Brief Encounters

In her own column, Veronica Simpson reports on a success story of the Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme

By Veronica Simpson

What do you do when your town isn’t important or rich enough to helicopter a world-class arts hub into your down-at-heel centre – or when there isn’t the cash to even convert an old church or factory into a cultural venue? You take the art to the people. Heart of Glass, based in St Helens, is one of the big success stories of Arts Council England’s (ACE) Creative People and Places programme, launched in 2012, to insert art and artists into communities where engagement with the arts is at its lowest (but local authority budgets even lower).

St Helens is, as the ACE blurb says, ‘synonymous with rugby success and industrial decline’. From its office in the town’s Saints Rugby Club, Heart of Glass works with partners ranging from the Liverpool Philharmonic to local travelling communities, tracking every key disengaged demographic, including youth, women's and disability groups, to bring them into discussions around what art is for, and involve them in work that meaningfully reflects their lives and experiences in the activities and, sometimes, the very fabric of St Helens. This particular programme’s commitment to collaboration and coproduction, as well as quality, has won it the admiration of its peers and a recent invitation to Stockholm, where it hopes to instigate something similar.

Vera Page Park, the result of the competition Your Name Here, is unveiledVera Page Park, the result of the competition Your Name Here, is unveiled

When he arrived in 2014, Heart of Glass director Patrick Fox had a two-year ACE research and consultation project to draw on, giving him a useful picture of the local mood and potential. His first move was to draw up a 10-year plan. He says: ‘One of my concerns was the short-termism, typical of community arts initiatives, and which can raise expectations and create beautiful moments but not underpin that with any structural change or step change. That was really important for us: to lay down long-term roots.So we thought hard about what bits of intervention we could make, as well as raising ambition.’

He decided that the art was to be embedded in local experience, but of a quality that would draw attention – and collaborators – from the national and international talent pool.

Part of Heart of Glass's plan to put down long-term roots for St Helens is building a skate park with young skaters and an artistPart of Heart of Glass's plan to put down long-term roots for St Helens is building a skate park with young skaters and an artist

But how did they even get started? Says Fox: ‘We started slowly and cautiously. What we didn’t want to do was throw things at the wall to see what sticks. My background is very much in collaborative art – building work from the ground up. We wanted to initiate a sense of relationship with different communities.’ So the first move was to flush out the local talent with a competition, dreamed up by artist Joshua Sofaer, called Your Name Here, to rename a local park after someone who had made a significant contribution to the city. All the citizens of St Helens had to do to compete was think up a creative act that would support their proposal.  Hundreds of people entered, but the winner chosen was Vera Bowes (born Page), who had nominated herself as someone who had been shuttled, from childhood, through the care homes and sheltered housing schemes of the town, and wanted to flag up parks as spaces where children should feel safe and inspired. Vera Page Park was the result.

Says Fox: ‘That was a really important project to set a tone. That gave us a bit of breadth, and we developed really long term relationships with the local authority, and intense collaborations, which are ongoing. We have a 12-year residency with an artist working with a group of men who will die ten years younger than others in the country because of where they live. We are building a skate park with 55 young skaters, together with an artist. We are working with women and womens groups on a feminist retelling of the town’s history which will launch next year.’

Exploring young people's hopes and fears for the future is the Heart of Glass event and exhibition 2020 Vision, developed by artist Sophie MahonExploring young people's hopes and fears for the future is the Heart of Glass event and exhibition 2020 Vision, developed by artist Sophie Mahon

Typical of the calibre and breadth of Heart of Glass’s work is a project called 2020 Vision. This event and exhibition was developed by artist Sophie Mahon, after a six-month residency working with young people in the town to explore their hopes and fears for the future, while co-creating works based on their present-day experience. A live event kicked off the programme in April, with young freerunners and gymnasts from the town showing off their skills, along with an exhibition of painting, video and sculpture displayed in and around a disused shop in the town centre. Fox sees St Helens’ lack of physical venues as a liberation rather than a handicap. Events, workshops and exhibitions take place anywhere and everywhere, from disused factories to abandoned shops, from the rugby stadium to people’s homes.

Three years into the active programme, Fox is proud of their achievements: ‘Over three years we have had a reach of 140,000 people, worked directly with 40,000 people... The biggest shift has been the leadership within the town – politically and in the local authority. This is a local authority that has not been progressive, but it is now saying arts and culture are a central driver for its regeneration strategy. I have weekly meetings with the director of the council. There has been a sizeable shift there. When I first came to St Helens, there was talk about rebuilding the town around a retail offer. That time is over now, and there’s a recognition that arts and culture can play a really significant role in the town’s future.’

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