Monday, April 8, 2019

Adapt the Nothing

Artist Nicola Winstanley invited me to walk with her, in Summer 2018, around Middleport. She was embarking on a research project, inviting artists, and other professionals to walk with her in a part of Stoke-on-trent which has seen significant upheaval and change over the past 20 years - as a result of various regeneration programmes.
The remit of her project was around a reflection on how places can be impacted by external factors and decision-making, and what this does to the experience of place, for people (and in my case, interested in the impact this has on flora and fauna there too.)

The resulting artist's book 'Adapt The Nothing' is a meditation on the Middleport of today, where there is a lot still to be done, but where there is so much to celebrate. Full publication here.
Here is my 6 page reflection on that walk, and the thoughts that it engendered.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Rules of Engagement: Presenting Two Sides of a Social Arts Project.

Community Maker, 2017, Stoke-on-Trent.
As an artist working for many years with people in contexts of change, I identify as part of the developing Social Art Network, co-founded by Eelyn Lee and R.M. Sanchez-Camus in 2016  as ‘a UK based community of artists committed to building agency for the field of art and social practice.’[i]
Lab: The Rules of Engagement with Dan Russell and Rebecca Davies during The Social Art Summit, Sheffield 2018.
I was invited to lead a lab at The Social Art Summit, which took place in Sheffield, November 2018. I keenly felt the significance and urgency of a gathering of artists to discuss the issues and challenges in working in this way; particularly in the current climate of cuts to the arts, but also cuts to so many public services across the UK, all impacting on our ability to do our work, and to do it well.

In planning a lab for the Social Art Summit I saw an opportunity to create a safe space for open and honest discussion with other practitioners, to (just for a moment) centralise the position of the artist, in relation to the social contexts we are working within, and to be frank about the challenges, and sometimes personal cost that making the work requires.
Lab: The Rules of Engagement with Dan Russell and Rebecca Davies during The Social Art Summit, Sheffield 2018.
Planning the lab came at the end of a long, and varied summer of action for The Portland Inn Project – which I work on with collaborator and fellow social artist Rebecca Davies, who, with The Newbridge Project’s Dan Russell, delivered the lab alongside me. To briefly set the context, our project is in an area of Stoke-on-Trent, originally earmarked for demolition in the Government’s collapsed Pathfinder Housing Renewal Scheme, and now known to be the area where homes were sold for a pound. As an artist, working with people, often on projects exploring regeneration and the artists role in places of change, I was fascinated by this context, and what I, and my family could bring to it. I believe that artists have an important role to play in society, and that this role is often undervalued, or at least little understood. In successfully applying to be a one pound home owner, I hoped to demonstrate through working where I live, just what role an artist might play in supporting a community to develop (one of the conditions written into the £1 home scheme contract, was that each homeowner should contribute to community life.)
'Raising The Roof' The Portland Inn Project community Co-build project, Summer 2018, Stoke-on-Trent.
The summer on Portland Street had been a mixture of highs, as we worked with the fantastic Baxendale Studio architects, to co-build a temporary community building with residents of the area, to real lows – as we navigated some extreme local problems, including the drug dealing and taking of Monkey Dust, which impacted daily, on our project delivery.

As we put together the slides for the lab, we began to discuss how, particularly with social practice, we tend to show the positive parts of the project, the things that went well, the smiling faces of participants, but rarely do we present the other side of the project; the boring bits, the awful bits where it feels like everything is collapsing, the moments of failure and the dirty bits. We discussed that in leaving out the challenges, we fail to show what really goes into making the work happen and more, we make it easy for the true value of what we do to be missed. It was for this reason then, that Rebecca and I decided to present the two sides of our project; the side we always share, which we are careful to represent thoughtfully but often positively, but also to present the second part which we usually neglect to speak about; the more challenging aspects of making the work.

We felt it important within the lab to set out why we often err towards the positive when representing the work that we do, so we set out our Reasons to be cheerful:

1. Negative stigma In the area where we are working the community has had to overcome and battle with negative press and judgement for so long; part of the work is about rewriting the story with local residents. Although we may want to discuss the problems which the area faces, we are aware that in doing so, we are at risk of adding to the negative stigma.

