voluntary arts ireland

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Creative Classroom

In the light of the up and coming vote in Westminster about the restructuring of the University funding system and a parallel process in play in the Republic of Ireland it brings the value placed on the arts and creativity into sharp focus again.

Underneath the headline figures of the rise in the student fee cap to unprecedented levels is the suggestion that arts and humanities courses may lose their teaching grant funding - with the cost of the courses presumably made up by the increase in student fees. Science and mathematics subjects will also receive a cut except it is recognised that they have extra, lab-based costs and so will continue to receive a teaching grant to cover that.

Whatever I might think about the shifting of the cost of higher education from the state to the individual beneficiaries, this appears to me to be another example of a judgement based on the value that STEM subjects should take precedence. Perhaps surprisingly I would agree with this approach if government recognised that one of the STEM subjects should be Creativity.

It never ceases to amaze me that we hear endless talk about creativity and innovation throughout all areas of life but we don't embed it in our education system. Instead we withdraw investment from the areas that provide the most creative stimulus such as the arts and stalwartly refuse to learn from the models of practice developed in the creative world that could have broad applications.

Perhaps our thinking has become too narrow, or too lazy but any decision that focuses on re-working old models by giving them a lick of paint is surely missing the point?

We probably now need to challenge the original premise. After all not so long ago artists were scientists and scientists were artists - why do we persist with not making the connections between disciplines when we teach.

What the world needs now - to quote a well-known song - is curious minds, confident people able to relate and see a bigger picture, and collective action. I can see how STEM subjects help in some of these areas, but I can also see how participation in the arts and creative activities help too.

When imagining how to restructure University funding we have to ask what kind of classroom are we trying to build - is it one focused on hitting an employment target, or making education more accessible or helping to nurture new talent? Perhaps its all of these but whatever it is it surely it needs to be a creative classroom - one that also extends outside of official school time and buildings and occurs throughout our lifetimes.

Creativity is at the very core of learning - don't you think it should be the same with our education system?

Sunday, 28 November 2010

25/25 Local Authority Arts Officers Conference

The recent conference - 25/25 Arts & Culture in Local Development in Limerick celebrated the 25th anniversary of the appointment of the first County Arts Officer in Ireland and the building of an infrastructure which linked the Arts Council to local county councils. 25 years on there are arts officers in all of the counties and the conference could rightly point to significant achievements in transforming occasional and sporadic arts provision to creating regular core provision. The appointments also brought the arts to the county planning table and part of the decision making process.

As well as celebrating the past the conference sought to look at where this initiative goes from here - to ask the question what should the next 25 years look like? Given the huge societal shifts that are likely in the forthcoming years this became a very interesting question. In the context of Ireland's shaky finances, state support for the arts has been in doubt. We were heartened to hear that in the announced austerity budget that the proposed cuts to the arts sector were significantly less than expected. However, the battle will still rage in individual county councils - all of whom will be considering what they spend their money on. Will local authority arts officers remain? If some retire will they be replaced given recruitment freezes?

All of these questions, though important seem somewhat inconsequential when we consider the shifts in the ways people connect, access their experiences and participate in activities. In essence the established pathways, hierarchies, means of engagement are being transformed. The essential principle behind having a local authority arts officer is to have someone to act as a catalyst in a local area. This makes sense when you look at a country and divide it up into counties and areas and local citizens interact logically with that framework. However, as we know people don't interact in these ways and perhaps for the first time technology has made it possible for us all to in some way bypass this framework and establish our own, "pop-up" frameworks available from multiple access points that require virtually no overheads.

The upside is that we now have many local arts catalysts and the capacity for local arts provision to affect positive change is being amplified. That, of course is a new challenge for local authority arts officers who still operate within a system that traditionally wants to be the author of activity it supports. It seems to me that local authority arts officers have been very good at facilitating local arts over the year and navigating the bureaucracy of the organisations they work for to enable arts to flourish in their locality.

I can't help wondering now how they need to be now in order to facilitate the generation that is coming through - a generation that will not recognise the existing framework and will expect to co-author their experiences.....interesting times ahead.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Ireland Involved

If you wanted to catch the true spirit of Ireland and its communities you might think of attending the next Ireland Involved Awards - the annual awards for volunteers across Ireland hosted by Volunteering Ireland. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the 2010 awards on behalf of Voluntary Arts Ireland and so made my way to the Mansion House in Dublin.

The nominees ranged from young Harry McLaughlin who at aged 6 decided to fundraise for the Concern Haiti Emergency Appeal, to Joan Coughlan aged 92 and still volunteering for the Third Age Foundation. Their stories and those of the other nominees are truly inspirational and remind you of the power that we all hold to do good in this world.

