Creative Commissions in Balsall Heath

It’s been a busy few months in Balsall Heath with Arshad and our community commissioning panel members running organising different events.  Here are some of the highlights.

Back in June the first of the West Indian cultural group events took place, with an evening of music and conversation held at Balsall Heath’s Printworks.  Derek filmed bits of the evening’s activities, including this blues jam featuring Cornelius on bass:

Derek has been doing a lot of filming for the group and we roped him in to help with our second Poetic Transect.  He and Chris Jam have been out and about in Balsall Heath, talking to people about the neighbourhood, collecting stories and verse.  A new film will be online soon.


Meanwhile the new “Balsall Heath travel agency” has organised two major trips.  A few weeks ago the group took a couple of coaches down to London to give people a chance to visit the South Kensington Museums (and to disappear off to Hyde Park to go on the paddle boats in the Serpentine!).


The intercultural tour of the V&A looking at Islamic arts went down particularly well with group members exploring their heritage.

Last weekend Arshad & I had a day trip up to the Lake District to visit the group who were staying at the Priestley Centre near Coniston.  This was a women-and-children-only trip and was the first time in the Lake District for many of the group.


The Priestley Centre offers lots of outdoor activities and it was great seeing all the fun the kids were having swinging through the trees.  The group who went out on Lake Coniston in a canoe came back very enthused about the history of the area wanting to find out more about the Bluebird as well as visit Brandtwood, John Ruskin’s house overlooking the water.

In other news, the football tournament will be starting in a couple of weekends’ time. Naseem, who has been organising this, was showing off the newly arrived kit when we went to see him at his shop yesterday.


It’s been a really exciting time watching this all come together through the hard work and dedication of commissioning panel members.  And there’s still more activities to go over the next few months in Balsall Heath…

New Book: Creative Economies, Creative Communities

Saskia and I were delighted last week to receive the first copies of our latest edited book, published by Ashgate.  Creative Economies, Creative Communities came out of a conference session that we organised at the Royal Geographical Society in August 2013 called ‘New Frontiers of connecting communities in the creative economy’ (we blogged about this at the time).

The subtitle of the book is ‘rethinking place, policy and practice’ and is our attempt to think through the way that space and place can have a major impact on the way that the creative economy is experienced and how communities can become engaged in creative practice.  As an edited collection it has contributors from a number of different fields, including professional practitioners from Birmingham City Council.  It also contains a piece by Cultural Intermediation’s very own Dave O’Brien looking at practices of participant-led evaluation within the Some Cities photography project, which was co-funded by CI as part of our pilot of community-led commissioning.

The full contents list and contributors is below.  It’s quite an expensive book to buy. but you can get in touch with the individual authors directly to see if they’ll supply you with a pre-publication version of their chapter.

Warren S & Jones P eds. (2015) Creative economies, creative communities: rethinking place, policy & practice.  Ashgate, Farnham

  1. Introduction. Saskia Warren and Phil Jones

Section one: Creative Practice, Creating Communities

  1. Producing people: the socio-materialities of African beadwork. Shari Daya
  1. People, place and fish: Exploring the cultural ecosystem services of inshore fishing through photography. Tim G. Acott and Julie Urquhart
  1. Evaluation, photography and intermediation: connecting Birmingham’s communities. Dave O’Brien
  1. Creative place-making: where legal geography meets legal consciousness. Antonia Layard and Jane Milling

Section 2: Policy connections, creative practice

  1. Bridging gaps and localising neighbourhood provision: reflections on cultural co-design and co-production. Ginnie Wollaston and Roxanna Collins
  1. The everyday realities of digital provision and practice for rural creative economies. Liz Roberts and Leanne Townsend
  1. Libraries and museums as breeding grounds of social capital and creativity: potential and challenges in the post-socialist context. Monika Murzyn-Kupisz and Jarek Działek
  1. Cross Intermediation? Policy, creative industries and cultures across the EU. Paul Long and Steve Harding
  1. Conclusion: the place of creative policy? Phil Jones and Saskia Warren

Guest post: Cultural Commissioning in Balsall Heath



Participants in Balsall Heath are currently developing their projects.  In this guest post two of our panel members, Fouzia and Tahira, reflect on their involvement with the project and what they would like to achieve.

We are part of a group panel, which consists of 14 females and one male participant. The ladies are from a diverse background with different levels of education and occupations. Being part of the cultural project has been a fascinating experience. We have gained more knowledge around this project, which has an impact on our professional development, ranging from what mobile interviews are and how they are conducted. In addition, we were able to gain insights from participants about their perceptions on being involved in the planning of cultural activities for the community.

