Engaging disadvantaged communities outside your catchment area
Between 2017-2020 Emergency Exit Arts (EEA)worked with partners to conceive and deliver an ambitious arts and heritage project to mark the end of the First World War. This project report shows how the project, Paper Peace, engaged communities far from EEA's south-east London base overcoming many challenges to engage disadvantaged communities.
Paper Peace was an ambitious arts and heritage project conceived and delivered by Emergency Exit Arts (EEA) between 2017 and 2020, to mark the centenary of the Armistice and peace treaties which marked the end of the First World War. The project aimed to engage communities far from EEA’s south east London base, and was undertaken in partnership with B-Arts (Stoke-on-Trent), Bradford Peace Museum, Brick Box (Bradford), City Arts (Nottingham), Creative Scene (Kirklees) Ideas Test (Medway) and Vivacity (Peterborough). It had three distinct phases:
- The Peace Poem: a visual and literary piece created by Robert Montgomery as a mobile artwork that would tour to and between several English cities in November 2018 to raise awareness of the centenary and stimulate local discussion about the nature and meaning of peace today.
- Young Producers Programme: a tailored learning programme for young people (18-25 years old) in Kirklees, Medway, Peterborough and Stoke-on-Trent in which they explored local heritage resources related to peacebuilding, commissioned artistic work in response and produced the final artistic work.
- Blink: was a touring installation based around five eye-like pods that offered a range of interactive artistic experiences on the theme of peace-building. The work was presented in public spaces in the project’s four home locations and enjoyed by people where such creative opportunities are very rare.
Delivering Paper Peace was a huge challenge – much greater than EEA or its partners had anticipated. It was the most ambitious project that EEA had yet taken on, requiring large human and financial resources, and the organisation of a complicated network of partners and activities. In the event, EEA was not able to secure all the funding on which its plans were based, but the partners agreed to proceed with the project nonetheless.
This decision placed inevitable strains on each organisation, since the only way to deliver the work with less funding was by drawing on core resources. Everyone had to work harder than normal to achieve normal results, like walking up a down escalator. It is likely that this contributed to a high turnover among EEA staff and artists, which further increased the pressure. For one partner (City Arts) the financial exposure was too great and it withdraw; happily, Ideas Test took their place so the project could go ahead at the scale anticipated.
These difficulties were substantial, and they have led EEA and the partners to review their working practice and learn the lessons. However, they should not distract from the very considerable successes of Paper Peace. If the human and organisational cost was important, so too was the quality of the engagement with communities, the training for young people and the artistic works created. Against the odds, Paper Peace achieved its planned objectives.
- The Peace Poem toured successfully to Coventry, Nottingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Dewsbury and London in November 2018, during the weeks following the Centenary of the Armistice that brought the First World War to an end.
- Four diverse groups of young people were recruited, trained and supported as creative producers, ensuring that the project was led by a new generation and that they had pathways to future work in the arts.
- A unique, interactive artistic installation – Blink – was created from the heritage resources and ideas of four local communities, and toured to places where such innovative contemporary work is rarely, if ever, seen. Large local audiences took up 90% of the installation’s capacity, often spending long periods of time interacting with the work, with the artists and each other, and giving very positive assessments of the experience.
In all this, the partnership was strengthened and its ambitions validated. The project achieved an unusual engagement by local communities too often marginalised in the work of cultural institutions. EEA’s model of producer training for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds was proven to be replicable in very different places and situations, and will bring lasting change in the partners’ work. But if Paper Peace showed what they could achieve, all the partners were clear that lack of resources had been damaging and unsustainable. If this was largely kept from undermining the quality of the final work, it had made the process less rich and imposed undue strain on small organisations with few reserves.
The lesson of Paper Peace is double-edged. It demonstrates that it is possible to involve new, diverse and disadvantaged communities in committed and innovative artistic projects that have deep resonance in their lives. But unless such projects have the security of resources that most larger cultural institutions can take for granted, they will not be sustainable or fulfil their potential in rolling back structural inequalities. If the present government’s levelling-up agenda is to mean anything in arts and culture, it must include levelling-up creative work in disadvantaged communities.