How Plymouth Art Weekender can can help nurture the city’s arts eco system

Plymouth Art Weekender map. Photo Credit: Sarah Waddington / Plymouth Herald

Plymouth Art Weekender map. Photo Credit: Sarah Waddington / Plymouth Herald

Now in its 2nd year, Plymouth Art Weekender builds on a successful lineage of artist-led and grassroots visual arts focussed projects in the city over the last 5 (or 10) years, brought to its most recent crescendos with the British Art Show 7 Fringe (2011) and the establishment of KARST, PAC Home & The River Tamar Project (2012), Radiant & Visual Arts Plymouth (2014) and the 1st Plymouth Art Weekender in 2015.

As an aside, you can see my work-in-progress of this ‘history’ of Plymouth’s contemporary art eco-system here

In this post, I’d like to explore some ideas on how Plymouth Art Weekender (PAW) could develop further for future weekenders by reflecting on my experiences this year.


Art can lead us to look at our city differently

The work that I managed to get out and see during the Weekender (when I wasn’t working on install / de-installing / running 3 different events – ooops!!) encouraged me to take another look at Plymouth. Having lived and worked here (with forays away to other places to study, adventure and explore) over the last 20 years, I can, at times, be fooled into thinking that I ‘know’ Plymouth – but the city still surprises me.

Tim Mills – Plymouth Rocks, sited at the Lion’s Den, Plymouth Hoe. Photo Credit: Rachel Dobbs

Many of the works I sought out at PAW reminded me of this, including Tim Mills’s Plymouth Rocks installed at the Lion’s Den on the seafront, Ruth Mitchell’s audio tour of the (usually hidden) Jewish Cemetery, LOW PROFILE’s Impromptu at Plymouth Athenaeum, the We Are Plymouth photobooth at the Union Street party, Myriam Lefkowitz’s Walk, Hands, Eyes (Plymouth) which took place around the Barbican, and work in the exhibition of Plymouth University’s Media Arts staff & students work including Tony Hill’s films North Cross & SPIN and Christian Gale/Sam Akroyd’s White Rabbit, a work in progress series of portraits (sound, painting and other documents) exploring the recent history of Plymouth’s Bretonside. These aproaches to site and place are interesting to both a resident and a visiting audience, with many people taking up the opportunity to explore the sites opened up by the public nature of PAW activities.

Sister Sister – group exhibition of works by artists Rosie King / LOW PROFILE / Beth Emily Richards / Molly Rooke / Clare Thornton

Taking part in PAW also reminded me how many great artists there are living and working in Plymouth and it’s excellent to see those artists showing work here, like my peers Claire Thornton, Beth Emily Richards, Molly Rooke and Rosie King in the Sister Sister show and Graham Guy Robinson, Andy Cluer, Charlie Wildy, Laura Edmunds, Carl Slater, Keith Harrison, Donna Howard and Paul Hillon in the Entroducing… show at KARST.

Due to the limits of time and geography, I barely managed to scratch the surface of the Weekender’s events, so there were many other Plymouth-based artists whose work I didn’t get to see, but I look forward to catching it in future. It’s great to finally feel like there is a large enough number of people doing things that I’m missing out, that there are artists I still don’t know and connections I am still to discover. Also, really great to see graduates from the city choosing to base their practice here after finishing college, which never used to feel like a viable option!

Plymouth Art Weekender’s role in nurturing the city’s visual arts eco system

Now that the Art Weekender is starting to feel like a fixture in the city’s calendar, that has an on-going outlook (and after the recent announcement of Plymouth Culture’s successful Ambition for Excellence bid), it may be worth considering some areas in which it could develop the eco system which it operates as part of. Over the last two years, it has run with a ‘staff of one’ (the co-ordinator role, filled by Cardiff-based Gordon Dalton) and a host of volunteers who represent visual arts organisations, communities and artists from across the Plymouth, under the umbrella of Visual Arts Plymouth (or VAP). PAW is run on a minimal (tight) budget, and therefore needs to be resourceful in the way it operates.

