Community Arts?

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photo by Anne Akers

I was following a tweet stream recently coming out of an arts conference when I saw a quote from one of the speakers saying “we (the arts world) don’t really know how to work with communities”.

I run an arts festival in west Leeds that works with both artists and residents. In 2005 when working on the plan for the first festival I took the decision to not to use the word community on any branding. Not because I was against working with or being part of the local community, far from it, but because I knew the wider arts community would write us off before we started if we called ourselves a community arts festival.

I shouldn’t have worried about the wording it was the location that was making us invisible, we were working out of the city centre.

For the past seven years we have been quietly and consistently producing artistically strong work right on the doorsteps and streets where people live, to an audience of people who don’t automatically look to the city centre to provide their sustenance.

We’ve commissioned new dance pieces for canal, playground and shopping centre; new plays and poems; new photographic exhibitions to go on lampposts and on the walls of HMP Leeds, we’ve worked with thousands of members of the community on participation projects and yes we put that orchestra in the swimming pool. Artists have given and given and given to produce projects uncompromising in quality and they often come back year after year because, while the monetary rewards might not be great, the experience can be.

There may be not be the automatic kudos that comes with being associated with a well known city centre venue and audiences and passers by will readily tell you what they think, sometimes not mincing their words. But conversations, even hard ones, ultimately make artists work better and the process of talking and listening can be as valuable to both artists and residents as the work itself. Communities are just people, they are you and me, the lady in the sandwich shop and the man in the butchers. We put huge photographs in Morrisons supermarket a couple of years ago that were seen by thousands of shoppers, does this kind of work have less value in a supermarket than a white gallery space? Communities deserve the very best work that artists can do because communities are us. Walk round a community, your community, with your eyes and ears open and you will go home with ideas in your head. I will bet a pork pie on it.

I Love West Leeds aren’t the only ones doing this. Look at The Shed in Hovingham, anyone who experienced Mrs Boyes Bingo will never forget it, look at Garforth Festival and Morley Literature Festival both programming their socks off in small towns you wouldn’t necessarily associate with music and literature. There are organisations like Pyramid of Arts that have been working in communities for years and there is the whole pop-up and DIY movement transforming whatever spaces they can get their hands on!

Two weeks ago I swapped West Leeds for South Leeds and joined Slung Low as they created Original Bearings, an installation and performance in Holbeck, from the new Urban Village up past the footprints of the demolished high rises to the rows of neat red brick terraces that butt up to the M621. I was impressed by the way the Slung Low worked, talking to local people to gather stories and incorporating them into the signs and performance. I was fascinated to watch, as the same barriers I come up against were encountered by another company in a different part of the city. And I was interested to see the reactions of people on the streets of Holbeck as 100 story signs were put up around where they lived. It often starts with distrust, then moves on to disbelief that you are doing anything in their neighbourhood and then as you talk more usually ends in good natured humour and a sharing of stories.

It always comes back to stories.

We thirst for stories because culture is not a bolt on to society but an integral part. Stories ground us and make us fly. Stories are where Slung Low and I Love West Leeds share the same space, so it was a natural step for us to work together on 15 Minutes Live.

15 Minutes Live is an adventure in radio. We asked 6 Yorkshire writers to write new Leeds stories. Then we added a composer, a sound recordist and a foley artist and on Monday we all move in to a mill in Farsley where we will be joined by 9 actors. Its an ambitious project but that is something else both companies have in common.

On Sunday 13 November we are going to record these stories in front of an audience, the sound effects will made in front of you and the music will be played live not from a backing track. Come and join us.

Afterwards the radio plays will be free to download by anyone and we will be creating CD’s to be given away free to older people. Community arts? Damn right.

15 Minutes Live
Sunday 13 November 2-5pm
Sunny Bank Mills, Farlsey
Tickets £5
15minuteslive.eventbrite.com

10 comments

  1. Brilliant blog. Thanks Jane. The word ‘Arts’ provokes a negative reaction in most people because they,like me, have memories of feeling excluded from it by ‘experts’. ILWL is one of the best examples of breaking that class division that I have ever known. Above all the work is definitely ‘great art’

  2. Completely agree, locating arts right in the community so it becomes ‘ours’ too enhances our collective quality of life.

  3. Sounds like a great project Jane, I’m glad it’s happening in my city, on my doorstep.

    @Rod – I dont think any of this has anything to do with class division. Art is for everyone, it happens everyday on many micro and macro scales. Whether it’s a white gallery space or shop front they are just different frames of reference.

  4. I can see both sides of this debate. Over the years I have commissioned several artists to work with rural communities with fantastic results, but as an artist myself I choose not to work in that way. I’m not ashamed of the fact that I want to sell my work and to do that I need to find people with the disposable income to buy it. I hope there’s room for both ways, separate or combined, as the artist or facilitator or the community chooses.

  5. Will I totally agree: that was my point Art is for everyone but in many circles of society it is exclusive. ILWL breaks down the snobbery brilliantly.

  6. There was a cultural theory, last century, that ‘the arts’ is about groups of mates and experts producing work for each other for them to tell each other how fab (or occasionally crap) they are. An exclusive, slightly nepotistic, self sustaining industry.

