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07 June 2023

Beach of Dreams with Creative Lives

Kinetika and Creative Lives are teaming together to deliver a truly multi-national project sharing and celebrating stories of UK and Ireland’s stunning seaside scenery.

Based on a pilot project by Kinetika in 2021, the Beach of Dreams aims to divide the entire coastline into 1-mile chunks. Each mile stretch will then act as the inspiration and the location for creative activities, an experiment using locally and sustainably sourced natural dyes and artistic and public engagement. Hoping to build a multi-national movement to raise awareness of the importance of the coasts, raise awareness of the climate crisis and to ask the public to commit to real, yet small and effective changes that can add up to make a huge difference.

It’s a serious strength to our cultural consultancy team that Jo Dacombe, our Head of Consultancy, is not only an excellent fundraiser but a practising artist who often explores and leads creative activities on art walks. A coincidental fit in this instance but a happy one, none-the-less. We’re supporting this huge endeavour with fundraising across all each nation and we have a great desire to see this fantastic undertaking create a real buzz around the UK.

We spent some time with Robin Simpson, Chief Executive of Creative Lives, to find out more about the scale of the project and what they’re hoping to achieve with it.

Tell us about the work that Creative Lives do?

Creative Lives is the national voice of the amateur arts sector. We were established in 1991, to be a single spokesperson for every local choir, Amateur Dramatics Group, Morris Dancers, lacemakers, quilters, painters, Recorder players, anybody doing creative hobbies, in a group.

There are about 63,000 voluntary and amateur arts groups across the UK and Ireland. About 10 million people regularly take part. It’s an enormous, slightly hidden sector, because most amateur groups don’t get any public funding, they exist on their members’ subscriptions and on the money they raise from their performances or exhibitions. They’re sustainable and resilient, but also a little bit under the radar. They get forgotten in discussions about the arts and culture because they’re not funded by the Arts Council or anybody else. They’re just doing their own thing, and often they’re only known to their immediate connections, friends and family in their community, and we think they deserve to be better known.

Creative Lives was set up to be a national spokesperson for that sector and we’ve been working for 32 years now on that role. We’ve evolved a lot as an organisation. We were originally called the Voluntary Arts Network, and some people still know us better by that name. We became Creative Lives in 2021 when we relaunched with a new name and a new brand.

We are interested in promoting participation in what we call everyday creativity, that sort of things people do in their own community with their friends and family. We think it’s good for you to be creative, good for your mental health, your wellbeing, your skills, your confidence, and your understanding of the world. We also think it’s good for you to be creative socially in a group with other people because of the benefits that brings to the community. Our work is all about promoting participation in everyday creativity in community led groups.


It sounds like you’ve been there since the very beginning?

I joined the team in 2005, almost 18 years in post now. I’ve been here just over half the life of the organisation, but I’d previously worked in a couple of other national bodies supporting local amateur groups, some of whom were involved in founding Voluntary Arts Network (Creative Lives) in 1991.

Creative Lives stems from a much longer tradition that goes back to Victorian times of; the National Federation of Music Societies, the Guild of Lacemakers, the Association of Recorder Players, the Wood Turners Guild and others. There are about 200 of those national federations and guilds within the sector, which is where we started because these federations don’t represent all of the 63,000 groups amateur groups in the UK.

We work through those bodies, but also more directly with, groups and communities across the country. We have established, very proudly, a devolved structure over the years. Creative Lives have staff in Edinburgh, in Cardiff, in Belfast, in the Republic of Ireland, and also across England, we are funded by the five different arts councils. We spend our time lobbying five different culture ministers and five different governments.


It must be challenging to stay up to date with all the national agendas and government decisions?

We’ve done a lot of lobbying over the years, a lot of work with Arts Council England and others on why they should see this as an important area. There’s something around the rise of the wellbeing agenda and how we play into that, the rise of that whole agenda around the civic role and cultural democracy and local communities. At the moment, it feels like we’re in quite a good position. We’re being listened to, to greater or lesser extents.

In England we’re very proud of how far we’ve progressed with Let’s Create, we did a lot of work in the buildup to that, and the devil is now in the detail of how it’s actually implemented, but we feel we’ve won the principle argument there, that document starts by talking about everybody being creative before it talks about the artists serving the people. It’s moving to demand over supply. Scotland has moved in that direction, maybe not quite as far yet, but it’s very promising. Scotland’s Creative Scotland strategy is very focused on place and placemaking place-based approaches, which again, suits us well.

Arts Council Wales is very influenced by the Welsh government’s Wellbeing of Future Generations act. Which suits our agenda, but in a slightly different way. Wales and Scotland are definitely on the same journey that England has been on. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are at an earlier stage.


