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).

64 Million Artists was created in 2014 by Jo Hunter and David Micklem, as an initiative through which to promote what they refer to as ‘everyday creativity’. Jo and David take a range of approaches to this. One is to send out creative ‘challenges’ to the 1600 people across the UK who have signed up to receive a weekly email suggesting a simple task or prompt as a spur to creativity. Another is more like action research, as, for example, in recent weeks Jo has spent time at a toothpaste factory in Folkestone, opening up 20 minute windows for creativity within staff members’ working days.

In these ways and others, 64 Million Artists is interested in exploring possibilities for embedding opportunities for creativity within everyday life – rather than seeing creative activity as separate, and the preserve of a special class of creatives.

As part of the ongoing work of 64 Million Artists, Jo and David are keen to support greater communication between the range of initiatives already taking place across the country. Wanting to avoid the all-too-common situation in which closely connected initiatives operate in silos, and aware that there are many individuals and groups around the UK who are also committed to some version of ‘everyday creativity’, 64 Millions approached ACE to support a series of events around the country through which to explore what is going on, what might be learnt from these activities, and how they might be better connected.

Jo and David are now part way through a series of ten events around the country, beginning in December 2015, and continuing to late spring 2016, through which they are bringing together a range of cultural practitioners with an interest in everyday creativity. Alongside these events, a further two gatherings have been scheduled to bring together academics with a research interest in this area.

The first of these was the meeting in Leeds, and it provided a great opportunity to hear about a broad range of interests and approaches to amateur and everyday creativity. The differences as well as the similarities were interesting and important. Perhaps the most immediately striking to me was the sense that some of the researchers present are coming to these issues with a particular concern with questions of cultural policy. At the same time, some researchers present – whilst studying examples of amateur creativity as social and potentially political practices – had not previously thought about their work in direct relation to questions of policy.

This is interesting in itself – helping to map the range of research interests that may connect to amateur and everyday creativity; and raising the question as to why this research field may be emerging and, to a greater or lesser extent, coalescing into an identifiable field of enquiry.

But it also points towards a question that the Get Creative Research Project team have been extremely interested in over recent weeks, and which the Leeds meeting confirmed is a very live question. That is, to what extent – and in what way – everyday creativity should be a matter for policy. To what extent are and should the agencies of cultural (and perhaps adjacent domains of) policy be involved in achieving particular conditions or outcomes for everyday creative practice?

These are big questions, and they are ones that the Get Creative Research team are keen to explore further. Our ongoing work on the Get Creative campaign provides one important case study through which to begin to investigate this question. As a UK wide initiative, drawing on the scale and reach of the BBC, the involvement of eight organisations of different size and type as members of the central Stakeholder Group, and having recruited over 1,000 Get Creative ‘Champions’ across the UK, the campaign constitutes a substantial experiment: a large-scale initiative to recognise and promote everyday creativity.

Of course there are many other ways of doing this. Two of the Stakeholder organisations – Fun Palaces and 64 Million Artists themselves – offer examples of initiatives with similar aims but operating very distinctively. There could be many other ways in which cultural policy – which of course operates through cultural organisations as well as through arts councils, government departments and other public bodies – could become more actively involved in this area.

But how should it? And might there be disadvantages to this? How might amateur and everyday creativity benefit from greater attention and support from policy makers? What can be offered?

– Recognition
– Funding
– Information
– Networking opportunities
– Infrastructure (e.g. transport, disability support, urban planning, education policy, etc.)?

Which policy actors might be best placed to be involved here? Is this a matter for national arts councils and the DCMS? What might be the role of education policy and local government?

These questions are very live, and they may in time involve a wide range of interested parties. Not least, they pose questions to arts and cultural organisations of different sizes and type, who – through initiatives like Get Creative – may be asked to consider what it means to take seriously the ambition to enable more people to exercise and develop their own creativity (as opposed to providing more opportunities for ‘access’ to be an audience member or viewer of other people’s creativity).

Academic research has a variety of potentially important roles to play here. This may include bringing historical perspectives to these debates, to indicate how these live questions came about, and how they relate to historical precedents and trajectories. To give just one example of this, the archival work Eleonore Belfiore is undertaking as part of the UEP project is exploring how it was that the nascent Arts Council, emerging out of the wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), separated itself off from the support of amateur practice. Historical work such as this can help show not only how our present came about, but indicate that other ways of doing things are possible.

Sociological and ethnographic work also has a potentially important role to play here. Some of the fieldwork we are undertaking as part of the Get Creative Research Project, for example, is investigating the different processes through which organisations of different kinds enable creativity to happen. As part of this we ask: what are the conditions (funding, expertise, networks, etc.) that allow this particular process to operate in the way that it does? This kind of research – which also pays close attention to the experience of the participants within these environments – can play an important role in opening the question of the value of creative practices, as well as identifying the particular conditions that allow creative environments of different kinds to come into being and endure.

The Get Creative Research team is very keen to explore these questions further. One of the exciting aspects of the meeting in Leeds was the sense that by bringing us together in the room, Jo and David were helping to constitute a community of everyday creativity researchers.

With a variety of research priorities – and a diversity of disciplinary, methodological and conceptual commitments and resources – this emerging community of interest has the potential to collaborate on an ongoing basis. In doing so, researchers in the humanities and social sciences working in this area may make a significant contribution to the debates through which the place of everyday creativity within UK cultural policy and practice will be shaped over the coming years.

These conversations are moving apace, and they span cultural policy, practice and research. The series of conversation that 64 Million Artists are convening provide an excellent opportunity for these three domains to speak to each other and develop a conversation that draws in perspectives and expertise from a range of people with an interest in the value and possibilities of everyday creativity.

For more information about 64 Million Artists and the series of conversations taking place over the coming weeks, please contact Jo Hunter or David Micklem at hello@64millionartists.com

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