All events and exhibitions are initiated, funded, run, staffed, installed & de-installed by the artists and cultural organisations who choose to take part, apart from a small number of commissioned works (last year 4 works, this year 1 work). It follows the non-hierarchical, autonomous and inclusive nature of the previous British Art Show Fringe (2011), which set a precedent for city-wide artist-led visual arts activity. In this way, “Plymouth Art Weekender” is more of a brand, wrapper and focus point for activity than an organising or programming body, or festival – it provides a listings service and central information point (through its website and map), runs open forum events where interested parties can discuss their ideas and meet with others, and acts to broker initial relationships between venue holders and artists / cultural producers. PAW is also a point to gather evaluation, to promote and amplify coverage of artists’ events and to bring together the efforts of all involved to create a louder, more unified, voice for the collected activity that happens under its name.

Visitors at the opening of Winter/Hoerbelt – BimBam im Selbst at KARST: Photo Credit: Rob Gonzalez / Plymouth Herald

The success of the 2015 & 2016 Weekenders demonstrate that this model has operated well, and is attractive to artists to become involved in. I would suggest, that building on this success, there are a few areas in which PAW needs to develop further, in order to continue to grow in scale and ambition. As Plymouth Art Weekender is entirely reliant on artists’ participation (ie doing it themselves, putting on shows, self-funding, making things happen), their goodwill, and harnessing the desire and motivation to work hard to produce exhibitions and events, these things need to be carefully nurtured, supported and developed.

PAW needs to ask “how do we encourage artists to want to it again, and again?”. I would suggest this could happen on a number of fronts, including:

  • support for higher production values – this could happen through a mixture of seed funding (to cover more ambitious production), support / development of skills for fundraising and identifying routes to professional mentoring & coaching with a focus on nurturing the critical development, staging and presentation of works. Artists could be paired up with experienced practitioners in relevant fields to contribute to this development, to act as an outside eye on their planned output and as a sounding board for ideas.
  • looking out for talent & showcasing this – this could happen through increased contact with promising artists and projects (at any stage of their careers) and supporting the development of work that is shown at the Art Weekender, and its trajectory into the wider world. To support this, PAW could develop stronger links with programmers / curators / commissioners from inside and outside the region and increase efforts to highlight and showcase outstanding work undertaken by artists in Plymouth. There may be opportunities to support or facilitate the co-commissioning of work by brokering new relationships between highlighted talent and interested cultural organisations. This process of ‘recognition’ has significant links to graduate retention, and retention of creative practitioners at any stage of their career – feeling that the city values you, and that you living / working here makes a difference is a massive motivating factor. This could/would also cross over with existing efforts by PAC Home, Plymouth Culture & LOW PROFILE’s Jamboree project to encourage creative conversations between practitioners around the UK and internationally. It could also be developed into some kind of “PAW ON TOUR” idea, where selected works / projects are brought to other cities or countries to share this work with an audience outside of Plymouth – this has the potential to have a great impact on artists based in the city in increasing their mobility and reach of their practice.

 

Signposting / Wayfinding / Live Guides

As Plymouth Art Weekender becomes larger and involves more artists, exhibitions and events, the scope of the ‘wayfinding’ strategies used also needs more focus. This year’s map and website demonstrate the need for better solutions to presenting a large amount of information to visitors and participants. These solutions need to have multiple points of entry (for example, ways to search by location, artist name, keywords, date, event type etc.), and more carefully clarified coding and sorting of information (ie more clarity to make it easy to distinguish date from location from artists’ names etc).


Shaun Lewin’s alternative Plymouth Art Weekender map (incorporating Lucy Davies’ “lig guide”)

Reactions to this year’s map and website ranged from mild confusion to pro-active crowd generated solutions – Shaun Lewin’s map and Lucy Davies’s “lig guide” to events are good examples of this. There are quite a few people in Plymouth who specialise in UX (user-experience design), mapping and dealing with complex data sets and information visualisation, so it might be worth setting up a working group to focus on innovative (and re-usable) solutions for this for next year?

