Friday, 13 July 2012

Goodbye Community Arts and Arts in Education

A community, in the sense I write, can be any group of people that have something in common. A community will share interests, and these interests can link people culturally, religiously or socially. Communities can be found any place, any where i.e. an Asian community, a church going community, a school community, a home educating community, a rural community and so on.  The role of a community artist is not an artist serving a place in a geographical sense. I'm sure I'm not the only artist in my village! And my work has been very little in regard to projects that have run close to home. The role of a community artist is to serve people, not a place. My work, since 2004, has taken me from central Birmingham up to Buxton in the Peak District. I've worked with interest groups, schools and with families from the Midlands area as a whole.

And I have been a little quiet about the state of community arts of late. This latest project I have been working on was one last attempt at securing of funds on behalf of a group called Family Connections, and one last push to be involved in the setting up something big and potentially self sustaining. But the project, a community art box loan scheme for the elderly, which was envisaged to operate within the East Staffordshire/South Derbyshire area, did not receive enough financial backing and so never got off the ground. Yet another example of how the squeezing of public funding is impacting on small community groups like the one I represented in this instance.
Sure enough, funding panel members agreed our idea was a good one; with a kind of ‘Art on Prescription’ principle behind it, the plan was to make up art and craft boxes and loan them out to senior citizens living in their own homes, or otherwise, so that these people had opportunity to revisit, long buried creative pursuits they may have once enjoyed, or to learn new creative skills, keeping the mind active and bringing about other therapeutic benefits. Finance was passed by DCC and the BADAC; nevertheless, the money it equated to, was only one fifth of that which was needed to run the scheme effectively. As project coordinator I spent many a long hour appealing to the business sector to make up the shortfall. I offered companies opportunity to use the loan boxes as advertising spaces in exchange for financial support, but had no uptake.
Subsequently, the project had to be scaled down, but was still to target the same audience as was identified in the original funding application(s) i.e. people of the older generation. If the loan box scheme had been set-up it would have had potential to impact on the over 60s in a wide locality. In the original application, and as an aside to the loaning of the boxes, there had been an intention to organise a craft workshop - where the young, and not so young members of our group Family Connections, as well as invited public, could experience retirees being their craft activity leaders, passing on their skills, and being providers for once, and not consumers, as is often the case when it comes to community funds.
And so it was agreed that the funding we had managed to secure be used to recruit and train retirees who might be interested in inter generational teaching and learning, and that these elderly volunteers be session leaders of various craft activities, in a workshop setting. This became the new project version. Anymore thoughts about setting up the community loan box scheme as detailed in the original funding application had to be set aside.