2. Morale For our project, and projects like ours it can feel important to keep positive, the celebratory aspects of a project are important locally for hope and to keep up morale (of residents and ourselves as practitioners).

3. Conscious of audience It is a concern that funders may see it as a risk to invest in an area with  many visible challenges (something we have heard directly from funders about the work we do). This may make them think twice about funding projects if the difficulties faced in delivering the work are openly discussed.

4. Ethics How on earth do you document, share and expose some of the really difficult challenges, for example drug use and dealing which we are navigating within our project, when doing so can be seen as insensitive or at worst, unethical?

We planned in space within the lab to say why now feels like an important moment to share the challenges.

An increasing number of artists are working in this way.

This Means it's ever more important to be truthful and clear about the two sides to the story, that we as artists have to negotiate. It feels important to make the true work more visible in order to benefit the audience and those who want to work in this way.

If we don’t show the full picture, the full impact will never be understood.

In the context of enormous cuts to the arts and public services it is becoming increasingly difficult to secure funding for art projects. In addition, the role and remit of the artist is expanding in some respects, as public sector cuts mean that organisations that would have supported the work previously are no longer equipped to do so. If we fail to demonstrate the true scope of the work that we are doing then we make it easy to undervalue what the impact is. A project's impact isn't demonstrated by how many people came, in most cases, art happening in social contexts is more nuanced and challenging than that. It is Important to be vocal about the gaps we're filling. Our job title is expanding, and the support to do the job is diminishing. 

The Portland Inn Project, final day of the 'Raising the Roof' Summer 2018, Stoke-on-Trent.
We then shared the two sides of our project, the successful parts which are making a difference to the community and location we are working within, the brilliant opportunity to bring architects to our area, and really expand the horizons of our project, and the people we are working with. Then we talked through the parts which are really hard to deal with; the moments of risk and failure and the sometimes personally troubling aspects of working in a precarious context. We talked about this summer, and being threatened by drug dealers, having to call the police on a daily basis, due to anti-social and illegal activity in the space we were working on. We talked about the parts of our role which are generally invisible, and genuinely surprising (even to ourselves) as being part of the remit of the arts project – campaigning with our community all summer to have the shit in the phonebox cleaned up, and going to endless meetings, some of which feel like ground hog day. We did our best in the time provided to lay bare everything that had taken place on Portland Street this summer. This opened up space for group discussion, and time to reflect on what Social Artists are juggling, navigating and at times quietly shouldering. From some of the artists and practitioners in the room it felt like a sigh of relief was let out, finally a space to talk about the crap. For others in the room, this felt like a step too far – and even in this space with other social artists, questions were raised about whether it is ever ok to share the shit in the phonebox, or if some kind of unwritten code is being broken if you do. 

Finally, the group (consisting of artists, curators, educators and representatives from community projects from across the UK) worked together to form some guiding principles for ourselves and others for the coming years. After the Summit, the longlist of points were put into a survey, to enable a wider group of artists to contribute to the final resource. This has now been published by a-n, as a downloadable poster and also as a written respurce (including some of the context provided by artists on what the points raised were referencing. This is included within the a-n Research paper published to document the Social Art Summit.  
The Rules of Engagement: Guiding Principles for Artists working in Social Contexts.

Rules of Engagement, resource illustrated by Rebecca Davies.
Expanding on the resource.
The Social Art Summit Lab included space for discussion around the work that socially engaged artists do, including going over where we access support, issues of representation and the strategies we employ in order to continue to make the work. This led to the putting together of a set of guidelines within the session, which each group talked through. The final 10 for the resource are expanded upon below, to reveal some of the thinking that initiated them, but there were some very good ideas that didn’t make the final 10, when the suggestions were voted on in a survey.

