Monday, 30 November 2009

The sense of community in rural places

There is a wealth of activity happening in and around the South West of England, especially Somerset, that has a huge interest in community life and participation.

Over the last month I've been to two events that traditionally have been held for years and that are known internationally for the extravagance and spectacle and both are community led and not for profit. Both of these events not only engage local communities in the organising and creation of the event but they attract thousands of people to the South West every year.

One of the events I visited was Ottery St Mary's Tar Barrel rolling where teams from the local pubs carry burning barrels of tar on their shoulders amongst a tightly packed crowd of onlookers. To take part in the event you have to be from the village itself and not only is there an event for the men and women but the children as well.

The second event was Bridgwater carnival, the biggest illuminated carnival in the world and here in Somerset! Each float is locally sponsored to create large public art pieces that include choreographed routines, set design, costume design and collecting money for charity. In recent years Bridgwater carnival has worked with Nottinghill carnival to share creative ideas and the results were amazing.

Over the forthcoming months there are more local cultural arts events to look forward to. They include a tour of Mamma's plays at Christmas time and the best yet, Wassailing in the new year were thanks is given to cider trees and a celebration of the next harvest takes place.

These are only events that take place when the nights are dark and cold but never do the local community events stop in rural areas. From barn dances, cheese rolling, village hall fetes and music festivals, the South West is more than active when it comes to community arts.

Can these events include and enhance contemporary visual arts? Can contemporary visual arts in rural areas learn something from these events? Will there ever be as much pride and enthusiasm in the South West's contemporary visual arts are there are in these events?  

The common perception of rural arts

When I was growing up in Somerset and up until the age of 21 the visual arts that I was aware of in the county were all craft based. Where was all the conceptual, contemporary practice? Was there any happening?

At the age of 21 I started working at The Brewhouse theatre and arts centre and submerged myself in Somerset Arts. Was it now because I was working within the industry that I became aware of the activity in the county? Yes I believe it was. I also believe that I wasn't going out of my way to find those activities and opportunities when I didn't have to. I'm aware that this is not uncommon within rural communities. Why do  rural communities know more about what's happening in urban settings than the local professional arts venue to where they live?

One factor that exists is marketing. For venues and arts organisations it's key to not only market the product but the brand to reassure audiences that high quality programming and supportable programming to their tastes exits. It is an element of trust along with costumer service in welcoming devise audiences into spaces. Yes you need a large marketing budget to feature in the Guardian every week but word of mouth is free and above all the best form of marketing. Therefore what comes first, the activity or the audience? In some circumstances one can determine the other.

If the arts activity is supported and regarded highly by artists and arts advocates within the region does the general publics' opinion then follow?

I believe that by offering a consistent programme of high quality activity and welcoming the general public to engage with the activity good sustainable reputations are forged. I plan on doing this within my project by selecting high quality artists to work with, by creating a professional brand for my activity and forming relationships with the communities in which I plan on working with - for example artists based in Somerset, arts advocates and organisations and the audiences that see the work.  

Sunday, 29 November 2009

My MA project - blog number 1

On starting my MA in Arts Management my idea for a project was to get some sheds and use those as studios and also spaces to exhibit. I started to think about the context in which a studio or gallery is placed and whether that context influences the work - site specific work. On thinking about this I became sure that I didn't want to invite artists to be based in rural settings to make work in response to the setting itself. Rather I want to provide space where there is a lack of it.

Having read the Arts Council England's publication on Rural Arts, published in 2005, I started to wonder why rural arts seem to have participation embedded in them more than urban arts. Is there a bigger need in rural spaces for the communities to participate in the creation of the work rather than just viewing it and engaging through perception? Is this a clear difference and if so why? Are rural arts more advanced in breaking down access barriers and providing social need for all communities? On wondering these questions I started to relate them to my project and asked whether there is a difference in the engagement to the art if the art is made in a rural context to when national touring shows are brought to a rural space?

The idea for my project progressed in looking at how these questions could be facilitated in my study. My project was developed into a set of studios where artists could create work and an exhibition of curated work. These would act as experiments to evaluate how the audience reacts to the work and whether engagement and overall opinion is greater to one than the other. This conclusion would then be celebrated in a symposium of rural arts.

