10 Years of Learning from Creative People and Places

10 Years of Learning from Creative People and Places

By Mark Robinson


This report from Mark Robinson summarises central learning points from research commissioned around the Creative People and Places  programme since 2012. It includes research papers, conference reports, provocations and evaluations of the programme and individual projects.

Mark Robinson is the founder of Thinking Practice and he works across the cultural sector in the UK and internationally as a writer, researcher, coach, strategist and facilitator.

His learning report investigates the history of the Creative People and Places programme and the key learnings, while providing opportunities to take inspiration and dive deeper into the topics.

A crowd of people celebrating by throwing coloured paint powder into the air.

Artonik’s The Colour of Time performed in Luton. © Ben Hodson


Ten keywords for Creative People and Places


Creative People and Places is fundamentally about finding ways for communities to take the lead in shaping or co-creating local cultural provision. This means having community voice present throughout, in transparent and well-supported ways.


Taking a long-term approach changes how people working together in a place can think about the challenges and opportunities facing that place and its communities. Taking the time to sit with the issues, and to get to know people and build trust is essential.


The cultural sector needs to earn trust with communities. Every action builds or destroys trust. Be open, honest and talk to people directly. Also, you should trust yourselves, your processes, and the communities and artists you work with.


A core skill for this practice is listening to communities, their dreams, desires and stories – and also to what they don’t say or those who may not immediately come forward. Listening to the evidence of how something works is also crucial.


Changing the governance paradigm from the single objective-based charitable model to a consortium with shared purpose encourages a shared collaborative effort among partners with a stake in the success of local communities and the place.


Even communities lacking in visible cultural infrastructure are rarely ‘cold spots’. They are rich in creative practice and have spaces and festivals that can be utilised. Take an asset-based approach rather than focusing on deficits.


When working alongside communities who may have challenging circumstances, and who may be reluctant to engage with some things, there is an even greater need than normal to be flexible in how you work and what you aim to do with people.


From inception to its place in the heart of Arts Council England Let’s Create strategy, Creative People and Places has been ambitious and risk-taking. Risk-taking has also been integral to approaches at local level, with failure relished as a learning opportunity.


Although it has developed less hierarchical, distributed models of leadership, Creative People and Places builds on leadership that connect people across their differences, collaborates and encourages collaboration and multiplies the voices of others.


Creative People and Places is notable as a large-scale example of a funder investing in a long-term action-research programme, with as much interest in the learning as the outputs and outcomes. Each place has been an ongoing learning programme.


About Creative People and Places

Creative People and Places is an intervention by Arts Council England to inspire new ways of thinking about cultural engagement in local authority areas where the official statistics showed historically low levels of engagement. The first phase ran between 2012, when the first awards were made, and 2016, followed by two further phases up to 2021. In December 2021, 39 Creative People and Places consortia were selected as part of Arts Council England’s national portfolio up to 2025. Arts Council England have invested over £60 million into the three phases of Creative People and Places considered by this guide. The total investment by 2025 will be £108 million.

Arts Council England’s aims for Creative People and Places are:

  • More people from places of least engagement experience and are inspired by the arts
  • Communities take the lead in shaping local arts provision
  • The aspiration for excellence is central – this covers both excellence of art and excellence of the process of engaging communities
  • To learn from past experiences and create an environment where the arts and cultural sector can experiment with new approaches to engaging communities
  • To learn more about how to establish sustainable arts and cultural opportunities and make this learning freely available
  • To encourage partnerships across the subsidised, amateur and commercial sectors
  • To demonstrate the power of the arts to enrich the lives of individuals and make positive changes in communities
  • That activity is radically different from what has happened before in each place

Creative People and Places was developed as an action research programme, with ongoing evaluation commissioned by Arts Council England, and with an associated peer learning programme. This has created more than 80 pieces of research, including a number of thematic studies of topics such as leadership, social capital, cultural ecologies, community engagement, diversity and excellence. Between 2012 and 2019, when the most recent audience profiles were completed, there were over 7.4 million engagements with people as part of the Creative People and Places programme.


About this report

This report summarises central learning points from research commissioned around the Creative People and Places programme since 2012 including many research papers, conference reports, provocations and evaluations of the programme and individual projects. My methodology has confined itself mainly to analysis of over 80 documents published by either Arts Council England, the Peer Learning and Communications Programme or individual projects, complemented by discussions with Arts Council and Creative People and Places team members.

My brief was to create a short independent report which would be useful to any group of people interested in working in a Creative People and Places-like way, and that reflected what the many people who have considered Creative People and Places have found. To reflect the depth and diversity of the research and learning from Creative People and Places, and to reflect the passion, commitment and bravery of those involved in Creative People and Places over the last ten years, in something highly ‘usable’, has been even more daunting a task than I imagined. As such there are some caveats I feel I need to put on record.

What follows inevitably reflects my own relationships to Creative People and Places. The shift from ‘supply-side’ to ‘demand-side’ in funder thinking that some see in the work was part of many debates I had in my own decade in the arts funding system, building on earlier experience delivering ‘audience development’ projects in Teesside in the 1990s. Since 2013 I have been Critical Friend to the team and consortium in South East Northumberland, Museums Northumberland bait. I have written and co-written research papers for the peer learning programme, on excellence, leadership and learning. I remain clear that Creative People and Places has been the most influential intervention by Arts Council England in the last two decades, delivered by a remarkable set of people across all the places.

This report cannot capture everything that was learnt, nor reflect the careful nuance of how the network has worked without becoming unmanageable. I have had to synthesise and simplify at times in pursuit of usability. Any summary risks making the process appear too linear, too easy even. Creative People and Places has been anything but. There is also a risk of seeming to suggest that Creative People and Places invented a way of working that
actually has long roots in the history of arts practice. It is not entirely new, but ‘standing on the shoulders of giants.’ And finally, it can make it sound as if all Creative People and Places are the same. They are not, as all respond to their local circumstances.

There is much else to say and debate about this programme which falls outside the ‘learning summary’ nature of my brief. As Creative People and Places becomes more mainstreamed into Arts Council England funding programmes, there is a risk it could lose its disruptive element, or see its techniques co opted and watered down by those more attached to the status quo. Time will tell as to what extent the learning I identify here takes root over the next decade.

Read the full report 


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Resource type: Evaluation reports | Published: 2022