The full 20 are below, (the final 10 and then the ones that didn’t make it). Within the online survey was also a space to add any additional guidelines that artists felt were missing, I have included a few of those below too.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Recognise that people are experts in the places they live and work: This point has come up again and again in gatherings of artists working with people. It is often discussed that it may not always be the artists role to create the culture or to act as some kind of expert, but in fact to almost at times be an anthropologist or investigator. Facilitating the people of the place to uncover and reveal their own stories, is more rewarding for participants and usually has more impact long term.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Work collaboratively: we are capable of more when we work together, but in addition, being vocal about the role each person has taken and the input given to a project is important in truly successful collaborations. Everyone’s contribution is valued.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Be clear that Social Change is the aim, Art is the tool: Art is a useful tool to mobilise and create space for discussion, but art is not the end in itself: what we are really aiming for is social change.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Build in space for the voice of the community: As visual artists we often have a sense of how something should look, feel, sound and be experienced, and this is something which we are skilled at, however, if the voice of the community is left out of the work, then the work is purely self-serving of the artist. Rebecca Davies and I came up against this early in our project, when a community member wanted to bring a 5 foot Minion into the public area of our project, for the children. We were horrified, as it did not fit the aesthetic we were working hard to create. It was an important moment, realising that if there is no space for the community to bring in what they want, at some point, we may find the community are no longer standing with us. 
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Know that having enough time is critical: Longer durational projects work, but if a project is short term, hard work needs to be done to ensure it is embedded and meaningful to its location.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Be honest; know your intentions and share them: It is so important for building trust within the work we are doing with other humans. In order to ensure we are not exploiting others, or allowing others to be exploited, practice openness and honesty about what the aims and objectives are within the project, and if these change – communicate that too.

Don’t make assumptions: Never assume anything. Check and crosscheck, and check again.

Practice self-care; know when to stop: It is important for artists to be clear about how much time they can give to a project, and do their best to stick to it. At times, we can be our own worst enemies, if we fail to value our own time as a resource within the project, we cannot be so surprised when that same resource is undervalued by others.

Value the artist's role in this context (we bring something different): The value and impact of the work that artists do can at times feel misunderstood, or not fully realised.  It is important that we understand and articulate what we bring to working in social contexts.

Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Be a supporter and champion for other artists working in these contexts: It can be lonely, and difficult work at times, and so being a champion for others is important, and having someone to turn to when you need it is equally important. 

And the ten guidelines which did not make the top ten (but still worth sharing here):

Build RESPECT into the project

Set clear boundaries

Do your homework

Practice active listening

Be a reflective practitioner

Recognise if you are the right person for the job: know your place

Be flexible

Lose the ego

If nobody wants it, don't do it

Take responsibility

Selected points that people felt were not yet included were:

Be aware of how funding influences decisions, broker those power dynamics fairly

Be aware of the existing culture

The artist should be working on the assumption that if a project is a success, they might not be needed in future

As far as possible, have fun

Don’t make promises you can’t keep 

Rebecca Davies have continued to discuss the issues raised within the lab, and in particular, have become interested in why it is that sharing the challenges is something that we rarely do, as social art practitioners. This feels like an important area to explore further, and something we want to spend more time on. The Social Art Assembly, taking place at Tate Modern, as part of tate Exchange on Thursday 25th April, 2019 is a perfect space to expand on this particular area. We are going to test the notion of  'The Shit Exchange' creating space for social artists to share the shit bits of projects, but importantly to uncover what the barriers have been for artists in sharing them. We feel this is going to reveal a lot about the role and impact of artists in social contexts, and make more visible some of the diffcult contexts which artists can find themselves in. It will, we hope. also show what additional support may be needed for artists working in these contexts, which should be useful for all commissioners, and projects or organisations working with artists in social settings.

[i] Social Art Summit. (2018). Social Art Network — Social Art Summit. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Jan. 2019].

Friday, February 9, 2018

Rounding up Community Maker

Now that the Community Maker project is officially over, it's a good time to reflect on everything that happened within the 3 year project.

