Extend and Make Room

The final residential for the Extend programme took place a few weeks ago in Leeds. It was a chance for the cohort of 2019 to come together one last time. As a group we shared stories about our lives as well as the progress of our group enquiries. We debated, talked openly and reflected on our journeys and connected with one another again.

It felt familiar, warm and supportive. As always, Extend drew into focus artists and organisations who provocated our thinking about what we do and why we do it. Extend do something very special. The team work exceptionally well to curate presentations and work which offers us all the chance to consider not only our leadership but our values, who we are, what we are doing and why we do it. It is a chance to challenge ourselves and take and make what we will of the process. Their own gentle, inclusive style of leadership really shows a brave approach to a new way of thinking. Leadership doesn’t have to exhibit loudness or forthright language. It can be about noticing, communicating, being brave, taking on difficult conversations and connecting with people. I applaud those at Engage Extend for the chance to take part this year. Thank you all. 

Challenging conversations was a theme for our last day with Extend. It raised some personal and professional questions about how we collectively and individually develop our thinking around difficult conversations. Our deep rooted thoughts about ourselves and others. From early childhood to adulthood notions about our values, our teaching and who we are take more centre stage. It struck me that for many of us, leadership presents conversations that we collectively avoid. We actively seek out irrational situations to avoid confrontation, interruption or question. We are adverse to upsetting feedback and thinking. We all know that this is massively counter productive to both our professional and personal lives but yet so often we tread this quite often hilarious terrain of distractions in order to avoid difficult situations or uncomfortable conversations.

One colleague of mine from years ago had a boss who insisted that their entire team go running together twice a week as a team. At the time it was felt that this would encourage team activity and productivity. Some people were good at running and some people were not. Slowly and surely over time, people were actively avoiding the days that the run occured. It became so consistent that for some of the month, team members had started to work from home or book out very early morning meetings to avoid attendance. Not one person wanted to explain to the boss person why it wasn’t ok to insist on people running twice a week. For many it was about choice, personal experience, ability or quite frankly desire. There had been no conversation or exchange about choice. The boss took the lack of enthusiasm for running personally and got very angry about what they considered to be a lazy team who they thought didn’t want to be a team. This went on for over a year. It snowballed into a culture of mistrust on both parts…for the longest time… with both camps thinking that the other ‘didn’t get it”…until finally the boss left the company and the conversation. Both parties hurt and angry. Both parties with their own version of the events. Yet a conversation at the start, a debate or exchange about wants and needs would have sorted it all out. The boss could have noticed. The team could have said. Yet, noone wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings or expose their own. What a bunch of weirdos we are. 

Then, all too quickly our residential collective gathering was finished and our last moments were filled with emotional goodbyes and hugs. We packed away our things and carried our bags to the station.

I travelled back to Somerset with my good friend Fran Bossom where we shared our often hilarious and complex lives over the last remaining drops of our coffee. Whilst we busied ourselves with insulting one another (one of our favourite past times), we both reflected on the unending struggle to balance everything in our lives through a whirlwind of plate spinning. Twirling and whirling through the minor and the major as we slice up sandwiches for small folk whilst contemplating the health, wealth and wellbeing of all the people around us including ourselves. Worries. All the time.

Time and the urgency of finishing things, completing tasks, making time, creating time, spending time, quality time. Time to watch my daughters legs get longer. Time to cut her fingernails. Time to connect. Time to read. Time for fun. Time to remember who the hell we are in all of this. Time to be creative, to make art. 

So, what now that I have completed Extend ? It’s all finished isn’t it ? Some of us may have tidied away our files and notes of the past year with Extend, my notes are still lying scattered across my desk with arrows and circles sketched across my paperwork signalling something developing….

So, what am I working on. Disruptive and questioning I don’t mind if I do.

I have been working in London over the last month drawing brains and collecting stories from like minded folk as part of a piece of work. Years ago I collected lists and photos/prints of people’s hands Lets see about the brain works. Drawing things that no longer exist anymore from people, places, animals and objects. Don’t ask, actually do. Maybe. Much of my focus of late has been centred on Arts and Health and the curiosity of learning through arts as practice to raise our game, opportunity and progression for ourselves as artists but also our communities. 

There have been some great write ups lately about the importance of arts engagement, its value and impact. Have a read.

Me, I am off to draw a passsenger pigeon and another Dodo.

Read about:

Arts as Practice- by Robin Nelson


Natives Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala.

Openair arts practicing well

How do artistic creative activities regulate our emotions? 

We need arts premium in schools

Working class artist


Six months ago, I broke free from local authority life to venture into something much more unpredictable. The world of freelance or I should say back to the world of freelance. In this time, I have worked with a host of different people and organisations. Taking on project management, writing bids as well as operational and strategic development and data.  I have also taken on the role of co Chair for my daughters local school, the Chair of a local music charity- Evolve and I now regularly support a children’s after school gardening club.

So, what has changed in the freelance world ?

