Do we have permission?

Recently, I have been consulting people about their wellbeing.  I’ve met several different groups over the past month to talk about the different ways they manage their lives. The things that we do to feel happy, content, empowered, noticed and healthy.

I often hear people say:

“I am not creative so I don’t do that or this”

or

“I haven’t done creative stuff since I was in primary school. It’s not really for me. I only draw stick men”

I remember many years ago I took a group of older residents to a local gallery and on entering one of the exhibition spaces, one of the group members pulled me aside to ask me whether we had permission to be here. They wanted to talk etiquette, how to behave, how to interact with the space and how to enjoy it. What to think.

A lot is changing in galleries and museums and I hope this continues as we consider and develop spaces whereby people aren’t asking us if they have permission to take part. That we stop labelling people “hard to reach” or “disengaged” and we stop blaming the general public for the lack of numbers taking part or attending galleries or museums.

How about we start seeing galleries and museums as spaces that as well as beautiful spaces full to bursting with wonderful art are also spaces that are good for our wellbeing and our health?

In the last few years, I have started gardening. I began by telling myself that I wasn’t a good gardener, encouraged by my ability to kill many house plants in the past. But the garden needed tending to and I had to do it.

But, as with many new things, of course I wasnt good at gardening straight away…O the shock! How can you be good at something straight way ? I had to practice and learn about gardening. I had to read. Now, I enjoy it. It makes me laugh. I love getting messy. Making things grow from seed to table. Corny I know but it is good for my wellbeing. I have enjoyed watering weeds, potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, rhubarb, cucumbers and an abundance of flowers and fruit. Some of it has survived, some if it hasn’t but it has been hilarious and fun and makes me feel amazing when we get to eat something that we have grown from a tiny seed.

So, now I help run the school eco garden club. Me. The person who wasn’t a gardener. Who is, was and feels good when she does it. I garden not to be a gardener but because i love it and i can do it.

So, here is a wellbeing checklist from our beloved NHS. It is a good thing. It can enrich us and support us as artists and people. Just people. Try and plot your week, your month, your year with it. It is really worth it.

  • Connect – connect with the people around you: your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships.
  • Be active – It isn’t about going to the gym but taking to walking, cycling or playing active games, move.
  • Keep learning – trying something new with your brain, learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence.
  • Give to others – even the smallest act can count, whether it’s a smile, a thank you or a kind word. Larger acts, such as volunteering at your local community centre, can improve your mental wellbeing and help you build new social networks.
  • Be mindful – be more aware of the present moment, including your thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness “mindfulness”.

So, you know turn your mobile off, move, keep learning, give back, and talk to people…

The passing of time

The summer is slowly disappearing from view leaving behind it as always an unfinished to do list of wishes and aspirations. Our summer was broken into three parts. We travelled to Spain. We are quite a tight unit and although G played with other children and we chatted occasionally to other parents, we generally kept it very much about the two of us. We hung out in old towns, sought out local communities, swam a lot, drew a lot and read a lot whilst laughing our way around the local area.

Stage two of our summer holiday was spent supporting my mother through her hip operation. The operation was a success but recovery takes a long time. Things have changed for now. There is a slowness to our house, our movements and our activity are more considered. Stage three involves any remaining summer fun where possible coupled with preparation for a new term at school. Six weeks feel hardly enough time to gather oneself before a new academic year begins.

But this year the passing of time has played on my mind. Three generations living under one roof, each requiring care and support for sometimes the same but different things. We mark out the seasons with a little poem or book or a collection of found objects. We move furniture to accommodate changing weather and seasons. Time passing.

Our final activity towards the end of the summer holidays is to work through all of G’s toys and clothes, discussing and discarding what is no longer needed or wanted. She is at an age now where she is able to laugh at herself and her 43 soft toys and objects which hold much desire. She is happy to make room and pass on some of these items to others. A building block with the trace of teeth marks, a first doll with all of its ragged appeal and remaining twirls of hair or a makeshift toy with re-purposed parts from broken bits of wood. All moved to feature in another story.

Another year and we have completed this task. G is marking out her height on the wall. A new uniform is ready, shoes bought and preparations are in place to ensure that the first day of JUNIOR school is smooth. And so, we watch the aging process in my house. I watch the passing of time with my daughter and my parents at either end with myself sandwiched in the middle. The passing of time. The change of seasons.

Back to work, back to a new season, back to the future. Off we go people.

The language of democracy in the arts

Recently I have begun working in my local community. It is a first. I have never entered into any working arrangement with or alongside an area that I live in. I feel slightly shy and a bit nail bitten about the proposition of my private home space and working life space rubbing alongside one another for any period of time.