How will I invite and choose the artists to work on my project? How will it differ if I use artists from outside a rural context? In selection of the artists and their work I aim on targeting the overall perception of rural arts and raise the bar for high quality contemporary art in rural spaces. Therefore the geography of where the artists live will not determine the fate of the exhibition element of the project. As for the studios, the aim is to provide space for artists, emerging and established, in rural areas where there are no studios. For this project they will be open to artists living and working in Somerset, but the future of the spaces will be used to provide national and international artists residencies in Somerset. The fact that the spaces are rural will not determine the calibre of artist nor the medium in which they work. I'm keen to develop spaces that happen to be in rural locations but have the respect and acknowledgment of cultural spaces in urban environments.

The isolation of working in a rural environment creates issues for artists including opportunities to network, generating ideas in collaboration and support from those local arts organisations that already exist. Could my project include not only space for artists to make and exhibit work but an opportunity to engage on a wider scale with more rurally based artists to provide channels of communication and networking opportunities?

As for sheds, are they the most appropriate space to use? Do they provide an even bigger context to the work that would then distract from the work itself? Is a village hall more appropriate or does that also bring a common perception to what the quality of work will be? I plan on looking into semi-permanent spaces that can be moved and placed easily whilst being conscious not to alienate audiences that already face access barriers.

I am worried that I'm being very ambitious with my project however I feel that it must incorporate a networking event (how many and where is yet to be tackled) for artists working in rural isolation to come together with representatives from arts organisations, a space for studios in an area of rural environment where there are no studios but a need, an exhibition of work touring rural spaces and a symposium of thoughts and findings on rural arts. This is where my project stands to this date and I will be researching the need for all of the elements and strategically putting them together to form a cohesive suggestion for ways forward in the provision of arts spaces and activity in Somerset.

As for my dissertation I plan on looking into this idea of context dependable work and whether the context in which the art is made and shown changes to concept of the work and the way it is perceived by the audience that engages with it.

The history behind my interest in rural arts

I was born and brought up in Somerset and ever since a young age I remember going to different arts venues with my mother, who is a keen thespian. The first production I remember seeing was at Bridgwater Arts Centre and it was a production of Fantastic Mr. Fox. The other times I remember going to see productions or exhibitions would be outside of Somerset, in Bristol, London or Birmingham.

As I grew up my passion for the arts developed and at age 16 I decided to go to Somerset College to do a National Diploma in Fine Art. During my two years there I visited the local arts venue once and would constantly go out of the county to see contemporary art.

Whilst at Nottingham Trent University, where I studied a BA hons in Fine Art, I started to question why people in Somerset, including myself, feel the need to go outside the county to get a cultural experience. Alongside this I also began to question the provision in Somerset for artists - where are the galleries? where are the studios? There are so many highly accredited arts colleges in the South West, but where were all the graduates going? Why are there not more groups of artists making movements in the South West?

On graduating I decided to move back to Somerset to help change my perceptive of rural arts and to make a difference to contemporary art and provision within the county.

On my return I started working as the Learning and Participation Co-ordinator at The Brewhouse Theatre and Arts Centre based in the county town of Taunton. There I worked alongside many arts professionals both in that organisation and others including the rural touring scheme Take Art. It was after two and a half years that I started to wonder whether my venture had been successful? Yes I had developed the Learning and participation department at The Brewhouse and worked on county wide projects, but had I created more opportunities for artists to make work and to be challenged to make high quality contemporary art? Not only that but had I provided events and opportunities for the general public living in rural areas access to the arts to help combat the need to leave the county to engage with the arts?

These questions led me to start thinking about my future as an arts professional in a rural setting. It made me realise that I want to provide space for artists in the Somerset to use as studios, of which there is a lack and to create spaces that house high quality contemporary art to go into rural environments.

Enter the idea of the shed - On thinking about space that is already available in Somerset I started to think about how space could be created that didn't need to stay in one venue or spot. How could I provide space that could go to the artists, could act as an individual space but also form a collective of spaces? I began to get keen around the idea of these spaces being responsive, going to areas of need, participating in projects and being spaces in their own right. I started to consider sheds that could house artists studios, could be used as exhibition spaces and project spaces. They could be moved to different rural areas and could come together. By taking the sheds to certain areas not only would it provide arts provision for artists but it would look at issues of access for those living in rural places.

During the year in which I will be doing my MA in Arts Management at Dartington I plan on looking into the ideas of artists, spaces and audiences in rural areas to try to sustain the answers to my original questions that I was asking during my time in Nottingham. I hope that this will provide not only myself but the rural artists and organisations in Somerset with information and findings on creative provision in a rural environment.