Rates are on the decline. People are working harder for less money and competition is tough. I am also an older woman working in the arts sector. I am also a working class woman working in the arts sector. I am also a working class single parent working in the arts sector. I am also a child of immigrant parents and a working class single parent in the arts sector. This is the first time that i have ever written those words down.

Recently, I was talking to some young people about progression and the chances and choices that they had in furthering their arts engagement in secondary school and beyond. A few stated that they would continue to take part in arts activities with the help of their family and a few stated that they would stop. When asked why, they said that there was no spare money in their family and that they had to consider the other children in their house and their family situation. So, that’s that. Reality strikes. At the age of 11, a child knows their opportunities and limitations. No surprise there I guess.

Now, you might say that we could all work harder to achieve the following:

  • More projects to support the “HARD TO REACH” or ” DISENGAGED” communities.
  • Make better use of pupil premium and other school funding/training for schools.
  • Grow the sector and community engagement.

I think its time for me to admit that I have grown weary and exhausted by the terms “hard to reach” or “disengaged”. I have managed projects under this banner and still do. It is an overused vague term that hails from social care and health, especially in discussion around health and social inequalities. But, if we are increasingly talking about the inequality of class and poverty, factors that influence a child’s and adults progression, why are using such blanket terms for something so problematic ? 

Not every child qualifies for free school meals. Some live just above the threshold. Only a percentage of young people/emerging artists can afford to take part in volunteer opportunities.

Volunteering for some is a luxury.

Imagine that.

Some people do not have a cushion of money. There is nobody to ask for help with rent, bills, food or career progression. For some, there may be expectations to work instead of going to university, regardless of talent. So, in reality little has changed.

The panic report states that the cultural and creative sector “significantly excludes” those from working class backgrounds, which is in addition to barriers faced by women and people who identify as disabled or Black and minority ethnic (BME). So, if just 18.2% of the music, performing and visual arts workforce is working class are we really doing such a good job with our outreach work, community engagement and opportunities in the sector ?

I still think about this one parent who I met a few years ago. She arrived with her son to take part in a music project that i was delivering.  After filling the form in and paying her money, she picked up some of our publicity which talked about our work in “hard to reach communities”.

She glanced across to her son and pointed to the piece of paper and whispered,

“Are we hard to reach?” she asked her son.

“Yeah, I think it means poor ” he replied.

Yes, it is true that your financial or class background are not a protected characteristic in terms of arts council funding but it is something that we need to find a much better way to support and be honest about. It may be complex to consider the working class and the working class poor but it is time that we acknowledge that we need to change.




Safe guarding in arts practice


14732397_10153911973285868_3067742739219293573_nWe are seeing daily articles and updates focusing on Harvey Weinstein, Terry Richardson and more recently Kevin Spacey to name a few. High profile arts professionals operating in plain sight. Plain sight. The power and control of individuals coupled with an industry in pursuit of richer arts and culture experiences at the expense of many. Some of you will have read articles about Max-Stafford- Clark http://www.danrebellato.co.uk/spilledink/2017/10/21/max-stafford-clark

American Film director Victor Salva is a convicted Paedophile who continues to work with children and young people. He continues to work in film, receive finance and promotion. Roman Polanski famously fled America after admitting child rape, yet continues to make and produce films with a host of adoring stars. We now know that Harvey Weinstein operated in plain sight. Woody Allen has been accused of sexual abuse by his daughter, yet this goes unchallenged and he continues to work in the film industry.

So, how can we be sure that we are operating in a healthy work environment with so many disclosures of historic abuse occuring within arts and culture ? Do we all feel confident to challenge a lead artist, or support staff, or producer or commissioner if we see something that we feel uncomfortable about? Can you say that you would challenge inappropriate behaviour? Can you say that when you plan projects, events, performances that safeguarding is at the top of your planning?

It should be but is it…?

If we consider safeguarding issues for children and young people for a minute, whereby mulit agency safeguarding hubs in local authorities are designed for ANYONE to call if they have a concern about a child or young person. Safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility. It is not just for the youth worker, the school setting staff or the contractor that has commissioned the artist- it includes the artist.

All arts organisations and individual artists who work directly with children and young people, or who are involved in providing services for them, have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people.

Over my career i have seen and witnessed practice that i have had to challenge or to question and at times report. No doubt the first time that you do challenge a person or a practice, it can be uncomfortable and scary but it is vital and your concerns could very well add important elements to a jigsaw about someones practice.

It is high time we all take a health check about our practice in socially engaged arts practice, our own personal safeguarding policies, our own pursuit for great arts and culture. Check in. Don’t leave it to someone else to report.



A case for the arts

I recently found myself reading MORE articles about the value of the arts in education and wellbeing. The Education Endowment Foundation (EFF) and the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) have recently announced five trials to test the impact of different “cultural learning strategies” as part of the ‘Learning about culture’ programme, which is will be rolled out to 9,000 pupils across 400 primary schools from September next year.

