The local rugby league club proved to be the secret to getting a town with low arts engagement interested in a cultural programme, explains Patrick Fox.

Photo of music event at rugby ground
Music and interactive sculpture at St Helens' rugby stadium
Photo: 

Stephen King

Heart of Glass is part of Arts Council England’s (ACE) action research programme Creative People and Places (CPP). £37m has been invested in the fund focussing on parts of the country where involvement in the arts is below national average. Broadly speaking, the aim of the programme is to increase participation in the arts through the development of arts projects that involve at their core people and place. There are unifying factors and overarching political and social connections that bring together the current crop of 21 projects, but we are each functioning at a hyper-localised level informed by the specifics of our geography and communities. As a result, interpretations and approaches to this action research across the programme vary, as so they should.

What rugby does for St Helens and its people is achieved through long-term engagement, by being firmly embedded within a community and being part of its ongoing transformation

Our geographic area is St Helens, a town with a population of 180,000 sandwiched between Liverpool and Manchester and approaching its 150th anniversary. Previously known as an industrial force and a centre of innovation, the town is now more synonymous with rugby success and industrial decline.

Our philosophy and approach as a project is rooted in collaboration and co-production with the community. The central element has been the active participation of the collaborator, non-artist, community, audience and viewer in the creation of work. Through our projects we wish to create a space for dialogue, research and experimentation for local citizens and artists alike, placing art in direct interaction with all the areas of human activity that form society. We are interested to see how artists and communities fit, expand and confound the social formations that characterise post-industrial towns in the north of England.

In our first full year of programme this has led to dynamic collaborations that have literally changed the landscape of the town forever. ‘Your Name Here’ with artist Joshua Sofaer resulted in a park being renamed after one of its citizens, creating through art a collective political act and demonstrable mode of civic participation that redrew the town’s maps. A feminist horror ‘Haunted Furnace’ took over a disused glass furnace and created a powerful immersive performance detailing the forgotten stories of the women who ran the factories. Produced by Marisa Carnesky in collaboration with young women from across St Helens it enjoyed a ten-show sell-out run. An evening of live art called ‘And, on that note…’ turned the rugby stadium into an interactive sculpture park, bringing together a combined choir of 600 people, a youth brass band, 40 performers and an audience of 2,000 on the pitch for a surreal meditation on crowds, power and collective action.

Critical in the project has been our lead partner Saints Community Development Foundation (SCDF), the charity arm of St Helens Rugby Football Club. Consequently, the mechanics and philosophies of the sport of rugby have taken a metaphorical hold on our project and become an important resource from which to learn and explore. The complementary and symbiotic relationship between amateur, volunteer and professional in rugby league has been particularly interesting to unpack. How do we in the arts acknowledge the contribution of the hobbyist, the volunteer, the community member and the professional? How do we do this while also differentiating between professional endeavour and voluntary pursuit, between art, the arts, participation and practice? How do we ensure this is not done as a value judgement but as a recognition of the varied roles and entry points involved in the creation of a successful art project, and in turn a sustainable and vital arts sector?

In rugby league it broadly seems to work. The amateur clubs support local talent development, so some people become professional while others stay amateur, but all remain an important part of the ecology. Some will be supporters turning up on match day paying for their ticket, while others will give their time (kit washing, refereeing and sandwich making) and so contribute to the pursuit of a shared goal.

That’s the process, but then there’s the culmination of the collective action: attending a match, bringing all the constituents together to create a powerful moment of energy and shared experience. That is also our pursuit in the arts, making possible through collaboration and shared experience, the coming together of knowledge, understanding, consciousness and openness to create meaning, new ways of seeing the world and communicating ideas.

The greatest lesson we’ve learned is that what rugby does for St Helens and its people is achieved through long-term engagement, by being firmly embedded within a community and being part of its ongoing transformation. This is a rare privilege in the arts. The harsh reality of funding and time means most projects involve a negotiation between the ideal and reality, between arts activity and arts action, placation and transformation. Our aim is to become bound up and not parachuted in.

Under the umbrella of action research, we have the opportunity to take time, to consider the role of art and artists in civil society and in the formation of new identities and realities, and to become part of the conversation by building long-term relationships with communities of place and interest. These are collaborations that can be messy, vital and real by becoming bound. Our project continues…

Patrick Fox is Director of Heart of Glass.
www.heartofglass.org.uk

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Photo of Patrick Fox