Another bright light in the evenings proceedings from a voluntary arts point of view was the category award made to Tina Robinson of Phizzfest, Phibsborough's Community Arts Festival. This year saw the first
Phizzfest and Tina and her team, all volunteers, organised an eclectic programme of 55 events over 4 days - from theatre to traditional music, cookery to a "Punks or Posers" discussion. Not only an artistic achievement, a life enhancing event for the local Phibsborough community.

During all the talk of the economic mess that Ireland seems to be in it is very easy to forget the capacity of people to be creative anyway and to be happy anyway. All the way throught the award ceremony I heard about people who had put aside their troubles to help others, and who had a positive story to tell.

I'm not sure I ever really understood the Celtic Tiger - turns out that is probably true of most people including the architects of it - but I do understand the value of the achievements of all of the Ireland Involved nominees. I understand it because it is real and it is tangible. If someone decides to encourage people to adopt a portion of a beach which they clean and take care of - which Emily Diebold did as part of Skerries Adopt a Beach project - then not only do you get a cleaner environment you get a more engaged community.

Maybe this spirit was part of the Celtic Tiger or maybe we thought we would come back to it once we had created a notional amount of financial wealth - who knows.
What Ireland Involved shows is that we have the capacity to make a better society even in these tough economic times.

To find out more about Voluntary Arts Ireland: http://www.vaireland.org
Ireland Involved: http://www.irelandinvolved.ie/
Phizzfest: http://www.phizzfest.ie/

Monday, 16 August 2010

Just Say Yes!

It seems odd to be writing this with my Derry-Londonderry City of Culture 2013 pen, (yes, I may be a young person growing up in a technological era, but I always write everything out before I type it!) given that until a year ago, I had never visited the city before.

This first visit, which formed part of my work experience with Voluntary Arts Ireland, saw me at the Nerve Centre, meeting with and interviewing some of their lovely staff members. One year later, with the judging committee having said “YES” to Derry-Londonderry being the first UK City of Culture in 2013, I met with Giorgia Gazzerra to discuss the possibility of the Young Arts Creativity Co-ops working on a joint programme with Reach Across and the Friendship Club, 2 groups based in the city with which Giorgia is involved. We came away with lots of great ideas to bring back to our groups, some of which will hopefully materialise in the not-too-distant future.

Spending some time in the city and the meeting with Giorgia left me thinking about just how much can stem from one simple word, “Yes”. So often, young people are met with “No” responses, but at some point, some years ago, Voluntary Arts Ireland said “yes” to the need to develop a youth-led, youth-centred model for the arts in Northern Ireland. Numerous “yes” declarations since have allowed this to become a reality; for many young people to not only access, but engage in and facilitate arts activities and to have a voice within the youth/arts sectors, as well as gaining new skills while developing old ones, having opportunities for new experiences, meeting new people, visiting new places, (such as an art gallery!) receiving help in relation to their future careers, having fun and doing what they want to do, in their own way that works for them!

Just as the City of Culture 2013 title will undoubtedly be invaluable to Derry-Londonderry, so too, has the YACC project and the continued courage to say “yes” been invaluable to the young people involved.

Back in July 2008, I said “yes” to attending a ‘Create Your Place’ event at Lusty Beg Island with Pauline and two other YACC members, at which we had the opportunity to meet and have important conversations with a wide variety of interesting people. Over a year later, I didn’t hesitate to say “yes” to attending a follow-up event in Donegal which once again consisted of interesting people, (both some who had attended the previous event and some new faces) discussions and arts activities, all in beautiful surroundings. One of those new faces was Giorgia Gazzera. The fact that both Giorgia and I said “yes” to our involvement in ‘Create Your Place’ has led to our continued contact, our meeting last week and following a few more “yeses”, it will hopefully have led to not only a joint project between YACC, Reach Across and the Friendship Club, (among other groups who may be interested) but new friendships, new art work, sustained relations between the groups and ideally, the beginnings of a truly youth-centred, youth-led arts network.

So, “Just Say Yes”?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Between Ash & Dash: VA Away Day

Actually it was two days; and it began more V-olcanic A-sh than Voluntary Arts for the Ireland team. The Northwest contingent (Kevin & Isobel) left home in the too-small hours without knowing if the airport was open. The Southeast delegation (Emma & I, Stephen in Belfast) had the news in at 4.15am that the airport was opening at 7am. But actually when we got there it was business as usual so we just about made it. Pauline came and went on Friday without the ash crisis.

