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Reimagining Where We Live

Cultural Placemaking & the Levelling up Agenda

The Stove often contributes to Government consultations – these are one of the ways that policy is shaped. Committees are the way that Government oversees what it does, so the Culture, Media and Sport Committee looks after the work of the Dept of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), by suggesting new policy directions and holding ministers to account for what they have promised. It is these Committees that run consultations – when they want to explore something, they call for people’s views, they then hold committee sessions to discuss what has been submitted and often call people to speak to them at these sessions. Following this, a committee will make set of recommendations to Ministers and often new policy results.

In February of this year, a consultation (they call them ‘Calls for Evidence’) was announced by DMCS which was around subjects very relevant to the work of The Stove. Our very own Matt Baker pulled together a Stove submission, but also encouraged Stove Members to contribute to this.

The below is the submission of Hope London, who is a commissioned artist working as part of the What We Do Now project, which forms part of the national programme called Culture Collective coordinated by Creative Scotland.


Reimagining where we live: cultural placemaking and the levelling up agenda

By Hope London

Background

My name is Hope London. I’m an artist with a socially-engaged practice and over thirty years of experience in arts management, consultancy and education throughout the UK, including legal issues for the arts and creative industries.  I believe in the transformative power of the arts to make life better and love working with people to release their creative potential.   Website hopelondon.com

I’ve worked in towns and cities labelled some of the most deprived in the country –  Liverpool and Manchester (in the 1990s/early 2000s); North West and North of England (including Barrow in Furness, Burnley, Hull, St. Helens, Newcastle), the Welsh valleys and South West Scotland. Currently commissioned by The Stove (Dumfries) as established artist for ‘What We Do Now’, a Creative Scotland | Culture Collective project in the seaside town of Stranraer, working with the community to re-imagine their vision and identity for the town in the future. 

Introduction

I will focus on the first three questions:

  • How can culture reanimate our public spaces and shopping streets?
  • How can creatives contribute to local decision-making and planning of place?
  • How can the Government support places without established artistic infrastructure to take full advantage of the opportunities that the levelling up agenda provides?

Artists|creatives are often asked to achieve miracles. We may be called upon to work in deprived areas on arts-related projects with community groups, public art commissions, festivals or events.  We wave our wands in the face of post-industrial decline, deteriorating infrastructure, generational poverty, inadequate public transport, lack of opportunity, even a sense of hopelessness about a positive future. 

Sometimes it works.  Successful projects benefit the people who participate, sometimes profoundly.  I can think of many positive examples involving young people, often those with mental health issues or disabilities. But one-off, short-term projects or those aimed only at a specific group don’t lead to major change across the community or help to re-animate the high street and increase economic opportunity. Poorly conceived or executed projects on the other hand, such as works of public art that aren’t properly maintained, can be downright negative, serving to reinforce a sense of neglect. 

Cultural place-making works best when culture is a catalyst, working organically – not imposed top-down but embracing local culture and building from the ground up.

Innovative thinking, sustained attention and commitment of resources are essential ingredients; otherwise, the arts are just a sticking plaster over an unhealed wound.  Artists and creative producers embedded within a community can play a profound role in the healing process that will lead to the kind of deep, ongoing positive change envisaged by the Levelling Up agenda.  It starts by connecting with the people who live and work there.

Artists|Creatives and Cultural Place-Making

Artists are well-placed to do the work – lack of formal arts infrastructure is not an obstacle*

Arts and creative professionals with a background in community work are well-positioned to work at ground level as a catalyst for cultural place-making, even in areas of the country there is little recognised arts infrastructure.  Local councils, arts councils (e.g. Creative Scotland) and local/regional arts organisations know how to advertise, recruit and work with communities to commission artists/creatives to work with them.  Where needed, appropriate training could be made available (how to prepare a brief, recruit, commission and work with artists and creatives).

Artists can come into a place first.  A formal arts infrastructure is likely to evolve later. There are usually more creative people in every community than some at national level might imagine, albeit a less formal kind of infrastructure.  Artists who work in communities know how to connect and collaborate with local creatives and build on people’s interests, abilities and resources to help communities take advantage of opportunities offered by the Levelling Up agenda.

The ‘art project’ is the place itself.  Artists use creative tools to help communities express what they need and want.

Artists are able to create projects designed specifically to discover what local people most want and need.  We’re currently doing this kind of work as part of the ‘What We Do Now’ project in Stranraer, a rural town in South West Scotland.  My colleague Rory Laycock and I co-designed The Stranraer Colouring Book and printed 1,000 copies for distribution throughout the community.  We first talked to a range of local people on the street and at community events to find out what they wanted to change in their town.  We discovered that amongst their top priorities were certain landmark buildings that have become, in their words, neglected or abandoned ‘eyesores’ – omnipresent, depressing structures that lower community morale and deter new businesses and tourists.