Initially, the project was commissioned by British Ceramics Biennial, in partnership with AirSpace Gallery and funded by Paul Hamlyn, as part of the World In One City projects. As a new resident in my area, and the recipient of one of Stoke's one pound houses, I had committed to support community activity and development, and so for me, it made sense if this could be via an art project for the area: Community Maker. To provide context: The Portland Street Area was one of the areas in the city which had been earmarked for demolition within the government's devastating Pathfinder scheme of housing renewal. It was one of the areas where the CPO processes were slow, and had not got to demolition stage, before the programme was scrapped in 2010. This left a mixed area, where some homes were boarded up, some were still in the hands of owner occupiers, while in many cases there were private landlords, some who had looked after their properties, but in many cases, properties were run down. The £1 home scheme aimed to address issues caused by the failed regeneration scheme, by bringing the worst homes (now owned by the council) back into use, and into the hands of owners who would invest in their properties and in the area. For the community members that had lived within the area throughout the period of being condemned and then left high and dry, the failed regeneration scheme was an open wound. They had seen good neighbours move away, the decimation of their community, and little investment. Despite this, the residents continued to try to maintain a sense of community. 
The idea for Community Maker was to bring a fractured community together via sessions involving clay making and sharing food together. To begin with, the proposed outcome for the project responded directly to the area, and a local custom which was discovered soon after moving to the area. The community would organise a 'bring a plate' event, where each person would bring a plate of something to share, creating a community meal. The aim for the project, was to work towards creating a special Community Maker Ware, designed together via the community events, which would become the 'bring a plate' crockery for community events. I liked the idea that this set of plates would be stored in cupboards across the community, and would come out at community events, bringing the set back together. From the beginning then, we were working together to create imagery which could be included in the plate design. From the first session, BCB provided an excellent project support, ceramic artist Alice Thatcher, as this was my first time working with clay. Alice has been invaluable for the clay know-how, but perhaps more importantly, is from Stoke, and so connected really well with the residents.
The first  session in Summer 2015, was a drop-in session creating an asset map of the area, mapping resources, and identifying areas for development with the neighbours. 

We used pre-prepared lino cuts, referencing the Victorian Language of Flowers to invite people to say what works about the area, and what needs work. These questions were chosen carefully, to avoid going straight for the negatives, and encouraging a discussion around the things that are good about the place, but also what people felt should be priorities for improving the place for the people that live there. Looking back this was a really important exercise, first for meeting the neighbours, but also in order to begin the conversation about this area from their point of view, a space for the residents to represent their own place, but also right from the start to identify the most pressing needs.

