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TRCH The Da Vinci Code

Happy 40th Birthday to City Arts Nottingham

6 November 17 words: Katherine Giddins

City Arts is a community arts organisation based at the bottom of Hockley that’s done nowt but good for local people. The creative boggers turned forty in September, and are celebrating their anniversary with a year-long series of events for everyone to get stuck into. We delved into a bit of their history, had a chat with a few of the organisers, stuck our party hats on, and did a little dance...

illustration: Alix Verity

“Art is for everyone. Art brings us together. Art can change lives.” That’s the City Arts motto.

Beginning life as the Nottingham Community Arts and Craft Centre in 1977, City Arts was originally based in Hyson Green, at the site of what’s now the New Art Exchange. With the help of volunteers through the Youth Opportunities Programme, an empty former dispensary building was converted into a centre that offered screen printing and photography dark rooms, originally intended as a place where local craftspeople could use the facilities to earn a living in return for providing free tuition. At a time when the city was alive with political activity, it became popular with anarchists and socialists who used it to print t-shirts and banners for rallies.

In 1979, a Manpower Services grant enabled a team of twelve to be employed at the centre, where they provided a programme of community arts services including puppetry, street theatre and murals, as well as helping to organise events like the Rock and Reggae festival on the Forest Recreation Ground. In particular, the activities were aimed at underprivileged people who wouldn’t otherwise have had access to the arts.

“There were many people who were on the outskirts of society looking in; people who felt like they didn’t have a voice because they maybe had drug or alcohol problems or were looking for shelter and employment,” says Carole Crowe, a long-standing member of the organisation who is helping to coordinate the fortieth anniversary celebrations. “City Arts has been a place where those people could have a voice, and could to take control of their own lives.”

In the early days, not everyone had such a positive view of community arts projects. In an article from the Nottingham Post in 1979, a Tory councillor commented on a mural in Hyson Green, saying: “Allowing people to slap a load of paint on walls cannot be called art, it’s graffiti. We are trying to improve the tone of this area but work like this will turn it into a slum.”

Despite the unfounded criticisms, Hyson Green continued to flourish with artists and creative activity and now boasts the New Art Exchange building which City Arts helped to establish in 2008.

In the eighties, the charity gained new funding from the Inner City Partnership and East Midlands Arts, which allowed for more permanent staff to be appointed as the charity branched out to provide resources and activities throughout the city. In 2002, all regional arts boards were merged to form Arts Council England which continued to provide support alongside Nottingham City Council, which today still provides 33% of the budget.

The charity went through a number of name changes – Nottingham Community Arts, NCA and City Arts Nottingham – before it became known as City Arts in the nineties. In 2008, it moved to Radford before finally settling in Hockley in 2014.

Since it was founded, City Arts has gone from strength to strength, surviving funding crises and defying expectations, making sure their innovative projects reach people of all abilities and backgrounds. As Chair Tim Challans says, “City Arts has always given people the opportunity to explore art, particularly those on the edge of society, both older people and younger people. That’s our strength. It’s about showing that there’s another dimension to the arts. It’s about using the arts to give people self-confidence.”

City Arts’ recent projects include the Imagine programme which uses the arts to enrich the lives of elderly people in care homes. The scheme provides participants with access to artistic events and performances as well as involving them in practical sessions like printmaking workshops. Another aspect of the project is the development of the Armchair Gallery app which allows older people, and those with dementia and Alzheimers to use iPads which allow them to take virtual tours of great art collections and places like Chatsworth House.

Older people in care can often feel isolated and socially excluded, but schemes like this promote a sense of identity, improve confidence and build new friendships. As project coordinator Kate Duncan says, “It’s a sad fact that when people get older they often become cut off from cultural life; health and mobility issues make visits to cultural institutions a rare occurrence. Armchair Gallery will bring the art to them.”

City Arts recently organised an accessible troupe for this year’s Caribbean Carnival parade by providing floats built around mobility scooters, so older and disabled people could take part. Creative Director Madeline Holmes says, “It’s always been at the heart of City Arts to make the arts accessible to everyone, no matter what their background. That integrity, which allows everyone to get involved, is what I like most about City Arts.”

Currently, the ninth Here and Now exhibition is on display at the Institute of Mental Health, in collaboration with City Arts, showcasing artwork produced by individuals who’ve experienced mental health issues as well as carers and healthcare professionals. The aim of this exhibition is to allow people to tell their story through the therapeutic medium of art, to educate others and to help to improve personal wellbeing.

Another project run by City Arts which has helped to improve the lives of people with mental health issues is the Arts on Prescription programme. This took the form of weekly workshops delivered by professional artists, for people who’d been referred to the service by healthcare professionals. One participant praised the benefits of the project, saying “When you’ve got depression, everything is in greys and black, but Arts on Prescription has brought me into contact with colour.”

Another project participant explained how the scheme improved their self-esteem. “City Arts represents bringing people together, and sharing understanding within the community. And that is priceless. I think that’s one of the things this group has done; it brings out the confidence in you.”

The brand new art garden is yet another cohesion project thought up by the organisation. Thanks to a grant from funding body WREN, they’ve been able to transform the wasteland behind their building in Hockley into a space that’ll hopefully attract bees and birds to the area, which will not only improve the environment of the city centre but also inspire creativity in visitors.

With the help of volunteers and support from the public, City Arts will continue to transform people’s lives through art. Their innovative projects have shown that creativity can unite communities and break down divisions, and by providing a diverse range of people with the tools for self-expression, City Arts has proved that everyone in society has value.

So what’s next for the organisation? The good news is that the charity has now secured double its funding from Arts Council England for the next four years and Chair Tim Challans is confident that the future is bright. “I am very confident, due to our track record, that we will survive and we will move on,” he says. “We have been a constantly changing organisation, but as long as the funding is there and as long as people care enough, there will be a future.”

To celebrate their fortieth anniversary, City Arts will be running a year-long programme of events. Details can be found on their website.

City Arts website

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