Behind the Scenes: Bursting sector bubbles with Creative People and Places
In the first of three behind the scenes blogs, Culture in Common consortium member Sara Lock answers the question people keep asking… Why is a physical activity charity leading a Creative People and Places programme?
Before joining Energise Me, the charity leading Culture in Common, I worked in the arts. Siloed working was always a hot topic of conversation. However, while we talked a lot about the need for teams to work effectively together within organisations, we talked relatively little about sector silos.
Now, as Energise Me begins its Creative People and Places (CPP) adventure the thing everyone wants to know is why a physical activity charity is leading a programme to increase arts engagement.
It’s a question we asked ourselves when New Forest District Council invited us to lead the consortium. It’s one our partners asked before agreeing to our involvement. Now potential Programme Director candidates are asking the same thing.
For us, it was a conscious decision to see what we could learn and achieve if we worked differently.
People and Place
CPP focuses on parts of the country where involvement in arts and culture is significantly below the national average. Energise Me focuses on parts of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight where physical activity levels are low. In the New Forest, these places are one and the same.
We were trying to reach the same people. We had the choice to do it separately in pursuit of our own goals or to do it together. We chose the latter, but it was only in chatting to local people as we prepared our CPP bid that we realised the importance of that decision.
“What’s the point? People are always coming here to talk to us. Nothing ever changes” said one community member when encouraged to speak to us. Elsewhere, a support worker cautioned us about those who come in, run short projects and leave.
People were tiring of numerous organisations trying to connect with them. Arts, physical activity, and health sectors, among others, were all individually investing time and money in building relationships.
We were all sitting on different knowledge and insight. And in our separate approaches, we risked collectively making it more difficult to engage with the people we all most wanted to reach.
CPP was the catalyst we needed to join forces. It stopped us focusing on what we wanted to know and helped us hear what was important.
Building a cross-sector partnership
The New Forest CPP consortium began with Folio (a collective of arts and heritage organisations) and New Forest District Council (NFDC). They were part of Arts Council networks and, with a track record of delivering arts and culture in the district, were logical consortium partners.
As a local authority, NFDC wasn’t eligible to lead the consortium. Meanwhile Folio organisations were stretched to capacity delivering ambitious arts programmes with small staff teams. The consortium needed a lead partner with a track record of collaborating and managing large grant programmes and that’s where we came in.
Three things enabled us to take the lead:
- A long-term partner in NFDC who knew and trusted our organisation and recommended us
- An organisational commitment to place-based based work and community empowerment, and a culture that encourages us to be bold leaders and leap outside our bubble
- Arts partners who were open-minded enough to take a leap with us
Without any one of these things, we would not be leading Culture in Common. NFDC’s networks and knowledge of arts and physical activity enabled them to see a connection and persuade Energise Me and Folio to work together. From there, we welcomed New Forest National Park Authority and The Handy Trust to complete our consortium based on the strength of their relationships with different consortium members.
We underestimated the time it would take to prepare a successful CPP bid. On our first attempt, pre-pandemic, we packed everything into a few months. We tried to build trust within our consortium, learn from local people, write our bid, and gain the trust of Arts Council England (ACE) all in one go. It was ambitious and we got to interview stage, but we weren’t ready.
We learnt two key things in that first attempt:
- Strong grassroots community representation is essential
- As a non-arts partner, we needed to be aware of how others might perceive our agenda
We had spent all our time building our consortium relationships and navigating differences. It was slow and sometimes difficult to reach agreement. We all have our sector language and acronyms, which make communicating across sectors more challenging.
In the long-term our differences will strengthen our ability to learn and engage more people, but initially they slowed us down. Everything else became a rush. We didn’t make time to properly connect with communities ahead of that first interview. In our last-minute dash to source images, we unwittingly presented ACE with a presentation full of dance. That combined with a physical activity lead partner made ACE question whether Energise Me would use dance to pursue its own agenda at the expense of CPP.
Resilience and learning
Being unsuccessful first-time round made our bid stronger. We shifted our focus to building relationships with communities. The Handy Trust recruited our first community panel members from the young people and families they support in the district. NFDC established a network of professionals who live and work in the area, including a social prescriber and a military welfare officer, who will support us to reach other communities.
The more we listened to them and our community panel the clearer our plans became.
By March 2020, we were ready to re-submit our bid. Then COVID hit and the fund was closed. The process has tested our resilience, but it has taught us valuable lessons that we will need to deliver Culture in Common. In many ways it has been a rehearsal run and unofficial training programme to make sure we’re ready for the complex relationships and trust we’ll need to build with local people.
The value to and of non-arts partners
The national CPP evaluation called for greater documentation of the involvement of non-arts partners. Throughout Culture in Common we hope to respond with honest reflections from us on the value to our charity, and from our partners on the value of us.
So far, we’ve increased our awareness of how other sectors perceive us. We’ve used that to change the way we communicate and to enhance our ability to collaborate beyond our bubble.
We’ve broadened our networks. Arts organisations now know we exist and are working with us to inspire and support active lifestyles. This hasn’t come from using CPP to pursue our agenda, but from our increased understanding of and ability to communicate with arts partners.
We’ve learned from how our partners work and been able to see our engagement challenges from new perspectives. I hope our partners would say the same.
We’ve learned more and faster about people and place than we would have had we continued alone.
Importantly, communities have been consulted once rather than five times.
So, to that question on everyone’s lips…
We can do what we’ve always done and reach the people we’ve always reached. Or we can take risks, be creative and reach the people and places we’ve never successfully engaged.
Sara Lock, Marketing and Communications Manager, Energise Me.
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Creative People and Places is an Arts Council England funding programme which focuses on parts of the country where involvement in creativity and culture is significantly below the national average. More.