To very quickly (because there are plenty of blog posts documenting what happened) round-up the 3 years, this is what happened:
Year One: Community Maker took place in a tent. We were mapping and understanding the area, making connections, and hosted one big community celebration at the end of the 6 weeks.
The biggest finding from year one, which was repeated again and again by members of the community was the need for a community space to get together. The local pub, shop, community centre were all still boarded up, and people felt strongly that in order to thrive, a space was sorely needed. From a practical point of view, we had found the lack of a space problematic too, and while the tent was great for creating a sense of something happening, British summer weather meant it was not always comfortable. In addition, the tent size limited the number of people that could take part in the activity.
Year Two: as a result of the findings from year one, and subsequent conversations with the council and Rebecca Davies (whose Oasis Social Club had visited the area in 2015, and had the same outcome in terms of identifying a need for a permanent space) 2016 became all about asking 'What if we have a permanent space to share? What would it look like? Who would be involved? and What would happen there? For 2016, Rebecca and I applied to arts council to fund a one month programme of activity within the semi-derelict local pub, because the city council had mooted the idea, that if the community could show need, and a sustainable plan for the building, they would turn the Portland Inn Pub over into community hands.Partnering with a brilliant team of organisations: British Ceramics Biennial, AirSpace Gallery, Appetite, My Community Matters, The Portland Street Community Group and the city council meant we were able to deliver a lot within the programme. Over the four weeks that The Portland Inn Project took place, we delivered  more than 50 activities, with over 600 attendees, and gathered the ideas and evidence for a business plan, to transform the pub into a community space, with makerspace social enterprise and some residential spaces upstairs, to bring in income and the opportunity to host artist residencies in the future.
We delivered the business plan to the council in November 2016. We were advised that it could take a good deal of time for the process to be complete.
Year Three: the final year of Community Maker, we were back in the tent on the green space. By the summer 2017 the hole in the pub roof had got a lot worse, and a winter of weather leaking into the building meant it was not viable to be in the building. It was good to have the project happening while we waited for the decision on the pub, in order to keep some activity happening in the area. Being back on the green space in a tent, it was clear from the very first session that something had changed about the area in the year since our programme in the pub. Living in the area, I was already aware of an increase in drug dealing, but it was not until we were attempting to run a programme of activity on the green space that the scale of the problem became really clear.
There was a clear need for more support and services in the area, which being there and trying to run a community project brought to light. We were able to respond quickly, by organising a meeting with My Community Matters, to bring the council, local service providers and the community together to discuss a plan of action for the area. The summer was a real challenge, but demonstrated even more, why the pub was needed. Not least as a space for the community to take part in workshops and activity, but also as a space where services can be provided. From a very practical position, trying to run a clay workshop, when at times there were real concerns about safety was a real challenge, and I felt that if we had at least the luxury of being able to look after the boundaries of the activity - it would have really helped.
John Domokos from The Guardian was in our area filming during the summer, and captured some of the challenges, and what we are trying to do in his film.
The programme over 4 weeks involved continuing to talk to the community about the pub, and continue to advocate for the Community Asset Transfer to take place. Through the workshops we decided to produce a prototype set of plates from scratch.
 So, we used moulds and made plates, and then glazed the plates, and finally used ceramic lithographs (from imagery from years one and two) to add the patterns to the plates. Over the programme we asked questions each week 'How do we make the pub happen? What skills do we need? What role does this play in the wider community? It was clear that an important part of our role is in bringing services together to work with the community to make improvements.
The biggest highlight of our final year was in the final community event, as part of the programme. Up until this point across the 3 years, it had been Rebecca and I organising the activity, but the bonfire party saw an important shift. Community members, Sarah, Leanne and Kerry came to us, and asked us to help support a community celebration. This was a big moment, and feels so powerful for the future.
So thinking across the across the 3 year programme, about how I feel about it. It is a mixture of complex thoughts. Community Maker has been a catalyst to bring people together, but it has been so important that I live here - so I am seen as a neighbour first (and maybe) an artist second. Being a resident and an artist has meant I am more aware of the rhythms of the place, and able to respond genuinely to what is happening on the doorstep. It has been good to be able to get to know my neighbours via the project, and the levels of trust established have been greater, I believe, because my investment and commitment to the area is clear (I live here.) What has been a challenge throughout the three years, but particularly in years two and three, have been in relation to the difficult aspects of the area. Whether intentionally or not, our presence as a project has, over the two years, interrupted some of the anti-social and illegal activity that has been taking place within the same space. This has at times, made us a target. At times personally, that was difficult, to know that I could not escape at the end of the session to somewhere else, as this is where I live. Also, in making this work you become more visible in the community, this can sometimes be inconvenient, and can leak into family time. 
To consider the outcomes over the three years, the intention of creating a ware which could be in people's cupboards has transformed into something new, more complex and in response to the community but what we have done is listed here:
- imagery for community maker wares to be made in the future
- lots of photos of activity
- a business plan for a community led development project
- a community interest company set up
- a successful (under 15k) arts council project delivered (in addition to the Paul Hamlyn funded project)
- a brilliant partnership with Rebecca Davies
- a core group of active neighbours working together
- a set of partner organisations who will continue to be involved in the development of the project
- a community asset transfer (CAT) of the Portland Inn Pub in progress
- a commitment of £50,000 from the council to shore up the building once the CAT is in place
In terms of what is next for the project.
Rebecca Davies and I are going to the Scottish Sculpture Workshop for the best part of a month in February - March, to spend some time together working on the project. We will be writing some funding applications, thinking about the development of the organisation, testing out the making of some wares which can potentially be sold to support the funding of the project, and setting up a crowd funder. 
We want to continue the Community Maker project within the Portland Inn - first making fixtures and fittings for the pub over the summer, then making the wares we have now designed with the community, which can go into production.
Longer term, we want to work with Industry partners to offer apprenticeships in the community, responding to the recognised skills gap in the city, by training apprentices in skills that can lead them into work. 
The next few years are going to be busy.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Article written for 'The Conversation' on Artwashing Gentrification.

'Artwashing' gentrification is a problem – but vilifying the artists involved is not the answer

File 20171004 6700 6gpk48.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Fred Romero / Flickr, CC BY-SA
Anna Francis, Staffordshire University

The value of culture in regenerating cities has long been recognised. Sometimes this happens centrally, whether via the commissioning of high profile public artworks, or the rebranding of city areas as cultural quarters. But in many cities, culture led redevelopment occurs organically.

Artists, generally on relatively low incomes, move to areas of the city where rents are affordable. The presence of the artists make the area interesting, leading to more interest in property in the area, and ultimately, seeing the area develop. Sadly, this process usually ends with the artists having to move on, as rents increase.

