Arts Council England - Creative People and Places
As we reach the end of 2020, I'm sharing some of the projects and organisations I've been working with this year, along with key things I've learned along the way.
Working with Arts Council England's Creative People and Places project, I researched and wrote a series of five case studies (and a reflective blog, which is reproduced below). The series is intended to capture and share the learning of Places across England as they respond to the conditions of COVID and lockdown, and find new ways to support locally-led creative projects to thrive.
Photo: Artists with Fishes and Wishes, East Durham Creates
Over the past four months I’ve had the absolute pleasure of working with CPP Places across England - reflecting, capturing and sharing the learning from the intense journey we’ve all been on over the past year. Over a series of five case studies, we’ve explored the move to digital engagement, new ways of commissioning artists, the role of creativity in mitigating the lack of human contact over lockdown, supporting creativity alongside basic and essential needs, and the role of risk-taking and failure in driving progress. All in, I’ve spoken to 24 people across 19 Places - some 14 hours of interviews with people from Northumberland to Sedgemoor, and Blackpool to West Suffolk. It’s been a fascinating snapshot of communities and creativity at this unique moment in time.
Some of the Places I interviewed were deeply familiar to me - one, in fact, is based in the town I grew up in, whilst others were entirely new to me: a couple I even needed to look up on a map. Four months on, though, I’d be confident of the warmest of welcomes if I ever arrived in any one of these Places. The people I spoke to who are involved in CPP Places - some project leads, some artists, some participants and community members - were without exception warm, passionate and thoughtful individuals, all deeply committed to doing their utmost to make their place the best it could be. None spoke of ‘doing a job’ - each person brought their whole selves to their work, with genuine care, love and a deep understanding of their place and its people. One person described the streets and buildings of her town, ending with a passionate rush of ‘Oh, it’s just gorgeous’. The nature of CPP projects means that all of these places have had their challenges, and many are living through very real and urgent problems of poverty, unemployment and underinvestment. The deep connections of CPP Leads within their communities, and their unwavering commitment to working for, with and alongside local people, was common to all.
That said, it was apparent that many of those I spoke to were exhausted. Some of the newer Places had tiny (sometimes one-person) staff teams, who’d been leading significant rethinks of business plans and activity, during COVID, often alone. In these cases, the peer support offered by Places to one-another had been important, as had the ability of project teams to build informal networks with an often diverse range of local stakeholders. For Project Leads in particular, the CPP network was also valued as a place to look for help, to ask the ‘stupid questions’, and to debrief and download in a judgement-free environment. As the months passed, it became apparent that many were conscious of their own capacity, and I was relieved to see that many were actively making plans with their team to recognise the need for ebbs and flows in their workload. Roles that ask so much passion of individuals need a commensurate level of care and support for those at the frontline.
If there were another thread running through the diverse stories, people and places I’ve explored, it would be the importance of storytelling in helping us to make sense of uncertain, trying and frightening times. From marking Ramandan in Luton, to sharing the experiences of D/deaf people in lockdown in the Black Country, or remembering genocides through food and creativity in West Yorkshire, it was apparent that many people had looked to storytelling as a means to understand, capture, share and archive the experiences of COVID and 2020. This need to tell our stories, to feel heard and to compare our experiences with others is by no means a new thing, but it perhaps takes a moment of national crisis for many of us to feel its need so viscerally. The series of videos created to accompany each case study, edited by the inestimable Eirene Wallace, felt an important part of continuing and contributing to this storytelling tradition.
As we come to the end of an undeniably trying year, what was perhaps surprising was the sense of optimism which was apparent in many Places. Just as many people have looked to storytelling to help them make sense of the pandemic, so many Places have seen a new kind of creativity emerge in their communities. People who hadn’t sewn for years have been making scrubs for the NHS. Those who’d never sung in public were joining doorstep singalongs. There were drawings in windows, chalk on pavements, creative conversations over Zoom and filmmaking in gardens. Whilst all Places have had to shelve plans, cancel events and retreat into their homes, they’ve also had time for deeper connections, longer conversations, and some much-needed thinking space to work alongside their communities in planning a post-COVID creative future.
And in many ways, the crisis has been an important endorsement of the CPP approach. Their deep connection to their local communities, broad understanding of creativity, adaptable approach, and willingness to forge unconventional partnerships have served CPPs well this year. Whilst we’ve all been relearning, rethinking and reimaging, the openness of Place teams to working flexibly - learning as they go and sharing that learning with others - has been critical to building strong communities that can emerge from this crisis with confidence and optimism.
We may all end this year bruised and battered by the pandemic; it’s legacy will doubtless be with us for the foreseeable. But with inspiring, dedicated, passionate and creative people leading the charge for locally-rooted creative activity, I’m optimistic for the future.
I can’t wait to see what they come up with.