This project has created opportunities for the participants to be involved in something new, different and far from what they have done before. Also, it has provided the opportunity for participants to develop new skills at all levels. The learners have learnt time management and note taking skills, as well as gaining confidence in using their English speaking skills amongst the group members. Moreover, this has provoked them to reflect on any previous and existing cultural activities they have taken part in and discussing the long term benefits such as keeping artefacts and photographs to show generations to come.

Amongst other exciting activities taking place, the Lake District is the most popular and inspirational as it involves an overnight stay without their spouses. Looking deeply into the insights of the participants reveals that neither of the group members have visited the Lake District. During this journey we are focussing to capture key elements of the visit taking place, via using disposable cameras, which will be provided for each individual.  The idea of sharing the photographs with friends, family and teachers could encourage the new coming generation to participate in similar activities.

We are interested in creating new opportunities for Asian women and understanding the obstacles which limit women of Balsall Heath to access different types of cultural activities.  This raises questions of whether this is due to any cultural barriers, which restrict Asian women from seeking and exploring cultural activities.

Fouzia Choudhry and Tahira Hussain

Co-operatives and the Cultural Industries


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Co-operatives and the Cultural Industries was a round-table discussion organised on 1st of April 2015 by Marisol Sandoval and Jo Littler at Creative Industries Department, City University, London. Four speakers had roughly 20 minutes each to talk about co-ops, followed by time for questions, comments and discussions.

To set the scene for this discussion, it is important to consider the following:

Around 50,000 design and creative arts graduates come onto the labour market each year. They face entering the workforce as part of the new precariat, what Guy Standing has labelled the ‘New Dangerous Class’, which means they are likely to be “relegated to a bits-and-pieces life, in and out of casual flexible jobs, without being able to build an occupational career or identity” (Standing 2011).

The four speakers had very different experiences of co-operation as a business practice, but their presentations addressed these problems:

1) Unpaid work and internships are endemic, even axiomatic, in creative and cultural sectors and permanent jobs are hard to come by.
2) Although ‘entrepreneurship’ and business skills are taught as part of creative arts degrees as a matter of course, the co-operative model of business organisation is often marginalised as an option.

This event was convened by two senior lecturers to encourage a discussion of the potentials and limits of worker co-operatives as a way of organizing cultural work, but I went because I have a personal interest in these issues too: when two friends and I started a small clubwear business after graduating in the late 1990s we had a number of problems, but being a worker’s co-operative wasn’t one of them. The solidarity, sense of common purpose or what one speaker here described as ‘sweat equity’ (working your equal share despite not getting paid) that united us in a brave attempt to create and manage our own experience of working for a living was readily cemented by a legal and ethical contract, the common ownership worker’s co-operative business model, that made sense of our shared ambitions and more importantly, shared risk. There are some ideas here that could also be applicable to the kinds of grassroots projects and community organisations currently involved in Connected Communities research.

Economist Robin Murray started by explaining the economic context in which co-ops assert their difference from other forms of production within organised capitalism. He has been Director of Industry at the Greater London Council in the 1980s, and a Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies, so he knows a thing or two about the world of macro-business. He used a flipchart to explain how when production became more complex and specialised, the necessary socialisation of its workforce increased, which was how Marx understood the development of industrial capitalism. Robin then introduced the Dunbar model for the number of stable relationships that humans can comfortably maintain, which is no more than 150, making the point that labour organises itself more easily in non-complex activities. In Robin’s opinion, the Dunbar model limits a co-ops’ ability to manage really complex business operations and so capitalism became the default format as a system for organisation for mega-business, especially in our highly specialised late-modern economy in the UK. Capitalists have the ability to manage the co-ordination of complexity and combine it with hierarchical socialisation, making them able to operate effectively at economies of scale.

The first great wave of worker co-ops in the mid to late 19th century followed the Rochdale pioneers’ example, which was a model for how the proletariat could react to the development of national industrial capitalism and build resilience by organising purchasing and retail operations in small groups. He calls it “consumer co-operation of the industrial working class” (Murray 2012), they were, after all, the dispossessed workers of their age. It led to the formation of hundreds of retail co-ops, a wholesale society, factories, farms, shipping lines, insurance and banks that, if taken as a single network, was at the time the largest corporate organisation in the world. What Robin suggests that co-ops can do to take back ownership of complex economic processes or to form businesses that need to operate at a larger scale is to combine separate co-operative ‘Dunbar cells’, as the first UK Co-op movement did, to become a huge cell network.

