Local Arts Officers: Aimee Green
Continuing the series of interviews with local Arts Officers, Kate Brundrett speaks to Aimee Green about arts strategies and regeneration priorities in the current funding climate.
Aimee Green is the Arts Development Officer for Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council, a vastly polarised population of 208,000 split between an affluent south and the highly deprived northern areas of the borough.
The arts sit within a directorate called 'Places', which includes Regeneration, Transport and Highways, Planning and Leisure Services, Arts and Tourism.
Within Arts and Tourism we run a venue, which houses a theatre, a gallery and a café. Our Arts and Tourism Manager oversees the theatre, arts development, gallery, box office and tourist information centre. We've a Tourist Information Manager and her staff, a Marketing Officer, a sub regionally funded Dance Development Officer, working in Coventry, Warwickshire and Solihull (danceScape), and a dance artist in residence whose post is funded through income generated from dance classes. We have a technical team who support the gallery and theatre, an Operations Manager, café Manager and café staff. And for all of that we have one three-day a week admin post!
My post was set up with income generated through the theatre. The arts centre is a really successful space - it's the only venue in the borough - so there is a responsibility for setting standards and supporting any art-focused activity in the borough. It also houses the only funded contemporary visual art gallery in the borough.
What does your job entail?
As part of my role I'm responsible for the council's art strategy which is ten years' old this year. We're currently reviewing it to see how it's going to work next year. It's quite difficult in the current climate to work out how best to write a strategy going forward.
I cover all areas of the arts development which is made up of: advising other council departments on how to use the arts to tackle wider issues, public art projects, art community - that is the art infrastructure - arts and health and educations. We also have substantial regeneration going on in the north of the borough, around which I plan and develop new projects, as it is the top priority for the council.
Tell me about a recent or current project
We are currently running a comic-based project tackling issues around regeneration called Comic Landscape This is funded through my budget and the Arts Council. Our artists are working with young people using comic illustration styles to communicate their ideas. The project requires artists to deliver workshops exploring the theme, interpreting the young people's ideas and making new work about Solihull. The project will culminate in a final exhibition in Solihull's G1 Gallery from Christmas 2010.
Currently I am developing a large community-led project in response to the regeneration. We have just secured an empty shop space in one of the region's hot spots; Kingshurst, in which we are seeking funding for a full arts programme. I will be advertising soon for artists/organisations to work in partnership with us to develop ideas.
How does programming the gallery space work?
We hold six shows a year. During winter there is always a large pantomime in the theatre so we are pushed for what we can support in the gallery. So at Christmas we put the gallery space out to tender for the education sector to use. We support them by putting a package together, offering curatorial assistance and portfolio reviews. This provides some income for the gallery and also supports emerging artists - giving them experience working with galleries and making links with people like myself for when they have graduated.
Our gallery post is only two days a week, meaning we're quite limited on capacity. We host one really big show a year to push our work, and hold a massive education programme with it. We work with as many schools as possible and hold masterclasses and three or four workshops a week. This spring we are featuring 'Girls who draw', a female illustration collective from the West Midlands.
We try to work in close partnership with artists, developing ideas and carrying the work load, making best use of a small budget and supporting the artists to best make use of the show.
So how are you taking the strategy forward in the current climate?
I look at our ten-year strategy and think it's still very current. The priorities are responsive to us as a council and work on a local level. We've still got to develop the arts infrastructure in Solihull. That was our top priority and I think it still is: to make the arts sustainable, to support artists and make sure they're equipped to manage their own art scene, and bring more funding in.
We probably get the fewest number of Arts Council grants in the West Midlands - I can probably name the artists over the last ten years who have received a grant. To make it sustainable where there isn't a lot of money, we need some good artists in the area to work alongside us. It's no use putting a call out and having an artist from up north come to do the project because we don't have the skills here in the borough.
Regeneration is still going to be important for the area over the next ten to fifteen years. But we don't know what the future is going to hold. We will try to continue everything that we have already developed, and involve more people in the delivery. We don't have an arts organisation in Solihull so we're trying to up-skill people to do it themselves.
So developing the arts community and infrastructure is a high priority over other sector work - health, community etc?
We have prioritised it because you simply can't deliver to those other sectors without investing in the arts community and building it up, as you won't have a vibrant talented workforce to make it happen.
It takes time. I've been here nearly four years and I'm beginning to see some outcomes now from work I started at the beginning, such as supporting individual artists, developing networks, signposting to training and sharing arts news. Currently we have a new group emerging from an artist development programme that I put together called 'Live Brief', which is a 'learning though doing' project. The artists have been tasked with something that will hopefully give them the experience and confidence to fulfil their own development needs. It is going well and the group are strong - soon to be applying for other projects together and seeking funding.
