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Giving Ourselves Bigger Challenges

‘Our Place’ was an open title to begin with – we wanted Crisis members to have an opportunity to change it if they preferred something different. Increasingly, we are trying to involve members in the whole process in the development of projects, such as the selection processes and other decision making - the voice of Crisis members we work with is a very important part of how we develop what we do: we listen. It was a risk to set something up without knowing if we’d have participants, so I think there was quite a lot of learning around that as well. As the Visual Arts Manager, I remember feeling quite anxious, there was a point when I was thinking, are there going to be enough people for this project to go ahead? You have to trust that it is going to happen. You just need to take a deep breath and go with your conviction in the integrity of the project… you’ve got to be true to yourself and to what you believe in. And then it did all fall in to place and several people signed-up to take part in the project.

We decided, as with previous projects, that there would be a model of having a lead artist/artist in residence then bringing in other artists specifically suited to mentoring individual Crisis members. We also had in mind that the sort of artist we wanted to work with needed to be someone who would be very good at being a mentor to other artists. We developed what I feel was more of an art school format, looking at a few individuals having a very intense and very tailored experience, rather than it being a group working towards a similar outcome. Sometimes art work can deal with tough issues and indeed with Our Place, some of the concepts that came out of it were subtle and conceptually very interesting, and not necessarily that obvious, and I think that’s through the nature of having more in depth conversations and developing good relationships between the mentors and mentees. So it narrowed down and there were only three artists who ended up following the whole project through from beginning to end. But I think there is a massive value in the depth of experience gained through this approach. If three people have a really intense in-depth experience, where there’s a lot of learning happening, sometimes it is better to be supporting that, rather than maybe 15 people having a relatively superficial experience. I think we need to be quite courageous with that way of working. I felt with this it was important to give the members an opportunity to really develop their own thinking and art practice, refining the conceptual aspects of it, and we were being more ambitious by giving ourselves bigger challenges in the process. It demonstrates that there is the same level of rigour in terms of our expectations and the standards of the presentation of work for mentees as there is for any other artist who creates or exhibits with us.

For one member, being encouraged to consider ‘Our Place’ not in a very literal sense, led him to looking at the little bits of dust and the residue that we leave around the place. There’s something very profound to what he was doing and what he chose to investigate, - putting this detritus under the microscope and seeing the beauty in it. I found it very moving that somebody who’s been homeless, vulnerably housed, really rock bottom in their life, feeling like they are that bit of rubbish on the floor that’s been discarded, being able to pick that up and see that that has potential and beauty in it and use it as a metaphor in their artwork. I thought that was an interesting, thoughtful process and he’s a fantastic example of someone who has really embraced the opportunities, put huge amounts of commitment into it and has made a massive journey from when I first met him. He’s wanting to pursue his future as an artist, he’s at art college now. Hopefully this was a useful stepping stone within that process, so I think it was seeing just one person make such a big journey, and the quality of work he produced - that makes it all incredibly worthwhile.

One of the key people from one of the organisations that put funding into the project came to an art session to observe and meet some of the artists, and he had quite in-depth conversations with some of the artists, staying much longer than he had intended and afterwards he said how much he enjoyed it, and appreciated being able to call in on the project in progress. I think he gained an insight into the way we work and the impact it was having and how important that was. if people from outside the OFS pick up how much of a difference it does make to people’s lives and their confidence then that’s very important, because I think it also contributes to raising Crisis members’ self-esteem and confidence. Here, people can feel they are in a safe place, and feel supported in what might initially seem to them like slightly bizarre ideas, so with one member and the little bits of dust off the floor to another member with the used rags and paint residue in the sink, I think it made for really interesting work which was coming from the heart.

This is the first time in my career that I’ve worked in an arts organisation that works across art forms. I’ve tended to always work more in a gallery context and I’m finding it really fascinating just seeing how things work in performing arts - theatre and music etc there are a lot of differences in the approach and the way people talk about what they are doing, so I’m learning from that, and my way of working is shifting. There’s not only an ‘outwardly inclusive’ approach, inclusion is built into how the two organisations collaborate within the building I feel as an organisation there’s a real openness and an enthusiasm for embracing a sound way of working, which has an ethical base and is very inclusive, and it’s what I feel passionate about in terms of who I am, and the way I want to work. You pick up on the conversations that are going on around you and learn a lot from that.

I’ve been conscious in the time that I’ve been here that there is a constant discussion in the background about how the two organisations (AOFS and Crisis) work together, it’s a fairly unique model, and it’s constantly evolving. I’m really enjoying being part of that journey, it’s informing my professional practice. I like this way of collaborative working and I like the way there’s the possibility to weave in what we’re doing as an organisation, such as support for artists, and for there to be ongoing training and development happening across the teams - it’s embedded in how we work. It’s really good for artists who are supporting other artists to feel like they have been supported by the AOFS team as well.

I do feel very committed to this organisation, I feel it is a very supportive environment to work in. For example, I think there’s a sense of people being supportive even if things don’t go to plan, I know there’s a lot of things said about being able to learn from failure, but I do feel this is the kind of environment where that can happen. Funnily enough, when it comes to it, you don’t get a lot of failure because it just encourages people to give their best and be totally committed to things and see things through. It’s partly feeling that you can really trust each person is doing their own bit, and doing it well.

Our Place has been very informative for me in terms of understanding what seems to work particularly well here, and what we can build on for the future. I think my expectation of what we can do has become more refined as a result of the project. Part of it has been developing a sense of the community of Arts at the Old Fire Station, because what I’ve noticed is that lots of people are very loyal to the place and return to be involved over and over again. When artists come to us with interesting proposals this is a ‘can do’ organisation. I think that is how we build good relationships. Even now I feel a huge sense of achievement. I feel really inspired for all the different ways that we could work in the future as well.


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