Rhiannon Colvin founded co-operative advocacy organisation AltGen to support 18-29 year olds to set up workers co-operatives. Rhiannon says she founded AltGen after applying for endless graduate jobs and unpaid internships herself without success and decided that young people could create something better if they started working together. She decided to reverse the blame for her own struggle to find work and wanted to help other young people understand that that the problem is not them, it is the economy. They are inheriting an economic reality in which they have no control over their time, no economic security, are forced into accepting low-income, poor quality and temporary jobs and are unable to accumulate any kind of capital at all. AltGen aims to help them find ways into a sustainable working future and contribute to a more stable economy through co-operation. “We need to stop fighting each other for work, especially unpaid work” she said. Putting together minds and skills to empower young graduates to take control of their own employment, AltGen can help them to understand and solve the employment crisis they face. The organisation is now looking into setting up a freelancers’ co-operative. Being employed brings rights that self-employed people don’t have, like holiday and sick pay, protection against discrimination and unfair dismissal, redundancy pay and trade unions. This next action will try and find ways to ameliorate an isolating situation that makes self-employed people more vulnerable to being treated as a disposable workforce.

Printer and pro-co-op activist Siôn Whellens shared his own story, which in some ways was similar to Rhiannon’s. He trained as a printer but the recession in 1981 made finding a ‘proper’ job impossible. Living in London, he joined a community press organisation and started from there instead. He is now a member of Calverts, a communications design and printing co-operative, based in Bethnal Green. Founded in 1977, it is a worker co-operative with 12 members that can produce all manner of printed items from leaflets and menus to art books and multimedia products, it also creates websites and develops all kinds of interesting communication projects. Under ‘environmental initiatives’ their website mentions the company’s commitment to utilising the latest technology that reduces their impact on the environment in many ways, such as computer-to-plate technology which dispenses with film, as well as the obvious choices such as vegetable oil based inks. Siôn is also a business advisor at institutions including City University, where he advises on the nature and benefits of co-operative approaches to work and creative life. He has written about the precarious generation of creative workers on his blog suggesting that as the cultural sector has grown “workers have responded by developing agile, collaborative and creative approaches not just to work, but to the necessities of life including accommodation, leisure and social support”. He writes that despite “the primacy of individual genius and effort” that go with the territory of the creative industries and its rhetoric, collaborative practice is something that is “familiar and normal for many students and graduates”.

Tara Mulqueen is a PhD student in the Law Department at Birkbeck, University of London and her dissertation title is presently ‘Co-operation and Social economy in Critical perspective: History, Politics and Law’. Tara also has direct experience of being part of a co-operative as she worked at the community owned and volunteer run People’s Supermarket in central London, famously used by David Cameron to make a ‘Big Society’ speech in 2011.

She is interrogating the tensions or even conflicting aims of co-operative businesses to understand the difficulties of balancing social transformation with commercial sustainability, to consider whether becoming a market entity has a depoliticising effect on their practice and to locate them within the broader history of working class movements. Law is a “key terrain” (Mulqueen 2012) in which social groups and corporate bodies are defined. Co-operatives as corporate entities were brought within the state and its legal framework when they were formally recognised as a legitimate form of business in 1852. At this time joint-stock companies, trusts and friendly societies were already in use, now a number of different legal forms could also be co-operatives. It is a ‘protected category’ in law, which means that in theory, a capitalist business cannot use the word co-operative, but in practice it is the Government’s business secretary that has the final decision on this. One thing a co-op can never be is a charity, in fact it is the opposite of a charity. Trustees may not benefit from a charity. The market has therefore become the very terrain of a co-operative’s existence in which it is possibleto see them as a category of middle-class reformism, they are also limited by their recognition by the state, something that the trade unions resisted to preserve greater freedom of organisation. It is interesting that Tara’s own experiences of self-organised and ethical work included unintentionally becoming entangled with the state idea of a Big Society, a “dubious program” (Mulqueen 2012) to expand the voluntary sector as an alternative to state-funded services. Dilemmas over principles will continue to trouble the development of a social economy – one important question being is it acceptable to survive and prosper? Community groups and budding partnerships interested in producing and selling goods need to ask themselves this question. If they are considering adopting a co-operative model, would ‘business’ as the legal form of association actually obscure their political project and social goals? Or alternatively does the co-operative model limit their ability to operate within the mainstream economy?