Councils and developers are now attempting to emulate these organic, artist-led processes, by purposefully moving artists in to areas of cities which they wish to see developed. The presence of the artists in this new contrived context is conceived, from the start, as an interim measure. In the worst cases, it is intended as a distraction from the dirty business of clearance and demolition. This has been described as “a cleansing process in which the artists moving into a burgeoning area were treated by developers as a form of regenerative detergent”. Given such language, it is perhaps unsurprising that the artists involved in these schemes are finding their work labelled “artwash”.

“Artwash” is a relatively new term. It seems to have first been used to critique corporate sponsorship of the arts: large companies establishing a relationship with a cultural venue with the aim of improving their reputation. BP, for example, has long sponsored the Tate galleries in London, something that has prompted much protest. A spokesperson from one such protest group, Liberate Tate, explains: “Artwash is the process whereby a company buys advertising space within a gallery in order to cover up negative public image.”

A 2015 protest against BP’s sponsorship of Tate. slowkodachrome/flickr, CC BY

Naming and shaming

But now accusations of artwashing are reaching beyond corporate sponsorship to apply to individual artists in local communities. A new practice of naming and shaming artists working within the context of gentrification, particularly in larger cities where large scale development is taking place, has seen some artists working in social contexts accused of being “artwashing gentrifiers”. In extreme cases, galleries and artists are being run out of town.

These recent, predominantly online attacks on artists and arts organisations have seen the artists being named as responsible within the process. At best they are labelled as naive to the developer’s game, and at worst complicit.

This practice is becoming particularly controversial in London because new development and fast gentrification is reaching an all time high, pushing more and more local populations out of their homes. Questions around who is really to blame for such a damaging form of gentrification are becoming more urgent. And more ugly.

A developer-led project in Deptford, London. Ewan Munro / Flickr, CC BY-SA

The emerging animosity towards artists has led to a number of groups being set up in order to target artists working within regeneration contexts. The groups include activists, but in some cases, artists and academics are behind the campaigns, which use Twitter and other online platforms to voice dissent.

Interestingly, even artists aiming to question the role of the arts within processes of regeneration are finding themselves targets of the online criticism. I experienced this first hand when delivering an art project in London earlier this year.

Estate Agency

The project, “Estate Agency”, involved a staged closure of London’s Campbell Works Art Space, to see it reopen as a fake estate agency displaying affordable property in Stoke-on-Trent. The project aimed to raise questions around the experience of many London based artists and arts organisations, who have been finding it ever more difficult to afford to remain in the capital.

The Stoke Newington area, where Campbell Works is based, has seen property prices rocketing in recent years. Over the course of the project we heard many stories about the loss of community and the devastating impact of gentrification on people’s lives and sense of self. The creeping processes of gentrification, which can happen gradually, are often difficult to pinpoint. We aimed to make these processes of change more visible, and to create a space to discuss issues raised.

Estate Agency poster. Anna Francis, Author provided

The manner in which we did so was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “#YourLifeButBetter” was blazoned on the “estate agency”, which reframed Stoke-on-Trent (a city which became known as Brexit Capital last year) as a viable place for artists to move to, with affordable housing and studio space on display. Stoke is bidding for City of Culture 2021, and as such, is actively courting a new future via arts and cultural activity.

The aim was to create a space to understand the role of art and artists in these challenging contexts. Using the language and imagery of developers and prospectors, the project also explored the experience of towns like Margate; where swathes of artists moving in have changed the cultural make up at an alarming speed.

In dealing with the thorny issue of culture-led development, we found ourselves under fire by online critics. They accused us of the very processes we were seeking to critique. Imagery and slogans from the project were taken up by online activists, who accused the project of artwashing gentrification. Their main objection was our use of irony in relation to a serious issue which is affecting people’s lives.

In understanding the role that art and culture can have in changing places, it is now important to ask if what we are creating is of benefit to everyone concerned. Artists have a role to play in both questioning the processes of regeneration, but also, I believe, in supporting communities within these places to articulate their experience, and to advocate for their rights. Far from being an artwash, this can be a celebratory and cathartic activity – even if the outcome, eventually, is the same.

