Arts Council England’s use of the word ‘relevance’ when talking about its new 10 year strategy provoked a backlash from some of the arts elite recently. They seem to believe relevance and excellence are somehow incompatible – I’m a firm believer that good art can be both.
We are no strangers to relevance at ARC. Our artistic policy has been to present activity that is ‘contemporary and relevant’ for many years, and we are constantly exploring ways to achieve this.
Recently we hosted our first ‘Pizza and Pitches’ event, a new form of community commissioning, as part of a joint initiative with the Albany.
We invited people living here – or with strong connections to Stockton – to put forward ideas for creative events and activities they would like to run at ARC. With £1,000 in cash and ARC’s resources up for grabs, we received more than a dozen ideas. A small panel of staff selected four to be ‘pitched’ at the first Pizza and Pitches event.
The event was free and open to anyone. We offered free pizza in return for helping us choose which idea to take forward, by listening to the pitches and casting a vote.
We try lots of new things at ARC and know how important it is to recognise that a trial is exactly that – something that may or may not work – but that if we don’t try it, we will never know.
We try to set expectations accordingly, to avoid negative perceptions of ‘failure’ creeping in, as this can lead to a very risk-averse ethos.
So, I was clear with everyone working on the event that it was fine if only a few people came to the first one. I imagined there might be a dozen or so, including some staff, but hoped that over time, we could grow this group into an active community commissioning panel.
It was therefore fantastic (and very slightly daunting) to welcome 60+ people to our first Pizza and Pitches on Thursday night. We heard amazing ideas for a creative community action day about climate change; building a replica model of Stockton in Lego bricks; and a rap workshop about the Stockton-Darlington railway led by leading steampunk and chap-hop artist, Dr Elemental.
The most popular proposal was a creative skateboarding programme for young people, involving film, photography, skateboard design, fashion and branding.
We will be working with the person behind this idea to develop it as part of our young people’s programme, confident that it has the support of local people.
It will very much remain community-led. Our co-production input will include ensuring access to the best artists available to deliver elements of the programme and using our resources to reach people who might be interested in taking part but may face barriers to engaging with arts and culture. We will also find ways of supporting or signposting the other ‘pitchers’ to realise their ideas, all of which received some votes.
We are planning a second event this autumn and invited anyone present on Thursday to join the shortlisting panel, to review all the ideas submitted and select the final four ideas to be pitched, further democratising the process.
It’s too early to declare the programme a success, but the signs so far are positive. We received some great ideas (we will be looking at some of those that didn’t make the final four too) and tested them with an audience – hopefully giving them a sense of ownership over part of our programme. The evening itself was also a brilliant opportunity for ARC staff to meet and listen to local people – I’m already in touch with someone I met on the night about ideas for future activities.
I hope this new idea will lead to even richer ways of engaging and working with our communities – and ensuring our programme is very much ‘relevant’ to those most important to us.