Postcard from... Archive 2018

Postcard from... Practice, Place and Purpose

Image: Crossings, Vilma Luostarinen and Natasha Rosling, 2018. Photo: Benjamin J Borley

Freelance writer and editor Dawn Gorman sends us a postcard from Practice Place Purpose, a one-day partnership symposium on 28 June, which explored the purpose and practice of place-based contemporary arts commissioning and its impact.

Grace Davies, Contemporary Arts Programme Manager for the National Trust, devised the one-day symposium Practice, Place, Purpose, organised in partnership by the National Trust, Forestry Commission England, Canal & River Trust and Churches Conservation Trust, to provoke discussion about place-based contemporary arts commissioning and create a space in which to swap ideas to benefit future projects. If one of the problems with access to culture, as Chrissie Tiller, arts consultant and writer, put it in her presentation, is that “we are increasingly concerned about how we speak about the issues rather than the issues themselves”, then a forum for frank exchange was much needed. That comment certainly drew a large, collective sigh of recognition from the audience, and the day, hosted by the University of Exeter’s Arts and Culture Programme, went on to feature an open airing of issues, forthright questions and answers between delegates and speakers, animated exchanges during the breaks, and a sense throughout of the willingness to share and listen.

In her own presentation, Grace said “Art can lead visitors through less-worn paths”, and speakers gave many examples of this in action. Tim Eastop, Executive Producer, Arts on the Waterways, described commissions along canal corridors, including an innovative, egg-shaped, floating wooden dwelling, and emphasised the Canal & River Trust’s interest in reaching lower-engaged communities. John Wedgwood Clarke read some of his own poetic responses to the changing seasons at a waste dump. Katrina Hurford, National Marketing Manager from The Churches Conservation Trust, gave a modern example – an installation of 764 Bangladeshi baskets in a small Saxon church in Cambridge – of the long tradition of churches as places of arts commissioning, and said the Trust is currently considering how art ‘experiences’ can reach wider audiences, with virtual reality offering new possibilities. Silvia Bordin, Arts Development Programme Manager, Forestry Commission England, also highlighted the potential of cutting-edge technology, one recent project involving VR headsets and the opportunity to experience life as woodland creatures in Cumbria’s Grizedale Forest.

Meanwhile, although online resources such as Audience Finder were praised by several speakers, there were repeated concerns about data gathering. Beverley Hawkins, Director of Education at the University of Exeter Business School, reflected on lessons learned during a research project to help libraries develop and record impact on local communities. She said: “The ways that people’s lives have been changed can’t be captured in a spreadsheet.” Details of how many people borrow books do not reflect, say, the importance of libraries for the homeless. Her call for “a multiplicitous way of understanding social impact” was underlined by Andrew Newman, Professor of Cultural Gerontology at the University of Newcastle, who, in a robust and warmly-received ‘Provocation’ criticised the evaluation of arts projects according to generic outcomes – tickbox responses of the ‘I felt happy… never/sometimes/all the time’ variety. He said: “We need to talk to people to see how they respond rather than accepting the categories. If you take people with dementia to something and they can’t remember it afterwards, does it mean it doesn’t matter? Of course not.”

One of the problems, he said, is that it’s necessary to generate value over the aesthetic to secure funding – a point echoed in an impassioned ‘Response’ by Laurie Peake, Director of Super Slow Way, one of ACE’s Creative People and Places programmes. The communities this programme reaches out to along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal corridor in Pennine Lancashire are in some of the country’s most deprived areas. She said: “Four authorities, three centuries of social exploitation and injustice. Can art heal this place, and should it be expected to?” The signs, in fact, are that by “giving people a voice who didn’t realise they had a voice”, change is happening – but the preoccupation with evaluation is, she maintains, unhelpful: “What each of these most deprived authority areas have asked us to provide is inspiration and aspiration – how do you measure that? We have scores of stories about people who have overcome all sorts of things but we haven’t measured how many less GP visits it has resulted in. Isn’t it enough just to make great art?”

The commissioning ‘machine’ was also a source of frustration for Keynote speaker Katherine Clarke, the Artist Partner with muf architecture/art, who was forthright about how gaining planning permission often hangs on ‘artwashing’, and how developers want a specific project outcome, whereas in practice, speculative processes are more workable. She admitted she is now honest in applications – “you don’t want to go in to something promising something you can’t deliver, just to win” – though wryly admits this is “suicide as a business plan”. She, like many of the other speakers, lamented the lack of opportunity for long-term, post-occupancy analysis, a point taken up in the lively panel-delegate discussion at the end of the day. How, asked one delegate, do you organise evaluation over a period of, say, 10 years? Andrew Newman emphasised how long-term evaluation, though desirable, is both difficult to fund and “ambitious to include in a bid”. Katherine, meanwhile, was frustrated by the whole bidding process – often more time consuming than doing the projects ­­­– and warned how “commissioning starts to shape practice”. She admitted she is now “nurturing relationships with big national bodies”.

