Ideas Test at No. 34 – taking over a High Street shop to increase engagement
Ideas Test, one of the first seven Creative People and Places (CPP) projects in England moved to No. 34, Sittingbourne High Street in December 2015 and were on the site for just over 4 years. Find out how they used the space to increase opportunities for the local community to get involved in the arts.
“I felt free to try anything really, it’s quite an un-intimidating space in that sense.”
Artist Rosie James
“So friendly, accommodating and pushed our creativity to its limits. This place is amazing, you should check it out. Get in there quick as the seats are few”
Regular participant who started a degree course following workshops at No. 34
Ideas Test is part of the national Creative People and Places project, funded by Arts Council England serving the communities of Swale and Medway to live more creative lives.
Ideas Test moved to No. 34 on Sittingbourne High Street in December 2015, and were on the site for just over 4 years.
The building is owned by Spirit of Sittingbourne, a partnership between Swale Borough Council and U + I Ltd, a London -based property developer linked with the regeneration of Sittingbourne.
No.34 launch event, 2015. Photos: LightTone Studios
We were invited to move into the High Street shop for a peppercorn rent, initially to share the public space displaying information about Spirit of Sittingbourne project and use the empty upstairs offices. Ideas Test was never asked to represent the regeneration scheme and the partners in any way but we were a public access point for them.
We saw this as an opportunity to host a range of events meeting our priorities in a place that was accessible. This invitation was welcome after a period of 3 years operating from a small office in Faversham on the eastern fringes of our geography.
How Ideas Test used the space
• A showcase for local artists work and artist led workshops
• A visible presence for Ideas Test in one part of our location that is among the most deprived.
• A space to share for other partners and for community use, such as Porchlight support drop-ins, RBLI job support, Optivo training sessions, and regular Swale Community Empowerment Network meetings.
• A delivery space for our funded work e.g. Disquiet youth music sessions
• A meeting space for us and other partners, accessible from Sittingbourne Railway Station
Young at HeArt Craft Club session, Paper Flowers with Laura Murphy. Photograph by Jane Pitt
Audiences for activities at No. 34 were the same core target for Ideas Test in “Phase 2”, April 2017- April 2020:
- 14-25 year olds
- 55+ groups
Examples of targeted activity taking place in the building
Robot Racing with Su Adams. Photo: Jon Pratty
Creative Job Club
For those aged between 18-30, funded by RBS Skills and Opportunities Fund. Having the building meant a stable base for monthly meet ups, opportunities for participants to call in for support as required, planned mentorship sessions and public delivery work experience.
Mr Polluto by Total Insight Theatre
Our ‘Small is Beautiful’ commission of £5K was a call-out to performance artists to send a proposal to a community panel to select and support in No. 34 and their own small and unusual spaces such as the Optivo House in Kemsley. Mr Polluto was a delightful and funny puppet show with a junk modelling workshop to inspire families to think about their waste.
Young at HeArt
A programme for people 55+, supported by Awards for All with Swale CVS and Swale Seniors. The programme consisted of fortnightly meet-ups focussed on a club format that featured art forms requested by those people taking part.
What participants said
Sittingbourne Barn Community Consultation, 2018 with Friends of Milton Creek Country Park & Whitstable Biennale. Photo: Cassandra Gibbs
No 34 came along like an oasis in the desert. It is easily accessible being in theHigh Street and the staff are friendly and approachable.
As a pensioner living alone, I think Ideas Test is a real asset to our community. I.. started by trying out several new crafts at No.34. The friendly, welcoming staff make it easy to join in and it’s a safe space to chat and meet new people.
Measuring the costs for the space
Ideas Test invested just over £4K in No. 34 during Quarter 1 of 2019, forecast to be £16250 for the year. This has been a steady cost throughout our time in the building and rent has remained well under £450 per month.
These outgoings can be seen in the context that:
- Before moving to the property in 2014/5 the organisation spent approximately £7300 on hiring office space and associated expenses. Though this was less than half the value of the current cost we had to rely on other venues for programme delivery.
- During 2016 if we'd incurred costs to hire spaces to run our events, even on our own low rates (£70 per day) 145 sessions would have cost us £10,150.Some income has been generated from room hires at No. 34. Our day and half-day rates were kept in line with other local charities, and we have seen a return of £585 hire income in the last quarter.
