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Nurturing Local Culture: Stories from Creative People and Places

The following is a summary of key learnings and resources from a virtual conversation held as part of the ArtsEngage Learning Community in February 2021. The focus of this session was Nurturing Local Culture: Stories from Creative People and Places. Find more resources from the Learning Community here.

Creative People and Places is a large-scale Arts Council England initiative, which funds over 30 long-term action-research projects that are taking community arts to a new level across the country.

CPP is all “about more people choosing, creating and taking part in brilliant art experiences in the places where they live.” Projects are based in areas with fewer opportunities to get involved with the arts, and are founded in long-term partnerships with grassroots and community organisations.

As we researched and explored arts-based community engagement practices, the ArtsEngage team was continually inspired by Creative People and Places, and were thrilled to have the opportunity to invite three experts from the CPP community to this Spotlight session.

We invited everyone present (including artists, presenters, funders, consultants, and other arts professionals) to think of themselves as gardeners. The intention of sharing stories from CPP was to come together as peers to think about how we can transplant practices into different contexts. Even if we work with different plants, in different soils, we are all gardeners and we can learn from each other. We invited the group to focus not on particular facts from the CPP guests, but on practice - ways of thinking or doing that have been developed as part of CPP but could be transplanted into a Canadian context.

The question of identifying and adapting practices from CPP into one’s own context was a key component of the breakout rooms that made up a large portion of this virtual gathering.

The video below includes presentations from each of our guests:

  • Power and distributed leadership - Jenny Williams, Project Director of CPP project Revoluton Arts (6:33 in video)
  • Bringing creativity and representation into research & evaluation - Elizabeth Lynch MBE, Creative Producer, Researcher-Evaluator, and CPP Critical Friend (20:35 in video)
  • Peer learning and working at your best - Amanda Smethurst, CPP National Peer Learning Manager (32:26 in video)

Keep reading for more takeaways and resources from the presentations and breakout rooms.

Nurturing Local Culture: Stories from Creative People and Places

What is Creative People and Places?

To start off, Amanda Smethurst shared a brief overview of the CPP program (0:58 in video). 

CPP is currently made up of 33 projects led by 30 consortia across the country.

As Amanda highlighted, CPP is about people, particularly those who were not previously engaging with the arts, taking the lead in their own arts and cultural experiences.

“Creative People and Places is about more people taking the lead in choosing, creating, and taking part in arts and culture experience in the places where they live.”

Amanda emphasized three elements that set CPP apart:

  • The initiative was set-up with a philosophy of action research. The intent was to experiment with different methodologies, so permission to take risks was built in from the start.
  • The original projects were set up with a long-term vision - 3 years of dedicated funding, and a 10-year vision. Arts Council England recognized from the beginning that you can’t create meaningful change overnight
  • The projects are supported by a peer learning community, allowing the 30+ projects to share experiences and learning from each other.

“In my view CPP has already established a new landmark in our understanding of what the arts can offer people and places in shaping their own futures. The values and ways of working that have emerged mark a distinct shift in the relationship between the cultural sector and the public.”- Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair, Arts Council England, June 2018

For much more on Creative People and Places, visit their excellent website here.

Power and Distributed Leadership

Our second speaker, Jenny Williams, is the Director of Revoluton Arts, a CPP project based in Luton, outside of London.

Revolution asks the question “How do you encourage people to step into the cultural sector and feel that they have ownership?”

The project team, which is itself 80% comprised of people from Luton, thinks very intentionally about how to share power. Their approaches include:

  • Centralizing the idea that everyone has a story to tell.
  • Intentionally mirroring the demographics of the very diverse Luton community in Revoluton audiences and commissioned artists - both in terms of numbers and resonance. Any work created or presented through Revoluton must have significance to the people hearing the story.
  • Investing in local talent - including allowing multiple points of entry to engage with the work, and investing in programs such as a Producers Hub to nurture local arts leadership.
  • Thought Leadership - “How we create and define our program is about inviting people into the conversation before we deliver anything.” This leads to a distributed power model in which the Revoluton team is not defining the conversation, but is holding space for the community.

All of this work is supported by data collection and analysis to measure impact and ensure that the program is truly engaging an audience that represents the diverse community, as well as many cups of tea with local residents. As Jenny shared,

“We drink tea like you wouldn’t believe…  it all starts and ends with tea!”

Participants were then given the opportunity to discuss shared power with their peers in facilitated breakout rooms. Each room was invited to discuss three guiding questions:

  • How does power work in your organisation/sector other than money?
  • How can you actively hand over power?
  • What would you like to see look different?

A few key ideas from these breakout conversations, which were then shared in the chat, included:

  • Levelling power structures and the importance of partnerships and collaboration in our sector. Arts organizations don’t have to be competitors (like businesses), but rather partners, and these partnerships can be leveraged to support the local community.
  • Posting salaries / salary ranges in all arts related job postings / opportunities.
  • One way to begin to acknowledge/build power in community-engaged arts is to question what IS creative work (who is an artist, who can be creative, etc.)
  • Funding requirements make it very difficult to spend the time in the community to listen and build relationships before submitting a grant, which requires that we come with a full idea of the project before we start - no money for research or pre-work in the community. 
    • Involving people/communities needs to be a condition of funding and art groups need to be more open to being invited by the community and find ways to raise the resources.
    • This is an investment in both communities and the arts sector! It is to everyone’s benefit that the public feels more ownership over their cultural lives.