Really? Do we really need more evidence to prove the value of the arts? Its more than a little exasperating to see yet more studies and trials to demonstrate the value of the arts in education, health and wellbeing. If we are to repeat this process, surely much longer term studies are required. And what of the results? How are we to fund more of this if the studies prove successful? More lobbying?

What I find concerning is that yet again, the arts are not considered as valuable as “core” subjects and are subject to endless scrutiny and challenge. Time to give the arts centre stage, a level playing field alongside core subjects. We don’t see the same level of scrutiny for other subjects and its frustrating. We need more focus to grow engagement, more investment and more value.



Fabric of life- The finale

The Fabric of Life project is a young people’s project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in which the participants have looked at the history of fashion as a form of identity with particular focus on gender and sexuality. Forty five young people from Bradford on Avon, Chippenham, Salisbury and Trowbridge have engaged with the project.

You may have already been following the story of this project, but if not catch up by reading these blogs:

The Fabric of Life blog 1

Fabric of Life blog 2 – One Week, Three Museums!

Fabric of Life blog 3 – The V&A … Three times!

Fabric of Life blog 4- Theatre, Gender and Sexuality

Fabric of Life blog 5 – So Far …

Fabric of Life blog 6 – Summer is over

You are now invited to celebrate the culmination of the Fabric of Life project in Trowbridge on 23 November 2017.

Featuring interactive performances, poetry, a cabinet of curiosities as well as found artefacts and fabric. Involving forgotten histories and imagined stories from the past, the event will be display a series of playful nods to the past and present with an opportunity for visitors to reflect on our changing history.

Come along and join us as we explore the history of fashion as a form of identity, gender and sexuality.

In order to make sure that the event runs smoothly we need to know if you are attending.

Please RSVP to arts@wiltshire.gov.uk  by 16 November 2017

Worry time

Each day after school, my daughter and I sit down for a bit of “worry time” which is fast becoming “talk time”. It is an opportunity for her to share her worries and thoughts about things that she is struggling to shake off.

The idea of worry talk time was recommended by various books; “What to do when Mistakes Make you Quake” by Claire A.B. Freeland and Jacqueline B. Toner and “What to do when you worry Too much” by Dawn Huebner were two of the more recent books that have shaped this idea.

We are making good progress and she seems to be finding new ways to articulate and regulate her fears and manage her worries. We have upped our game in terms of play, arts engagement and exercise. We use a lot storyboarding.

Studies have pointed to the decline in the wellbeing of young people in Britain. An estimated 850,000 children and young people in Britain have mental health problems and related physical health problems.

Over ten years ago, arts on prescription or social prescribing as its often referred to evolved. It was set up whereby health practitioners referred people to a service or a source of support. The idea is to help people in their recovery through creativity as well as increasing social engagement.

Its true that we do need to develop and enhance our conversation about how we invest in the arts for communities and merge our practice to inbed this approach across all ages.

Social prescribing is a great idea and one I really value. The idea of working with health practices to prescribe arts and cultural engagement and enrichment, or libraries on prescription as well as leisure prescriptions. We need more!

For children it should be no different.


Dismantling an arts organisation

For the last couple of months, I have been busy packing things away…

passing on resources, objects and bits of knowledge.

Plenty of tea and coffee has been consumed coupled with various chats and exchanges about past and future plans for us all.

Its been a strange time for me but one I have sought out in the pursuit for change.

I have been managing and directing an arts organisation in Wiltshire since roughly 2009 but yesterday was my last day as we are now closing our doors after 17 years.

So, as the artistic lead I got to close the door, pull the blinds down, delete some files, dispose of our goods, sweep up and turn the lights out.

A strange feeling to say the least.

Long before I took over the reigns, the company was the formed by a group of like-minded people with the ideas and enthusiasm to make a realization come to life. Supported by the Arts Council, Arts service, various enterprising artists and facilitators and the Youth service a new service evolved.

Its focus was to bring socially engaged arts practice to young people, working with and for its community.

In its time, it has seen some amazingly fun and quirky projects, shaped and supported some amazing artists and young people. It has created some diverse and exciting projects. For that I am incredibly proud.

We all are.

Forging partnerships and work in unlikely places has always been my passion. To include everyone. EVERYONE.

To amplify the voices of the least heard has been my motivator.

It should be simple really. Accessible places and spaces, projects, programmes and debates. Enrich and share and show and ensure that you are honest in your weak points and find a way to include everyone.

Do it.

The cultural sector is richer for it.

We need to engage and excite children and young people who wouldn’t dream of being involved with us as artists.

And we did just that, over and over. It was exhausting, tiring and at times I did wonder what on earth we were doing. But we did and it was very good.

It is bittersweet but like any relationship things change. We are in a different time as many of my friends and colleagues shared with me over endless tea and coffee and cake. That is true.

So, here I am braving a new world with exciting plans and exciting ideas and an exciting future.

We did good, we created amazing things and we DID have fun.