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NTU Sustainability in Enterprise

City Arts Move From Radford Into City Centre

12 January 15 interview: Mark Patterson
photos: Joe Dixey

The newest face in town is City Arts. Parked next door to the Writers’ Studio on the border of Sneinton, the new office and creative space is the most centrally located in the organisation’s nearly forty-year history…

City Arts’ decision to relocate from Radford was informed by a desire to increase public visibility and provide an answer to the question “What is City Arts?” Chief executive Madeline Holmes and her team are the first to admit that public awareness of City Arts’ role and activities is a bit foggy despite it being Nottingham’s main community arts organisation since 1977.

The image problem has something to do with the name’s suggestion of City Arts being part of the city council. It’s not. It also has something to do with the fact that City Arts is - bureaucratic artspeak alert! - a facilitator of creativity rather than an art group which puts on its own exhibitions. In other words, it makes things happen for other people but seldom, in the public eye, gets the primary credit for the many exhibitions and creative activities it provides the funding for.

If you’ve seen any of the annual mental health art exhibitions held at the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham over the past few years, then you’ve seen events made possible by a City Arts-funded programme. But, there’s also a lack of awareness of what ‘community arts’ itself means. Coming out of the USA in the late sixties, community arts was a democratising movement intent on combating perceived elitism in art and drama by encouraging artistic expression among those usually left out of both art-making and art-seeing. Although ‘community arts’ has since become an accepted part of the repertoire of arts funding, in its heyday it was a radical anti-establishment ideology and voice for the counter culture.

Two community art companies which spring to mind are 7:84, a theatre company whose name comes from the fact that 7% of the population once owned 84% of the land, and Welfare State International whose founder John Fox is a lynchpin of the community arts movement,” says Project Officer Alison Denholm.

Acting Operations Director Tim Harris explains, “City Arts’ purpose has always been about participating in the arts and targeting people who may be excluded from it for whatever reason. It’s to do with health, age, ability and class. People may feel comfortable going to Nottingham Contemporary, but some may not. We will always work with people who are disadvantaged and feel excluded from that niche. Art isn’t just for an Oxbridge-educated elite, it’s about unlocking the creativity of people who may not think of themselves as creative.”

Madeline adds, “Community arts came out of quite a politically-driven consciousness and those days of protest and resistance. Around the time we began, this was one of a number of projects around the country and we were at the forefront of the community arts movement. I don’t know how many of those are still in existence, but we’ve moved with the times which is something to be be proud of.”

City Arts has moved both with the times and with its location. Based at the old Art Exchange in Hyson Green for many years, in 2004 the team moved to two different premises in Radford where, for a time, it offered artists’ studios. “We’re a wandering caravan,” quips Tim. The decision to move to Hockley after all these years has not been taken lightly, but the new location in a building renovated by social entrepreneur Robert Howie Smith offers City Arts a visible shop window for its many activities and programmes.

Although recession and cutbacks from main funders (the Arts Council and the city council) mean that some programmes have been removed or reduced in the last few years, City Arts continues to encourage expression in thousands of people every year. Last year 21,000 people took part in City Arts programmes, aided by 46 artists. The mental health exhibitions, which are the fruits of a programme called Arts on Prescription, are perhaps the kind of thing you would expect a community arts organisation to support. Ditto programmes for young filmmakers, digital arts, young musicians from former mining communities and so on.

Less expected is the current work with elderly people in a programme which brings artists together with care home residents across the city. One of the first creations of this work was a huge feathered bird for this year’s Caribbean Carnival. There are also plans to bring filmmakers, armchair galleries and streamed music concerts into care homes. For residents and their families, such creativity may be vitally stimulating and already, says Madeline, “One resident has managed to get out of her home, come to carnival and is raring to go. She’s asking, ‘What’s next?’”

Vital work, yes, but also difficult to shout about for the simple reason that so few want to talk or read about the fate of elderly people. The issue is on the doorstep of being taboo. Yet the growth of our ageing population, and the matching rise in dementia, means that elderly people now fall within the remit of ‘community arts’ because they are so often excluded from the usual creative channels. Madeline and her team hope the lessons learned from the three-year Imagine programme at city council-owned homes, Abbeyfield Care, Nottinghamshire Hospice and Radford Care Group, will help to provide long-term strategies for the better care of elderly people, including those with dementia.

“It’s been an evolution and clearly our work with arts and mental health over many years has led us into projects that are looking at end of life issues, quality of life and mental health for people facing terminal illnesses,” says Madeline. “When looking at mental health, almost inevitably, you are going to come to dementia and we’ve long been interested in applying what we’ve learned to people with dementia. It’s a challenging area but, equally, there are some interesting explorations of how you can trigger responses through various art forms and sensory experience. The programme has really evolved from our health work.”

Did the care home staff need persuading to allow artists to work with their residents? Madeline doesn’t exactly say yes, but doesn’t exactly say no. “It’s a long-term project to enable people to access the arts and, not surprisingly, that group is the least engaged audience for the arts. Funders would hope to see models tested of what might work and what might help to change or bring something to the culture of care homes. That’s what we’d passionately like to do.”

How on earth do you assess the effectiveness of such programmes? It’s a big question and there’s no bean-counting formula of an answer. The measure of success lies in the experiences of those who take part in programmes and whose lives have been changed for the better. “We’re not alone in saying ‘art changes lives,’” explains Madeline. “But if we say that, we’ve got to find evidence. I absolutely believe that art does change lives.

“We also want to make engaging art work,” adds Alison. “It has to be exciting work and stand up in its own right. Otherwise, we would be guilty of making poor art for poor people, which is what so many people believe ‘community art’ is. We’re about making great art for everybody. It’s an Arts Council slogan but it’s not a bad one. For me, the more challenging the groups are, the better the art has to be to reach out.”

City Arts, 11-13 Hockley, NG1 1FH 

City Arts website

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