Broadening access to the widest possible audience without lowering quality is central to the work of many community arts organisations. Barbara Wheeler Early explains how excellence and accessibility are achieved in Free Form Arts Trust?s urban improvement projects.
Community arts have opened up the whole question of where art is located and the place it has in people?s lives. They have anticipated many of the issues addressed by public policy relating to urban renaissance, social inclusion and lifelong learning.
A pioneer of participative community projects, Free Form Arts Trust is a multidisciplinary artist practice established in 1969. It exists to undertake innovative projects in community arts as a way of involving people in the improvement of the physical and social urban environment, and to create possibilities for artists to produce work that can benefit communities. Over the years we have consistently worked to empower marginalised groups to play a significant role in regenerating their locality. This work has grown to encompass large public arts projects within urban regeneration, involving concept design, project management and community involvement. On average every year, aside from the in-house artists, we commission 50 artists and 100 fabricators for a wide range of projects, many of them coming from our 16 week training scheme for qualified fine arts graduates.
We have always insisted that the work produced is of the highest quality. This goal has been achieved, not in spite of our commitment to opening up the arts to more people, but because of it. At a time when many communities are suffering from that newly recognised-regeneration syndrome, ?consultation fatigue?, the arts have the power to reach and engage people on many levels in shaping the futures of their neighbourhoods. We have pioneered participatory methods that enable groups usually excluded from the regeneration agenda to shape the built environment of their communities. Creating imaginative site-specific designs and building upon the heritage of a community is an exciting way to improve the urban environment and ensure long-term sustainability through local participation and ownership.
The Oracle Centre in Reading illustrates one aspect of our work. The Oracle is a town centre development with retail shopping and leisure facilities - part of the transformation and regeneration of a blighted town centre. It was recognised that the art could play a key role in this regeneration, so we were involved from the earliest planning stages and commissioned to develop the arts strategy for the site.
This involvement in the conceptual development stages of the project provided a tool by which the local community was able to become a positive and creative part of the process. The result is more than a retail development; it?s a vibrant expression of the public?s desire for communal spaces for activity and interaction.
We were chosen by Peckham Partnership to design and implement public art and environmental improvements for Rye Lane. The importance of improved lighting features emerged out of our consultations with local residents as to what should be done. It was clear that lighting was a safety as well as a design issue and the proposals that came out of the community consultations formed an essential part of the design process. The lighting that was developed was showcased at London?s Design Museum. The original scope of the contract was extended with further community involvement in detail designs and production of the International Carpet of Flowers with artist Annie Wiles.
New arts facility
We are now developing the Hothouse, a major new-build state-of-the-art facility for artists specialising in urban regeneration. The £3m building, to be sited on a brownfield site at the edge of London Fields, will provide new headquarters for us, together with studio production space for artists, facilities for training, a conference and multi-purpose space, a library and live-work units for artists. The library will include a living archive of our past and present that will incorporate oral history interviews with many of those who have been involved with us over the years as artists and clients.
The Hothouse is already home to a green bottle recycling production unit that glass artist David Watson and Free Form are developing. It uses 100% recycled glass to produce glass blocks for urban design, paving, art works and regeneration schemes, bringing together two key areas of excellence in urban design - environmental sustainability and creative innovation. As well as involving schools and young people, it promotes partnership-working between local authorities, planners and architects, and between waste managers and glass manufacturers. We are carrying out research into the possible use of recycled glass for flooring, the reception desktop and for a bridge over a water feature.
Barbara Wheeler-Early is Associate Director of Free Form Arts Trust t: 020 7249 3394, e: firstname.lastname@example.org