How do Creative Lives approach supporting so many artistic organisations across such a wide variety of locations and genres?

We’re a relatively small organisation but we’re set up to be this national body across the UK and Ireland. Our small team broadly does three things.

We’re an infrastructure body, like a lot of others in different sectors. We do that voice function. We speak to governments, we speak to the funders, we speak to local authorities. We make the case for these activities and, and then negotiate over rules and regulations that affect it.

We provide information and advice to the volunteers who organize the groups. Our target audience is the secretary or the organiser of the group. We help them with the logistical things, setting up a group, constituting, registering as a charity, dealing with licensing, copyright, child protection, health and safety, all the legal stuff that’s our expertise. We don’t do much on the artistic front, and that’s because we’re covering all the art forms. Our advice is more generic about how you run a group and how you get funding and all that sorts of things.

The third thing we do, which is probably pertinent to Beach of Dreams dreams, is to increasingly have a public facing function about trying to persuade more people to do get creative. For 30 years we’ve promoted the benefits of participating and only recently have we decided we should be doing something to get more people doing it. That’s not just serving the ones who already do it but encouraging more people to participate.

We have a longstanding partnership with BBC Local Radio. I currently have members of staff embedded in various stations where we showcase local amateur groups from those communities on the radio station and use that as a way of encouraging more people to take part.


You mentioned Beach of Dreams, what more can you tell us about this particular project?

Kinetika developed the first iteration of the project in 2021. Creative Lives were engaged, after that, to look at how we might scale it up, to be a truly national project. Beach of Dreams is a really exciting creative walking project. We’re trying to do is to get the public across the UK and Ireland to come out and walk part of the coastline and to take part in a range of creative activities in order to think through what contribution they could make to addressing the climate change emergency.

My theory is that most people in the country now get that there is a problem with the climate but I think the majority of the mainstream public haven’t yet found what they can do about it. I think a lot of people, frankly, are a bit alienated by the extremes of things like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. And they don’t want to get involved in that, but they feel they should be doing something.

The Beach of Dreams project is aiming to engage the public and say, okay, this is how you can start to think through your contribution. For Creative Lives, this project is about demonstrating how taking part in everyday creativity can be a way of thinking through difficult issues, a way of understanding the world, a way of talking with other people about it.

By being creative, you are working through the issue, understanding it better, asking people about it, but coming out with your own solutions. This is not a project where we ask everybody to sign up to a particular climate pledge, rather, this is a project where you come along and use the project to develop your own climate pledge and then share that with us afterwards. That way we come up with a variety of ideas that people can do practically, ways they can get involved, and then we share those afterwards to encourage more people to get involved with climate action.


What do you think the takeaway for the public will be here?

There’s a very specific takeaway in terms of the pledges we are asking participants to create and share with us and then the database of pledges and stories that we will create online and how we use that material. It’s a complicated project. The basic idea of the project is that we are dividing up the coastline into individual miles and then asking the public to claim a mile. As an individual or the community group you belong to, can identify mile number 364 on the east coast of England or wherever your mile may be. You go to the website and claim that mile. We then ask you to tell us why you claim that mile.

You know, have you been there? Did you used to go there as a kid? Do you have some association with it? Do you live there? What’s your story of that mile, that bit of coast?

People will submit that information and a photograph of that place, or a drawing, or a painting or a shell you picked up on the coast or something that you associate with that place. Those images then will be used by Kinetika to create silk painted flags, the pennants, which are the hallmark of the project. The images submitted by the public will become a pennant, using this a natural dye silk technique, which itself is very interesting because the natural dyes will come from plants that grow on that particular stretch of coastline.

The colors of the flags and dye will be different in different parts of the country, depending on coastlines, it’s like a color map of the coast as well. During May 2025, when the project comes to its fruition, we will be managing a walk along each bit of the coastline. When we get to mile 363 in Norfolk, for example, you will turn up and we will give you your pennant number 363 with your image on it, and you lead the walk for that mile and lead the conversation. And then somebody else takes over for the next mile. When we finish walking that stretch of coastline, all of the pennants will then get stuck into the sand in the shape of the coastline to make an installation display at the end of that section.

That will be happening simultaneously around the coast in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We’ve got stuff happening in each of the countries at the same time, it will be a massive project.

We’re recruiting partner organisations all over the coast. Arts organisations, cultural organisations, environmental groups, community groups who will each manage one stretch of coastline and will manage the walk, but also a series of creative activities along the coast.

It’s mind-blowing in scale.

