Grow your Own: Establishing an arts organisation in a new town

Image from 1 WOW OF A TIME - The Great Yarmouth Day Trip. Image courtesy and copyright originalprojects.

Image from 1 WOW OF A TIME - The Great Yarmouth Day Trip. Image courtesy and copyright originalprojects.

How does one set up an arts organisation from scratch? What are the steps and how do you enlist support from local communities and councils? These are questions which many arts and cultural practitioners ask themselves, but are unsure where to go for answers. After hearing originalprojects;’s story, Chelsea Pettitt, Head of Partnerships, Wysing Arts Centre and East Contemporary Visual Arts Network (ECVAN) coordinator felt compelled to ask them to share their experience of formally setting up their own arts organisation in a remote town on the coast of East Anglia.

originalprojects;, made up of artists and curators Kaavous Clayton and Julia Devonshire, is the newest organisation to join the East Contemporary Visual Arts Network, having joined the successful Ambition for Excellence bid for ECVAN's project New Geographies of the East in late 2016. It was apt timing for them as they had just completed a major project in Great Yarmouth, Eastern Prospects, and were formally setting up their organisation with support from the local council and other community organisations whose relationships they had been building up for some time. Chelsea caught up with them in April to get their advice and talk about their experiences.

 

Firstly, why Great Yarmouth?

Since our involvement in setting up OUTPOST Gallery in Norwich we’ve both had various arts jobs across the Eastern Region and were looking for a place to root ourselves and establish something new. We've always talked about the appeal of Great Yarmouth.

I had early years there and my father was a GP for 25 years. It has always been in my life so it feels like home (JD).

There are so many things that make it attractive for us. The potentials of space(s), its liminal extremes and multiplicities, and its affordability all present an excitingly raw physical and intellectual resource.

Its remote physical location at the edge offers surprising diversity – everyday life, tourism/ leisure, wind energy and offshore industry, manufacturing, land and sea, Portuguese-speaking and other migrant communities, notable heritage etc, which all go towards making it feel like a microcosmic representation of realities faced elsewhere. Its scale feels manageable but also a challenge in relation to how we might work. Most of all it feels timely to experience and experiment with a new way of living for us and others, and participate in shifting pessimistic perceptions of Great Yarmouth and establish it as a viable place for artists (and others) to live and work.

Core ambitions have always been to invite and host artists in Great Yarmouth and connect with local groups, initiatives and visitors through an integrated programme of arts activity and convivial events. We want to commission new art works for presentation in Great Yarmouth and beyond, and develop long-term relationships, home and away, as well as facilitating cultural exchange between Great Yarmouth and national and international communities.

Coach trip from Norwich to Great Yarmouth. Image: originalprojects;

Coach trip from Norwich to Great Yarmouth. Image: originalprojects;

How did you engage with the local population and get them on side?

Our intention has always been to relocate and commit to the place fully, so we felt it was important to make connections and friends locally before we landed. We wanted to understand the existing arts ecology and wider strategies, and ensure our own vision was unique yet complementary and reciprocal with potential partners.

It was key that we made no assumptions about the place and it’s ‘needs’ or our potential role as incomers. Great Yarmouth is often cited along with other seaside towns for its economic and social deprivation. It is also known that that it has been underserved by arts provision (particularly visual arts) and isn’t well profiled on any cultural map. We were mindful that local organisations and people (artists, creatives, producers etc) do work really hard to make good things happen, developing their own practices and engaging the community. We were also alert that artists from elsewhere have used the place for their own ends, to obtain funding and feed from the stories and resource before disappearing again, instances where audience engagement falls off and investment doesn't stick. It did feel awkward and measured pitching ourselves as outsiders (and artists) wanting to come and get stuck in, but in anticipation of distrust we have been fully transparent, open and receptive to discussions and possibilities.