Bringing Creativity and Representation into Research & Evaluation

Next up, Elizabeth Lynch shared approaches to bringing creativity and representation into research and evaluation, a conversation which echoed many of the same themes of sharing power.

Elizabeth took us through 5 guiding ideas for thinking about evaluation, with questions at every stage:

Purpose: Think about why you are evaluating. The purpose of your evaluation may not be the same as the purpose of your overarching program. Think about the value of your evaluation, its place in the wider sector (e.g. are there national studies that you can compare to?) and whose voices are included. Plus, leave space to acknowledge failure!

Story: What is the story you want to tell, and that you need to tell about your project? What happened in your project? What did it mean to the people involved? What could you have done differently? What aspects of this story should be shared publicly vs. internally?

Design: How can you co-create not only the project but the evaluation with the community? How can you engage the community in the research questions (what do they want to know?) and the design of the evaluation process? What resources do you have (be creative - every meeting is data!)? What considerations (such as language and tone) can you keep in mind to ensure an inclusive process?

Methods: How can you blend quantitative and qualitative data to tell the story of your project? What methods or data points work for your project (only count what you need to count!)? How can you use creative methods to classify things like emotional impact or captivation?

What is the best way to share what you’ve learned (e.g. videos, images, diagrams, not just reports)? What is a credible and achievable sample size? What baseline data can you collect early on to measure change? What ethical and privacy considerations do you need to keep in mind?

Knowledge: Evaluation creates knowledge - ensure that you are involving all of the voices in creating and sharing that knowledge. Share the outcomes of your evaluation with all stakeholders to foster great conversations that allow for new ideas to emerge!

After Elizabeth’s presentation, participants were once again invited into breakout rooms to discuss how they might embed creative evaluation into their daily practice. Each group was asked to consider:

  • What feasible and results-driven creative research methods can you implement?
  • How can you make these methods more ethical, transparent, fair, and respectful?

Insights from these conversations included:

  • The courage to be transparent. How do you involve communities and be courageous about admitting what works and what doesn’t?
  • Exploring how the act of paying people for their feedback changes the relationship.
  • How to establish whether an experience was meaningful to participants? What counts as meaningful?
  • The importance of letting participants know how their data is going to be used - not only from a privacy/ethics perspective, but so that they can feel that their data/feedback is really going to be put to good use.
  • Use data about where community is to think about where the community isn’t
  • Giving participants the chance to map their own experience with the project, avoid asking leading questions.
  • Take the time to listen and consult - it’s not about what you want, it’s about what the community members want

Peer Learning and Working at Your Best

Finally, Amanda Smethurst returned to share about the role of peer learning in the CPP community. Amanda leads a peer learning network that connects all 33 CPP projects. Through gatherings, one-on-one coaching, and more, this network allows for the knowledge-sharing and relationship-building that is critical to CPP’s action research approach. 

Amanda shared a few key factors that make peer learning impactful:

  • Echoing the CPP values of honesty, inclusiveness, developing trust, and engagement
  • Confidentiality where appropriate
  • Democratic in how the program is developed
  • Open and honest (with each other and the wider sector) about what’s worked and what hasn’t 
  • Supportive of each other, encourage healthy challenge

All of this has led to a peer learning network that has succeeded in creating space for critical reflection, deepening connections between practitioners, and developing practice within the CPP and in the wider sector. With its mix of vigorous evaluation and peer learning, CPP has been able to create real change in arts policy in England.

For our final activity, participants were placed in groups of 3 to share with each other:

  • What enables you to work at your best, and how can peer learning be a part of this?
  • How can you create a peer learning network for yourself and your peers?
  • What factors are important to you?

Participants greatly enjoyed the opportunity to share with each other - reiterating the importance of connection and listening!

“What you’ve modelled through all of these workshops is the ability for each of us to share our voice, to be heard, and to digest. We want to have that kind of model in our communities.”- Participant comment after breakout session

We wrapped the morning with an open “cafe,” an opportunity for anyone to stay in the virtual room and share conversation. We so valued this opportunity to talk further and are grateful to all of the participants, facilitators, and guest speakers who made this a truly inspiring event! Thank you to our CPP friends for sharing your wonderful work - we can’t wait to explore further. Thank you also to our guest facilitators Kevin Wong and Brendan Chandler, and to every participant who made this session possible.

“Thank you so much! Full of rich, thought-provoking discussion and insights!”- Participant feedback

Resources:

 

The ArtsEngage Learning Community is co-produced by Ontario Presents and Art of Festivals, and funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Funded by the Government of Canada

 
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Community Engagement Resources from Doug Borwick

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