The colouring book is just one example of an artist-led intervention – a fun, accessible way of giving people a chance to express their views and make them known.  The completed books will be collected and documented.  There will be an exhibition, and the information gleaned will be collated and shared with local government and more widely, for use in planning redevelopment and making a case for the necessary support. 

* Question 3How can the Government support places without established artistic infrastructure to take full advantage of the opportunities that the levelling up agenda provides?

Artists|creatives initiate change organically – this is a chance to do it better

Perhaps the first question should be expanded to ask “how can culture reanimate our public spaces and shopping streets without making the town too expensive for local residents and businesses?”  This relates directly to the second question: How can creatives contribute to local decision-making and planning of place? 

Sometimes artists|creatives are commissioned to work on cultural place-making projects – but perhaps more often, artists and creative businesses initiate change organically by gravitating to cheap living, working and retail spaces, and kick-starting regeneration. I witnessed this process while living in New York’s East Village in the 1970s and there are numerous examples worldwide.  As boarded-up buildings are replaced by new shops, galleries, restaurants, bookshops and cafes alongside established businesses, public spaces and shopping areas become more vibrant and interesting.  Morale is lifted when eyesores are cleaned up and derelict buildings refurbished.

The danger, however, is gentrification – as more affluent people are attracted to the area, property prices and rents increase; local people who don’t own their properties may be forced out or decide to sell.  Often, the very artists who moved in and started the regeneration process can no longer afford to stay.  This has not yet happened in Stranraer.

You have an opportunity to harness the power of artists and culture to ‘do regeneration’ better, avoiding the pitfalls of gentrification.  In this context, it’s important to remember that people are at the core of culture.  Public spaces and shopping areas are animated by food, fashion, art, music, dance, trees, gardens, architecture, design, performance, shopfronts, street vendors…and the people who live, work and shop there.  Regeneration is supposed to be about making people’s lives better. You don’t want to lose them in the process.

If affordable live/work/community spaces are a serious part of the long-term regeneration plan, local residents and businesses won’t be priced out, and creatives|artists will be encouraged to stay in the area as well.

Artists animate streets and spaces

Streets and public spaces are key to regeneration.  Artists, working with community groups, can co-create projects and programmes of work to bring the public realm alive.  Other creatives can be brought in, commissioned by the community to realise events and projects. Safe, clean, well-designed spaces in the public realm are potential stages for street markets, festivals, horticulture/permaculture, processions, sporting events, performance. Vistas obstructed by rubbish skips and cars – like the view of the sea in Stranraer – can be opened up and walkways/viewing platforms built.  Uninspiring walls can become landmark murals or vertical gardens.  Dingy alleyways can be lit in creative ways.

Blighted buildings needed to be addressed as a priority – artists can help

Buildings, vacant lots and other structures (like the disused former ferry pier in Stranraer) in private ownership pose a sticky problem.  Local councils may have authority over what happens in public streets and squares or buildings that they own, but the legal situation is more complex when it comes to requiring owners to repair deteriorating property and/or put it into productive use. 

In Stranraer, as in small post-industrial towns up and down the country, neglected, poorly maintained and empty buildings are more than an eyesore.  Such buildings blight shopping streets and public spaces, affecting the well-being of the people who must pass them every day. Empty or underused, paint peeling, window frames caving in, trees growing through rooftops – while people require housing, workshops, studios and offices – they are literally a waste of space. 

Until there are effective administrative and legal mechanisms for addressing the problem, re-animation risks being superficial and ultimately ineffective. I understand property rights, and that owners must have a reasonable chance to make repairs to a required standard before penalties may be imposed.  However, given the deplorable state of some of the high-street buildings in towns where I’ve worked (in Scotland, North West England, Wales), existing regulations are not doing the job.

I believe a thorough overhaul of regulations is required – for example, requiring compulsory sale orders when owners are unable or unwilling to repair a building that has become an aesthetic detriment to a town – an eyesore, even if it has not quite reached the stage of posing a danger to the public. The legal and business issues involved may be daunting but not impossible.  Community buyouts or purchase by housing associations may be options if a building is up for sale or there is a compulsory purchase by the Council.  Funding is a huge problem but there are innovative ways to encourage owners, developers, residents and artists to work together, with contractual obligations in place to ensure buildings are refurbished to agreed standards and used for the intended purposes at affordable prices.   I know it’s a huge task but in my opinion it’s key to creating the kind of culture-driven levelling up you want to achieve.

Neglected buildings could be refurbished, and those beyond repair gutted and re-designed.  All could become affordable, eco-friendly living, working, business incubator, training, conference or arts/events spaces.  Artists and creatives can put a community’s vision into tangible form with proposals for new uses, re-design and even innovative forms of ownership/partnership to manage buildings.