We’ve initiated our work through a 6-month action research project Eastern Prospects, exploring the feasibility of relocating to Great Yarmouth and establishing a visual arts organisation there. Our methodology set out to:

-       Establish contact with the local community and potential partners

-       Produce a 1-day pilot event, 1 WOW OF A TIME! – The Great Yarmouth Day Trip

-       Deliver an open exhibition exploring perceptions of Great Yarmouth and ideas around the postcard

-       Visit with peer organisations nationally to learn more about their work and approach

-       Commission CounterCulture LLP to work with us to explore potential organisational designs and create a business plan and a manifesto.

Our timing was good. The Borough Council and Arts Council England were in the process of commissioning a new arts strategy for the Borough and we were proactive in attending associated public events where we met relevant people involved across the cultural life of the town. From there we initiated meetings to introduce ourselves and our ambitions, and began our own conversations to accumulate a good word of mouth local knowledge and contact base.

1 WOW OF A TIME ! - The Great Yarmouth Day Trip, arrivals. Image: Mike Marlowe.

1 WOW OF A TIME ! - The Great Yarmouth Day Trip, arrivals. Image: Mike Marlowe.

1 WOW OF A TIME ! – The Great Yarmouth Day Trip provided a strategic, holistic learning process. The planning enabled us to identify and form working relationships with arts partners, and venues locally. It also created the first opportunity for us to commission artists with local connections to engage with the place. On the day (the day after the opening of the British Art Show 8 in Norwich), delivery brought local and new audiences together in Great Yarmouth to experience it through the eyes of commissioned artists. We also activated the audience as guides in the walking tour and deployed artist-evaluators to sound out their perceptions of the town and thoughts around our ambitions to relocate and establish our work there. We were able to piggy back the Norwich leg of British Art Show 8 partners’ marketing to spread details of the event beyond our own reach and benefit from the added profile.

As part of the day trip we organised a group exhibition which we crowdsourced from across the community, collecting inclusive responses to themes suggested by the title Life and Leisure – Postcards from (and to) Great Yarmouth. The intention was to form a larger artist-audience network, whilst raising funds to support originalprojects; in working with artists in Great Yarmouth. The show took place in a beach-front shop and opening extended our presence for four weeks with additional events and activities programmed at the weekends.

In order to root ourselves nationally we met with organisations we admire that were similarly working away from the traditional ‘center’ and deliver modes that aligned with our own aspirations for Great Yarmouth. We wanted to discover more about their own contexts and trajectories, operational strategies, public and associate programmes and approaches to community engagement. These included Enough Room For Space (Brussels), Foreground Projects (Frome), Grizedale (Cumbria), East Street Arts (Leeds) and Metal (Liverpool/ Southend/ Peterborough).

We created a manifesto from our findings to inform our business plan, and defined the mission statement:

‘originalprojects; exists to – host artists to work with the heritage, industries and communities of Great Yarmouth to produce extraordinary experiences for residents and visitors’

Our vision is for a practice that identifies alternative ways of living to enhance life for ourselves and others; harnesses coastal/regional industries to enable the production and sharing of artistic process; operates at the intersection of art objects and everyday design and living, and through that is made understandable to a wide audience, and necessarily explores the fragmentation of centres, things that are displaced and ways of being that are located at ‘the edge’

The business plan had several plug-in options that can evolve depending on the space and resource that we manage to achieve.

Some references images provided by seaside historian Kathryn Ferry for the walking tour of the ‘Golden Mile'.

Some references images provided by seaside historian Kathryn Ferry for the walking tour of the ‘Golden Mile'.

 

Was there opposition to bringing a new arts organisation to town?

Generally, our experience has been positive; we’ve built some good relationships with cultural partners and individuals, we’ve even established a friend group with similar desires to commit to and develop the cultural life and fabric of Great Yarmouth. Some we sought out and others have been through happenstance. Of course, one or two of our advances to enter collaborative dialogue have been evaded which seems crazy since we want to share our experience to enhance the cultural offer with exciting new projects. Activity that will draw additional funds and investment to the mix, and involve an expanded network of artists, other arts professionals and friends who can enjoy and engage with the place, and cycle their energy back into attracting a critical mass. We intentionally set out to learn these dynamics and subtleties; it’s a small place, we’re new. We don’t want to step on any toes but it’s useful to gauge resistance, and know where to target our energies in future projects. It’s early days, so for now although we say that we’re in it for the long game – we need to prove that through future projects and actions.