Kinetika did the original version in Suffolk and Essex in 2021. They walked 500 miles there along the coast, working with a variety of artists and organisations along the way. We are now trying to scale those 500 miles up to 10,000 miles.

The reason that Kinetika came to Creative Lives was because of our UK and Ireland reach and our connection with funders, policymakers, partners in each of the countries. We’ve been able to quickly get conversations with the Northern Island Assembly, the Scottish Government, Arts Council England, the National Trusts, Friends of the Earth, lots of other organisations across each country who are all gradually pulling into a mass partnership.


Creative Lives are used to the subtleties of multinational working and the differences between the different nations. But has working Kinetika brought any new elements into the way that you’ve approached those relationships?

That was part of the attraction for us. Kinetika are teaching us a lot about running this kind of creative project because elements of the project are much more artist led. Kinetika are the artistic lead on the project. We’re interested in the scale of the thing, the national connections, but also the sort of everyday creativity element of the public coming along and having a go at stuff. There’s also a whole element about professional artists working on the pennants, artists who are commissioned to deliver installations around the coast.

One of the attractions to us is that this is clearly a crossover project. It’s an arts and culture project, but it is also an environmental project. It’s also a walking project, so there’s a sport element to it and it’s a community project, it’s giving us the excuse to talk to organisations we haven’t necessarily engaged with before.

It’s Ali and Kinetika’s concept, what Creative Lives has added is how you would do this practically at scale. Ali suggested, what if we did it everywhere? And we’ve spent the last year working out how on Earth we would do that.


It sounds like quite a funding challenge.

One of the ways we made it more manageable and practical was deciding that firstly we will identify one starter location in each of the Five Nations. One stretch coast in each of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, for which we are going to work with a local partner organisation and, and work together on raising the funding for that leg.

Then beyond that, the way we do the rest of the coastline is by a public call out to organisations across the country to come forward and volunteer to be hubs to manage other stretches of coastline.

But we were also looking at how we raise the core costs of the project. The overall producer, project manager, marketing and evaluation team to work on pulling the whole thing together. That’s the most difficult bit to fundraise for. Though there are two other key components. One is the money for the natural dye experiment and the production of the pennants, which itself is a substantial cost and almost like a project within the project.

Finally, we need to raise a chunk of money for the digital platform, which is essential to the whole project. Replicating the way the original project worked in 2021, there will be an online story map. People will claim their miles, submit their stories, submit their images, and then there’s a blog of the walk along each of those miles through the days. All of that is making quite a complicated digital platform.

We’re hoping that there’ll be that sort of snowball effect that the more funders who get on board, the more other funders will want to get on board.

What are the next steps for Beach of Dreams?

It’s moving at pace all the time. I think the short answer is Kinetika have been exploring some other pilots of the project. The Morecambe Bay Project is one of those, they’ve secured funding from the Morecambe Bay Partnership to do a version of Beach Dreams this summer in Morecambe.

They’re about to open the England coastal path. It’s been a long-term project to have a proper coastal path around the whole of England. In the way that Wales has a coastal path that’s been there for 10 years. The England coastal path probably won’t fully open till the end of 2024, which is quite good timing for us and it’s just been renamed the King Charles III coastal path.

They’ve got a series of events this summer around parts of that coastal path to announce it to the public and Kinetika have been commissioned by Natural England to bring the Beach of Dreams pennants and deliver some installations around that. We’ll be using that as a way of promoting the Beach of Dreams brand ahead of 2025.

Thanks Robin…


Beach of Dreams sounds like a fabulous and creative way to get people to think about how even their small acts could make a big impact. With local communities and cultural partners in support, Beach of Dreams has the possibility to create a ripple of cumulative actions that are not only great for environmental sustainability, but also empower local people to engage with nature in new ways.

Soon we’ll be interviewing lead artist Ali Pretty from Kinetika to find out more about sourcing local plants to make a natural dye, we’ll find out about events across the U.K. this summer plus we’ll learn more about the original inspiration for this monumental creative initiative.

You can find out all about the summer events here.

You can find out about how to become a local hub and partner for Beach of Dreams here.

A man wearing a hat and sunglasses plays on a xylophone on a beach. In the background is a series of painted silk flags decorating the space.

Image: Mike Johnston

A series of painted silk pennants are decorating a beach and blowing in the wind.

Image: Mike Johnston

A series of painted silk pennants are decorating an open hillside. A group of people are also holding pennants in the air.

Image: Mike Johnston

In a wide open space near a river people are walking with painted silk flags in their hand and the wind is blowing the flags in the air.

Image: Mike Johnston

A group of people are walking along a beach holding colourful pennants in the air.

Image: Mike Johnston