Connecting with people who are not already involved with your work is a challenge. If you work for a public authority, you have a duty to consult with the widest range of people you can in your area, but how do you start having meaningful conversations with people who are not already engaged?
This is the challenge that Art Reach has been supporting local authorities with over recent years. We’ve been appointed by several local authorities to support them with developing cultural strategies for their area – knowing that for a strategy to be truly place-based, we need to seek the views of a range of people who live and work in those areas. But how to start those conversations and reach people who are not already a part of the cultural sector?
Art Reach consists of a multi-disciplined team, including experienced consultants as well as producers and event managers. Combining our experience of working with communities, artists and connecting cultures, we can devise creative ways to attract and involve people in conversations who might not otherwise take part. Our producers have knowledge of artists and creative practitioners who are bursting with exciting and unusual ideas that attract attention, and our consultants are experts in knowing how to have friendly and in-depth conversations with people on the ground. This combination enables us to create activities that invite people who would not usually participate and fill out a survey.
Many people want their voices to be heard and are often delighted at the opportunity to give their opinion, but at the same time are put off by an invitation to come to a consultation event or a large venue – so you often only get the same people vocalising their thoughts at these events, which doesn’t show the whole range of opinions! But as we’re working with artists and creative practitioners, we can create activities that are visually attractive, fun and exciting, which more people want to be a part of. Our tactic is to pop up in community venues, libraries or outdoor spaces, in town centres, market places and parks – we go where most people are, rather than try (and fail) to draw them to a consultation event.
We employ this method particularly in places such as districts and boroughs that have no identified centre, places that might be rural, spread out, with few transport links and smaller towns and villages. These are the areas that often don’t have many cultural venues or obvious places where people can go to access cultural activity. This requires us to be more inventive on how we start to talk to people about “culture” and what that means for them.
Where possible, we work with local artists, because they know how to connect with their community and have local knowledge that is invaluable in conversations with residents. In Fenland, we worked with Fenland artist Marian Savill who helped people to make collages to express something about where they live. In Halton, where we’re currently working to develop a cultural strategy, we involved local artist Claire Pitt, who worked with us to interact with people in Runcorn Shopping Centre and Widnes Market to create a collaborative artistic map of culture in the borough, revealing what residents value and want to see more of. Building on what we’ve learnt in those places, we’re now working with Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council exploring ideas to stage enticing and intriguing happenings in parks, starting conversations with people to imagine possibilities for live events and public spaces. Therefore, we’re working with The Bureau of Silly Ideas and recruiting local volunteers to produce pop-up activity in parks during August, giving families and visitors silly and fun activities that will get their imaginations going and start off conversations about arts and culture.
We’ve found that the creative conversations that we’ve developed can entice people to talk to us who perhaps wouldn’t usually engage in these sorts of research projects. Our experience of working with artists and public spaces mean that we can adapt activities to ask meaningful questions, dig deep into what people think and explore new possibilities. This input is invaluable for getting under the skin of a place and informing the development of cultural strategies that are right for each place and their people.