Community Arts Re-imagined.
It was with a great amount of pleasure that I read a recent report produced by the campaign group 64 Million Artists. It discusses the need to re-imagine the way that community arts are viewed in this country, calling for measures to make sure that ‘everyday creativity’ is embedded across society.
The report recommends that ACE should reconsider using language such as ‘excellence’ and ‘great art’, which ultimately discourages people who are perceived by the ‘arts establishment’ to have little talent and consider a more ‘democratic’ use of funded buildings and future capital developments.
The report is the result of a five-month nationwide study into how to move from ‘Great Art For Everyone’ to ‘Great Art By, With and For Everyone’. It defines ‘everyday creativity’ as grassroots arts activity, encompassing everything from breakdancing in open spaces to guerrilla gardening and painting in sheds.
I first started getting involved in community arts programmes over 30 years ago, when I worked at Dundee Rep as Associate Director in the mid 198o’s. Dundee Rep was beginning to create work that reflected the lives of local people. At the time this seemed revolutionary. We set up youth theatre projects, dance programmes and an adult performance group. We invited local artists and musicians to share their work. We developed a new programme of work to encourage new audiences to the theatre. In 1986 I directed a production of They Fairly Mak Ye Work written by Billy Kay with music by Michael Marra, which told the story of Mary Brooksbank who worked in the Dundee Jute Mills in the early years of the 20th Century. She was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain between 1920 and 1933, and spent three periods in prison as a result of her agitation. She is remembered today as a prominent figure in Dundee’s labour movement.
The production was a resounding success, sold out on its first run and was repeated a few months later and sold out again. The production gave the Rep confidence to explore other local work and a year later a large scale community production Witch’s Blood was produced in partnership with a number of Dundee based community organisations, under the chairmanship of Dundee Community Arts Festival based at Dudhope Arts Centre.
This large-scale community production, Witch’s Blood, was created in 1987 to great critical and popular acclaim and is regarded as a seminal moment in the development of the community arts movement that is flourishing in Dundee today. It involved taking an audience of 1000 people each night across the city in double-decker buses to see a performance inspired by DC Thomson employee, William Blain’s novel. Both family saga and Dundee history (approx 1650 – 1850), the piece explores community and family issues and particularly inter-generational relationships.
Today a team of local and international artists are currently working with members of the community on a re-imagined version of the production, to be performed in June 2017, the 30th Anniversary of the piece. Using available technology and new digital art forms we plan to re-imagine the story for a contemporary audience.
Witch’s Blood 2016 was again a great success attracting full houses for a short Work-in-Progress. It involved an audience of 100 people walking through the ground floor of West Ward Print Works to experience memories from the first production and songs from the original show.
‘Layers of recorded voices, captured through city-wide community singing sessions, will filter in to the space, augmented and edited digitally to create a haunting soundscape that builds anticipation. Recorded audio of Michael Marra singing from the original show will blend with his daughter Alice singing live, creating an ambience in which reality and fiction can hold equal sway. As the performance builds momentum the live vocalists in the space come to life, starting with a solo voice before a 40 strong women’s choir emerge from the darkness. A symphony of voices entwined with spoken word and fragments of narrative hint towards a bigger story unravelling; creating a glimmer of things to come in 2017 and inviting the public to be involved in the impending large scale production’
In the past much emphasis was made of the necessity, by arts funders, for community arts projects to devise ‘legacy’ or ‘exit strategy’. I always felt it was nearly impossible to say how things would develop and what might emerge from one project into the future. It also felt a little presumptuous.
I know that Witch’s Blood left an extraordinary memory in the hearts of hundreds of people. We didn’t have an exit strategy, we trusted in the people who had been involved to create their own creative path. The future was theirs. However, when we started to think about devising a 30th Anniversary project, people came back to get involved very quickly. The sons and daughters and grandchildren of participants, audiences and people who had just heard about it, all gathered for a public meeting at the end of March 2016. The stories and memories they shared were beautiful and moving and encouraged us to keep going with a re-imagined Witch’s Blood. When Dundee applied to be UK City of Culture in 2017 their bid named Witch’s Blood as one of the projects that kickstarted an arts revolution in the city. In 1994 the city wrote its first cultural strategy. The philosophy and values that underpinned Witch’s Blood were firmly articulated within its pages. This was the start of the legacy, but now the wider community was taking the lead.
Dundee City of Culture
The changes in Dundee since the mid 1980’s has been extraordinary, beyond what I could have ever imagined, and the arts have played a major role in making the city so vibrant today. There is currently a 1 billion pound investment in developing the Waterfront, bringing the city’s relationship with the River Tay back to life. The V & A Museum of Design will open in 2018. Dundee has recently been named as an UNESCO City of Design and, in a spirit of never giving up, it has just been announced that Dundee will bid for European Capital of Culture title in 2023.
The Arts and their Role in Civic Society
Community Arts Projects continue to make a difference across the world. There are some amazing projects and organisations working together, believing in the principle that everybody is creative and that the arts can make a difference in society for the better.
A recent interesting development comes from The Gulbenkian Foundation who are developing an inquiry into the civic role of the arts
At the launch of the inquiry they wrote:
‘Arts organisations play an important civic role, sustaining individuals and communities and helping make many places across the country more creative and vital places to live and work. Today we are launching an Inquiry which will cast a spotlight on the civic role of arts organisations.
We aspire through the Inquiry to increase awareness of the civic role that arts organisations play nationally and in their communities, develop an understanding of what constitutes ‘next practice’ and develop a movement of arts organisations committed to demonstrating it.
We are calling on arts, and other interested organisations, to get involved and help us to ensure that the full potential of arts organisations in promoting civic engagement and revitalising communities is realised. The first stage in the process is research and consultation and we invite you to visit the Inquiry website and join the conversation by, amongst other things, telling us what the civic role of arts and cultural organisations means to you and what needs to change in order for arts organisations to be able to fully embrace it?’
It seems to me that in these difficult times the arts are needed more than ever and that there are communities, artists, individuals and organisations who are ready to contribute to making profound change happen. Over the last 30 years I have learnt a lot and experienced for myself the power of the arts as a major contributor to changing attitudes, feelings, thoughts and emotions. I believe that the arts have been the stimulus to changing lives for the better. We all recognise those small, seemingly insignificant moments in life that suddenly become important and teach us something more about ourselves and the world with live in. I have experienced most of those moments when I am engaged with artistic and creative projects and places. Looking at art, listening to art, participating in art. It helps me to understand myself a little bit more and I believe I share this feeling with millions of other people around the world.
To finish this thought, here is a lovely little animation from Alain de Botton – What is Art For?