When it comes to art and culture in Barking and Dagenham, local people call the shots. Miriam Nelken and Helen Ball share the story of the 100 Cultural Connectors.

Photo of Geraldine Pilgrim's 'Well'
Geraldine Pilgrim's 'Well'

Sheila Burnett

Creative Barking and Dagenham (CBD) aims to create a new collaborative approach to commissioning arts and culture in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, enabling more local people to experience arts and creative activities. It is one of 21 projects across England funded by the Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme.

When CBD first started in 2014 we knew that some of the issues affecting local arts engagement were a lack of places to find out information about creative activities, limited networking and development opportunities for the local arts sector. There was also a sense that the arts were irrelevant to most people, that they were mainly for kids or ‘posh people’. We believe that the key to making the arts relevant in our area is to put local people at the heart of our decision-making. So we have developed a network of over 100 local people, our Cultural Connectors, who work with us across all areas of the programme. Recruiting people initially was quite difficult, but what has worked has been a very low-tech approach. People didn’t respond to recruitment via community newsletters and were wary of anything that might be perceived as a council project, so the team started by getting out there and talking to people at every opportunity.

The network is open to new people and we seek out people who have never done this kind of thing before so that a whole range of voices are included

Our Cultural Connectors take part in commissioning panels, help recruit project staff, represent us at conferences and to the media, chair steering and focus groups, curate our festivals and develop and participate in projects. They also occasionally access paid creative work which has included working with Punchdrunk, Create London, Balbir Singh Company, Emergency Exit Arts and Barking and Dagenham Council among others. The network is open to new people and we seek out people who have never done this kind of thing before so that a whole range of voices are included.

Cultural Connectors are the key decision-makers when it comes to commissioning artists. We have five commissioning strands: our ‘Neighbourhood’ commissions place artists in residence on housing estates; ‘Landmark’ commissions invite artists to create new work responding to the heritage and architecture of the borough; the ‘People Going Places’ strand supports the development of local artists and arts organisations; and our ‘REACH’ strand supports high-quality, local creative events. We also have a steering group of Cultural Connectors who curate CBD festivals.

All commissions are selected by panels made up of a minimum of 60% Cultural Connectors with the other 40% drawn from our network of artistic advisers and local stakeholders. The CBD staff and board don’t vote on commissioning panels, which has made it easier for us to build trust with people locally as we can’t be seen as funding our favourites. It has also helped strengthen our relationships with artists as we can support and advise them in the application process without this affecting the decision-making.

Commissioning panels always include at least one Cultural Connector who is taking part for the first time to ensure that new views are always being introduced. CBD staff dedicate a lot of time to talking with Cultural Connectors about the context of the commissions and ensuring they are clear on our aims and objectives. We also facilitate regular visits to arts events and venues across London and beyond for Cultural Connectors to help ensure they have a range of arts experiences they can draw on.

One of our most ambitious Landmark commissions to date is currently running at a former pharmaceutical factory in Dagenham. Entitled ‘Well’, it’s a production by the artist Geraldine Pilgrim with a huge community cast. Its 170 performers include former factory employees, students from Barking and Dagenham College, ballroom dancing couples, choirs, line dancers, contemporary dance groups and gardeners. The Cultural Connectors have been involved in all aspects of the project, from interviewing the artist and commissioning the work to performing in it, volunteering with the production crew, promoting the show, accessing paid work supporting community participants and acting as ‘welcome hosts’ front of house.

The show has been featured in national media, but for us the most important thing has been the overwhelmingly positive feedback locally, and the way it has managed to attract non-arts audiences. We think that this is a direct result of our Cultural Connectors network.

Being part of the network has enabled Cultural Connectors to reflect on their own relationship with creativity and increase their cultural confidence. An example of this is Farida Mohammed’s story. Farida joined the network last year and was a member on the Landmarks commissioning panel which selected Geraldine Pilgrim’s Well project. She works part time in Barking Library, and when we met her she had recently moved to the borough from Leicester, had very little arts experience and was looking for ways to meet new people. She found being on the commissioning panel such a positive and empowering experience that it inspired her to organise her own arts events in the library. In the past six months she has organised two fashion shows, a carnival event and helped promote a reduced ticket deal to the Royal Opera House. This has resulted in 165 local residents buying tickets to see Romeo and Juliet, the vast majority of whom have never been to the venue before.

The Cultural Connectors have commissioned a brilliant and diverse body of work for CBD over the past two years that manages to be locally rooted and also ambitious and outward-looking. We hope the lasting legacy for local communities will be a continuing sense of cultural entitlement, and growing confidence to access the creative offer in the borough and beyond.

Miriam Nelken is Programme Director and Helen Ball is Engagement Director at Creative Barking and Dagenham.

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Photo of Helen Ball