    I think that idea is relevant to the arts and community arts today.

    ILWL festival is very good at getting right out into the community with the events. What I’d like from the arts and particularly ‘community arts’ is for them to be inclusive not just in attracting a passive audience but in democratising and enabling the community to produce, active participation, to explore their creativity – not just a bit of pre-prepared craftty type stuff.

    Everyday kids from West Leeds High go past our house. In amongst those kids could be some great talent that is unlikely to see the light of day – were they from a leafier part of Leeds their chances would be slightly increaded as they would be more likely to be related to or know someone ‘in the arts’ or be encouraged to pursue their creative urge.

    So rather than feel happy that year on year the same artists will allow you to show, publicise and pay for their work why not go to the schools and get the kids to take photos on their phones (do schools have cameras?). It could completly change their lives or simply show them that their expression is relevant.

    It would also more fully engage the community as brothers, sisters, grandparents, mates etc go to see Leah’s pic blown up 10ft x 10tf on the side of Armley Mills. The buzz that the kids would feel could be transforming and it would make many people, usually disinterested, feel differently about ‘the arts’.

    You mentioned the Morley Lit Fest, there’s another example. The Mills & Boons project looked like a bunch of mates (with a strong connection to the festival) decided they wanted to write and publish a book…..lovely, do it in your own time, away from the festival. How much more democratic and empowering would it have been for the festival to approach local schools, collect short stories, poems and thoughts from the kids and publish that? Never mind the huge pride, empowerment or proper community involvement, we might have found the next Keith Waterhouse. If not school kids they could have collected stories from old folk like the project featured in an ace blog on here a few months ago.

    That’s what I like about the Slung Low project.

    Slightly contradicting myself the 15 minutes thing looks really interesting as you’ve collected a great group of writers but if it were to happen again get out and actually empower people, change lives.

  7. Me and Cult Vult have started discussing this on Twitter might be good up here as well.

    @culturevultures @MickMcCann01 you make some good points but your analysis of @morleylitfest must have been skewed by our M&B japer. Look a little harder…

    MickMcCann01
    @ @culturevultures it isn’t an analysis of @morleylitfest just an eg of how arts could be more empowering for people who are usually excluded

    @culturevultures @MickMcCann01 @morleylitfest just that they did a wide variety of projects that may have fulfilled your criteria. Are you aware of them?

    @MickMcCann01 @culturevultures @morleylitfest saw a writing workshop but no didn’t see anything else. What did they do?

    @culturevultures
    @MickMcCann01 I bow to your deeper understanding

    @culturevultures No need to bow but I’ll answer you on the thread where it’s less restrictive on chars.

    @MickMcCann01 I don’t claim a deeper understanding just think that community arts could sometimes empower people and be inclusive and engender creativity in people (who won’t often get the chance) rather than pointing shiney things at them.

  8. I think anyone who’s ever created anything – a picture, photo, piece of theatre, whatever – really understands how transforming those things can be.

    It’s hard, though, to involve people who are reluctant or have somehow learned that the arts isn’t for them.

    I grew up in Goole, which is tiny, and I thought that theatre was about seeing the bloke from the post office singing a duet with the lollipop lady in a bit of musical theatre once every autumn. A woman who lived at the back of us played piano in the show band, and my dad had been to school with most of the cast. When I went away to study, it came as a bit of a shock that ‘real’ arts people are separate and other-wordly.

    I think that’s kind of why community arts work well in small places; in small places, everyone knows everyone and there isn’t really much space for an arts community to exist without it somehow colliding with other lives.

    I think it’s more difficult in bigger places, and it’s important to create things that push a bit.

    I work with young people, some of whom are very distant from the arts. Last year, we gave about thirty of them a single-use camera, asked them to photograph a day in their lives and created a small exhibition. The pictures they created were superb, and were a very powerful first step in experiencing that transformative “I made this and people like it” feeling.

    For me, artistic things have always been most powerful when their created by and with real people – very real people and not just the arts crowd doing things at and for them.

  9. Re-reading the comments on this it’s great to see Mick is making an Armley Press, some things take a while to seed and take root!

    West Leeds Festival had its funding cut over a year ago by the Local Area Committees, which means that the part time post of Festival Director, shared by Jane Earnshaw and Howard Bradley no longer exists. Which means there is no finance or time to fundraise, commission, run a festival, do the PR and Marketing, etc etc.

    If Leeds is serious about bidding for Capital of Culture 2023 it needs to support the stars and the jewells, the grass roots and protect Festivals like I Love West Leeds which made an impact on so many over the years. Not just participants, there are a great many producers and artists who were given confidence, a platform, mentoring, an audience, to try out their ideas and take part. Invaluable learning. I see the artists who did stuff in sheds in the early days with burgeoning careers and enterprises, myself included. From volunteering in a field at the first event, to putting on a book swap, where Mick came and promoted his own Bowie book at our Central Perk inspired book swap day to becoming a trustee.

    Community doesn’t mean a lack of quality, but it might mean that it’s less visible. And therefore less able to put up a fight when the axe falls. Lack of time and resources mean you don’t have budgets to pay PR, marketing and fundraising people to help you rise above the parapet, win awards, beget more money.

    The fact it’s over doesn’t mean

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