It has got me thinking…How democratic are we with the communities that we are working with ? How much are they involved in deciding what, how, where, when things happen ?

I met the local history group who were really passionate about all things local. They were keen to show me photos of forgotten times, contrasting the old and the new and remarking about what had been lost, changed or torn down. They operated as detectives, exploring, sharing, shaping and piecing together moments in time. They all referenced and acknowledged, involved and offered advice to one another. One person was very keen to explain the history of hedgerows and the number of species living in them while another drew gasps of excitement for road signs and pathways. Another provided a vast array of maps which detailed moments of history, land ownerships, bridle paths as well as family homes. How was it that the local history group were able to engage me about a subject that I felt that I could participate with ? In an area that I didn’t grow up in. Quite simply, they used language that didn’t confuse me. They didn’t refer to me as hard to reach, difficult, troublesome or other. They made me welcome. Their enthusiasm was infectious. They didn’t bowl in with language that I didn’t understand. They simply showed me a variety of ways that I could take part or not whilst stating clearly that there were loads of areas that “we” could explore or not and that they were learning as well. Everything was negotiated and decided as a group. Anyone could join. They seemed to operate quite well, democratically even. They aren’t funded, they aren’t governed and they aren’t paid.

What on earth has any of this got to do with my work ?  After all, I can’t live on air so I need to be paid. Often my work is funded and governed. So, how much of our relationship with language and democracy within the arts is shaped by our funders and the policies that we create to manage ourselves?

“EVERYONE is so goddamnit hard to reach!” I remember one artist saying to me after a long exhausting day.

I know many organisations who have spent lots of time researching and developing a funding proposal. They have worked hard to develop partners and new providers in new areas. But still the numbers are low. Does it matter? Maybe the art form wasn’t quite right. Maybe the timing was off, maybe one of the partners folded (I have personally experienced this!) or maybe the entire youth service has ceased to exist, (I have also experienced this!) or maybe we just didn’t have time to build some of the key areas to help it grow. Or maybe no one wanted what was on offer or didn’t quite understand what the offer was. After all, most communities have their have own view on arts and culture.

So, If we are to talk about working democratically with/for and alongside communities surely we need to admit that we have a sometimes flawed, back to front, upside down approach. Surely we should start by developing a language alongside these communities that they feel part of ? Enough of the elitist language?

I have worked with communities that are incredibly rich with culture and arts but maybe this culture wasn’t “HIGH art” or “HIGH quality”. Therefore it needed some help to really engage. Make it proper.

“But we already have a cinema. We already show films that our community want.”

Or

“They came in with a bunch of new artists to work with our artists. People who we trust, who we knew. It felt like we were being told how to do it. We didn’t even ask them to come here”

The above is a real quote that has stayed with me from the last few years. It does feel a little like we are in danger of turning into missionaries with that kind of approach.

Not very democratic. Certainly not authentic.

Maybe we need to be more like the hedgerow local history lady in our approach with communities. Gentle, timely and clear that we are just as passionate about arts and culture as she is about hedgerows.

Certainly, go where we are needed but also where they want us. Don’t complicate language and embrace ALL art forms and culture. After all, our notion of what is arts and culture is shifting and we need to change with it.

Make Room

As part of my work with The Engage Extend Leadership programme I will be working with a wonderful group of people on our enquiry…More of that in a moment.

Firstly, a bit about The Extend leadership programme. The programme is led by Engage (National Association for Gallery Education). It is open to people who are working in learning and education roles in the arts, museums and libraries. Extend was developed in response to the under-representation of learning and education staff in leadership within the arts and cultural sectors. I am super excited to be part of this. I don’t normally align myself to anything and prefer to facilitate/coordinate or act as a conduit for others so something that challenges me and encourages me to think about my own practice as a leader is brilliant and terrifying at the same time. Bring it on.

So, my group. I will be working with a great bunch of people. A little bit about them, they are a great mix of experience and understanding.

Judith Liddle. Judith Liddle is an interdisciplinary gallery and education facilitator. Judith co-curates a number of Edinburgh Printmakers core in-house exhibitions, plans and delivers elements of their education and outreach programme, and has responsibilities in project managing their public artworks programme, offsite exhibitions and activities. Having spent most of her professional career working between Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Milan, Judith has previously written a regular column on contemporary art for Benvenuto Magazine, has sat on the managing committee of David Dale Gallery and Studios and has established an art facility in North Lanarkshire for elderly people with additional needs. Judith has worked with Edinburgh Printmakers for four years. She is passionate about print, and how this unique medium continually is re-contextualised within the contemporary field. She is dedicated to facilitating challenging, engaging, and relevant projects, and allowing absolutely everyone to share her energy and passion for contemporary art and printmaking practice.