Anna Francis, Associate Professor of Fine Art and Social Practice, Staffordshire University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The final year of Community Maker

The 3 year Paul Hamlyn funding for the Community Maker project ends this year, so in many ways the 3rd year of the project could be seen as the end point, and as a good point to stop and catch our breath, but also it is a time to reflect and plan for the future.The project has been a partnership between British Ceramics Biennial and AirSpace Gallery, with me as lead artist. First, it is important to note down everything that has happened within Community Maker over the summer of 2017.
So,at the end of year one, the biggest finding from the project was that the community is desperate for a space to meet, and to put on events and activities; as being outside means you are really exposed to the weather and other elements. This was also demonstrated by Rebecca Davies in her Oasis Social Club project. These findings led to the offer of The Portland Inn pub, a question from the Council about whether the community could take it over, and run it. For the second year of the project's immense activity, I partnered with artist Rebecca Davies to apply to Arts Council, and we tested and delivered 54 activities and events over 4 weeks, with a recorded 622 participants.
After that, Rebecca Davies and I worked on a business plan, based on our programme and everything we had learned, in order to begin the process of a Community Asset Transfer of the building. This was handed in in November 2016, and since then we have continued to campaign to get the building. In the meantime it was important to ensure that there was still a presence within the area, even though, in the background, we are working hard, this is not visible on the ground. So, the final year of Community Maker has been about continuing the conversation about what the building can be, and what the community needs.
Image: Tile making decal imagery created by Community Maker participant.
The Portland Inn, in Summer 2017, was uninhabitable, the hole in the roof is much worse, and the spaces are very mouldy and unhealthy. This meant that we were back in the tent in the green space again for our programme of activities.
As it announced on the brochure of activity, that was delivered to each of the houses in the area: 'Clay has been used to gather and activate the community, encouraging individuals to communicate and form ideas about the future of our place.
This summer, you can join Anna Francis to complete a series of interactive 'clay tests'. The tests are designed to see what types of clay and creative engagement should sit within the heart of the new social enterprise, The Portland Inn Pub.'
The plan was to have a launch event, and then a few weeks later, to begin a series of 4 Saturday making sessions, from 1-4pm with a core group of individuals, signing up to attend all of the sessions.
We learned in year one, that asking people in the area to commit to a programme was impossible, I had thought this may be because the project, and I, were new to the area, and that given that 2017 was the third year, perhaps our commitment to the community may be matched by some members of the community committing to 4 Saturdays with us this year.
Image: Faces of the Community decal imagery created by Community Maker participants.
The launch showed that people weren't really confident to commit to this, and there are a number of factors that could have affected this. 1. being back in a tent - we are in a temporary structure, with no heating, ammenities etc.
2. problems affecting the area in 2017.
Image: House decal imagery created by Community Maker participants.
When the project began in Summer 2015, the one pound home owners had been moved in for approximately one year, and though there were still a number of residual issues, of fly tipping and some minor anti-social behaviour, things felt to be improving in the area. Our programme on the green space that summer was well attended, it was a pleasant place to be based and there was a lot of positivity and hope.
This then gave us a measure, to see how much had changed in the area in Summer 2017.
From the very first event, we noticed a change in atmosphere on the green space. Living close by, I was already aware that the well reported problems with addiction to legal highs in the city were impacting locally. It was also evident that a number of properties in the area were being operated by drug dealers. This, along with a public space protection order on the city centre, meant that the green space where we were hosting creative activity, which was just outside the protection order zone, had become known as a space to easily access, and consume drugs. We learned during the project, that it is known as 'The Mamba Fields.'
The associated problems caused by the above meant that running the project on the space was very challenging. We realised quickly that we needed at least 4 people to be present at each event, in order to manage the space, assure the safety of participants, and still deliver a viable and productive workshop. At times, the precariousness of the situation left us feeling very exposed.

