In her opening presentation to the The Arts Development UK (AD:uk) 2013 Annual National Conference, Locally Sourced: Recipes for change in the arts, AD:uk’s Chair Jane Wilson outlined the pressures that the arts are facing in the current economic climate. She said that a new, more focused approach to collaborations and partnerships is needed. More than ever we need a strategic collaborative approach to arts development and cultural commissioning.

The conference was taking place at the new Library of Birmingham, which has seen over 500,000 visitors since it opened in September. This cultural ‘people’s palace’ is an ark of incredible riches, a living, breathing place and true community resource. It’s a space for engagement, collaboration, interactivity and response – its opening programme, curated by Capsule, has brought together visual, performing, written and spoken art, and ties up various strands of activity from across the city.

Clearly, it is cities such as Birmingham that are best placed to weather the current financial crisis in local government because they are eligible for large amounts of regeneration funding. And while remote, rural regions may not have large institutions, or populations to support them, they are often eligible for European funding, providing a much needed service that links into community development and the health and wellbeing agenda.

The real danger is faced by the middle – mainly towns – with a crisis on the high street, not able to access European funding, often with medium-sized organisations, a developing third sector, stretched capacity, and struggling to advocate for the arts with local council members. These local authorities are the ones most at risk, the words ‘discretionary service’ being read as disposable, a saving to be made. This is crunch time for the squeezed middle and we are rarely presented with examples of good practice from these areas. To take the food analogy of the conference, the ingredients needed to pull together a proper meal don’t appear to go together in many smaller local authorities. There are often ingredients missing.

Working together

A recipe for a good community project makes an effort to understand the needs of the people you are working with. Once this is clear, it’s important to plan the project properly, taking into account those needs. The delivery should have flexibility and be able to adapt to changing circumstances. Evaluation and reflection should also be factored in. Unfortunately too many local authority projects rely heavily on soft evaluation, what is needed is calorific content. It is very difficult to say, in numerical terms, how successful a project is. We need to consider how universities may help in this situation.

Laura Dyer, Executive Director of the Midlands and South West, Arts Council England, outlined the impact of the arts on her life, from early experiences with youth theatre through working with an inspirational public sector boss. She encouraged delegates to use cultural projects to make their locality the best to live and work in, to take calculated risks. She highlighted the need for organisations to work together – sharing marketing, audience development, facilities, and skills.

This approach can have a huge impact on local communities, developing skills and become more than the sum of parts. The most important aspect, as artists, arts managers, and cultural leaders, is that the quality of our work is strong. We need to be willing to embrace new and different alliances and to relinquish some elements of control and hierarchy.

Recipes for change

This year AD:uk worked in partnership with a-n to bring artist residencies to the conference. Rachael Phelps was photographer in residence, Lucia Masundire was social network artist in residence, and the SSoCiaL ‘SAUCED’ residency was led by Sophie Cullinan and Sally Lemsford.

In the World Cafe artists, arts officers, organisations and freelancers had the opportunity to discuss key issues and topics, which ranged from Creative Industries (how is training for creatives like carrots that help you see in the dark?) to Cultural Planning (which comes first – the chicken or the egg?). In my experience these types of conversations rarely stay on track and little is actually achieved by group discussions, but by opening up an element of play into the process the artists were able to release inhibitions.

We were asked to join tables of eight discussing one of 20 ‘menu’ items. We were then asked to randomly select ingredients in a trolley dash to the front of the stage. The artists pointed out that tables near the stage would have an advantage, and that it would take longer for those at the back to reach the ingredients, but that this was like real life – some of us have advantages and some of us have to work a little harder.

We all looked incredible in our hairnets, plastic gloves and aprons and lively conversations ensued, developing a ‘sauce’ and ‘recipe’ from our ingredients. Working in this way barriers were broken down, new conversations developed, relationships were formed and focused responses to the questions were developed. The final ‘sauces’ will be available as a free download from issuu (follow @SSoCiaLed on twitter for updates).

So, to summarise, the conference looked at gathering the best ingredients, often locally sourced, and developed a range of recipes from those ingredients. The dishes needed to be served fresh and shared amongst friends. Flavour is important, no one likes a bland taste. The quality of the ingredients is essential to ensure maximum enjoyment and satisfaction. We should all do our bit to calculate the calories and above all, eat healthily!

Locally Sourced: Recipes for change in the arts, The Arts Development UK 2013 Annual National Conference, took place at Library of Birmingham, 28-29 November 2013.

More on

SAUCED – Sophie Cullinan and Sally Lemsford blog in the lead up to the conference.

Professional development news for artists and arts organisers.