In my experience, the common ownership worker’s co-operative model was, of the four options listed in the Princes Trust ‘starting a business’ guide, by far the most logical choice for us as a group of friends, yet being involved in conversations about the values of co-operative business did, over time, have the effect of making our business into an ethical and political concern. Becoming a co-op inadvertently developed and promoted a political project that I hadn’t understood would be an effect of running a business and started a chain of events which has ultimately brought me here – to the Cultural Intermediation project and the Centre for Sustainable and Regional Futures (SURF).

Mulqueen, T. 2012. When a business isn’t a business: law and the political in the history of the United Kingdom’s co-operative movement
Murray, R. 2012. A different way of doing things.
Standing, G. 2011. Stirrings of the New Dangerous Class

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Community Commissioning in Balsall Heath

We had a fantastic meeting last night where the Balsall Heath community commissioning panel got together to consider proposals for arts and cultural projects in the neighbourhood and decide which to fund.

This meeting was the culmination of two months of running around by Arshad, who has been working closely with all the subgroups since the panel was formally brought together in early January, to help them take ideas and form them into deliverable projects. The main outcome of the meeting is that all of the projects proposed were approved by the panel (subject to some negotiation over details in one or two cases):

  • Beginner’s pottery sessions in the Sun Dragon Studio
  • West Indian debating society and events
  • Football tournament and CV checking sessions for 16-22 year olds
  • An oral history ten years on from the Balsall Heath tornado
  • Museum visits in London, including the V&A
  • Balsall Heath Heroes campaign
  • Residential trip to the Lake District including photography and sculpture
  • Balsall Eat food festival

Now that the projects and the budgets have been agreed, the next stage is for panel members to actually make these events happen. Some will be fairly straightforward, working with existing cultural intermediaries in Balsall Heath and Birmingham to deliver the projects, with panel members determining how the projects should run and who is targeted. Others will involve more work from the panel members to shape and organise the activities. The debating society is exceedingly exciting in this regard as panel members will be putting together their own schedule of talks and activities.

Of course this brings up lots of questions about new skills to be learned. None of the panel members who presented project proposals last night had ever done anything like this before – pitching their ideas to a group of people. The presenters did a great job and it was a really supportive environment, with lots of enthusiasm for the ideas, even where other panel members had questions about aspects of what was being proposed. As the projects develop there’ll be other new skills people will need to pick up such as organising publicity, managing a budget and thinking about how the projects’ success will be evaluated. This brings interesting comparisons to what Birmingham City Council have been doing in their cultural co-commissioning pilot where a lot of the energy of the intermediaries involved has been on upskilling the communities being worked with – the kind of work that organisations like Reel Access and individuals like Matt Daniels have been doing for years. It will be really interesting to compare our approaches as we go through this phase of the research.

It’s going to be a busy few months, but we’ve got a great team of people working on the projects, so I’m more excited than scared about how things are going to go.

What happened to the community art?


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Warwick University will be hosting an International Symposium on 17-18 September 2015 entitled ‘Amateur Creativity: Inter-disciplinary Perspectives’.

I’m presenting a paper at this event that emerges from the work with communities in Birmingham and Salford entitled:

‘A gallery of the gutter? What becomes of amateur art and artists?’

Here’s the abstract:

Over the last two decades, UK cultural policy has authorized an army of cultural intermediaries to work with ‘communities’. Amongst their many aims, they have sought to engage the ‘hard to reach’ as participants in the cultural ecology, both as consumers and potential producers. Thus, professionals have engaged communities to share in the production of creative projects and to develop their own voices and aesthetic responses to the world. As as a result of the nurturing of amateur skills and aesthetic ideas, community spaces boast exhibitions of the work of local people or their ideas and efforts adorn public places, evidence for instance of consultation processes as part of regeneration projects.

This presentation seeks to consider amateur production as part of cultural intermediation derived from research conducted as part of the AHRC-funded work in the inner cities of Birmingham and Salford. ‘Cultural intermediation & the creative economy’ has itself involved community members in co-production of research and, at the time of writing, in the commissioning of cultural work. In this latter process, community members are enlisted to form commissioning panels that produced organic cultural policy that might engage artists to develop work based on a remit formulated at grassroots level.

This paper reflects on these processes of intermediation, by both artist and social scientists. I ask: what are the dynamics of the relations of amateur and professional are articulated in such encounters? What ideas of culture, aesthetics, value and indeed engagement emerge? Above all, what happens to the work and indeed to the participants – the amateurs – engaged by such projects once they are completed?

The gestation of this particular paper and approach came in a tour of Salford I took a while ago in the company of Beth Perry of SURF. We came across a redevelopment site surrounded and partly concealed by the large white chipboards that are now de rigeur in such instances. This shield was also extensively decorated with reproductions of artworks produced by members of the local community. I think they conveyed ideas and desires for community improvements.