In short, culture can re-animate buildings, shopping streets and public spaces through:

  • artists and creatives working with communities, using arts-based approaches to articulate a vision for their place and a plan to make it happen (collaborating with the community on local decision-making and planning of place)
  • events, festivals, performance, art, music, food, street markets and more…the whole range of arts and cultural activities that bring streets and public spaces to life
  • improving the aesthetics and utility of the public realm – addressing ‘eyesore’ buildings, rubbish, public realm design, using all tools at the disposal of artists|creatives including planting, street furniture, building facades, lighting, temporary interventions and longer term artworks
  • encouraging artists|creatives to start and operate businesses, shops, cafes, workshops and live/work spaces in premises that are affordable…and finding ways to avoid gentrification
  • re-designing and using derelict buildings for cultural purposes that benefit the community – keeping them in public or third sector ownership where possible
Categories
News

Scottish Cultural Manifestos for 2021

The excellent Culture Counts organisation has just launched their Cultural Manifesto ahead of the 2021 Holyrood Election.

You can read it here

They have also started a page where they are gathering all other Cultural Manifestos being produced at this time

Particularly interesting, we think, to see ‘Place’ right at the top of the Culture Counts manifesto, given our recent experiences of connecting with different Scot Govt departments and agendas – Place looks to be a shared platform where ‘culture’ can definitely show its worth as a vital ingredient of building a healthy and inclusive society.

Categories
Musings News

Response to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee on the current Covid-19 crisis on our sectors

This is The Stove’s response to the call-out from the Cross-party Committee on Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs on the impact of covid-19 to Scotlands Culture and Tourism sectors and how our sector should be supported at this time.

We see it as part of our role in the region to advocate for those working in the creative sector in D+G but there is strength in numbers so we strongly encourage others to send in responses so that as many voices can be heard as possible – link here

photo credit Kirstin McEwan

Response submitted on the 17.8.2020

This response comes from our experience as a community focused organisation in the High Street of Dumfries, ongoing discussion with the freelance creative community of Dumfries and Galloway, the small groups and businesses we work with and as many of the national discussions and emerging reports we can sanely be part of.

Q – how best the industry can be supported during this unprecedented time.

We need urgent support for the freelance creative economy in Dumfries and Galloway in the form of a) paid work opportunities for freelancers, b) support for local arts infrastructure to effectively support freelancers and c) support for a network that can learn and share learning from this activity.

This paper develops a series of proposals for support and a long term vision through an understanding of the cultural sector that has been brought into sharp focus by COVID.

NEEDS

  • We need devolved local delivery of support that takes into account the monumental variety of work and structures that produce and deliver it within our sector at a grassroots level
  • We need a long-term VISION that embraces innovations in how we value cultural and creative work – wider social benefit, place-based initiatives and community wealth building, localised power and delivery
  • We need to talk about what we have missed, not just what we have done, and be clear on who has not been heard or supported
  • We need to be honest about the “real” long-term impact of support, who will not benefit and why. We need to share and recycle ALL support given – if we invest into spaces/buildings/large institutions for example, how can they then pay that forward to others in the sector and their surrounding community through resource, space, knowledge sharing, local expertise and procurement and be held accountable to that?
  • Fundamentally we need a grassroots and sector-led approach led by the people who make creative work and the local communities it should benefit and be a part of

OUR FOCUS IN DUMFRIES AND GALLOWAY

Our building and community is a non-residential and transient community. At the very start of lockdown it became clear that others were better placed than us to provide the type of community care roles that we have seen a lot of creative place-based groups and organisations take in the field creative community-led work we operate in.

Our focus became the immediate and devastating impact on our local community of creative freelancers who are the pillars that hold up the region’s creative sector – small creative businesses, local projects, independent festivals and events across SW Scotland. The freelancers in our community do not have a platform in national conversations on arts, culture and their economic impact and value, advocating for them as well as providing work opportunities and networking support became our way to act.

We have been approaching this twofold – by taking part in as many of those local, regional and national conversations as we have capacity for and actively working with our membership and creative community so that the grassroots of the sector can be as loud and visible as possible in shaping how we move forward.

For our small acts of solidarity and creativity see our Homegrown Blog

Atlas Pandemica is a new project, like Homegrown, specifically developed in response to COVID, it commissions artists to gather and react to stories of the pandemic’s impact on often unheard voices in our communities and develop creative visioning for going forward into a more socially inclusive future.

It is this grassroots workforce in creative and cultural activity alongside local groups and organisations that we have seen as key collaborators and indicators of the resilience and innovation by local folk and communities.

Our long-term, strategic aim here is to support a regional network of Creative Placemaking activity that helps build and sustain a robust creative workforce whilst responding to real need at local community level.