Highlights for me included catching up with people, mostly. Although strangely I didn’t get to talk to everybody and it occurred to us that the Ireland team also needed catch up time. And not everybody was there which was a pity (but obviously not a highlight). The project presentations were great. No bias at all but Isobel was wonderful – particularly the bit about the woman who had volunteered as a tutor first at the Carrosyl Up4Arts Day in Enniskillen and then went on to run her own workshop in Enniskillen library in February this year. Daniel Carpenter whipped through the information products and such. Classy (again no bias). Fiona’s ‘Making Waves’ had it all going on with the website, funding allocation, case studies and development support. Laraine (Up4Arts presentation) has a lot to answer for because now two of the VAI team – independently of each other – are planning a take over bid of the BBC (and RTE, I notice). I look forward to hearing more about the VAW / OU collaboration. The walk to the junction of Wide Open Seaton Burn and Killingsworth was very pleasant; and Jacquy’s song at the end was also a highlight because at that stage like Van Gogh I had need to go out and paint the stars… or some artistic outlet.

The information officers meeting took place in the Gosforth Park Marriott. Not too shabby, as my nephew says. Great to have VAE Co-ordinator Mary Lowe sit in. The notes will be circulated in due course but three new things in motion. These are a new briefing on that most indispensable of Voluntary Arts Group gadgets – the phone (tele/mobile); a blog to bring together and make available all the great internet based things that mostly Paul and Daniel find; and the first stage in a process to shorten the road between our information and the people who need it.

Whatever…. Next? That was the question for the Away Day proper which like the Celtic Day began at twilight with Robin setting the scene with the aid of UK election memories, Citizen Kane clips and a change of t-shirt. We’ll be keeping the four main strategy headings (if you are in the VAI team you’ll only know about the promoting participation one). The information gathering for the new strategy was organised using open space-ish principles. The best conference I was at was the VAW Open Space conference in Gregynog (sp) but I can see it could be a challenge if you were a.. directive kind of person. More to the point on this occasion, my sympathies are with the person who is synthesising all the great things we’ve done and the big ideas for the future. It is worth to say again that the VAI team is promoting participation..my question is… what is everybody else doing??

We had a few hours to spare after the goodbyes so we went in relay to the Baltic. ‘The arts of nesting on a slender ledge’ was the best exhibit. Forget the polished (real) human bones complete with disturbing poetry. Forget the carousels of LED displays which seem to point to the vacuous ubiquity of catch phrases, positive affirmations and the internal monologue of human anxiety. Forget the way the industrial landscape looms large when everyone (!) falls in love (don’t think about it, the exhibition was bland). Instead go to the Kittiwakes who are madly nesting on an outside wall up high in the building. You can see them en plein air or go to the children’s bit where they have their own little Truman Show. You’d love to transmit a message human-to-gull to say there has to be an easier place to nest. Emma was a bit distressed about the poor critter who didn’t seem to be able to drop its nesting payload in case it’s beloved had left it but I’m not worried – it was a prime location for love with all that industrial landscape. And then we got languid in the gift shop and had to run (all up hill, I notice) across Newcastle, through the empty halls of the airport. And then home (well obviously we flew home). Great to have met everybody. Sorry to Pauline, Isobel and Kevin for running their legs off when it wasn’t absolutely necessary for them.

Finally (part 1), I thought that it was really good to have gone with our own great facilitators – though interested to know how the experience was for them. The project presentations were a fabulous idea (more of that). I wondered, building on this, whether it would be good to invite an outsider or two. Not to facilitate and not people in opposition or indifferent to our work – but people that we might work closely with (a project that we might not actually organise but would be promoting; an enlightened funder, a partner/activist) who understand the benefits but would also be able to spot if we began to get too internal. And I’d ordinarily have been wanting a bit more art but am still scarred after the ‘creature-of-darkness’ logos that were produced last year…

Finally (part 2), in case you are wondering I haven’t take a sudden notion to blog (and about the Away Day) – Kevin asked me. Kevin I hope you weren’t expecting this in rhyming couplets.. Thanks to all for their good wishes re the poetry.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Don't be an elephant

It's always an interesting prospect working with young people especially in the arts. At the moment there is a growing momentum to involve more young people in decisions that affect their areas of interest and to give them platforms through which they can express themselves.

This is great but the most difficult thing seems to be getting the adults in the room to remain quiet enough for long enough to allow a young persons idea to be articulated. We spend a lot of time talking about the elephants in the room (such a popular phrase) but as adults sometimes forget that we are the elephants.

Not a very attractive image and indeed we must come across as very heavy handed. What must they be thinking, our young people? Mostly "get out of the way" I would think. And yet at all of the meetings and events I have recently attended through Voluntary Arts Ireland's youth-led project which helps set up sustainable voluntary arts groups created by young people for young people, its the young people who have been the best listeners, the most positive influencers and the most creative.

What is crucial though, and this is where the adult elephants can come in, is a facilitated environment that enables young people to participate fully. Our role as adults is to provide a starting framework and support along the way, to provide help when asked from our long memories of the pitfalls and to celebrate the work of young people.

Maybe it requires us to get excited by the "anything is possible" attitude that our young people display so readily. We are looking for new solutions to old problems. As Einstein said: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."Maybe its time we used our big elephant ears and listened to young people a bit more.