Bethan Page
Bethan Page is a freelance Creative Project Manager with over 25 years experience of working in the arts in Wales. Previous roles include Senior Commissions Manager for Cywaith Cymru/Safle and Arts Officer for the Arts Council of Wales. Current freelance work includes leading on the Criw Celf project for Oriel Davies, a project for more able and talented Art pupils, and mentoring Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s Learning Team while they establish Criw Celf in Ceredigion. Bethan is a Creative Agent on the ACW Lead Creative Schools Scheme involving working with teachers, pupils and creative practitioners on creative learning projects. She also works with NAWR; the Art and Education Network for Mid and West Wales to identify the training needs of teachers, and to implement bespoke training events. Bethan is a graduate of Brighton University School of Art and is a fluent Welsh speaker.

Daryl Wells
Daryl is a specialist in community arts engagement with over 20 years of experience designing participatory arts programmes.  She has taught and designed curricula in New York, Washington, London and San Francisco.  In 2014 Daryl launched Art Responders (AR), an arts organisation producing art events with a social justice focus. AR has produced two acclaimed art exhibitions and an event series, and has plans to launch its second exhibition in 2018. As a dual citizen of the US and the UK, Daryl permanently returned to the UK in 2017, and currently resides in Southeast London. In summer of 2017, she was invited to join the Engage London Council, and was also selected as a teaching artist with First Site Gallery. Working with excluded students in Northeast Essex, Daryl created a multimedia installation for the gallery’s “Britishness” exhibition. Daryl has also been a youth artist mentor for the Barbican Centre in 2018.

John Whall
Artist, performer, educator and curator with a background in performance, puppetry, animation and 3D design. First degree in BA (Hons) Performing and Media Art, with additional study in Computer Games Modelling and Animation (BA) and Postgraduate in Visual Communication. Currently the Digital Participation Curator at QUAD in Derby, responsible for the development and delivery of QUAD’s participatory programme, creatively engaging people with the arts and contemporary culture through digital media. John is also a board member for the Derwent Valley World Heritage Site Partnership (DVWHSP) Vital Valley project, as well as digital lead for the East Midlands Participatory Arts Forum (EMPAF) and ArtWorks Alliance (AWA).

Our team is called “Make Room”, taken from an article by Kit de Waal. Our focus enquiry centres around Authentic participationThere is a strong belief in the group that a socially democratic approach to leading arts and culture is key to providing meaningful experiences to audiences and creating sustainable participation for cultural spaces. Through this, it is the group aim to generate findings through a participant first approach, where diverse participant voice, needs and aspirations are brought to the forefront of leadership thinking. We aim for the findings of this enquiry to empower leadership to support and guide socially engaged co-production within cultural and community spaces. Nurturing the positive effects of participation: sustainability, social inclusion, wellbeing, empowerment, learning etc. and developing positive sustainable relationships with education and learning in the cultural sector. We hope to discover models of best practice and potentially to identify new ways of working, that will contribute to leaders undertaking and understanding a participant point of view of the arts. 

As we progress, I shall update here about our progress, thoughts and learning…

Exciting future…stay tuned.

Extending my leadership

Engage Extend Leadership programme A short while ago, a good friend suggested that we both apply for the Extend leadership course. For a while i had been thinking about investing in my leadership, i had stewed over the options and had begun to consider how i could try to make it happen given child care responsibilities as a single parent.

Looking back at my formal arts training (of recent) it had become something of a short story. Not too surprising really. Maintaining a small youth arts led organisation within a local authority is no easy feat. Maintaining a small youth arts led organisation outside of a local authority is no easy feat. However, both feature a number of constraints and challenges which can limit and hinder personal growth.

Of course, you should never take for granted the role of informal learning. For me i have experienced a rich plethora of learning from young people, artists, local authority art leads and community partners which has sustained me and kept me going for all of this time. But i am ever mindful that my own learning desires have fallen short and i have not had time/made time to invest in my own artistic development.

I have allowed it to take a very comfortable back seat while i draw attention to the work of others. It would appear that i am more comfortable to draw attention to others and yet i have over the years yearned for more personal creativity and spotlight. Gulp.

So, in June 2018 i stepped into the arms of the Extend Leadership course. I attended our first residential in Leeds in June. I will take part in a group enquiry with four other people as well as my own personal one to one mentoring.

It is going to be a bit of a rollercoaster. An exciting one.

Yikes!