More Than 100 Stories is a commission led by artists Sarah Butler and Nicole Mollet that explores and creatively maps the Creative People and Places programme.

‘We are not a wasteland’ – visiting bait , 5th May 2016


I started my Northeast ‘tour’ (not on my bike this time!) visiting bait in South East Northumberland. We started off at their base at Woodhorn Museum, a fabulous complex of old colliery buildings plus a new building housing the region’s archive and a new exhibition, Common Ground, commissioned by bait, which brought together local groups with professional artists to create new work. I was struck by the variety and depth of the work, and particularly interested in how artists Robert Parkinson and Aaron Guy had created contemporary text and image pieces documenting their process working in Guide Post social club which stood up strongly in a gallery context and gave a glimpse of process-based work in a way I haven’t seen before.


       My glimpse of the exhibition stood me in good stead for the next two visits: first to ESCAPE an organisation supporting people in recovery from alcohol and substance misuse and their families   and second to Newbiggin Children’s Centre. Both organisations were involved in Common Ground, a collaboration which also involved the BALTIC in Newcastle. It was notable that this project built on earlier projects, also commissioned by bait, which had built up trust and relationships between the groups and bait, and so paved the way for more work to happen. We talked about the process of selecting artists and the importance of finding artists with appropriate people-skills to work with groups. I am struck again and again by how much relationships matter in this kind of participatory arts work, which at its best takes participants and artists on a journey they might never have anticipated making. Without the right combination of personalities and attitudes this can be fraught and difficult, but when it works it can be magic.

               One of the pieces of work in the exhibition imagines the journey of a racing pigeon (on his day off) flying across South East Northumberland and revelling in the sights and sounds and smells of the landscape. Pigeon fancying is a strong tradition locally, but the idea for the piece became a metaphor as well as a reflection of a local tradition. ‘The pigeon’s a metaphor for people in the North East,’ one participant told me. ‘They’re thought of as rats, scavengers, worthless, but they are amazing. They can see the stars during the day. They mate for life. They are extraordinary birds. So we’re saying: we are worth more than you see in us. We are not a wasteland, we’re beautiful.’

               My last conversation of the day was with four artists who were part of the Future Creatives programme co-commissioned with Weave at Lynemouth Resource Centre and have now become bait Creative Connectors. It was such a delight to talk to these women who were making connections between each other and with their local communities; who were exploring their own artistic practice and were open to new ideas and opportunities, and excited about discovering new ways to approach their work and their careers. I was particularly interested in how the Creative Connector programme – which connects participants to a whole range of projects and opportunities – is focused around individual enquiry questions, which for this group, ranged from ‘how do I most effectively engage with local communities?’ to ‘how do I run a successful arts space and keep developing my own practice along with that?’ This curiosity and desire to learn lies at the heart of CPP as an action learning programme, and is, in my opinion, its major strength. I have been reading Black Box Thinking recently, by Matthew Syed, which talks about the relationship between success and failure and how failure, and cultural openness to failure, is crucial to build success, and have been struck by how much his thesis applies to CPP.

               The theme of time came up over and again, which feels inevitable by now – CPP is a time-limited programme doing work which takes serious amounts of time and patience. I was particularly struck when one of the team said:  ‘I don’t think we’ve finished anything really’ – going on to explain that each project has fed into another, each conversation into another, that the programme – which started off in an area with very limited, if any, arts infrastructure – is about a slow, sustainable build, about growing something, rather than delivering discrete pieces of work and then moving on.

               A thought about calmness. Talking to Lisa and I about the challenges of partnership working – knowing when to say no, being clear about your ‘edges’ – Fran talked about creating a level of calmness from which to make decisions, taking a moment to stop before diving right in. It resonated with my earlier conversation with Helen at Creative Barking and Dagenham, about resisting the huge pressure placed on CPP by partners, media, local people, artists, and finding the strength to be calm and considered in their actions, decision-making and communications.

               It’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to visit the CPP projects and be taken to meet such a diverse range of people who have been involved. I am acutely aware that I am asking the CPP teams, artists, residents, and partners to take time out of their very busy schedules to accommodate me. Yet more than once people have commented on the value of taking the time to reflect and explain and show. Today, I was struck by two moments, when, through the process of telling me about the programme and their experiences so far, new ideas were hatched and connections made. Taking the time to reflect, to revisit, to remember, can be a powerful and constructive thing to do.