Shifting the Focus

Shifting the Focus

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From artists to communities; our learning so far through What We Do Now

Katharine Wheeler – The Stove Network, Partnerships and Projects Development

The last 12 months have been a rollercoaster of intensive learning and experimentation here at The Stove Network, for us and for our extended family of What We Do Now (WWDN) artists and community partners. We’ve shared laughter, frustration, tears and a tremendous sense of hope, of what could be if given the time to continue to evolve and develop this exciting and challenging project.

WWDN is The Stove’s Culture Collective project in Dumfries & Galloway. It grew out of our conversations with community organisations across the region, whose work is intent on ensuring a long-term positive impact for the places where they’re located and for the people that live there.

Our focus for the project was to connect artists and community organisations together, to develop creative activities and projects in their communities with the intent for wider social change and wellbeing for those involved. We wanted to experiment with different ways community organisations can work with artists to initiate and build relationships with those in their community they are not reaching, are often less hear or absent from local decision-making processes.

The Stoves role in the project has been to hold and support the overall structure of working between artists and community organisations, support partnership development, and to make spaces for collective learning and understanding in this approach to working between artists, community groups, local people and partners which we are calling Creative Placemaking.

It has been quite a journey. One of the biggest take-aways, so far, has been in recognising the extent to which we’ve asked people to work differently from ways they are used to; for the artists, for the community organisations and for other partners involved.

 The project asked people to bring their skills together, learn about each other’s work and to shape new processes and approaches together in how to work within their communities. It may seem a subtle shift from how many artists and community groups usually work but in practice it challenged people tremendously.

For the community groups this meant embracing the very individual skillsets and creative processes of the artists they were working with and giving them the freedom to move, quite considerably, from an initial starting point, vision or brief. Community groups had often worked towards fixed and agreed outcomes in the past, however, the WWDN process of ‘going on a collective journey of discovery’ with project partners and communities together with all the associated challenges of managing expectations and communication was very new.

Of the artists we were asking them to make spaces in their creative development of work, to use creative activities to bring the community groups and local people into their processes of development for bigger co-developed ideas. In practice, this meant artists taking real account of their position as a ‘representative’ of other partners and recognising how their actions could impact the work of community groups beyond the WWDN project.

WWDN Working Session

Of both the challenge was to get to know the skills and knowledge each held and to bring this to the work and find ways to creatively problem-solve together. For the artists this involves developing an understanding of the role of the community organisation in their place, their relationships, the political landscapes they navigate; for the community organisation this involves putting their trust in someone new, being generous with their connections and relationships and courageous in how that might influence and reposition their work. For all, including The Stove, this meant working through the challenges that this approach can throw up together, and giving time, sometimes what felt like an unreasonable amount of time, to those processes.

What We Do Now has so far only scratched the surface of this approach to working with artists and communities. Even so, we have seen really encouraging changes in; the valuing of arts activity in place development by community organisations; the skills development pathways it can grow for participants; the community-grown projects it can initiate and the joining up it can create between groups working in a place for better long-term strategic thinking.

Some stand out points of learning from me:

  • The “art” can be anything…It is the framework of working that it is a part of, that opens up the possibilities for wider change
  • The creative process of being open to change through a constant process of evolving/testing ideas and adapting to changing circumstances is applicable across a wide range of community work and not restricted to ‘creative’ projects.
  • Place Hubs (community groups) are key to ensuring the work has long-term impact for their community
  • The intent for learning, experimentation and long-term impact needs to be held by all involved
  • A commitment by everyone involved is needed to a values-based and collaborative approaches to developing ideas and working through challenges
  • There needs to be strong, resourced, and accessible processes of support for all throughout the project
  • Challenges will happen, that is part of the work, and tailored support is needed for people to navigate this relevant to individual circumstance
  • Working structures and approaches need to be co-developed and revisited throughout the project
  • This way of working takes time to get going and considerable time invested to make things happen
  • Local relationships are vital, and need to be a focus of the work
  • Ideas are important to get things started but there needs to be flexibility and a regular and open process for revisiting ideas, to ensure the work is relevant and stays true to the intent of long-term impact
  • Things need to happen…The process needs to be action-led but not outcome driven
  • Trust is vital – building trust between artists, community groups, local people, is central to the success of the work
  • Transparency – the working process needs to be visible and accessible to local people, community groups and other artists
  • Documentation – there needs to be a commitment by all to sharing the story of the work, inclusive of multiple perspectives, so that it can continue to evolve.

What We Do Now demonstrates the considerable groundwork that needs to be laid for this process to have the power for communities that we know it is capable of and build the foundations needed for community-led place development. There is a role for joining up this work, to be able to translate between processes/perspectives, but ultimately power needs to lie with the community groups that are intent on the long-term development of the places they live. 

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