Blog Post

Creating persistent encounters


Karen Smith talks about her think piece for Creative People and Places exploring the relationship between the programme and social capital

Detail from A Social Change Instrument by Nicole Mollett

We talk to Karen Smith about her think piece Persistent Encounter, which explores the relationship and potential impact of Creative People and Places (CPP) projects on achieving and measuring social capital and social change. During the research Karen spoke to 19 Creative People and Places projects.


In a nutshell, what is your think piece about? 

KS: It explores the arts practice of Creative People and Place in the context of social capital and examines how social capital might be used as a term. It looks at CPP’s ways of working which do support the development of social change. It suggests that using the term social capital and measuring it is challenging, complex and not neutral. 

The piece also shows that without addressing inequality one can only get so far. Inequalities influence the ability to achieve positive social change and the think piece suggests that wider systemic change and institutional shifts of perspective and practice need to take place to achieve a fairer future. 


What do we mean by social capital and why is it relevant in terms of the Creative People and Places programme?

KS: The term simply put, describes the potential of our connections with others and how we might act via those connections. A longer working definition for ‘social capital’ is on page 11 of the think piece.

How people act and use the arts everyday is relevant to the CPP programme. One of the aims of CPP was to increase arts engagement. Most places also aim to increase the levels of social activism and potential of people to use and develop their own creativity in that activism. 


What did you find most problematic about the term social capital in the context of CPP? Are there any dangers in using it?

KS: Any action arising from social capital cannot be assumed to be either positive or negative. It is not a straightforward term and has political resonances which may be an awkward fit with CPP places visions and values. There is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ quality to the language which can creep in. 

Most CPP places did not set out to build social capital as an aim (or use that term), and social capital is intangible. The think piece generated loads of discussion, and using it as a term to think with appears to have been useful, yet using it as a term to measure impact is challenging and problematic. 


How do you think art and creativity build social capital in communities?

KS: I don’t think the arts build social capital as such. They can enhance, develop and inspire people to act, connect, persistently encounter, and therefore support tolerance of difference. People make their own social capital with what is available to them and how they are as human beings. 

Social capital isn’t a ‘given’ by any funded scheme and is built by the connections and collaborations of everyone willing to share their time, connections and passions. The think piece does explore the impact of how CPP place activities persistently enable encounter and allow an ‘opening up’ to each other using art practice. Bridging and linking social capital describes the behaviours where being open to difference can happen. Being part of a culture of encounter regularly can accelerate change in the way people learn and think, how we all feel about trust in each other, and find ways to connect and overcome difference.


You talk about creating 'persistent encounters' as a way that Creative People and Places projects can develop social capital and help make connections between people. What qualities and skills do practitioners need to bring to this?

KS: With any practice there are skills and expertise that people build over time. The work asks much of the people that make it happen, in their time and their practice. It calls for intensive, rigorous, imaginative, sustained approaches. The work needs knowledgeable, kind and sensitive practitioners who:

  • genuinely want to work with people / each other
  • are curious and keep learning
  • are explicit and honest about what they do 
  • have a ‘can do’ attitude and ability to withstand knockbacks
  • have or can learn development skills (e.g. diplomacy, negotiation, resourcing, leading, nurturing)
  • understand the length of time this work takes. (e.g. Heart of Glass have a 12 year commitment with the artist Mark Storor to work with the people of St Helens). 


Do you think that social inequality and austerity is affecting the extent to which the arts can develop social capital?

KS: Yes. It was inherent in interviewee’s answers and is indivisible from the need to create political and societal change. 


How do you think practitioners working in the cultural sector can apply the thinking in your report in their own practice?

KS: The term is ‘good to think with’, and I’ve tried to consider it from many angles in terms of arts practice. Whilst it is a ‘chewy’ read, hopefully it gives lots of food for thought.


What did you discover were the most positive and negative aspects of this work?

KS: Most negative:  The unfairness and the extent to which continued austerity has drastically changed the ability to create work with people and utilise their expertise and engagement in local infrastructure. 

Positive: The sheer bloody persistence, creativity, and joy in art that pervades and creates and inspires connection. These encounters are happening in many places and the resonance is beginning to ring wider and louder.  


To what extent did researching and writing Persistent Encounter change your initial views on social capital and Creative People and Places?

KS: My views on social capital haven’t changed.  The research sadly re-enforced how entrenched socio-economic inequality is and how this gets in the way. 

My respect has deepened for those in the arts who are persistent, keep on diplomatically making connections across institutions, bureaucracies etc… no matter how challenging it is, they keep on taking imaginative leaps. I believe that we need to keep asking the awkward questions, and ask ourselves what is it that we have yet to imagine?


About Karen Smith

Karen has worked in the arts for 28 years. Her work focuses on several areas including: walking, writing, drawing practices; participation; collaboration; artist-led leadership; professional artistic development. Karen works as an independent writer; researcher; evaluator; lecturer; consultant and artist.  

Karen’s recent and current portfolio includes work with: In Certain Places; Aldeburgh Music; Einstein’s Garden; Universities of Leeds, Huddersfield and Salford. Her artistic projects include ‘thought: cloud: thought’ and ‘crow’. 


Image: Social Change Instrument by Nicole Mollett from More Than 100 Stories, a creative commission about the Creative People and Places programme