Creative Connections, Norway 2023 (part 2)

Creative Connections, Norway 2023 (part 2)

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Katharine Wheeler from WWDN, recently took a trip to Vestfold in Norway with Martin O’Neil, Artistic Director with The Stove Network, to share their knowledge and insights on community-embedded work.

The Norway visit provided an understanding of how different creative practices can be adapted across different cultures can create positive change and growth through What We Do Now in Dumfries & Galloway.

The trip highlighted the various ways the exchange of ideas help bolster innovation and learning in creative and collaborative ways.

We caught up with Katharine to chat about the visit!

You can read Martin’s update here.

What was the background to your Norwegian trip?

I first walked into Vestfold Kunstsenter in Tonsberg as part of a research trip for the first project I ever led for The Stove back in 2017 – Our Norwegian Story – which explored our historical connections through WWII. What seemed like an unlikely connection at first, we are community-led working with art workers in the broadest possible way, they are a gallery and the representational body and support for visual artists and craft makers in Vestfold, has grown into a valuable and treasured exchange of knowledge and learning.

Jump forward 6 years and that friendship has weathered three changes in directorship for Vestfold Kunstsenter, all bringing with them a unique perspective on the value of our ongoing exchange. I have to admit this has sometime baffled me, Norway invest in their arts in a way that is enviable here in Scotland, programmes like their Cultural Rucksack ensure that all school children have access to high quality arts engagement and their funding seems more plentiful and longer-term. Our work can be chaotic, messy, without a defined output. Theirs seems cleaner, operating within more considered structures of support.

However, to draw on comments from Johanne Birkeland, current director of Vestfold Kunstsenter, when she visited Dumfries for our kNOw One Place creative placemaking Forum (Sept 2022) there is a motivation amongst many arts practitioners here to rally behind a common cause that she finds inspiring. The spirit of activism runs deep in what many of us do here, maybe it is born of more adversity, but there is something strong that motivates the arts here towards social change that Scotland is a leader on globally.

We have found commonality in our belief that arts and culture have its deepest impact when it operates across society, across sectors, outside of silos and within communities. Our exchange has become about sharing our experiences on how to foster and nurture the creative ecology of our places and encourage deeper work between artists, communities, and other sectors.

What unique insights did you gather in Norway for WWDN?

Most recently we have started working with local artists Eirin Støen and Nina Heum of Sirene project in Larvik. Sirene is a public space project whose ambitions were to build working connections between public space, local development plans and Larvik’s creative community. Most visibly they took over a public space in Larvik, supporting new activities, use and engagement as a conversation starter with local people and politicians about the future of Larvik’s creative ecology. Larvik today, is a post-industrial sea town on the lower coast of Norway that is not too much larger than our hometown here in Dumfries, 40 000 or there abouts. It is investing heavily in tech, attracting new business and luxury housing, and lies the risk of being fragmented from its resident communities.

What was most interesting during our recent visit this September were just how similar the challenges we face in our work are. In encouraging more exploratory and embedded work with creative practitioners as part of developing ideas for our places, in supporting the collaboration this work requires between artists and other sectors, in long-term imaginative thinking and investment in those processes by local authorities and other investment bodies toward deeper community benefit.

When sharing the sense of smallness that can be felt in face of the huge systems of decision-making and investment our time together rekindled ideas, small acts that can be done to model big change.

How will this collaboration help creative placemaking in D&G, and how does it shape WWDN’s future?

Modelling change is not only about what we do in our own places but in looking to what has already been achieved or done in others and learning from those examples. Our exchange with our Norwegian friends allows us to eco activity in two different but similar places, to see what works and what doesn’t within slightly different contexts, and draw comparisons to grow our understanding of creative placemaking practice. For the What We Do Now network it also allows us to develop exchange opportunities for members to work with and learn together with our partners in Norway through commissions and shared activities and events.

Reflecting on the journey, what was a standout moment of the trip?

As always taking time away from deadlines can feel, and in many ways is, a luxury in our line of work. But if we are to think wider and bolder, be proud and ambitious, about the creative ecology we are part of growing here in Dumfries and Galloway through What We Do Now we need to build connections outwards as well as within.

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