This site got us talking about such initiatives which are now quite familiar means of decorating urban disruptions which might represent, variously: a means of genuine engagement, distraction or concealment perhaps. My concern was, and is, with the question of what happens to the work solicited from and produced by community members and displayed in such public galleries? While galleries such as the one we encountered in Salford are made up of reproductions, the question applies to these examples as well as any originals.

Here are some images of a project I went to see today in Birmingham. In this instance, the work of school children has been commissioned by the construction company BAM and used to decorate one of its building sites.

IMG_2813 IMG_2814 IMG_2815 IMG_2821 IMG_2822 IMG_2823 IMG_2825 IMG_2826IMG_2820

My title here is not a judgment of the work itself but a result of suspicion is that it is often (although not always) discarded, so affirming the distinction of the amateur and professional. After all, the work of the professional gets preserved in the portfolio, exhibited in the official gallery or purchased by the collector.

In developing the paper, I thought I’d try to survey and capture as many instances of such public galleries as possible. In order to do this I could do with a little help in identifying examples and in getting hold of images and information about their dimensions. Readers of this blog might be able to help therefore by posting responses here or by emailing me materials directly at

Little moments of atmosphere

Although I’ve been working on culture-related projects for a few years now, I have always considered myself to be someone who hasn’t really drunk the koolaid of the creative economy.  For sure, there’s plenty of good stuff going on, but there’s a lot of nonsense too and a lot of people believing their own mythology.

Hence when Arshad and I went down to Digbeth for a meeting with Phil Hession yesterday I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but was prepared to be broadly cynical.  Phil is in Birmingham for a few short weeks with a residency based at Grand Union.  He’s built a splendidly Heath Robinson contraption which enables him to record audio onto CDs by etching them with a nail, much like cutting a groove on a record:


He’s been experimenting with this device, taking it out into Digbeth and recording ambient noises, snatches of stories and songs as well as some of his own singing.  Each CD contains about 2 minutes of recording and can be played back on a standard record player.  The playback sound is very like early wax cylinder recordings, lots of crackle and noise, space and atmosphere, all underpinned by the rhythmic cranking of the mechanical arm used to drive the cutting of the CD.

Phil sings very beautifully, demonstrating the process to Arshad and myself by making a recording of him singing in the studio space.


This is genuinely joyful stuff.  What struck me, however, was that this was almost the opposite of cultural intermediation.  Phil hadn’t really worked out what he wanted to do with the recordings or even, really, why he was doing them at all other than the fact that he could and that it was kinda cool.

He’s got a show coming up in Digbeth in early March.  Definitely worth checking out.

One day workshop: Artists working within Higher Education


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Artists Working within Higher Education was an event I attended on 21 January 2015, held in a space in Manchester currently being used by Castlefield Gallery.

There is already an excellent and comprehensive overview of the day here written by PhD researcher Rachel Marsden, who took the photo above, but for the benefit of the Cultural Intermediation project, I have written my own overview of the day’s speakers and discussions, concentrating on some of things I found most interesting. Ways that individuals negotiate issues of structure and agency while engaging in university-based cultural production forms a big part of my own research, and this day also highlighted examples of this.

The event was part of Co-producing legacy: What is the role of artists within Connected Communities projects?

The legacy project runs from Feb 2014 to June 2015 at University of Sheffield, with partners in Manchester and Leeds, and explores the legacy of the AHRC/ESRC funded Connected Communities programme. The research already carried out in the Connected Communities programme has been strongly community focussed and much of it has been co-produced with local communities and groups of non-academic practitioners. The methods or modes of enquiry developed and employed have included some innovative artistic practices combined with social science methodologies. This particular part of the legacy project, which has the title Artists Working within Higher Education, has looked at 60 of the Connected Communities projects (out of a total of around 250) in which academics and artists have worked together to realise ideas in imaginative and participatory ways, and today’s event here was organised to disseminate some of the findings so far. Out of these 60 projects, in which artists have done things like run workshops, contribute to journal articles and book chapters and facilitate parts of projects and produce work that draw on their unique strengths and skills, 9 cases have been researched ‘in depth’ with the aim of understanding how existing and emerging ways of working across disciplines and in collaboration with non-HEI partners may be changing the research terrain.