By the end of the day, the room sizzled with the sense of necessary change. Katrina Hurford said she was interested to know “how we can each bring our current constituents to cross-fertilise”. Laurie Peake agreed: “You’ve got to learn together. Art has been too long guilty of doing stuff on its own and not being part of the holistic whole.” Katrina continued: “It feels like this kind of event has opened doors” – a comment eliciting a ‘eureka’ intake of breath from Grace Davies, who said: “This is absolutely why I thought this event was a good idea. These four organisations look after a lot of the UK – to be stewarding that amount of land, as a force, it seems like there’s some potential to influence policy. We need to think about that further, both artistically and in other ways.” As delegates left, there was a tangible sense of the need to grow and develop partnerships and move forward together. A story, one hopes, to be continued.

– Dawn Gorman, July 2018

Practice Place Purpose was a one-day partnership symposium (28th June) led by stewardship organisations National Trust, Forestry Commission England, Canal & River Trust and Churches Conservation Trust in partnership with Exeter University. Made possible by the generous support of Arts Council England, the symposium explored the purpose and practice of place-based contemporary arts commissioning and its impact and included a number of guest speakers in addition to artist led outdoor wanderings and provocative debate, with plenty of opportunities for participation and discussion.

A key part of the day, a storytelling picnic lunch was devised by artists as a shared celebration of the local landscape. This ‘found’ poem combines some of the poetry provided in Crossings, the edible lunchtime journey created by Vilma Luostarinen & Natasha Rosling, with tiny snippets of conversations (in italics) overheard under the trees at the ‘Beans’ group lunch:


Soundbites – A poem of possibilities, 'found' during lunch


It was a really interesting project

set against internal rhythms.

I don’t know if you know their work?


It’s an experience involving exploration:

an orchestra of pulsing, breathing, beating,

squeezing, expanding

tied together in your head.


Your mouth is a portal:

all those internal politics.

Open it.

It’s all very well thinking something –

let the air pass through and taste it.

Establish the

wider discussions

where the inside meets the outside.


The texture of the air

is curating a project.

It moves through you

and is shared with the

network of international partners.


Consider the stories hidden

a paper thickness to the left.

Unknown worlds from

the perspective of the nonhuman

trying to instigate change.


Another voice.

It’s a wonderful transition.

In her presentation, Dr Beverley Hawkins compared doing a jigsaw, where the process is formulaic, to making a quilt, where joining together the pieces is an entrepreneurial act. Here I have joined together disparate phrases from speakers and audience in the lecture theatre – each line from a different source – to give a non-formulaic taste of the day’s discussions.

– Dawn Gorman



The narrative is about numbers

and the politicians like stories

but data loses the small details.

We know we can’t solve the problems

but we want to pollenate,

start a conversation.

You don’t need figures and figures

to inhabit the forest of the future.



What does your neighbourhood feel like?

A stage of sequins

where people come and be themselves?

An essential little green lung?

The proud past?

Look through all three to get a rainbow

to foster and build civic unity

at the heart of everything we do.



We are the temporary occupiers of the space –

it’s all about finding connectedness.

Everything is in a state of change

and there’s room for debate

and a series of acts of radical shift.

A speculative journey together

has an impact on what is possible.

The question is still in the room…

Dawn Gorman is a freelance writer and editor, and devises and runs community arts events. Her poetry pamphlet This Meeting of Tracks was published in the Pushcart Prize-nominated four-poet Mend & Hone (Toadlily Press, 2013), and her work has appeared in poetry journals, anthologies, on line and at Cannes Short Film Festival. Dawn joined the Practice Place Purpose symposium as a paid reporter on behalf of all partner organisations.



What's On

Craft Workshops

Various Venues

Friday 08 February 2019 – Tuesday 31 December 2019

Linda Brothwell Conversations in Making

Stonehenge Visitor Centre, Amesbury, Wiltshire SP4 7DE

Friday 24 May 2019 – Sunday 24 November 2019

Exeter's Fine Art Collection: A Sense of Place

Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Queen Street, Exeter, Devon, EX4 3RX

Tuesday 18 June 2019 – Sunday 15 March 2020

Visual Arts South West

Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.

Part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network

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