I have an approach to engagement developed over many different residencies where community engagement is a key part of the brief. Much of this has been developed through trial and error over quite varied projects with very diverse types of group. I have worked with scientists, astrologers, small towns and remote communities. i have worked in the health care systems both here with the NHS and some of our supported mental health art studios such as PROJECT ABILITY and its European equivalents, INUTI FOUNDATION in Sweden or KETTUKI and ITE in Finland. Each new experience and residency brings more understanding and more knowledge and ultimately adds to my engagement strategies and approaches. There is no tried and tested solution as each group or set of community stalwarts who agree to participate with me bring their own experiences and often complicated needs or ideas to the engagement. This often starts the process of personal relearning, adjusting my own expectations and ideas as we build relationships which have value for both the participants and for me. Every experience yields surprises and there are always unexpected twists and turns in the process.
With that in mind I set out my engagement strategy here as a model I use to anchor myself and to begin every new residency.
Demystifying arts engagement with participants by showing rather than explaining the role of the artist in engagement. It takes time to develop trust with busy people already stressed by their personal situations made all the more difficult by our continuing experience of Covid 19. Start with individuals and small groups and work on the ripple effect this generates by word of mouth.
CREATING A SAFE SPACE
Part of building trust is defining a safe place to work together. This is both a physical and psychological idea of space. Initially defining a neutral space where hierarchies are put aside, such as a shared walk in a favourite place then moving into more studio-based activities or spaces once trust is established.
Project collaborations utilizing creative individual’s potential. Find the individuals who have time on their hands or organisations who are underfunded and overworked. Then recognising and encouraging latent creativity, identifying cultural dynamos. Explaining through demonstrating the role of artist as critical thinker to project management groups you might be involved with is often just as important .
EMPOWERMENT / COLLABORATION
Allow your individual participants and groups to define their own culture. Develop projects around small group interests harnessing enthusiasm and mentoring creative individuals. Give people something they need first then push more experimental projects forward built on any trust developed. Give away creative direction but not creative control.
Building networks. Online and in real life. Find partners in the community who want to help and have the will, manpower or funding This is especially important when people are not willing to engage. Bring people together, facilitate future projects. Encourage collaborations. (Many new collaborations can be discovered through frustration due to organisations or groups disinterest or worse still management interference derailing engagement strategies).
Build conversations in around the projects legacy from the start – have a realistic set of ongoing goals and discuss this throughout the project so at the end of the engagement the participants are not left hanging or abandoned with no way forward.