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20th June 2019 Jemma Green

Working in a rural context #AMAconf

As we get closer to conference, we wanted to hear more from our AMA conference speakers.

In this blog post, Justine Wheatley, Chief Executive at Peak answers the question:

What are the particular challenges of being an organisation based in a rural context?

Peak is a Welsh arts organisation based in the Black Mountains, that works with professional artists and communities, responding to the rural environment.

Peak’s office and studio is set in Brecon Beacons National Park, in the South-East corner of Powys, a county that covers a quarter of Wales and is the most sparsely populated in England and Wales. It is a striking landscape of upland moor cut with intensively farmed river valleys bordering on the Welsh Valleys.

It’s a privilege and pleasure to work in an environment when a lunchtime walk might take us out on the mountainside, amongst sheep and wild ponies.  However, the artists that we work with are seeking to challenge perceptions of rural environments – built and natural – and explore them as places where people live and work, and not just places to look at and visit.

Poverty in rural settings may be experienced differently to urban contexts. A study by Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that it costs on average 20% more to live in rural settings because of high prices and poor access to services, and this impacts the artists as well as the young people we work with. For example, car ownership is a necessity rather than a luxury, and some will take the risk of running a vehicle untaxed and uninsured, rather than lose the sole means of travel to shops, work and schools. (For more reading on rural Welsh poverty see https://www.wcpp.org.uk/commentary/rural-poverty-the-case-of-powys/)

These factors exacerbate out-migration of young people aged 16-35 from rural counties, of which Powys has the highest level in Wales. Research by the Social Mobility Commission, demonstrating that English rural communities have the lowest social mobility rates, resonates strongly with the Welsh experience.

Peak focuses on offering opportunities to young people. The daily challenges they face include social isolation, low aspiration, lack of access to services such as public transport, mental health support, leisure and libraries, as well as unreliable broadband and mobile connectivity. As post-16 education faces cuts and amalgamations of services, many students are forced to travel to alternative centres for ‘minority’ subjects – including the arts. Opportunities for higher education are limited.

Peak is supporting young people to overcome these challenges, working collaboratively with leading artists in Wales as well as in partnership with education, housing, health and environmental organisations, we want to realise and unlock their potential, help them connect with like-minded peers, nurture mental health and wellbeing and gain confidence to create positive change and a sense of belonging in their communities.

Traditional industries that once were inextricably linked with their communities have been in decline for decades, meaning a new approach to living and working rurally is required. Peak uses digital media as a tool, offering skills development for sustainable careers in the cultural and creative industries (one of the fastest growing sectors in Wales) and access to the wider world for many young people living in our rural communities.

In August 2018, Peak took project Illumine and its Horsebox Studio to Green Man Festival, which takes place on the banks of the Usk, about a mile from our offices. We fielded a team of eight young arts professionals – freelance writers, film-making, artists, designers and our own young team of arts managers. We feel like we’re making that positive change and at the start of something exciting.

“Working with artists on Illumine has made me realise that a career in the arts is a plan, not an idealistic path.” – L, 17.

Peak – Art in the Black Mountains is a registered art charity and a member of Art Council Wales, Arts Portfolio Wales


Justine and Rachel Dunlop from Peak will be delivering the session Reaching Rural Communities on the Thursday afternoon of this year’s AMA conference.

For further information about this year’s event, please visit the AMA conference 2019 home page.