- We have had co location and co working enquiries that the building cannot accommodate but which indicates potential in the longer term.
- The value of the time spent with third sector partners is greater than the cash income. Fruitful relationships have resulted from shared use with community groups such as Optivo Housing Association, Princes Trust and CXK.
- However we (and others) have felt the impact of cuts to funding in terms of this revenue - it just about covers the rent. It does not cover the admin involved in running a venue and a percentage of other overheads.
- In terms of bringing earned income into the building from audiences we have found that cost is an issue – but people are willing to pay a modest amount because they value the offer.
“I would be quite happy to make a small contribution to the Young at HeArt club, particularly if it was going to keep it going longer.”
“I think the day schools are quite reasonably priced, it’s just that they were just one after the other. They just needed to be spaced out.”
Participant Voice Survey 2018, led by Sarah Boiling and Clare Thurman
Arts in the High Street
Nicole Mollet makes paper theatres at No. 34 with participants as a part of her More Than 100 Stories exhibition and residency. Photograph by Jane Pitt.
The aim of the public facing programme at No.34 has always been to have cross benefits for communities, participants, artists and stakeholders. One clear example of this has been the Stairwell & Window Gallery programme, curated by artists Nicole Mollett and Jane Pitt.
Melissa Mardon’s Landing at Dawn (in progress), exhibited at No.34. Photograph by Melissa Mardon
This work was supported by a strand specific programme assistant, Katie Fiore, who documented the activity in a book of conversations with the exhibitors. She identified:
The process… (highlighted) the benefits of exhibiting and the role of the artist in society. During their exhibition period each artist led a drop-in workshop in the space, a public hands on sharing of an element of their practice that led us to discuss the ways in which the facilitation of workshops can inform & enrich both artists and participants.
The gallery also forms part of the Ideas Test team’s workplace, this day to day proximity to artwork and the interactions that occur between the team & each artist stimulates everybody.
The observations the artists made during the first 6 month period reflected the team’s sense of the social value of the place.
Marissa Mardon painting workshop at No.34, 2018. Photo: Kyra Cross
I think there is a common misconception that artists are snooty and distant and doing a workshop can dispel this. Public workshops allow people to participate in something that may not have been available to them at school, they are able to meet other local people and exchange tips and hints with the artists. [Engaging with the community not only] allows for exposure but also allows for opportunity both for the artist and the participant to learn from each other.
Artist Kate Linforth
Well, because I think art is so important to our being and our society, and.. artists aren’t necessarily extremely visible, culture isn’t top of the agenda. So naturally people are doing it and everyone benefits from people doing it but if they were more visible….. there’s a great understanding and great celebration of it. Particularly if children and young people see how it’s done, and see that it’s valued, then that can make a difference, yes….but if there are people in the community doing it, then it seems more legitimate…
Artist Nicola Flower
Rosemary and Gerald, two regulars visitors of No.34, at the Private View for the portraits of them by photographer Stephen King for a national Creative People and Places celebration campaign about art for all, 2018. Photo: Kyra Cross
The exchange felt by the artists was experienced by people joining in:
Yes, and then you think you’ll make a fool of yourself. But the teachers at both the classes I came to were so good at helping you every step of the way, so it didn’t matter if you couldn’t draw. They were so well organised and prepared, weren’t they?
Participant Voice Survey 2018, led by Sarah Boiling and Clare Thurman
So many people who respond tell us about the social benefits of having a place they feel they are part of…
There is so much of community spirit lost these days and social media takes a lot of the social away from people that need it. Being a single mum of four is hard work and isolating so having something for families and parents to connect is amazing.
The work that has been done by Ideas Test and the provision of an extremely varied programme of activities over the past year has been invaluable and has enriched the lives of all participants, in particular, from my point of view, of those aged 55 and over. I have been privileged to take part in many of the activities and they have opened up and developed interest in so many things which would not have been open to me without the provision of such an extensive programme. I have, through those activities, met so many more people who have become friends.
Start Up Slam, 2017. Graffiti workshop at the back of No.34 with illustrator Greg Stobbs. Photo: Kyra Cross
This Start Up Slam has been just as good as the first. I’ve made new friends and got to hang out with old ones. I loved all the workshops and it has been a really relaxing environment. Thank you so much!
Start Up Slam 2 participant
I thought that this place was very well organised and had a lovely community. I knew straight away I would enjoy my time helping out.