The choice of space for this event reflected this ambition too, as it was not a University-managed space but the ’empty’ top floor of an eight storey former office building with a screen and projector, a kettle and lots of folding chairs. Federation House is a large building close to the Victoria Station in Manchester, on the corner of Federation St and Balloon Street. I have always liked the name Balloon Street, its name refers to the first balloon ascent made in Manchester by James Sadler in 1784! The street is also home to the headquarters of the Co-operative Bank, in fact the Co-operative Group (formerly the Co-operative Wholesale Society) have been based in this part of Manchester since the late 19th century and Federation House is one of their unoccupied buildings currently being used by Castlefield Gallery as a ‘pop-up’ project space.

More than just a gallery, Castlefield Gallery has also been working as an art space development agency since 2006, brokering low cost project and gallery spaces for artists and creative practitioners in shopping centres and empty buildings in the North West of England, an initiative that goes under the heading New Art Spaces.

Castlefield Gallery’s director Kwong Lee gave a quick welcome in which he mentioned this initiative, then legacy project co-investigators Kate Pahl and Steve Pool introduced the day, beginning with an outline of the Connected Communities programme which seems to get more complicated every time I see someone attempt it! Kate went on to say that some of the individuals who have been involved in this legacy project describe themselves as artist/academic ‘hybrids’ and they recognise that their outputs will face different audiences. A slide in the introductory power point mentioned that amongst emerging issues in this project was the notion that as co-investigators, artists felt they have to ‘lose something’ in the process of collaboration, which provoked an immediate intervention from an audience member, an artist, who asked should that be ‘gain’ also? And another asked if artists felt that they lost something in collaboration with higher education, then what did academics ‘lose’? In this way a discursive tone for the day was set, as Kate, encouraged by the intervention, explained that as the day’s sessions would be recorded and these discussions would contribute to the research project.

The first speaker on the programme was Jeanie Scott, representing A-N Artists Information Company, which is now a membership organisation for visual artists dedicated to research, advocacy and support for the sector. The company used to produce Artist’s Newsletter magazine, a valuable guide to issues and developments in the arts scene. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a copy, but this trusty journal used to be a must-have subscription for arts developers and practitioners while I was working in the cultural sector. Concerned with what the employment options currently are in the visual arts sector, particularly for the 4,500 new graduates entering a workforce where long periods of unpaid labour are now the norm, the organisation has recently been involved in the Warwick Commission’s Cultural Value project (whose report came out yesterday).

Jeanie talked us around this fascinating map of The Ecology of the Visual Arts produced by Emily Speed

This was commissioned by A-N in 2013, here the arts sector has been imagined as a city and its constituent groups are represented by buildings. Interesting how the word ecology seems to be replacing the word economy in documents dealing with cultural policy.

Next, Professor Vanessa Toulmin talked about University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind, a festival that fitted the criteria for my PhD research so well that I now wish I had been able to include it in my fieldwork last year. Taking notes during this personal summary was the next best thing, though, as Vanessa included a huge amount of self-reflexive commentary in her presentation, something I have been seeking in my interviews with festival organisers. She is an academic and a historian, specialising in early film, circuses and travelling and fairground entertainments. She is currently Director of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield and also worked for a number of years on heritage and regeneration projects with Blackpool Council. It was the idea of “city vibrancy” demonstrated by this work with Blackpool that she told us she had used as the argument to access £35,000 worth of free venue space from Sheffield’s local authority for the Festival of the Mind in 2014. Bus and train sponsorship followed, as the event took place in fresher’s week to offer newcomers to Sheffield “a curated way of knowing the city”.

She spoke at length about how further in kind contributions were leveraged and how she believes she gets things done by working strategically through all levels of the university and using the procedures already in place, but I’ll leave all that for my thesis and concentrate on the bits about the role of artists here. 30 new commissions were funded and through this, the festival’s public content was produced. Artworks and installations were made by artists working in collaboration with academics from the University of Sheffield, with many of the connections linking arts practices with scientific researchers. To start the ball rolling, a speed dating event took place on a specially hired bus, with tea and cake laid on for successful ‘matches’ to sit down and work out their ideas together. Vanessa modelled the way the commissions worked on her own experience of working with sculptor Anthony Bennett. With a background in entertainments rather than arts (an important distinction that is sometimes not clearly articulated, I think) she found that the artist’s ways of working were a “new world” to her, but it seems that she stayed at arm’s length and allowed the practices to evolve. She also believes these projects brought back “the joy of discovery” to scientists who it turned out were not at all reluctant to get involved and even built in funding for some of the projects into their own bids. Money for arts projects is “peanuts” compared to the sums they usually bid for, she explained, they were used to dealing in bigger amounts than the festival’s entire budget. As a result of this big drive for engagement in the run up to the 2014 festival (it’s third edition and it seems, was the biggest so far) it would appear that the entire science research programme now builds funding for engagement into all their bids and University of Sheffield is a Catalyst University for Public Engagement with Research. Sheffield doesn’t want to be “the university on the hill”, she said.