Intention was to look toward the Crafts Council (Craft Club) to provide the training opportunity. Rewinding a few months, when our group thought it a possibility that the loan box scheme might run, we registered it as a club on the Craft Club website. A little bit about Craft Club: The Craft Council has over 500 Craft clubs registered Nationwide. Their handbook says ‘craft can help to create links between school, home and work and between generations and communities’. Craft Club focuses on upholding craft traditions (especially those relating to yarn working), and provides help to set up knitting and crocheting as an extracurricular activity ‘in school’ as well in After School clubs.
We thought Craft Club’s wider work in presenting opportunity for parents/grandparents to teach and children to pass on skills learned in their communities ran very close to values shared by our own group, and so we thought we should link in with the Craft Club and see where it took us.
Firstly, the Craft Council emailed notification about the training event in Nottingham when they had it. Subsequently we called out in an effort to recruit people (of a certain age) who could knit and sew, and who might be interested in attending the training day with a view to passing on tips and techniques in a workshop that was to follow as a later date.
Online registrations and advertisements, shop windows, emails and telephone introductions, social media outlets, the contacting of existing groups for the elderly (Arts centres and council run projects), as well as word of mouth were avenues used in efforts to recruit. Leads were followed up and meetings were held in people’s homes to discuss and to enrol people on the training.
We managed to find three ladies through our searches who were willing to attend the training event at the Lakeside Arts Centre in Feb 2012 (these lady volunteers are pictured with me above). Others involved in the project joined after, and attended the meetings to organise the workshop activities. The group met on two further dates to plan and discuss queries relating to its organising. These volunteers were also active in spreading the word using the same channels as mentioned above, emailing agents and contacts, advertising in local newsletters, local libraries, local Tourist Board, post offices and shops. All in all 100 flyers advertising the workshop were distributed. These ladies also shopped around for materials, and made items ‘to show’. All these women are exceptional people. Sue Keeley was a useful contact, initially, who put forward names of people she thought would be interested in the training. One lady, Janet Vandore was a high flyer in the world on business at one time, is an eccentric individual (I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me saying so) who contributed, wholeheartedly, in the training event and was full of ideas and energy in the pre- organising of the workshop. And where Pat Ford and Janet Dryden only dipped their toes in regard to getting involved in the project, Sue Phillips, Pam Gibbs, Margaret Atkinson and Sue Wesker were four retirees who offered so much of their time and effort ‘in kind’.
And when any schemes are linked with individuals and volunteers such as the people I mention, it is often the case that it is down to one or two members of communities like these ladies, who are putting in the work in and offering up their big hearts for the greater good.  Any success claimed by the Big Society will ride on the goodwill of such people. It is a ruse however, because in order to save money, backs have been turned in regard to responsibility to society really. The government says we can pick up the reigns and carry on with the good work and that they will slacken the red tape. People like me (yes, I’ve done my fair share of volunteering in the past), like the three Sues, like my co worker, Julie Loughlin and others like us with an interest in channeling their skills in project work...and like voluntary organisations and groups especially, those that umbrella most activities and events that have taken place in communities the length and breadth of the UK in recent times. 

I’ve detailed the background work involved in the organising of a community project intentionally; sorry if it has been heavy reading, but I wanted to relay the information and belay any assumption that these things are easy to throw together and that they can ‘just happen’. This project mirrors the kind of time and effort that many groups, charities, and arts organisations have put into thousands upon thousands of small, to medium sized, arts related schemes in recent past who have been fortunate to have been in receipt of funds from a variety of sources including funding from the public sector. These are not only arts and crafts projects, but performance, dance, singing, visual arts, and other participatory arts events countrywide.

Much of this work cannot, and, indeed, will not continue now without financial backing. Rightly so, as there would be comprises made in many respects, and much in regard to the formalities involved in regards to safeguarding- but that is a whole other matter! I’ve blogged about all of that before.
As I see it prior to 2003/04, expensive courses aside, we might have took part in a drawing or painting competition, or a simple craft session laid on by a long standing organisation or institution like cubs / scouts, school, the church, or youth centre. The museum service usually ran something thematic or an arts centre (and there were less of these in those days). Or perhaps we'd have a go on a potter’s wheel at a local attraction, but that was largely it.

The injection of funding for arts related projects from this time forward saw a sharp rise in arts in education programmes channeling creativity for children (and their families sometimes) both in school and out. Artists were able to access training opportunities to make it easier to bring their skills to people more directly. The work of the visual artist became more accessible to people in their everyday lives. Public places benefited from soul enriching arts festivals, the display of colourful flags, sculpture installations, and art/poetry trails. Nine times out of ten the people were not just the recipients, but were enrolled and involved in the making and doing, the organising - they owned the events taking place in their own localities. Theatres had the money to open their doors to young people and offer drama classes. Young and old and everyone else in between performed in community plays. Young people would DJ, and street dance, in their own streets. Concerts and touring plays were being held in venues large and small nationwide, many in rural communities. Grant money made it possible for minority groups to benefit in creative activities and for people from all walks of life to work alongside each other in participatory type arts. Many people had opportunity to discover they had a flair for something like creative writing or storytelling for instance, while others were able to re kindle skills and revisit past passions for arts related things. Funding made it possible for a participant to do much of this for a very small cost, or for free, for the best part. 