 

What was the timeline from the ‘thought’ of setting up originalprojects; to the first project in Great Yarmouth, 1 Wow Of a Time!?

We formed originalprojects; in 2002 as a loose collective of graduate artists and designers from Norwich School of Art and Design. It gave us an identity to deliver projects, produce events and a platform to distribute work in publications when exhibiting space was limited, there was added benefit of a strong alliance to access funds. Other members have come and gone over the years but it always included us. originalprojects; was put on hold when establishing OUTPOST, and it seemed natural to revive it to for this new phase rather than invent something new, the core ethos is the same. Also, to return to the start of something that began a long time ago feels restorative somehow, like a re-birth, which is perhaps a little fanciful, but also useful in terms of thinking about the work we are hoping to do.

We began making in-roads in to Great Yarmouth in October 2015 when we presented a case-study on the potential of artist-led initiatives to revive rundown areas at a conference hosted by the Cultural Heritage Partnership that explored how heritage and culture can support the regeneration of seaside towns. Through regular contact with potential partners and artists we formulated our research proposal and were awarded Grants for the Arts funding in April 2016 from Arts Council England when we began our action research and event planning. We delivered the day-trip on 25 June and the accompanying exhibition in the beachfront space ran until mid-July. We spent the remainder of the 6-months evaluating the activity, making more research trips to peer organisations and drafting our business plan.

We have recently bought a building that in its former lives was a vicarage, guest house, house of multiple occupancy, and most recently used for growing marijuana on a small but industrial scale. It was important to find somewhere that was able to host artists to come and work with us. Once rooted we can work on finding spaces that allow for extended operations.

Walking tour of the 'Golden Mile’, James Metsoja, Seuratvision (edition of 50). Image: originalprojects;

Walking tour of the 'Golden Mile’, James Metsoja, Seuratvision (edition of 50). Image: originalprojects;

Did you receive funding for that first project or do you have to risk some of your own cash to establish a track record first?

We received ACE Grants for the Arts for the full 6-month action research with additional match funding from Norfolk County Council Arts Grants especially for the day-trip. We managed to attract valuable resource in-kind from partners including Great Yarmouth Borough Council and Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust. One of our long-term aims is to offer a range of saleable products and experiences that can fund our activity so we sold tickets to the day-trip, along with art works and editions to create income and thus gauge market value and feasibility. As this project is also part of our life, investing our own time and resources is also natural.

 

What advice would you give for those writing their first Grants for the Arts applications for their first project? Is it about finding those in-kind partners you mention above?

Finding partners beforehand is useful, as is integrating the research with artistic activity so it all fits together naturally. The first phase that we received funding for was very much a test – although artistic activity was delivered, it was all for a specific purpose – to explore the viability of us setting up there, and finding out what steps we should take next. Planning a process that asks as many questions as possible, and ensures that those questions weren’t leading, was really helpful for us as an approach that made us reset our own thinking in relation to the place, and hopefully helped us come up with future strategies that we wouldn’t have thought of with more fixed mind-sets. So be as open as possible, and perhaps even naïve in your approach – that way you can also play dumb when you meet people, and ask questions that someone with a bit more awareness of any political concerns might not be able to. Don’t be afraid to start from scratch.

Appraisal feast at The Social. Commissioned menu provided by chefs Francis Woolf and Alex de Almeida.

Appraisal feast at The Social. Commissioned menu provided by chefs Francis Woolf and Alex de Almeida.

How did the conversations with the local council go? Do you have any advice for those approaching their local councillors with ideas for arts projects?

We’ve had little direct contact with councillors but have made extremely useful connections with the team leading the delivery of the Arts Strategy (Neighborhoods and Communities) who were really hands-on in unlocking conversations with other departments internally and the Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust, in order to help us access properties and venues and other resources and advice.

