In her final blog for us, former Ideas Test Director, Lucy Medhurst, explains the process behind our Milton Creek Co-Commission with Creative Estuary.
The project will see artist Patrick Wall create sculptures in the park in summer 2022, with designs based on the stone carvings made by the local people at workshops in Milton Creek Country Park and at Regis Manor Primary School in March 2022.
I’ve had the privilege of being the Director of Ideas Test for the past four years and wanted to reflect on a co commission that I’ve learnt so much from; in particular about putting theory into practice.
Creative Estuary offered us the opportunity to be a partner in their large commissions programme to realise a public artwork in Swale. We chose to work in Sittingbourne and with a range of partners involved with Milton Creek country park, a hidden gem in an industrial area of the town, adjacent to its creek. Ideas Test had been involved with conversations at the country park before and through this we had good relationships with Friends of Milton Creek, Raybel Charters at the nearby wharf, Sittingbourne and Kemsley light railway, the Dolphin Barge Museum, Swale Borough Council and local artists.
The Ideas Test approach works with a co-commissioning collaborative model. This means that we work in and with our communities to involve groups of local people in the decision making and artist selection process. We have a particular interest in working with non-traditional places and spaces and with audiences and participants who do not traditionally engage with mainstream arts. The regeneration agenda has not always played well for local people and the one thing we hear loud and clear is that people want to determine how things will benefit them and want to realise a lasting benefit from projects. This has particular resonance in the context of the pandemic and its impacts in our communities. What we do needs to be locally relevant and valued. Therefore we began with a local conversation and with building relationships, trust and networks based on local knowledge.
Our approach is founded on action research practice with high quality engagement work which meets the tests of Francois Matarasso’s* five quality principles:
The technical and artistic skill demonstrated by the work. Is the idea well made or proposed? Is it suitable for the place? Is it realistic in terms of materials, vandalism etc?
How does it relate to the unique conditions of its creation. Is the idea original? Does it do more than replicate things seen elsewhere? Is it true to the maker?
Aspiration, scale and openness. Is it worth doing? Is the idea really ambitious – for the area and for local people? Is it absolutely the best it can be?
How relevant is the idea to the context of Milton Creek, its history and environment? Does it speak to me?
What is its non rational effect and ability to linger in the mind? Does it move me? Does the idea proposed and the approach show sensitivity and how likely is it to engender feeling and connection in people?
Plus four process/engagement quality criteria:
Experience – Is the process rewarding?
Authorship – How much does it involve co creation?
Empowerment – The extent that people gain control within and beyond the project
Humanity – The extent that it produces kindness, solidarity and trust
*Francois Mattarasso is a highly regarded community artist, writer and researcher working in Europe. A Restless Art is available on the link as a free downloadable pdf
From A Restless Art 2019. Op cit p.100 and p.101
We work with action learning (which means that we adapt and change our programmes according to what we learn and in response to the needs of communities we work with). We view the process of genuine community engagement and a sense of local ownership as being equally as important as the artistic outcome. Both should be excellent in terms of experience. We work with community panels to determine what the brief for the artist or work should be and they play an equal role in selecting an artist. This allows for skills development and learning for everyone involved.. As part of our agreement with Arts Council England, we evaluate and document everything that we do.
How did it work in practice?
Building on the conversations we had had, we teased out the themes for the commission, which related to the history and current use of the country park as a public space. This resulted in an artist’s brief co-written with the community stakeholders.
From 27 submissions we shortlisted 6 artists for interview. We started with a briefing about what we had asked for and everyone scored proposals against those criteria. Panel members are volunteers but were paid expenses. The shortlisting panel consisted of the park ranger, ,a local artist, chair of the Friends of Milton Creek and representatives from Raybel, Creative Estuary and Ideas Test. The scores were discussed and the shortlist drawn up from the highest scoring. This included some surprises but the conversations were robust and involved insights into the real world context of the country park. Some ideas were strong but seemed less practical and accessible to the panel. The briefing aimed to answer any questions individuals may have had about how freelance co commissioned artists and groups work and discussed what kinds of questions it might be good to ask. We took care to encourage the sharing of ideas and open discussions about the proposals according to the framework set out above. We talked about the need to be aware of questioning the artists that appropriately celebrates equality and diversity and reflects Ideas Test’s core values. It was important that the method for decision making should be agreed in the briefing session. A willingness by the artist to engage with the local community and to work with them during the course of developing the project, should also be a strong criteria for selection.
One panel member reflected that the interview and selection process felt “very collegiate” and my own reflection was that despite us all thinking “what if we don’t agree”, the process actively allowed space for individual opinion and honest dialogue. When we arrived at a decision, I think we all felt that it was a truly collective experience.
We are now working with a wonderful artist. Pat Walls was chosen partly because of his truly collaborative approach to working in and with communities. He is really thoughtful, humorous and considered and as an artist he places value on the creativity of others, which he fosters in his workshops.
I can’t wait to see the outcomes at the country park later in the summer. Pat is creating 3 lovely stone benches from the community workshop designs and carvings. We hope to exhibit these and we are fundraising for an exhibition and celebration event as well as an exciting second phase.
To donate please keep an eye on our website and our Crowdfunder which will launch in April.
About Creative Estuary
Creative Estuary supports a wide range of cultural projects with new commissions for Estuary-based producers and artists, from activity for emerging cultural activists to large scale commissions with a diverse mix of partners. The Co-commissions raise widespread awareness of existing creative talent across the region and support creative practitioners and organisations to make and present new work. We are committed to engaging our local communities to contribute to their creative identity and will give artists, organisations and creative practitioners opportunities and support to help them realise their creative ambitions. The Co-commissions create opportunities for creative innovation and new cultural production – we want to capture imagination and provide opportunities for greater collaboration and knowledge sharing. For more information visit www.creativeestuary.com.