Strengthening society through creative practice
This year we are launching a new Fellowship theme on Arts and Communities. As a member of the working group that developed this idea, I am delighted to introduce it.
"The times demand brave new thinking and brave new contexts for art." - Kate Organ, Fellow
I first began working with the Churchill Fellowship in 2010 when I was Arts Advisor at the Baring Foundation. I was closely involved in their partnership to expand knowledge and practice of arts and older people. In 2016 I became a member of the Churchill Fellowship’s Advisory Council, which evolves new themes for our grants.
My own Churchill Fellowship travels in Japan in 2016 enabled me to see many distinctively Japanese approaches to art in various communities and contexts, drawing on diverse traditions and new initiatives. For example: the role of arts in regeneration of rural communities; its role in involving people in rebuilding the city after the catastrophe of the Kobe earthquake; the repurposing of empty buildings for community creativity in Osaka; the involvement of children in being active community designers... Japan’s ageing population has led to whole suburbs, villages and neighbourhoods with empty spaces being made available for artists; the low birthrate has led to empty schools becoming community arts spaces; Japan’s increasing understanding and incidence of dementia has led, in places, to changes in the organisation of community spaces and community behaviours. At times, during my travels, I realised that lessons I was learning from Japanese colleagues were linked to lessons they had learned from the UK.
I’ve been concerned about the questions of arts and communities throughout my working life. As a young drama student in the 1970s, the often tumultuous events of the times crept into focus – the miners’ strike and the flying pickets blockading the Saltley Gates in Birmingham; the Birmingham bombings and the subsequent wrongful imprisonment of the Birmingham six ; friends performing in a gay sweatshop show and being physically assaulted for being gay; meeting young Black teenagers who’d been the victims of the infamous sus law and the rise of the National Front, which led to the Rock Against Racism movement and myriad committees against racism and fascism.
It became clear that theatre’s context was as important as its form and content. Context meaning questioning: whose story is this and who is telling it? Where and how was it made? Where and to whom is it presented? And then the big question – so what?
The 1970s saw a flourishing of activism in the arts and spawned sub-sectors with their own professional bodies and genres – all broadly concerned with art and communities. The Community Arts movement, theatre in education, young people’s theatre, youth theatre, documentary theatre, community plays, theatre in health, theatre in prisons and in residential care, reminiscence theatre – and I joined in most of them at one time or another. Similar trends occurred in visual arts, dance, music and media.
Public engagement with the arts has expanded and diversified. Mainstream galleries, theatres concert halls and museums have strong community engagement aims and the four UK Arts Councils currently acknowledge in various ways the need for communities to have much greater agency in choosing, commissioning and creating the arts that they deem relevant and meaningful within their own communities and contexts.
Within non-arts agencies (such as those concerned, for instance, with health - particularly mental health - or housing, social cohesion or the criminal justice system) we find people and initiatives that advocate the potential of the creative and cultural sector to strengthen their work and drive active community engagement.
It has always been a challenge to argue for the importance of support for the arts against other demands - and none more so than in the context of a pandemic, mass displacement of people or war. But throughout my working life, I have witnessed again and again that access to the means of expression and cultural production remains vital, especially at times of threat and turmoil.
As part of the Churchill Fellowship’s Arts and Communities theme, we will be seeking applications that support positive social change and resilience in UK communities of all kinds through engagement with arts, culture and creative practices.
We are particularly interested in projects that facilitate collaboration and co-creation between communities, creatives and other sectors to achieve this. We will prioritise applications that adopt inclusive, participatory and community-led approaches.
We welcome projects covering any area of creative activity across all art-forms, such as the traditional arts, architecture, design and planning, community arts, curation and production, policy, education, science and more.
The current times are as tumultuous as any I’ve lived through. The exchange of ideas and experiences made possible through a Churchill Fellowship is a rare and valuable opportunity. Travelling or making links abroad is a powerful way of reflecting on and challenging our own assumptions. It can open up unforeseen new insights to be brought back to enrich practice here. The times demand brave new thinking and brave new contexts for art.
Kate Organ is a member of our Advisory Council. Kate’s experience in the cultural sector has spanned work as a theatre practitioner to policy and management across a breadth of artforms and contexts nationally. She is a champion of arts practice by and for communities that have least access to mainstream arts. She was the Baring Foundation’s Arts Adviser, focusing on their programme for Arts and Older People.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.