Ideas Test: engaging communities in the arts

Ideas Test: engaging communities in the arts

By Ecorys UK
Creative People and Places Network


Ideas Test shares how working with Community Catalysts has changed local perceptions of art and is helping redefine it into something which is accessible, interesting and relevant.

Ideas Test is a programme of arts and cultural activity in Swale & Medway. Located on the Thames Estuary in North Kent, Swale & Medway is an area characterised by a lack of arts infrastructure and professional networks, and a low level of arts engagement.

The aims of the project are to increase opportunities for people in the local area to take part in arts and creative activity. It also seeks to use arts and creativity to empower people to experiment with new and radically different approaches and to develop an inspiring, sustainable arts programme that will continue to engage and motivate people in local communities towards the arts over the long-term.

Ideas Test is one of 21 Creative People and Places (CPP) programmes funded by Arts Council England, and it is delivered by a consortium comprised of representatives from local arts, community and voluntary sector organisations, which is chaired by Swale Community and Voluntary Service (SCVS), and includes Creek Creative, Sheppey Matters, Medway Voluntary Action, Gulbenkian Theatre, and Whitstable Biennale.

This case study draws on interviews with Ideas Test staff and Community Catalysts. Community Catalysts are a mix of professional and amateur artists, volunteers from local groups and organisations, as well as other local people otherwise disassociated with the arts who work to stimulate and promote community engagement. It looks at how Ideas Test has worked with Community Catalysts, the key outcomes of the project, including what worked well and less well and the main lessons that have been learned.

  • Ideas Test has community engagement at the heart of its programme and has built a network of over 100 Community Catalysts that have been involved in all aspects of the programme from design to decision making. With support from Ideas Test, the Community Catalysts have also devised and led on numerous small projects, which have been both artistically experimental and engaging for the local community.
  • Ideas Test’s approach to the programme is open and inclusive to anyone who is interested regardless of whether they are an arts practitioner or not. This has allowed the programme to develop organically from the grassroots and be responsive to the needs of the community, which means that more local people are slowly starting to see arts in a different light and are more likely to want to engage with arts and culture.
  • Local amateur and professional artists have benefitted from the professional and learning opportunities in different ways, both from their engagement as a Community Catalyst and from Ideas Test’s funding for small projects, which have enabled them to develop and deliver engaging arts projects. Over time this has helped to increase the local arts offer as many Community Catalysts have gone on to create more work for the local community.

In contrast to the affluent and picturesque towns and villages of West Kent, many parts of Swale & Medway are characterised by pockets of high deprivation, with many Lower Layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs) in places such as Sheerness, Murston, Leysdown and Warden, and Sheppey being in the most deprived 10 per cent of neighbourhoods in England. Although Swale & Medway is predominantly rural, with a number of dispersed villages and small towns, there are three main towns in Swale (Sittingbourne, Faversham and Sheerness) and five main towns in Medway (Chatham, Gillingham, Rainham, Rochester and Strood). Many of the villages and towns in the area were built around the maritime, industrial and agricultural activities, but the decline of heavy industry had a devastating impact on the area, resulting in high levels of unemployment, health inequalities, poor educational attainment, and a lack of investment in local facilities, including the local art infrastructure.

Prior to CPP, local attitudes towards arts were very mixed. Reasons for not engaging in the arts include low levels of interest in the arts and a perception that the arts are not relevant to local people.

According to Ideas Test there was quite a lot of suspicion about the arts and people who are not from the local area. The challenge for Ideas Test in developing a local arts programme was therefore to engage a wide range of people who may have thought the arts was not for them and have had limited opportunities to experience arts and cultural activities. So Ideas Test made a conscious decision to employ a local person to work on their audience development (and the wider programme), which has enabled them to identify people who were interested in becoming Community Catalysts and to reach out to local people more effectively.

Download the full case study to read on:
Ideas Test: engaging communities in the arts (PDF)

Image: Ideas Test Engaging Communities in the Arts. Giant Balloon Show Event. Photo by Hope Fitzgerald.

Resource type: Case studies | Published: 2017