The situation for the residents, participants in the activity too came into focus via the project. People told us that the green space was now viewed as a no go zone, and that the community would avoid the space when we were not there. All of this showed a need to reconnect the community to the services tasked with operating in the area. We contacted Marvin Molloy from My community Matters, a key partner in our work in the area, to ask him to help us to set up a meeting. The community were invited along with key service providers, the police, anti-social behaviour teams, drug services, housing teams, selective licensing team, and others. The idea of the meeting was to make visible the challenges in the area, and to ask for a multi-agency approach to dealing with the issues. The first meeting, there was a brilliant turn out from the community, but a disappointing turn out from the services, key partners were missing. At this stage, Marvin and I got in touch with our local MP Ruth Smeeth. Ruth has been a real champion of the project, and so we felt it was important to get her support in engaging the services. With Ruth's support, more of the services were engaged in understanding the urgency of the challenges being faced by the Community. Neighbours came to the meeting and talked about 'fear of walking into town' and young people refusing to leave the house, as they didn't feel safe.

Since then, a monthly meeting has taken place with the community, but with the services meeting fortnightly, to first set targets, and then to deliver the changes needed to improve on some of the problems in the area, without simply passing them on to somewhere else (as has happened here as a result of the public space protection order). This has been really positive, and within weeks the improvements to the look and feel of the area were visible. Community members have been incredibly active, and vocal about what was needed, and this has made a difficult situation better, quickly. There is still more to be done, but everyone is working together to ensure support is given where needed.
Image: Heart decal imagery created by Community Maker participant.
Leading the project over the years, and delivering the summer programme, meant we were able to see quickly, matters affecting the community, because they affect us too. The challenges this summer in delivering the workshops have galvanised the community around the project, really bringing everyone together around a common goal of improving the neighbourhood for those that live here.

In many ways, the creative activity, making with clay, became secondary to the work needed to deal with some of the issues we faced in working here, and at times the real work felt to be in advocating for the community in the all services meetings, but still, a programme of creative workshops was delivered over a month.
We wanted this time to see if we could make something quite sophisticated with the community. Alice Thatcher, our ceramics specialist on the project, has been working with us since year one, and knows the community well now, and has a great rapport with everyone. For both Alice and I, it was important that though we may have been operating from a bell tent on a green space, we wanted to step up a gear in terms of the ceramic skills being covered.
In week one, we brought moulds to the space and made press moulded plates with the community.
In week two, we worked on printing with clay, and making clay stamps, while our plates dried out and were fired.
In week three the plates returned to the space to be glazed.
Finally in week four decals made from images from year one and two were applied to the plates.
We had a lot of rain over the weeks, but the final session in pouring rain showed the commitment of participants, who stayed for the whole 3 hour session, despite the rain and the cold.
This session was very special, with participants, some who had come for all three years, but some who had only just started to come this year, told us how important the sessions have been for them. Working with clay has provided a moment of pause for people, the transformative nature of the material, which can move from one state to another quickly, without fuss feels like a mirror for the community. 'We're going to miss these sessions,' one neighbour said.
The Community Maker plates made during this summer's workshops were displayed at the British Ceramics Biennial from September to November. Thousands of people saw works made by our community on display beside the biggest names in ceramics. A special meal was hosted one Saturday of the festival, with key participants from the project invited for a 3 course gathering, eating from the plates we made. We invited our local MP, and drank a toast to the project, and to the community.
 Perhaps the very last events for Community Maker were a community bonfire for bonfire night, where bricks were made, as memory boxes, by firelight to be fired live in a raku kiln, at the Christmas Celebration, planned for mid-December.
These two events are different from the others, as they were not planned within the Community Maker project, but instead are events which the community has organised, and asked us to support. This is an important moment. Over the three years that we have been running the project, we have organised or been central to organising events and activity FOR the community, these two events are a turning point, we are now working on events WITH the community. That is the most important outcome of the Community Maker project in my book.
The urgency to have the Portland Inn transferred into community ownership became very clear this summer. This community needs a project like this, in order to be able to respond quickly to changes, and to be a support network for each other. As much as we love our tent, we know we cannot have another summer like 2017. Rebecca Davies and I along with the partners in the project are working with the council to make the project happen, and coming up with a plan for Summer 2018, to ensure the community has a space to meet and make together, even if the pub is inaccessible, hopefully, due to renovation.

Community Maker was used as a case study in the Local Government Association publication 'People, Culture, Place - the role of culture in Placemaking.'   and within the newly launched Culture Hub, a partnership by LGA and Arts Council England, highlighting good practice in delivering culture with councils and their partners.