I don't have the capacity to deliver and support the arts alone. So any capable pro-active artists are partners to me, as are other council services and the voluntary sector. If you take time to educate and support their work, it will impact on the arts infrastructure and make it more sustainable.
How do you work with artists, and how does that relate to your policies?
We are just reviewing our arts strategy, which was written ten years ago through close consultation with a collection of artists. After finding there were many groups of amateur artists but not so many professionals, the council pulled together a group of professional artists and worked really closely with them to develop the strategy. The group, called Solihull Artists Forum (SAF) emerged from this and now have forty-nine members and are celebrating their tenth anniversary. It's a really successful story of how consultation works. It was a fruitful relationship on both sides instead of feeling tokenistic like consultation often can.
The individual artists have received paid employment through working with our service and many of the artists are full-time professional practitioners. We'll be looking to work with them closely for the next strategy.
What do you look for in artists you work with?
Transferable experience - it doesn't have to be that they've worked on an identical project, so long as they can show the skills in other work. Quite often what we really look for is the get up and go, and the enterprise to tell us they have an idea and wish to work together. The most successful projects are definitely a partnership between myself and an artist, as opposed to me devising a project and then recruiting. We often advertise with briefs.
It is great when artists have a grasp of the whole picture and aren't just focused on their creative process and outcomes - if they understand how that fits into the wider project or context of the creative work. This is where the impact comes from and leaves a legacy behind to build on in future work.
Do you advertise?
Yes, I'll usually put a call out to our local and regional network. Very rarely do we go for paid advertisements unless there's a bigger budget. We rely a lot on arts jobs listings.
If I'm developing a project and I don't want it to be too prescriptive and involve the artist at planning stage, I'll put a call for artists to work with us in the early stages.
Do you research artists? Does peer recommendation play a part?
We do research artists but more for the gallery. We put a call out every two years for the space, and there might be leads within that for other projects to develop. I've been recommended artists before by other artists. I think recommendations are fine, but every commission and project differs and people's working styles are different too so its not always best. We have to adhere to equal opportunities so advertising is mostly best. We do work on one or two projects with artists we have good working relationships with as it can be very productive, but again it isn't something we want to do all the time. Fresh ideas and artforms are always good.
Can you tell me about the highs and lows of a recent project?
Obviously a high is when you get the funding to do a project. You have to plan it so much and get everything ready and when you find out you can actually do it it's great.
Getting the right artist to work with is a challenge. On one hand the artist can really make a project, on the other it can do the opposite. It's difficult stopping work with an artist before the end of project. The reasons are always ambigious and you feel that you need to keep chipping away at it to make it work. But sometimes you have to make a quick decision to get new artists in to save the project
It can be difficult, because you work with an artist to bring something to a project and you want them to question and think outside of how you think. You've got to give an artist that freedom; if you controlled everything perfectly then it wouldn't be a good project. However, you have to feel comfortable and have faith that the artist is delivering what you have put in the brief.
Do you have advice for artists applying for opportunities?
I've applied as an artist myself, I know it can be difficult - you read the brief inside out and try to predict what they want, and then you send out so many proposals and only get a few back. It's disheartening. I recommend speaking to the person who put the brief together to find out more information.
Be brave with what you are proposing - don't try and mould yourself to every situation, take a risk. Sometimes artists propose nothing because they don't want to take the risk - they say I might do this or that, which makes it difficult to get a picture of what they mean. How to articulate your practice is important. It's a challenging subject, and I've been working with artists on developing this. A lot of artists don't like to be pigeonholed but this prevents them from articulating what they are good at.
What are the key issues facing artists?
There are always issues and it's always difficult!
It is going to be difficult for regularly funded organisations as things are changing, and the amount available for small grants will be less, but it could encourage a new culture in the arts, welcoming some new emerging artists.
Not a lot of artists value what they do as highly as they should - there is only a snippet of really successful artists that make a good living out of it. There are a lot of artists doing art alongside other work and that's a positive for people like me because I know they will still be there doing it however many cuts are made. They will have to support each other more and work closer with Local Authorities.
How have you dealt with the recession so far?
As a council we've been given cuts for quite a few years, so we're quite lean and we're working effectively. We have had percentage cuts put on us year after year, and went through a voluntary redundancy process a few years ago. We've managed to harbour the cuts on income through the venue, which has put a lot more pressure on us to make money on what we do but we've managed so far and actually our programme has still developed. I think we will be able to last a few more years so long as the public spend doesn't go down massively. If people start to spend next to nothing on culture and art then that's when things will be threatened. I am trying to stay optimistic and still putting together projects that will require external funding, but making budgets go a long way. Keeping things simple and wholesome. Fingers crossed!
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Comic Landscape runs from 2nd December 2010 - 10th January 2011
Kate Gilman Brundrett
Kate is an artist, business adviser and consultant to the creative industries sector.
First published: a-n.co.uk January 2011
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