in innovations such as the creation of the officer of Older People’s Commissioner, combined with her clear appreciation that culture is a right for older people. New legislation, the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014, is also offering new opportunities and these are being taken in a practical ways such as the Age-Friendly Communities Resource Hub.

cARTrefu and other projects have demonstrated that there is a wealth of artists who see the creative potential and excitement of working with older people. The ambition of these projects is evident.

We have wanted through our funding to instil an understanding of the value of arts for and by older people – among arts organisations, older people’s charities, the care home sector, and among artists and the community as a whole. The signs that this idea has taken a firm root in Wales look particularly promising.

Spring time in Wales is glorious indeed.

David Cutler, Director, the Baring Foundation

With thanks to David and the Foundation for permission to include this text here.

Why Joan Littlewood Matters – possibly more now than ever

Joan Littlewood and Theatre Royal
Joan Littlewood and Theatre Royal

A guest post by Stella Duffy, theatre maker, novelist and Fun Palaces champion

Joan was a working class actor and director when most actors, and especially most directors, came from privilege. She was a woman when most directors were men. She ran a major theatre venue when most people running venues were men. She worked outside of London, especially in the North West and the North East, working with local people where they lived.

It would be great to say that all this has changed, but it hasn’t. The majority of those making theatre are still middle class. The majority of those making theatre are still men. London remains disproportionately funded in terms of arts.*

Perhaps it is because of this glacial pace of change that Joan remains a beacon to those of us for whom the arts is our passion, especially the women and the working class in theatre and the wider arts.

Decades ahead of her time, Joan created community and immersive theatre with the Theatre Union in the 1930s and Theatre Workshop from 1945. Their work was avowedly left wing, brought text, dance and music together, and experimented with film, lighting, sound and design long before sets of scaffolding and projection-as-design became the standard they are now. Even when working with little or no production budget, lighting and sound were intrinsic to her productions in a way that is now expected and at the time was considered decidedly avant-garde. Given that making sound or film a core part of a piece involved reel-to-reel tapes, traditional projection, and extremely expensive stock – from a company with always limited budgets – the daring to incorporate new methods and techniques is undeniable.

But all of this is merely what she did. What is truly thrilling about Joan and her legacy is who she was as a person – or, at least, what they say she was like as a person. ‘They’ being the people who worked with Joan. I’ve probably talked to a dozen or more of these people in the time we have been growing Fun Palaces – and every one of them speaks of a different Joan. The drinking, smoking Joan who was raucous and often furious and suffered no fools, gladly or otherwise. The Joan who was careful and kind, who could be generous and gentle in times of sincere distress. The Joan who (literally) brought kids in off the street to play and work in her theatre, quite possibly changing lives as she did so. The Joan who left brutal acting notes on dressing room doors so that all of the cast would see them, not just those to whom the notes were addressed. The Joan who swapped casts’ roles hours before curtain-up, to keep the play fresh and to stop the actors ‘being boring’ – the Joan with a horror of boring actors. The Joan who took on the work of an unknown playwright, Shelagh Delaney, and gave her career the kickstart it needed. The Joan who worked with Brendan Behan sober and not. The Joan who told bored local lads to try robbing the bar of her own theatre as a way to keep them occupied. The Joan that Murray Melvin tells us always said ‘ask the kids’ not just what they wanted to do – but how THEY would do it, empowering them to create their own engagement. The Joan who despised the National Theatre. The south Londoner who loved the East End. The Joan who brought Laban’s work to the British stage. The Joan who directed the Greeks and Shakespeare and modern unknowns. The Joan who worked with Cedric Price to design their never-built Fun Palace, who said,

‘I really do believe in the community. I really do believe in the genius in every person. And I’ve heard that greatness come out of them, that great thing which is in people.’

I can’t speak to all the other Joans, but the one in that last quote, that’s the Joan who inspired our Fun Palaces. The 240 locally-led, community-based Fun Palaces that took place over two weekends in 2014 and 2015, run by 5262 local people and with over 90,000 people taking part. That’s the Joan we channel when people who have never before run a public event or worked in arts or sciences ask us if they can make a Fun Palace with and for their own community – our answer is always yes, and then in the same way that Joan ‘asked the kids’, we ask them (all ages) what they’d like to, and how we can help them to do what they want. Fun Palaces come from the community, from the locals, from the people – from the genius in every one.

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* Although it is clear that some of this funding – especially to major galleries and venues – is certainly not accessed by the majority of Londoners, many of whom never visit these major venues once they have left school.

Stella Duffy

Great thanks to Stella for this tribute to one of the people without whom so many good things in community arts might never have happened. If you have been similarly inspired by someone before you please share the experience in a comment below. 

Chris Fremantle: ‘ The Hope of Something Different’

‘One of the most fundamental rights is to have your understanding of the world recognised and valued’.

Chris Fremantle

Participatory art is a rich and diverse practice. Much of its energy comes from the creative tensions between different theories and visions, as may be seen from some of the reaction to the Turner Prize jury’s choice. But art is not only intellectual and rational. It is felt, perceived, practiced and experienced. Some of the most creative discussions happen within projects, between artists and participants (or, as I’d prefer to say, between professional and non-professional artists). That is why I think of it as a restless art.

And so this project, in its conception and unfolding, is a space for discussion, reflection and development. Other voices are not just welcome: they are intrinsic to what it is trying to do. They are being heard in the meetings and conversations I’m having, which are gradually being documented here. But there are other ways to participate and today, I’m delighted to share the first ‘invited text’ by Chris Fremantle. Chris has been working for many years where art, people and environment meet and his piece considers the parallels between participatory art and ecoarts.

In discussions between artists whose work is focused by environment and ecology, there is a general recognition of a commonality with artists who engage in social and community practices. The work often operates in both realms, sometimes seamlessly. Both are interested in different forms of relationality, particularly in sharing and negotiating authorship with communities and creating stories that serve interests beyond their own.

Continue reading

Many thanks to Chris for his rich contribution to the project.

The Veden Taika Islands (Jackie Brookner) http://jackiebrookner.com/project/veden-taika/
The Veden Taika Islands (Jackie Brookner) http://jackiebrookner.com/project/veden-taika/