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ACE’s Let’s Create strategy prioritises ‘dynamism’ as a funding principle. But what does it mean? Annabel Turpin and Gavin Barlow share how their organisation’s dynamism helped them respond to the pandemic. 

Z-Arts' contribution to 'Here and Now'.
Z-Arts' contribution to 'Here and Now'.

Joel Chester-Fildes

Conceived to mark the 25th anniversary of the National Lottery, Here and Now was a national and local celebration of culture within communities. It gave a voice to local people to articulate their hopes and dreams, share and bond over the reality of their experience, co-create work and enjoy new creativity and culture. 
“It’s the one project of 2021 that makes everyone smile when we talk about it.” - Marie-Anne McQuay, Curator, Bluecoat 
So how did 453 members of the public and 54 artists and companies co-create 40 brand new pieces of work seen by nearly a million people during a pandemic? 
Future Arts Centres invited 40 organisations from Exeter to South-Shields to take part in Here and Now. They ranged from large- to small-scale, and from city and town centre to rural counties. Their experience of engaging with their communities varied. What united them – and is one of Future Arts Centres’ core goals - is a commitment to creating work with local people, with their lives at its heart. 
The pandemic disrupted and delayed Here and Now. In retrospect, the disruption strengthened the project. Venues and artists had to be responsive and shape their plans dynamically to continue reaching and working with communities. Staff absences, through sickness and furlough, created space for others to step up.   

New ways of commissioning

We never intended a conventional project, with venues simply commissioning artists or running community engagement projects. We asked artists to work with us to develop the brief, ensuring it was written by artists for artists. The process challenged the way we traditionally thought about commissioning: 
“The artist-led approach and the licence to try something completely different was very refreshing and gave us the confidence to think bravely and boldly about what we wanted to do.” - Joe Flavin, Director, The Core at Corby Cube 
All 40 projects responded to the brief in the way that felt appropriate for them. Projects were shaped by venues, artists and communities working together creating a simultaneously national and local project. This varifocal approach is key to ensuring that communities really do have a stake in their cultural offer. As venues we responded openly, collaboratively and dynamically. 
The approach we adopted from outset - essential as COVID emerged - was critical to ensuring venues, artists and communities had ownership of their project. Yes, there was a shared brief, a fixed budget, an agreed timeline and data collection required for evaluation. But we didn’t judge projects, we enabled them and connected them in a way that told a national story. Venues set their own target outcomes; they were never prescribed.  

Embracing the Here and Now

Most projects were scheduled for 2020, so with lockdown in March we offered extensions to timelines. One or two chose to continue digitally but we felt the aims of the project would be compromised if everything moved online. There were huge changes in working circumstances – physical, mental and emotional.  
If Here and Now was to be about the hopes, dreams and realities of communities, then the projects needed to be anchored in the here and now, embracing the impact of Covid. We needed to help adapt plans accordingly. 
From the ancient Greeks to the most progressive business schools, crisis has been seen as an opportunity for change. In some ways, Covid was a licence to take more risks, to say ‘let’s see what happens’, and ‘deliver the project in whatever way you can’.  
It shook things up, so venues and artists could deviate from their original plans and give communities even more control to shape projects. This is how we work with communities. We must stop prescribing outcomes; our job is to support the process, theirs is to determine where it goes.

New work made by and for local communities 

That, for us, is what dynamism looks like in a 21st century arts centre. It’s about letting go of what the end result looks like in our heads and allowing that to be determined by others. We need to be rigorous in our processes, to have robust plans and business models, but we also need the confidence and freedom to adapt as we go.

That ability to adapt, demonstrated so well by all venues involved, made Here and Now such a success. 453 members of the public became co-creators in brand new work. And more than 940,000 audience members have experienced culture made by and for their local communities.  
“The project has been key in keeping activity going and audiences engaged throughout Covid. It is a fantastic example of how we can be more than just a venue and that the links and relationships we make with the community back up everything we do.” - Sophie Fullerlove, Director & Chief Executive, The Spring 
Key to the dynamism was permission and support. The benefits of working together as a network provided the valuable extra confidence required to take risks, work in new ways and, ultimately, achieve better outcomes.  
We hope that Future Arts Centres will continue to play a part supporting our members to work dynamically, responding to whatever the next set of challenges might be in a way that makes sense for them and their communities.  
Gavin Barlow and Annabel Turpin are Co-leads of Future Arts Centres. 

 @gavinjbarlow | @annabelturpin | @artscentres 

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