We anticipated potential concerns and red-tape but there were no real issues; our timely ambitions chimed with theirs, we were bringing ACE investment, and our requests were simple and well thought out. We were mutual on one particular view that as ‘outsiders looking in’ our day-trip shouldn’t make fun of the place or frame it ironically (our work might at times involve humor but our ambition is to celebrate Great Yarmouth’s uniqueness and play a valuable role in place-making). We have since been included in the published Arts Strategy, and begun collaborating with Great Yarmouth Borough Council on a three-year Great Place project which includes other arts and heritage partners across Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

Being open and honest about your intentions and trying to find out where they overlap with a Council’s plans (or any other potential partner organisation) can go a long way to finding a good working relationship. Often, it’s down to individuals too – finding who is thinking along the same lines and can make the connections that you both need.

 

What was the next step to formalise originalprojects; as a charity and/or company ltd?

From our research, it seemed that a charitable organisation supported by a limited company would be the best route for us to take. Finding a property to base ourselves led us to consider purchasing a former pub which meant a commercial mortgage which required us to be a limited company so we have done that. We need to have a constitution and policies in place ready for our work on the Great Places Scheme with Great Yarmouth Borough Council, so have started putting those in place. As we are setting all this up whilst one of us works full-time and the other works on freelance projects, we have to do things when the need arises until the time when we make the full leap.

 

What does this allow you to do now that you couldn't do before?

It will mean we are more ‘official’ in the eyes of some and will be able to access certain funds that we couldn’t previously – a lot of funders, grant-givers and trusts will only work with registered charities – but it also means we can work autonomously as a business, and deliver our own work independently. It also means that we will feel ready to tackle opportunities as soon as we see them (rather than reacting) which will hopefully make life easier. At the moment we are slightly amorphous, and we hope to keep that sense so that we can work in different ways according to the project or problem that we encounter, but we think that the combination of charity and limited company will allow for that.

 

What direction do you go now that you have this underway and are part of the New Geographies Of the East project?

The New Geographies of the East project is really timely for us, because we are entering a new place and as well as wanting to see it through our own new eyes, we want to encourage others to see it through new eyes too. There is some interesting overlap between that and the project we are proposing for the Great Places Scheme, which is the Great Yarmouth Expo, where we will be asking people to contribute to a survey of the genius loci of the place – the cultural landscape that combines to make it what it is (food, people, buildings, etc).

Alongside these two three-year projects, we will extend our initial research into a period of foundation building – a series of projects that will test out some of the ways of working that we have defined in our business plan including:

Artists’ Public Works

An ambitious context/ site/ location-specific project, performance or installation that’s community engaging and confronting and open to all.

Artist Live Activity

Publicly hosted social activity such as workshops, talks, performance or Social engagement for general audiences or targeted groups; sometimes linked to Artistic Public Works

Artist Products

A product-focused commission in collaboration with the town’s industries/ businesses.

Genius Loci Preservation for Future Heritage

An ongoing collection, exchange, dialogue and display of and with Great Yarmouth’s cultural and material heritage.

Public events programme

–Social Food and Catering

–Public arts and craft workshops

–Cultural visits and Tours

These over-arching themes will depend on the encounters with spaces and people that we have on board, and the opportunities that come from those conversations. Some of those will require funding but some we will be able to get involved with and deliver from other energies. We want to be able to be flexible enough within our structure so that we can work in a multiplicity of ways and broaden our potentials.

 

Is there any general advice that could give to someone thinking of starting their own arts organisation?

Think about your context in relation to the context that you are entering and see where there are matches. This will help to find the areas that you might be able to work most effectively. Integrity is key, be as open and honest about your intentions as possible, hopefully this will be reciprocated so that you can find out who it might be best to work with, but remember, there are sharks out there too. It may feel natural to be generous with your energies and ideas, but be mindful not to over-share, these are your currency, so set clear terms for collaboration and understand those of other parties. For us it has been difficult because it feels so slow, so being patient is very important – keep going and enjoy working on what you are doing now because if you do it well then it should lead to more in the future.

Find out more about originalprojects; here.