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Discovering the wonders in communities

Mercedes Kemp from WildWorks shares her thoughts on the issues raised by the latest JAM — the AMA’s journal of arts marketing — which focuses on community engagement. 

Reading the latest issue of JAM I am heartened by the serious approach to ‘community engagement’ represented in each of the articles. I sense the concerns of the writers, that community engagement might have become a surface approach, a superficial relationship that is useful in obtaining funding but fails to produce meaning or legacy. The importance of an ethical, inclusive approach is evident throughout.

Imrana Mahmood is passionate in her valuing the cultural currency of communities deemed “hard to reach” and the importance of artistic ambition. This is something I have encountered time and again in my twenty years as a socially engaged arts practitioner. She highlights how: “active listening (is) paramount to creating work that (is) resonant and it was also an effective mechanism in building long-term relationships.”

The importance of an ethical, inclusive approach is evident throughout.

I think it is also key to establishing trust and discovering the wonders in communities. And there are wonders. I worked on a CPP project in Sunderland some years ago. WildWorks ‘A Great Night Out’ aimed to give a platform to the voices and talents of a community that had undertaken massive changes in the past 30 years or so. For a year we travelled regularly to Sunderland, made connections, attended local gigs and events, engaged artists and musicians, both professional and amateur and, above all, we listened to the people who wanted to be heard: ex miners, ship builders, women’s support groups, football fans, youth groups.

A temporary community was created that worked in a spirit of mutual generosity to create an event, effectively to make a strong statement of collective pride. The importance of strong partnerships is key to the strength of the work and its legacy. It was important for our work in Sunderland that the local team that was coordinating Creative People and Places would take up the baton after the event and continue to support the people who had participated on ‘A Great Night Out’, so the capacity that had been built through the event would continue to grow. The arts do indeed continue to thrive in this location.

I admire National Theatre Wales’s (NTW) approach to co-creation and the way they place communities at the creative centre of the work. I was Community Director in ‘The Passion of Port Talbot’, the final production in NTWs inaugural year. ‘The Passion’ a three-day non-stop event that involved over one thousand local participants and an audience of 22,000 would not have been possible without the fierce commitment, support and ambition of NTW, led at the time by John McGrath. We really felt as if we were at the beginning of something. Now, eight years on, it is wonderful to read how the TEAM model of participation has strengthened and developed mechanisms to enable communities to participate in every stage of the creation process, including: “leadership, creative activism, intensive engagement and peer learning.”

It reminds us that it is our duty to keep learning from each other as well as from the communities we partner.

This issue of JAM acts as a catalyst for artists working with socially engaged practices. It outlines potential pitfalls and highlights best practice. It reminds us that it is our duty to keep learning from each other as well as from the communities we partner.

Photograph of Mercedes KempMercedes is a WildWorks founding artist with specialty in community and research, and is a senior lecturer in Fine Art at Falmouth University.

Read the latest issue of JAM on community engagement. You will need your member login to access.