People Place Power

Rosemary, one of Ideas Test regular participants, photographed by Stephen King for Creative People and Places

Ideas Test’s Director, Lucy Medhurst, writes here about her experience at the recent Creative People and Places conference, held in Wolverhampton in June 2018.

What a wonderful experience the Creative People and Places (CPP) conference was,  just two weeks ago in Wolverhampton. Called People Place Power, the two day event got to the heart of the values and issues emerging from this important programme, currently happening in 21 different places in England.

 

Light House, Wolverhampton (Photo: Lucy Medhurst)

Like Ideas Test, the majority of these initiatives are five years in now and the conference was an exhilarating series of provocations compered by the marvellous Talia Randall, artist-led workshops, panel discussions, insights and conversations. Set in the fabulous former Chubb building – now a community run arts venue called Light House, right in the heart of the city – we were made welcome in a building that’s a thought provoking example of successful community-led regeneration. There was a great choice of inspiring talks and discussions, kicked off in style by Jessica Thom aka Tourettes Hero.

My highlights were “What Can We Learn from Being Uncomfortable” facilitated by Karen Smith from Heart of Glass in St Helen’s and with honest contributions from Helen Wilmott (Made in Corby) and Tajbir Settie from CPP Hounslow. It was refreshing to take part in an open conversation about the issues at the heart of genuine participatory practice and the opportunity offered when learning from what is difficult or what doesn’t work. It brought to mind Samuel Beckett’s exhortation “Ever Tried? Ever Failed? No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better”.

Asmah Shah was impressive and inspiring talking about her East End company You Make It, founded to support young women from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed. Rooted in her own experience, Asmah began the company from her kitchen table and now addresses inequity through sustainable programmes with mentors supporting new participants.

 

(Photo: Lucy Medhurst)

I also loved With Not To: co-commissioning from the grassroots”, which highlighted two case studies from Left Coast (Blackpool) and Creative Scene. Tina Redford from Left Coast introduced Sarah and Hannah Threlfall, community leaders from an inner city estate. They had chosen to work with the local police who were building a state of the art operations base and police station in the heart of two estates and had agreed to fund the art commission.

The residents worked with Left Coast to draw up a brief for an artist residency and commission and their account of the selection process was really engaging. In the end they selected artist Andrew Small, because he came with no preconceptions about the estate or the residents and no prior ideas about what he might produce. The journey and the resulting artwork were great and when asked, Sarah and Hannah felt empowered to continue working in this way, but acknowledged the support given to them by Left Coast.

 

Artistic practice in places defined by Arts Council England (ACE) as areas of low arts engagement (and usually those grappling with the outfall from austerity and high economic deprivation) brings with it risk, the need to engage in different ways and the need to reflect on whose culture we are talking about.

From an ACE point of view this has been exemplified by Great Art for Everyone, their ten year strategy, and the notion of excellence of art and of experience of audiences. They have recently been out to consultation to help inform the next ten years.

CPP is part of a wave of grassroots commissioning, community-led programming and so-called socially engaged practice pushing against ideas of what constitutes excellence and creating an exhilarating tension. Sometimes the conversations and provocations at the conference became very self conscious around themes of race and class, but all of it was stimulating and interesting.

Sir Nicholas Serota gave a keynote at the end of the conference which reflected very positively on the CPP programme and the learning that it has generated. Along with a slow but steady movement away from a predominant investment in the larger, London based organisations to the provinces, it feels as though something may be shifting, but this is happening against a background of diminishing public resources.

 

Whether ‘the local encounters’ of CPP can be turned into genuinely ‘long term commitment’ rather than just being ‘one thing after another’ is in the Arts Council’s hands” as Chrissie Tiller writes in Power Up. But it is also in the hands of the community of practice that is the CPP network and the places and communities in which they are rooted.

As a very newly appointed Director, I feel extremely privileged and honoured to be a small part of it, trying to make a difference to the people living in Swale and Medway.

 

Lucy Medhurst

June 2018