Towards a Community of ‘Amateur Creativity’ Research? (II)

In late January 2016 a group of researchers gathered in Leeds to discuss ‘everyday creativity’. This gathering once again brings into focus the possibility that a new research agenda is emerging – one which draws together a range of disciplinary interests in modes of cultural and creative practice that have previously been marginal, or beyond the purview of cultural policy and academic inquiry.

As discussed in a previous post, we may be seeing a rising interest in amateur and ‘everyday’ creativity within academic research. The Understanding Everyday Participation (UEP) and Amateur Theatre projects, to name two, each open up important questions about the sites, nature and value of cultural ‘participation’.

The occasion for this coming together in Leeds – of researchers from a range of disciplines including theatre, media and cultural studies, cultural policy and sociology – was a series of roundtable discussions being undertaken by 64 Million Artists, funded by Arts Council England (ACE). Continue reading

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We are now halfway through the Get Creative Research Project and have written an internal interim evaluation report, drawing on our research to date, which has been circulated to the Stakeholder group running the campaign. This has been a fairly substantial piece of work which – although provisional – lays out a series of interim findings and recommendations. While the report itself is not public, we can give an indication of some of the aspects of the Get Creative campaign on which we have been reporting at this stage. These include the clarity of the overall aim(s) of Get Creative, the role of the ‘Champions’ within the campaign, and the modes and effectiveness of partnership working between the organisations involved. More generally, the ambitiousness of running a campaign across such a wide variety of creative forms on a national scale has become clear, including the challenges and opportunities this presents. Continue reading

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‘Laboratories of Fun’ – Fun Palaces Weekend 2015

The 3rd and 4th October 2015 saw the second ever Fun Palaces weekend. Under the banner of ‘Everyone an artist, everyone a scientist’, the idea for Fun Palaces was developed in the 1960s by the radical theatre maker Joan Littlewood, in collaboration with the architect Cedric Price.

The Fun Palaces they wanted to create were never realised. But in 2014, twelve years after Littlewood’s death, Stella Duffy and a small number of collaborators succeeded in bringing the idea to life, with 138 Fun Palaces created across the UK. There was considerable diversity across these sites, consistent with the spirit of the project:

The principles are that each Fun Palace is Free, Local, Innovative, Transformative and Engaging. […] Fun Palaces are about creating and making together: they are a space where arts and sciences, fun and learning meet, working alongside and working together. […] You can make or join a Fun Palace in whatever way best suits you and your neighbours; with play, experiments, stories and discovery. High art and hard science are as welcome as the fun and the games. Each Fun Palace is unique, self-generating, self-supporting and local. Some may just be moments, some may last the whole weekend.

Duffy has written about the history of the idea of the Fun Palace and about the process of bringing the idea to life. This contemporary realization of Littlewood’s project maintains the boldness of that original vision. Continue reading

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A new dawn for partnership working in the arts?

Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC, made headlines recently when he gave a speech at King’s College London announcing a new era of an ‘open BBC’. An integral part of this openness, he described, will be giving a new priority to partnership working. Hall mentioned the Get Creative campaign as an example of a recent success in this area.

In his speech, Hall responded to criticisms of the BBC’s track record in partnership working, saying ‘I believe the BBC has improved as a partner organisation’. Certainly under his leadership this issue is being highlighted and discussed in new ways. One initiative is a ‘Cultural Enquiry’ in this area, to be launched on 13th October. King’s College London has commissioned this report, in collaboration with the BBC, into ‘the role partnership plays in enabling publicly funded cultural institutions to enhance the quality and diversity of their work across the UK.’ The Cultural Enquiry defines partnership working as ‘a working relationship between two or more organisations in which both the risks and benefits are shared with the shared aims of delivering tangible benefits to the partners and the public.’ The zeitgeist, in this age of austerity, seems to be that working together is integral to survival for arts organisations. Watch this space for more details of the report after the launch. Continue reading

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Towards a Community of ‘Amateur Creativity’ Research?

Within days of beginning the Get Creative Research Project we came across the AHRC funded initiative, ‘Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space’, and were excited to find that a symposium coming out of the project would be taking place at the University of Warwick in mid-September. The Amateur Dramatics project – of which Helen Nicholson is the Principal Investigator – is a collaboration between Royal Holloway and the Universities of Exeter and Warwick, where co-Investigators Jane Milling and Nadine Holdsworth are based respectively. The project also involves two PhD projects, undertaken by Cara Gray and Sarah Penny.

Attending the symposium in Warwick on 17th and 18th September was a great opportunity to hear more about the work of the Amateur Dramatics initiative, and to engage with the work of researchers within theatre studies (and some from other disciplines, including media studies and anthropology) whose research is also exploring histories, sites and practices of amateur creativity. In her opening remarks, Helen Nicholson suggested that amateur creativity is in the “zeitgeist”, and that this is “an agenda setting moment”. This resonates with our feeling on the Get Creative Research Project. But why has this upsurge of interest in amateur practice come about? How do we account for this feature of the zeitgeist? Is it a consequence of technological changes? Funding conditions? Broader shifts in (cultural) politics? Continue reading

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Problems with being a person while studying people

One of the problems of doing qualitative social research is that you are trying to study people while also being a person. This can get very complicated. As a researcher, I can’t take myself out of the equation, as I need myself to be present while I design the project, write a questionnaire and interview schedule, and carry out interviews/observations/focus groups with other people. And then I also need myself to do the analysis of the material gathered. But people will react to me in certain ways because I’m a tall, confident, white, normatively feminine, New Zealand-accented woman. Some people will trust me, and others will think I’m annoying, privileged, or just a bit strange, and this will mean that the data I gather is going to be partly dependent on these reactions. Also, I will probably react in various ways to the people I encounter as part of my research, thanks to my political commitments, my spiritual background, my class, race and gender identity, and the kinds of spaces I feel comfortable in and less comfortable in. So, I’m starting to do some of the reflexive work that researchers need to do in order to be aware of the ways in which we ourselves might affect the data gathered.