Next James Oliver from the Centre for Cultural Partnerships, University of Melbourne, led a short, discursive session before lunch that took as its starting point something a previous speaker had said: ‘everything is related’. He wanted us to think about how relations are frequently unequal, reading a line from a letter to Marx from Engels sent during his time spent in Manchester about ‘dialectical ideas’. Binaries are unhelpful, James said, like the way cultural and creative work becomes labelled as practice-based or theoretical in hierarchical relations within academic discourse. Practice was a way to think-through problems and creativity should not be thought of as simply innovation or as a way to ‘translate’ social science, but a “mode of imagination and improvisation, which is open to other ways of being”. Durning the discussion which followed, a comment from a practicing artist was interesting, as she had been artist-in-residence in an archive project within a University department which is one I have encountered as part of my fieldwork.

As an artist working with, or alongside, different groups in a university setting – including staff who weren’t academics and students – “your status is unclear” she said. And while it is common for art to disrupt the brief it has been set, she wondered how the artist’s role is constructed prior to the residency and suggested that if the artists don’t conform to expectations, where does that leave the commissioner? I understand the problem and I agree that the production of art is a disruptive process and one that often takes critique as its central project, but as institutions are not keen on being made to feel uncomfortable, there are limits to autonomy which are often experienced in self-reflexive, internalised ways.

The discussion moved on to the subject of the project-based model in which most of the Connected Communities work has taken place, with many comments about low pay and precarious employment from artists and academics alike: “How are we affording the time to be here today?” and “We are talking to ourselves most of the time”. Vanessa made an interesting point, suggesting that “most academics don’t know how to pay artists”. She had been surprised by how much the artists in the Festival of the Mind project expected to get paid varied, which isn’t the case in the entertainment industry as it uses Equity pay levels as basis for a pay system.

The afternoon sessions seemed to take the works of art themselves as the focus for the talks, starting with artist and Professor in Creative Practice Steve Swindells’ talk, from the perspective of Huddersfield University, about what it means to be an ‘engaged artist’ working within an ‘engaged university’ in a town rather than a city. Creatively engaging individuals from the local community using dialogues that involve art practices and occupying spaces in the town is the idea behind the present ROTOЯ partnership which he has developed between Huddersfield Art Gallery and the University of Huddersfield. He describes it as a mutually beneficial relationship that showcases research by academic staff in the faculties of art, design and architecture. Steve mentioned a recommendation of the 2014 Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment, which was “Every town and city should have an urban room where people can go to understand and debate the past, present and future of that place.” Urban rooms, already popular in Japan and China, would help to bridge the gap between architects and the general public and are places where the history of and future plans for the area are displayed and discussed. In the ROTOЯ project, work was exhibited in Huddersfiled that had been made in the town, but had previously only been shown in national and international venues. The project outputs include this published collection of critical essays and we heard that the ICA in London are also now partners in the project.

Finally Sheffield-based artist Paul Evans talked about being the recipient of a grant from the Leverhulme Residency Programme which allowed him to develop new work with an academic partner. Paul is interested in exploring the cultural significance of animals, with a particular interest in whales, so the grant enabled him to make a series of artworks based on 10 months spent in the Cardiff Osteological Research Group’s bone room at Cardiff University. While this was an experience he had clearly enjoyed, it was interesting that he mentioned in this presentation that the Leverhulme Trust was established by William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers (now UniLever). “It’s important to know who you’re in bed with” he said.

Paul’s work in Cardiff was mentioned in the Osteological Research Group’s 2014 REF impact case study in which he is quoted as saying “My collaboration with Dr Mulville and Guerilla Archaeology has had a substantial impact on my professional practice”, which is something that is also important to the legacy project.