Mid Kent College student volunteer
* Start Up Slam were two programmes of workshops for young people during holidays that gave them practical experiences of creative jobs.
Challenges of maintaining a public space
Ideas Test serves a large geography – 565 square km - and parts of it are difficult to get to, especially if you are not a car owner. Having a public base in one of the major towns has been one solution to making ourselves visible and available. We are in easy reach of the railway station and a huge number of bus routes.
We saw a large number of exchanges take place because people unexpectedly discovered us and came in to find out what we can offer. Everybody working at No.34 has had the question “what are you doing here?” regularly. This has happened on both individual and organisational basis resulting in:
- Peer-to-peer recommendations building from people who have joined in our activities and share their experiences on social media e.g: “Excellent to take the kids for a few hours. Staff are lovely and friendly. Highly recommended xx”
- Service leads or link workers from other bodies calling in e.g. Porchlight team members found No.34 whilst meeting at a café opposite. We chatted about share priorities and supporting the delivery of our LGBTQ+ and Digital Natives projects for under 25s through their Live It Well programme.
However, we have to weigh up a really central location within a smaller demographic (relative to Medway) against the positive aspects of being more nomadic, fluid and adaptable to opportunity and embracing change.
In Phase 3 and in common with other CPPs we also have far fewer resources.
An interim evaluation report carried out by MB Associates in December 2018 highlighted that:
- Servicing our building asset meant that 92% of Ideas Test events took place in Swale during 2017/8.
- Whilst the team is taking great care to seek out more opportunities for delivery in Medway, and other locations in Swale, there was always a bias in the ME10 postcode area, just 11% of our total audience.
Whilst No. 34 is easy to find and reach by public transport it is not fully accessible as a venue and this is an issue for our work with over 55s and other groups.
At this point in our history we were not an independent charity able to raise core or capital funds.
No. 34 was effectively bought by the regeneration partnership for positive public relations in the town as the process evolved. Our contacts were in the marketing department who very much support our work and have continued to bring valuable resource in time, consultation and sponsorship of our programme.
The property division of U+I Ltd is radically different, almost impossible to contact and do little to maintain the building. We have had to face a number of issues with utilities due to non payment of bills by the developer.
Way No. 34 could be more appealing
I used to walk past and think it looks like it could be interesting, but it didn’t look particularly inviting.
Once you’ve been in and you’ve met the ladies and they’re so nice, it’s just when you’re standing outside, for some reason it’s just not welcoming. And I have said this to the girls before, before I got involved here I’d come past and think ‘Oh…’ I’d never felt that I could come in. I don’t know how you get around that.
Views from Participant Voice Survey 2018, led by Sarah Boiling and Clare Thurman
Based on our experiences, feedback and independent evaluation we have taken action to make the most of our key location.
Recent examples included:
- Working with partners to bring people in for other community events or exhibitions.
- These included events from Swale CVS, Diversity House, Swale Community Empowerment Forum, Swale in Bloom, and Minster Gatehouse Museum.
- We set a brief for University of Kent Fine Art students to respond to the Sarah Boiling and Clare Thurman report.
- A session for another community panel was facilitated by Ideas Test and tutors from University of Kent where the students presented their proposals and 3 were selected.
- Ideas Test has subsequently been successful in getting a £5000 investment from U+ I Ltd to realise the student proposals which include digital projection and sound.
- Broadcasting sound artist Jane Pitt's Listening Post (recordings of local people's memories) to the High Street using audio transducers which turn No.34’s windows into speakers. They can be used in other Pop Up events / places.
- Expand No 34 out into the street such as the table top performances and puppet-making workshops by Strangeface and a Lantern-making workshop for the Swale Fusion Festival 2019.
Spaced by Strangeface, 10 minute tabletop performance. Photograph by Rebecca Caudell
Being at No.34 has been a huge privilege and we have been largely embraced by the local community. We have had the real benefit of being able to meet our Phase 2 target audiences (14-25, Families, 55+) and given us a great exchange with people and artists in the ME10 postcode.
Moving into Phase 3 we need to rebalance our method of delivery whilst maintaining the great relationships the building has facilitated. We look forward to the next stage 2020-23.
Lucy Medhurst, Director and Bethan Tomlinson, Operations and Touring Manager, Ideas Test