Our Pathfinder is led by the University of Sunderland in partnership with 10 cultural sector organisations represented on our steering group – BALTIC, Equal Arts, Helix Arts, Live Theatre, National Glass Centre, New Writing North, Northern Stage, Regional Youth Work Unit North East, Sage Gateshead and Tyneside Cinema. Our research question was around progression routes for artists working in participatory settings and promotion of the value and status of employment in this field. Research undertaken during the first two years of the project led to the development of a series of non-accredited and accredited short courses which we piloted in autumn 2013. We also created a website www.artworks-u.org.uk which hosts resources developed or identified for our short courses.
Over the past few months we’ve been reflecting on our progress so far and how we move into the next phase in which we can sustain the project in the longer term and exploit what have been loosely termed ‘the assets’ created during the project.
The ArtWorks special initiative is an action research project, a practice-based enquiry process undertaken by those involved in participatory practice with the aim of making improvements in this field. Since the project started, there have been periods of research followed by time for reflection then further testing and research. What often emerges during action research projects is a ‘helter-skelter’ effect in which levels of interest and engagement by key organisations and stakeholders vary as the project progresses.
Our project got off to a good start with a sense of purpose and people pleased to be around the same table. We commissioned research by academics and steering group members around our research question and this provided evidence for testing out progression routes for artists in participatory practice.
Our focus groups and critical conversations in particular were successful and are models which could be replicated elsewhere. The artform specific focus groups brought artists together to discuss a range of participatory arts practice across the North East through structured questions. The critical conversations involved artists, participants, host groups and other collaborators from a variety of artforms, reflecting on and discussing their practice with others.
One of the challenges presented by collaborative working, is creating a shared vision which will keep partners actively engaged during the life of the project and beyond. In our situation, differing expectations at an individual and organisational level, changes in staffing and external workload pressures all impacted on the levels of engagement by pathfinder members at various points during the project.
In addition, whilst all the pathfinder members knew of each other and may have worked with one or more partners previously, this was the first time we had worked together as a group. This meant that Tuckman’s ‘forming, storming, norming and performing’ team development model was very much in evidence during the project, as we attempted to bring together representatives from organisations of different scales, artforms and internal cultures around a common goal.
An issue with a time-limited action research project is the effect that spending additional time on reflection can have on the delivery of activities to test out research. We lost some momentum with our project when we came to the short course design and website development, which led to us playing catch-up when rolling out these activities. The momentum has returned now that the short courses have been piloted; our website is live; and we are enthusiastically looking towards the next phase of the project.
In order to engage the University academics and partly to drive the project as a lead partner, at the start of the project a part-time Project Manager was appointed for ArtWorks North East who was also working in the University as a Principal Lecturer. This had huge benefits but the role was in reality a full-time one and when the opportunity came about to change this and to appoint an experienced project manager from the outside who was based at the University, the benefits of this were fully realised.
The entire ArtWorks special initiative is a large and complex project. As such it has been difficult at times to discern our role within it and understand other Pathfinders’ research and activities. With hindsight, opportunities were missed at the beginning of the project when we didn’t replicate audits, surveys and research across Pathfinders and changes in the evaluation team meant that we got off to a slow start as a larger group. Being part of a wider initiative has also been hugely beneficial: we’ve used research and materials developed by other Pathfinders to inform our own activities and have had the opportunity to be part of a project which could lead to significant improvements for artists working in participatory settings.
A major highlight of being part of ArtWorks has been the opportunity to meet some wonderfully creative and inspiring artists. Involving artists has been at the heart of all our research and activities – and the level of expertise and commitment to participatory practice amongst them has been heartening.
Over the next few months we have a number of activities planned. We’ll be testing out a modified version of our short courses; rolling out a creative ageing network for older people in Newcastle and North Tyneside with Equal Arts; piloting a participatory arts learning scheme with Sage Gateshead to support the development of a cashless economy where dialogue is the currency, not money; seeking feedback on our website www.artworks-u.org.uk; hosting a student careers summit ‘Fast Forward Futures’ on 1 July 2014 at the University of Sunderland; and organising an ArtWorks North East conference at BALTIC on 9 September 2014. We’re also aiming to influence the Quality Assurance Agency’s review of its subject benchmarks which set out expectations for standards of degrees in a range of subject areas. For information on how you can help with this, visit our website www.artworks-u.org.uk.
Project Director, ArtWorks North East and Associate Dean for Recruitment and Development, Faculty of Arts, Design and Media, University of Sunderland
ArtWorks North East contacts: Judith Hills firstname.lastname@example.org
Lesley Younger email@example.com
Alison O'Hara firstname.lastname@example.org