The selection bias that comes from some people feeling comfortable with being involved in research, and with talking to me as a researcher, was clearly visible in my PhD research with young, mainly white, middle-class classical musicians in England. I played in various youth music groups, and carried out interviews with some of the young musicians, trying to get as wide a variety of interviewees as I could within the groups in question. However, while most of the young people were very happy to be interviewed, there were a few who were reluctant to participate in an interview, or when I did interview them, gave minimal answers and didn’t seem at ease in the encounter. All three of the people with whom this happened were young men, and two were British Asian young men. I think this is significant – i.e. this pattern wasn’t by chance. I don’t know precisely why it happened, but I can speculate that either they felt uncomfortable talking to me (maybe because of my overwhelming good looks), or they felt uncomfortable with talking about their lives. Or there may have been another reason. Either way, it affected the story I was able to tell about these groups, because I was not able to represent the experience of British Asian participants in these groups (this happened with the only two British Asian young people in any of my groups). Continue reading

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Spaces of Creativity

A starting point for the Get Creative campaign is the idea that creativity does not only happen within arts organisations. As examples on the Get Creative website illustrate, creativity can take place at home, in village halls, in the woods, or alongside a football pitch. Nonetheless, as part of the process of celebrating and promoting ‘everyday’ creativity across the UK, the campaign has invited organisations of all sizes and types to sign up as Get Creative ‘Champions’. (See, also, blog post Week 5.) By putting on an event under the Get Creative banner, organisations can offer opportunities for participants to develop their own creativity.

In this way, the campaign implicitly draws attention to the fact that whilst creativity takes place in all different kinds of location, arts organisations can have an important role to play in providing platforms from which ‘extra institutional’ creative practices can develop. As part of our role as evaluators of the campaign we will be investigating the different strategies Get Creative Champions have adopted in doing this: a process through which we hope to reflect on what lessons can be learned for similar initiatives in the future.

But by paying attention to these strategies – and, importantly, by working with organisations and individuals outside of the campaign as well as with Champions – we also aim to open up a broader set of questions concerning ‘spaces of creativity’. Continue reading

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Who is the amateur?

One of the key terms in this research is ‘amateur’. The Get Creative campaign is aimed at amateurs, or those who are not yet involved in amateur arts but would like to be. And Voluntary Arts, one of the key stakeholders, represents umbrella organisations of amateur arts groups, as I discussed in a previous blog post. However, trying to narrow down what this term means is far from straightforward, and some of our reading and discussions have thrown up some interesting questions around it.

What is an amateur? The OED tells us that it is ‘one who loves or is fond of; one who has a taste for anything.’ but a second meaning, more to our purposes, is ‘one who cultivates anything as a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally; hence, sometimes used disparagingly, as = dabbler, or superficial student or worker.’  There is a reference to the amateur in relation to the arts from 1803; this makes sense as it was in the late 18th and early 19th century that the idea arose of the arts as ‘autonomous’ or not associated with a particular social function (Shiner 2001). Continue reading

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The Role and Value of Expertise

The Get Creative campaign runs from February 2015 to February 2016. A wide range of broadcasts and activities will be flying the Get Creative flag over these twelve months, including BBC output and events run by (nearly) one thousand Get CreativeChampions’ – cultural organisations of many sizes and types that have signed up to contribute to the campaign.

Many of the BBC’s Get Creative broadcasts are programmes that would have existed even if the campaign had not happened: output that was already in production but which dovetails neatly with the aims of Get Creative, and which has therefore taken its place within the initiative. However, the campaign has also been the spur to one piece of bespoke programming, a series of four half-hour programmes that address some of the central themes of the campaign. Will Gompertz Gets Creative follows the BBC’s arts editor as he visits a different art group each week, trying his hand at life-drawing in Brighton, spoken word in London, pottery in Hampshire, and song-writing in Coventry.

Broadcast on Radio 4 at 10.30am on Saturday mornings, and featured prominently on the BBC Arts webpages, the series is one of the most high profile explorations of the campaign’s concerns to date. Listening to these programmes with my researcher’s hat on, a cluster of questions asserted themselves noisily through each of the four art sessions: what are the challenges and rewards of ‘getting creative’? In what variety of ways – through what vocabularies, and within what implicit accounts of ‘value’ – might the processes of ‘getting creative’ be understood and discussed? And what might be the role of expertise in these processes? Continue reading

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Week 4 – Online creative communities

One of the things that’s been on my mind over the last three weeks, as we design a research project around everyday creativity in the UK, is the role of online creative communities. This is particularly interesting as the campaign we are evaluating, the BBC’s Get Creative campaign, has a digital presence, and is encouraging people to participate in various ways, such as entering competitions or submitting their artwork.

In order get a sense of some of the everyday creative practice that is going on in the UK, the internet seems like an obvious place to look. My interest in online creative communities was initially sparked some years ago by learning about slash fiction, a type of fan fiction, from a friend who writes it. This involves taking two fictional male characters from different shows, films, or books (often sci-fi), and writing a homoerotic story around them. My friend would use slash fiction as a way of improving her writing – the advantage of online writing communities, she argued, is that she would get immediate feedback on what she’d written. Other members of the community might request a piece of slash fiction featuring two particular characters, and she would have to write something convincing. A challenge, if someone requests for Han Solo to get it on with Ron Weasley. Continue reading

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