GRASSROOTS CULTURE

The creative and cultural sector that is embedded in communities is under-represented across our national agencies and as such also lacking in engagement and relative collection of data in terms of their wider economic impact for our places and communities.

The Stove’s recent Embers report, April 2020, highlighted the necessity of supporting community-led, localised action and the lack of understanding of the value of this work to healthy economies. The grants for self-employed creatives were welcome but they do little to consider and understand the expense needed to continue to work as a freelance worker in our industry (support for three months of living/work expenses in Scotland coming out lower than the UK average of £2900, under £1000 a month) SEISS Statistics.

” Performers and other creative practitioners like me earn on average £10k a year and do not fit within the Chancellor’s characterisation of those left out of the SEISS. It is claimed that those who are excluded represent just 5% of the self-employed workforce, earning on average £200k – this is very clearly not the experience of the more than 40% of Equity members who have not been able get support so far.”Equity letter to Government

Excluded UK estimates that 3 million freelancers across sectors have been excluded from any support.

This needs to be courageously recognised so that it can be addressed in the plans we now take forward. Through our experience this includes, but is not limited to, the following groups and activities in cultural and creative industries:

  • Voluntary
  • Community-led
  • Freelancers
  • Young emerging and those not registered as self-employed
  • Vulnerable groups and minorities
  • Informal learning programmes and groups
  • Independent festivals and events

“Creative workers–one of the more vulnerable sectors of the workforce–are already seeing devastating impacts on their income, not only in turnover terms, but also in their charitable contributions and sponsorships. Leaving behind the more fragile part of the sector could cause irreparable socio-economic damage.” – p5 Oxford Economics Report – The projected economic impact of cvoid-19 on the UK Creative Industries 15.6.2020

Our ideas around this add to the pool of information, research and experience coming from creative freelancers across the globe, community groups and workers, academics, think tanks etc. to justify a more holistic and creative approach to economic recovery that makes use of our community groups and organisations (Community Wealth Building, Carnegie Trust on Wellbeing, Wellbeing Economy, Anchor Organisations). We need the investment to start making it happen and the courage to do it in a localised, place-based way.

Through our work at The Stove we have seen the impact that can be had when the ground is made fertile and people are given the agency to develop and grow things locally.

A CULTURE COLLECTIVE

We see an opportunity to devolve resource and power to local people by supporting creative freelancers and groups and organisations that are already working as part of their communities to develop locally responsive projects that can also take advantage of cross sector opportunity for long-term benefit.

What if we were to pay out of work people in the Creative and Community sectors a fair wage to work in their local communities to start new projects (or build on things started in lockdown) – these could be cultural projects like choirs, writer’s groups etc. but they could also be environmental projects or new social enterprises. Our skill set is to ‘make shit happen’, we are producers, innovators and entrepreneurs! If this National Task Force was to get things started then the national agencies and funders could come in behind and help take things to the next level and, before you know it you have communities making their places, economies and health better.

The premise is simple – our Embers report has clearly shown the pivotal role played by creative practitioners and small creative organisations to initiate and maintain momentum in placemaking projects. These may start with cultural projects, but quickly develop into new social enterprises, asset-based and environmental initiatives. In short – do some cultural pump-priming in a community setting and the payback in terms of community resilience, economic development and people’s wellbeing is incredible.

This idea is based on power of community and cross-sector collaboration and respondent to the Guiding Principles from the Report by the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery – p12. More on the development of this can be found on The Stove Blog here

A LONG TERM VISION

We believe support needs to align towards a clear VISION that can be shaped by the changing needs of the sector and is representative of the wide variety of work this includes – notably the less heard voices of creative freelancers, voluntary and community-led groups and organisations. It needs to be local, be a collaboration between the sector and our communities and feed the local innovation that is already there.

Carnegie Trust UK’s recently published (1st July 2020) “Conversations with Communities” initial findings state it brilliantly

“The COVID-19 emergency has let us see what only the state can do – set up hospitals; fund research into a vaccine; shift resources to the front line – and what only communities can do – mobilise and respond quickly by building on existing relationships; pool collective resources; think creatively about what assets are available.”

While the Government is able to float ideas for action, these can only become a reality through collaboration with the arts and creative sector. For example, the idea of a National Arts Force needs all of us in culture to come together and work with other bodies to shape a plan that can make this happen…only we the creative practitioners on the ground know how this could work…we must take our place at the discussion table for the sake of everyone who works in our sector and for society at large.” – https://thestove.org/creativity-and-community-as-part-of-the-national-recovery/

We have the knowledge, we have the tools, we have the live projects that are working and the historical examples of what activities and investments are impactful in a deeper, wider sense of economic resilience and wellbeing, now is the time to stop pitching our systems to big business and outdated ideas of ‘growth’ as a measure of societal success.