Blog Post

Creating authentic relationships between communities and artists


Patrick Fox from Heart of Glass talks to Eleanor Turney about how communities and artists are working together in St Helens

Heart of Glass. Marisa Carnesky's Haunted Furnace at Pilkington Glass Factory. Photo Stephen King

Patrick Fox, Director of Heart of Glass, the Creative People and Places project in St Helens, talks to Eleanor Turney about creating authentic relationships between communities and artists

Working together

“Our curatorial approach has been about a philosophy of co-production and really understanding and exploring how communities and artists can work together” Patrick Fox tells me. Everything that Heart of Glass does in St Helens is built upon “a sense of shared enquiry, with a community, be that of place or interest, around a particular theme or subject. That’s how we commission and also how we build partnerships.”

This approach has led to some fruitful collaborations, and has laid the groundwork for St Helens to develop its own arts scene as well as build relationship with partners nationally and internationally. “The ways in which we go about that are very varied,” continues Fox.  “Our approach can be artist-led, community-led, by invitation, by approach, how we arrive at a project varies, but the core principles are always about co-production and a shared sense of authorship. What that means in real terms is that we have projects that are responding to specifics related to the town or area, projects that have been developed to a brief, projects that have developed around specific ambitions or shared interests, and always projects that bring artists and communities (in the broadest sense) together.”

Choose your projects carefully

To take just one example, Fox tells me about a project they did in 2015 to choose a new name for a local park – local residents were invited to submit names, essentially nominating someone who should be celebrated by having a park named after them. “That project required the local town and its people to embrace it. It had a lovely kind of collective responsibility and function and ultimately changed the landscape of the town forever.”

Similarly, other Heart of Glass projects thrive on that sense of shared responsibility and achievement: “Another project was with a group of young women, who worked with a female theatre director to produce a new piece that used as a creative jumping off point, the stories of the female workforce in the factories of St Helens.” 

Working across society

Fox emphasises the importance of “working across civil society with a commitment to diversity". We’ve got a really fantastic steering group of partners. That includes a housing association, the local authority, artists and community groups. We also have a local theatre, a local museum. We work with the carers’ association, the local college – a really wide range of partners. These partners provide valuable roots and act as anchor points in the community. They don’t reach everyone, but it's a great starting point from which to build and understand where the gaps might be.”

By working with all of these groups, Heart of Glass ensures that its projects have a wide reach and build relationships that they hope will last. “The reach of the people we work with allows us to articulate opportunities and share things in the most relevant places, and crucially think about who is not around the table”

“The audience data that we have been gathering allows us to see where perhaps the opportunity to engage in the arts has not readily available. We can then look at that disparity and try to understand it. That could be information that reveals the need for a more developmental approach, or the necessity to build key relationships, capacities and infrastructures, and offer ways to foster more informal relationships, rather than perhaps more formal commissioning opportunities – lots of cups of tea, lots of soft skills development, developing relationships in an organic way. We’ve got a really robust network but we’ve also got really strong independent relationships with key individuals and characters that underpin all of our work.” 

Choose your artists carefully…

Equally important in ensuring a successful project, of course, is the choice of artist. Heart of Glass’s emphasis on collaboration and co-production makes this even more crucial. “The artists we work with don’t just sit in an attic and wait for inspiration to strike. A core tenet of their practice is working with people, and in many ways the artist needs the community as much as the community needs the artist. We talk a lot about a sense of shared enquiry - where is the exchange, how by coming together through a creative collaboration can we generate new knowledge and ideas.”

“It’s never about an artist leading a group of non-artists to some sort of holy grail. It’s about a shared journey that they go on together. That is about getting the right artist. We see a lot of models of artists working with communities where the community has “presumed needs” that the artist is there to fulfil, and that’s something that we’re interested in really pushing against. Knowledge and experience are found everywhere, and what we’re trying to do with our projects is create the mechanism through which that knowledge can form the basis of a creative endeavour - together.”

…and respect their skills

“The group of young women who came together to make a theatre piece were just terrific,” says Fox, but the project needed a skilled practitioner and artist team to ensure that “we saw something come together that neither of them could have done separately. It’s those surprising relationships that we try to find in every project. We always ask, who sits around the table and where does the power sit? What is the exchange and how does that create a process that allows for creativity to flourish?”

Finding a balance

Ultimately, as with all CPP projects, the aim is to present and make great art in an area that currently has low engagement with the arts – in St Helens’ case, it was an area of particularly low engagement – about 10 or 11% below the national average. Fox explains: “We want great art to be made and presented in St Helens. We want artists to be a recognisable voice around the decision-making table, to be a critical mass, an important voice in shaping the future of the town and its people. We want people to participate in the arts in a wide variety of ways, whether that’s as a co-creator or a practitioner. And we wants the artists to be able to grow and develop here. So, for us, it’s about the alchemy of how all of those areas intercept and interconnect - and how art and artists connect with civil society, and the politics of our times”

“Part of it is about intention and ambition, and finding the space for different methodologies and exploring different ways of working. We’re really interested in growing from within, and also supplementing that with those new ideas, fresh thinking, and ambition-raising bombastic moments that can come from anywhere. Over time, those two things start to meet in the middle, and the result is a connected, exciting, dynamic and vital arts and cultural ecology. It’s about balance.”

What’s next?

“We’re looking at how we mobilise and position St Helens as a centre for excellence around socially-engaged arts practice,” Fox tells me. “It’s about going back to the cornerstones of our whole programme: our four-pronged mission around art, the arts, participation and practice; if we can support those areas to develop, they will begin to reflect something that looks like a sustainable arts ecology. I think that without one of those areas, the roof starts to collapse; if all we did was present great work for the next three years, six years or ten years, it would be great, but what would it leave in terms of legacy. If we were just supporting people to participate in high quality arts, again, we would fall of the cliff at the end as we wouldn't be supporting the creation of structures and capacities in order to make that sustainable. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s certainly achievable. No-one wants to fall off a cliff, least of all me!”

Heart of Glass. Your Name Here. Launch of Vera Page Park. Small. Photo Stephen King.jpg