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Long-term Heart of Glass collaborator Chrissie Tiller reflects on working with the Merseyside-based NPO and how, by building deeper relationships with communities, the arts can create fairer futures.

Image of people dressed in white, hands aloft, with white confetti/petals falling
The Suicide Chronicles by Mark Storor and communities impacted by suicide, 2023

Stephen King

I first came across Heart of Glass in 2014. We were part of a group that had come together in Scotland to do some deep digging into the field of collaborative and social arts practice, and to think how best to support artists wanting to work in this way. 

Ten years later, it is a privilege to be still working with an organisation as committed to having those deep conversations about practice as to producing work that excites, challenges and inspires the communities it works with.

Heart of Glass celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. What began as little more than a successful Arts Council England funding application, housed in a corner of St Helens Rugby Club, has extended its Creative People and Places (CPP) programme into neighbouring Knowsley, and is now a nationally focused NPO for collaborative and social arts practice. 

Born in political austerity

There is much to celebrate. Its free hyperlocal public programme presents diverse events and has brought internationally acclaimed street artists, including duo Nomad Clan and ceramicist Carrie Reichardt to work with communities, co-creating art that celebrates a rich industrial heritage and history of strong working-class women alongside dreams for the future. 

In addition, its work with local schools and young people has invited them to imagine things differently and, through projects such as Lookout and the film Running on Fumes, demand their hopes and fears for their own lives, their town and the world are listened to and shared.

Recent newspaper headlines describing the plight of “England’s cultural jewels”, with national institutions like the RSC “barely hanging on”, as loss of local authority grants and the cost-of-living crisis bite, make it important to recognise the political austerity into which Heart of Glass was born. 

Savage economic and social inequalities and the brutal divisiveness that can follow have long been a reality for its communities. A fearless determination to work with partners to confront this has led Heart of Glass to consciously expand what ambition and quality mean. 


Launch event for Strong Women of St Helens by Carrie Reichardt 2023. Photo: Radka Dolinska

A positive force for change

Creating work that pushes the artistic boundaries of participatory practice, it affords its artists time to build mutual respect and trust. Finding community-facing partners prepared to work in this way - from social housing associations to domestic abuse charities to drug rehabilitation groups - has been pivotal.

As has the support of funders, including Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Paul Hamlyn Foundation, that recognise the importance of building deeper relationships with communities if the arts are to contribute to fairer futures and act as a positive force for change. 

Long-term relationships between women from St Helens, Idle Women and Irish company Anu were central to what became an inordinately powerful site-responsive piece on domestic violence, Torch. A twelve-year commitment to artist Mark Storor to explore suicide with communities in St Helens, Dublin and Anglesey has been key to the compellingly moving and beautiful Suicide Chronicles, while an ongoing collaboration with artist Youngsook Choi has led to a profound exploration of ecological damage and grief with communities in St Helens and Malaysia, In Every Bite of the Emperor

I love Heart of Glass’s resolve to seek out and collaborate with allies who share its commitment to place and context. And its capacity to identify those prepared to come on shared journeys of discovery. A recalibration of policy thinking - resulting in ACE’s Let’s Create - has meant making the arguments for social practice are somewhat easier and has led to more arts organisations being challenged to engage with their communities in a meaningful way. 

Engaging in critical discourse

Words like co-creation and collaboration have become ubiquitous. Yet support for artists doing such work is not always there. More than simply identify itself as a learning organisation, Heart of Glass has worked to create spaces for collective learning and unlearning. 

For example, its artist development programme - the Faculty - emerged from searching conversations with fellow CPPs and In Situ to find ways to best respond to the needs of artists entering this field.  A series of conferences, built on connections forged with activists, practitioners and social movement thinkers from the global south, the US and Europe, invited artists to engage in critical discourse on the urgent questions of the day from the climate emergency to the erasure of civic rights and the shutting down of public space. 

Heart of Glass has tried to imagine how its principles of co-creation, collaboration, and creative enquiry might be transferred to the arts sector itself.  When Covid exposed the precarity and vulnerability of freelance artists, especially those from working-class, LGBQTI, disabled or refugee backgrounds, it resisted the race to push everything online, taking time instead to develop Homework – an open call focused on notions of care.  

As the pandemic uncovered the toll on producers and administrators, Heart of Glass began to examine practices of care at an organisational level, responding to the sector’s talk of burnout by thinking how to create solutions.


Keep Growing Keep Going: Follow the Light, Nomad Clan and Parr, Communities unveiling, 2021. Photo: Radka Dolinska

Reclaiming community arts

More recently, it has reclaimed the term ‘community arts’ to describe the relationship it seeks to build between art and communities. It is a deliberate acknowledgement of the radical art movements, from Fluxus to Dadaism, and the rich histories of community organising on whose shoulders this practice stands.  

In my recent PhD thesis, I revisited the impact that being engaged with community arts and the politics of feminism, anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1980s had on my own practice. I also shared Owen Kelly’s concern in Storming the Citadels that, in our eagerness to just get on with the work, we had too often left theory to the academics and practice to the artists. 

If we are to create change at a systemic level, we need to be more consciously self-reflexive. The preparedness of Heart of Glass to engage with that criticality of thinking is a good place to start. As it enters a new and possibly even more troubling decade, I wish it continued possibilities to “make the road by walking”, together with the incredible allies, accomplices and fellow searchers it has met en route.  

Dr Chrissie Tiller is an independent cultural researcher and creative consultant.
 heartofglass.org.uk/ | chrissietiller.com/
@TheHeartofGlass | @chrissietee

This article, sponsored and contributed by Heart of Glass, is part of a series exploring how, by building deeper relationships with communities, the arts can create fairer futures and act as a positive force for change. 

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