The arts practice and co-production methodologies discussed here have illustrated a range of ways of working, but what I am interested in is how an artist’s autonomy fits with and complements an institution’s own objectives. All of us want to practice according to our values, which leads inevitably to conflicts of interest, so who is it that changes their approach or ‘loses something’ and what is losing something worth? Chantal Mouffe has this to say on strategies for hegemonic resistance in the domain of art and culture, which is where subjectivities are constructed:

‘Critical artistic practices do not contribute to the counter-hegemonic struggle by deserting the institutional terrain but by engaging with it, with the aim of fostering dissent and creating a multiplicity of agonistic spaces where the dominant consensus is challenged and where new modes of identification are made available.’ (Mouffe, 2013, Artistic Strategies in Politics and Political Strategies in Art)

(James Oliver also made reference to Chantal Mouffe and agonistic pluralism in his talk)

In contemporary, post-fordist conditions, where according to Mouffe “forms of exploitation characteristic of the times when manual labor was dominant have been replaced by new ones”, the objective of critical artistic practices should be the production of new subjectivities that contribute to the development of better social relations. Her comments aren’t specifically directed at the context of artists working with universities, but it’s the spirit of the argument that seems to fit.

While understanding the reasons why some prefer to advocate complete withdrawal from the existing powerful and hegemonic institutions and concentrate their efforts in constructing alternative social forms, Mouffe’s strategy is one of engagement with institutions as part of resistance to them. Believing, like some of today’s speakers, that the institution can be changed from within, she says “hegemonic confrontation” takes place in “the multiplicity of places where hegemony is constructed” implying that critical artistic practices will encourage agonistic spaces to occur inside the very institutions which secure the dominant hegemony, in the hope they can transform the way they function. It’s a pluralistic perspective that I think emerges repeatedly in Connected Communities projects, and while not all participants in the 250 projects (and counting) are obviously in pursuit of radical political change, the project is finding ways to hold onto individual differences, articulate them, value them and find equivalence among them.

Find out more:

Co-producing Legacy is led by Kate Pahl (School of Education, University of Sheffield), Helen Graham (School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds) Steve Pool (Artist) and Amanda Ravetz (Manchester School of Art)

Interview with Kwong Lee on New Art Spaces

ROTOЯ partnership

Learning Opportunities for Cultural Intermediaries – Ordsall Update

Back in 2010 when we first started thinking about this project, we had several chats with people who were interested in the term ‘cultural intermediary’. A common observation was that there were few training or professional development opportunities for people working in smaller arts and cultural organisations within communities. Our diary-keeping exercise carried out in Birmingham and Manchester/Salford in 2013 echoed this theme – a sense that much of the work of cultural intermediaries was ‘invisible’ and not valued in more traditional career paths.

We wanted to do something about this, as part of our ethos of ‘giving back’ within the project itself. This is where Kerry Wilson and her team at the Institute of Capital Culture in Liverpool step in. Kerry is offering cultural intermediaries a chance for professional development through taking a Masters-level module on Participatory Research, which is part of a course on Cultural Leadership. On completion of the module, participants will receive a 30 credit Certificate of Continuing Professional Development. You can find out more information by downloading the flyer here: Ideas4Ordsall_Training&Learning

To participate, you need to have an undergraduate degree, be working as a cultural intermediary (either paid or as a volunteer) and be able to commit time to doing the course. In Ordsall we already have several people signed up to see what this is all about but there are still a few places left. We will be arranging a first training day very shortly with Kerry so if you are interested and meet these criteria, read the flyer and get in touch with Kerry Wilson ( to find out more.

Old Streets, New Adventures

On the 5th of January 2015 I began my involvement with the Balsall Heath Cultural Intermediation project and I couldn’t be joining at a more exciting time. The first two weeks on the project have been a whirlwind.

But first a little about myself. I grew up in Birmingham just a couple of miles west of Balsall Heath, where Ladywood borders on Edgbaston alongside the reservoir. After moving to the Black Country I returned to Birmingham to do my undergraduate and Masters degrees in Human Geography. Between 2007 and 2008 I worked in regional cultural policy-making in the West Midlands. In 2008 I returned to the University of Birmingham once more to complete a PhD which looked at belonging of Muslim communities within Birmingham. Part of my PhD research involved doing walking interviews with residents of Balsall Heath, so it’s quite satisfying to return here.

The Balsall Heath residents who are driving the cultural programme and developing ideas are an energetic, diverse and engaging group. From students to community workers and from seasoned residents to new migrants, what connects them is their passion and drive to deliver some cultural events which will give them and their neighbours experiences to build upon and remember.

Our group has split into three sub-groups, and each sub-group is now working on whittling down its ideas to a Top-3. Food festivals, debating societies, football tournaments, sewing classes, pottery lessons, coach trips, dancing lessons, poetry events and history exhibitions…faced with an array of ideas, there’s quite some negotiating to be done! Once decisions have been made as to what projects are to be taken forward, each group will be helped to deliver their ideas with the assistance of our cultural intermediaries.

The adventure continues…



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