I wonder, in my observations of late, if the public lost sight of the value of the arts in the community. I watched as attendance for art workshops and other Midlands based events dropped, and that families were not taking up the opportunity over the school holidays to turn out to participate in activities even if the cost was relatively minimal. Had children been saturated with too much opportunity to participate in creative pursuits over time from outside agents working in school environments? Or is it because of overly enthusiastic parents, being fast paced in the past at taking up of free stuff available, that perhaps the novelty had worn a bit thin. Or could it be possible that people knew that money for the arts was going to be cut severely, and that projects would undoubtedly fall to the wayside, that a certain apathy and resignation from the public and organisers alike, kind of preceded this fast decline in participation and uptake? What do you think?

NOTE added 12.08.12 : Sheridan (writer of the awesome Fenwitters blog) won the knit kit below in the prize draw.

NB. The kit has all you need to make your own tea cosy in red/white and blue. The packs are currently on sale at £9.95 from NPW online at


  1. Hi Debra ,It might be stating the obvious ,have you tried the national lottery fund ? I do know how hard it is to get funding .How on earth is Cameron's big society suopposed to work with out any help or encouragement ,Will be thinking meanwhile Hmm ?.love Jan xx

  2. Hi Jan, been there, and done that. The 'good old days' have passed. It'll come again in 20 years or so when someone will think the arts is undervalued and strapped for cash. There is still opportunity to obtain funding but there is not enough to go around. So many projects and schemes have lost their financial support and are no more.

  3. Zak being too young for these projects I can only make assumptions on why people let these things fall to the wayside Deb. Idleness. Parents finding it too easy to sit there children infront of the tele/ video games than actually be bothered to put themselves out. I do messy play with Zak and have had other parents comment that that is what nursery is for ... I'm guessing their time is too precious to waste spending time doing something creative with their children who are only young for such a short time. Maybe if handouts to certain classes were cut than they would be thankful for people like yourselves when they can't afford sky tele, games consoles, iPads and iPhones ??!!? And by cutting the handouts there would be money available.

  4. thanks Melissa, and I think there are many parents who leave these kind of activities to playgroup leaders and nurseries to provide, and don't see the point, or the fun, in sharing the experience with their children. It's the same thing when they choose not to cook with their kids. Cooking is a creative pastime. Schools focus so much on numeracy and literacy skills at a young age, that I have known some children as young as 5 or 6 hardly ever getting the chance to paint or draw a picture from the imagination, or dress up and perform shows they've made up...interesting point you make about people's priorities - thanks for joining in.

    1. Yes apparently the number of children starting school not being able to hold crayons, turn pages or use scissors is unbelievable. Leaving teachers to teach basic skills ... So so sad.

  5. To be honest, I think it's simply that people have no money. And because they have no money, they have no time. I know that it seems strange, but whereas once families would have aparent free to attend a group with a child, and a little bit of money spare to get there, now they don't have that bit of money, and in all likelihood, they're trying to get shifts at work. Where we are in the Fens, people are really feeling the pinch. I know I am! There are lots of lovely holiday activities i'd love to attend, but they are in the next town, I don't have a car in the week, and the bus fares for all of us amount to £12.00, and I just can't spend that. It's two or three days worth of meals. I have been collecting junk for the past month so we can make Summer Holiday sculptures, treasure hunts, etc and have activities planned, but they have to be utterly FREE and I have to be able to walk or bike to them.

  6. Hi Sheridan, I hope you are well. Thank you for your comment. Hadn't occurred to me that lack of uptake for workshops and sessions that are free of charge or just a pound or two, could still mean some kind of outlay for families, especially if travel is involved. And I remember now that this was a factor for us when my two children were younger. I've blogged before about the problems of living in a rural village and that everything amounts to a car journey Oh and just revisited your cool blog about your great life with your family in the fens! Thanks for joining in the debate.

  7. yesterday was at a local leisure centre in Leicestershire (schools now out in this county for the summer break) and holiday activities arranged for children there had been cancelled - not enough bookings received. Could be down to the reasons both Melissa and Sheridan have already remonstrated in this debate. What do you think?


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