Louise Blackwell says creative practitioners have been at the forefront of place-based recovery. Their strategy? Come together, listen and take action.
© Jacob Punter
Since March 2020 I’ve been working in Crawley in West Sussex where I was born and grew up, and in and Brighton & Hove where I live. Like all of us, I’ve been trying to find a way through the storm.
I’m a producer. I develop creative ideas with those who have the potential to help people feel better about themselves and the world around them, challenge the way they think, open up new adventures, have a laugh, try something new, or make them feel something. On a good day, my work has this effect on me too.
Lately, I’ve been working with people to harness creativity and creative thinking. We want to explore new ways of working to aid cultural, economic, physical and mental recovery from the pandemic. Venues may be closed, but people who run those venues have been working their butts off to carry on supporting artists and audiences. Freelance creatives who are more fleet of foot have been busting a gut to offer creative solutions to the complex challenges we are facing.
A place at the table
Place has always been important to me, long before place-based thinking came into fashion with the government and other funders. I’ve been interested in how creativity can change a place ever since producing Clod Ensemble's Red Ladies. I found myself using central London as a canvas and cueing a helicopter to fly over Trafalgar Square.
The period since March 2020 has made me think differently about place-based recovery. How can creative practitioners work with politicians, school governors, business leaders and other community stalwarts to help people and places recover from the pandemic? By coming together as trusted representatives at the table (or on the video call) to start with. By being in the meetings where fundamental decisions about a place are being made. By representing people who aren’t there and making sure we listen – and have listened – to as wide a range of people as possible. By harnessing and understanding our own power and working closely with those who have power, we can make change happen.
We’re still viable
I wear lots of hats (metaphorically that is, mind you I have a lovely yellow beret). I’m Co-Director of LOOKOUT, a new company working towards future generations of happier, motivated people who are inspired by a sense of creative possibility. We introduce young people to professional creatives, and they spend time together using creativity to explore their shared interests. Our ultimate aim is to show young people that it’s possible to have a career in the creative industries.
I’m also Co-Chair of What Next Brighton & Hove, part of a national movement of people who share, debate and take collective action on issues facing the local and national cultural sector. When Lockdown One hit, my Co-Chair Marina Norris and I, called a meeting online. Loads of people came.
We kept meeting weekly, and in May, the Arts and Creative Industries Commission and EPIC joined us to invite all three local MPs to a meeting. A 2019 study by University of Sussex showed the 6000 creative industry businesses in Greater Brighton and their 16,000 employees turned over £1.5bn. We presented the MPs with several case studies, including that of 18-year-old Mabel Lewis, who has worked with LOOKOUT. Mabel shared what it was like to be a recent college leaver and told us all what she needed to have a career in our sector. Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas then used these case studies – some word for word – in the House of Commons to campaign for freelancers in the creative industries. This is how place-based change happens. By bringing people together, listening and taking action.
As a result of that meeting, we received support from Arts Council England and Brighton & Hove City Council to bring together more than 100 of the city’s arts and cultural workers on a plan for cultural recovery. Individuals and organisations small and large working in the public, commercial, and subsidised sectors have developed five different ideas for recovery, which we hope to share soon. We are now raising money to put that plan into action.
Strategy in action
Running parallel to the work I am doing in Brighton, I am also Creative Caretaker for Creative Crawley. Crawley has been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, partly due to its proximity to Gatwick Airport. Creative Crawley was initially a group of local people on a four-year programme to develop their cultural sector and audiences. That fell apart in March, but from the ashes has risen a group of resilient community leaders who have met monthly, even with so much going on in their lives right now. Together we have raised money for a festival at the end of this month. Right Here festival celebrates creativity and the creative people of Crawley who have helped keep people going since March.
Some of us are also on the Crawley Economic Recovery Taskforce led by Crawley Borough Council. There are lots of important tables to be at. I’m trying to choose mine wisely, so I can have the most impact, the most fun, and still take care of myself and my family in these dark times. Your place is important. Celebrate it.