For enhanced clarity, PAW’s online coverage / map should offer suggested routes through the programme – eg “If you you like contemporary craft, check out X Y Z… If you are interested in exploring hidden or unusual spaces, check out A B C… If you are interested in seeing work by Plymouth’s current art students, check out X Y Z… If you are interested in experimental music and sonic art, check out A B C…”. This would take a little more initial research and ‘tagging’ of events, but would greatly improve the visitor experience.

Investing in creating re-usable signage that more clearly uses the PAW brand to be distributed to venues / event organisers would also improve the situation for PAWs to come and attract more passing visitors. This year these had a limited use (again due to stretched resources). Again there were useful examples for how this could be improved, like the signage produced by Barbican New Street Artists for their events (PS – if anyone has a photo of this, send it my way, I’d love to include it here.)

PAW Live Guides

Some of PAW’s trusty Live Guides at the Plymouth Athenaeum info point. Photo Credit: Peter Davy

At present, PAW’s Live Guides operate on a voluntary basis, without much training or support, and this is another area that could be addressed with targeted budget going towards paying and supporting them more closely to carry these role out. A good example of this might be the interpretation strategy used during British Art Show 7, where Live Guides were employed across the venues of the multi-site exhibition.

 

Seed funding / Commissions / Financial (and other) support for projects

Devonport SOUP & PAC Home Bursary (and the projects funded by them – Katy Richardson & Imperfect Orchestra’s Relic, LOW PROFILE’s Impromptu, Norm Buchan’s Sore Spot at Plymouth Arts Centre) both present useful models in how seed funding helps to secure the production / presentation of ambitious work and projects for PAW. Marcella Finazzi’s crowdfunder campaign for “What we talk about when we talk about love” also presents a useful model for engaging an audience for the work in helping to fund its production (and creating a sense of investment in the piece in the run up to the Weekender).

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Reactor, The Gold Ones- sited at Place de Brest, Armada Way, Plymouth. Photo Credit: Plymouth Art Weekender

 

The limitations of short lead time (mid May – mid Sept) and small budgets (or lack of time to secure extra external funding) are evident in the public art commission this year, with what seemed to be a slightly curtailed version of The Gold Ones by Reactor. This piece had the added pressure of needing to be the main site of public interaction with the programme in the city centre, PAW’s most visible ‘flagship’ – a lot to expect from a newly commissioned artwork to fulfil alone.  In contrast, the re-purposing / re-making / re-siting of an existing work like Myriam Lefkowitz’s Walk, Hands, Eyes (Plymouth) demonstrates how a more carefully developed commissioning partnership between Plymouth-based organisations and outside agencies can lead to high quality work being produced and shown for PAW.

Myriam Lefkowitz – Walk, Hands, Eyes (Plymouth) – produced by Situations and supported by Plymouth Art Weekender, Plymouth Culture & Barbican Theatre, Plymouth.

By appealing to organisations in the city (arts and non-arts) for small designated seed funding amounts (eg £500 – £750), and finding innovative ways to distribute these, PAW could further support the development of high quality provision during the weekender. In a similar way, Plymouth City Council’s existing Crowdfunder match funding link-up could be opened out to individuals who propose crowdfunded projects to happen during PAW as a way to generate funding for production costs and time involved.

Brokering relationships between venue holders and artists / cultural producers

PAW has been a useful catalyst to opening up access to spaces that were not previously being used as exhibition or event spaces, making introductions and brokering relationships between venue holders in the city (eg Plymouth Athenaeum which was used as a PAW ‘hub’ this year). This could be extended through support and development activity to help artists skill up in accessing ‘meanwhile spaces’ in the city (pop-ups in unoccupied commercial space, for example). Hannah Jones (The Gallery, Plymouth College of Art) prepared a really useful resource that could be shared more widely with artists in the city as a way to signpost this information – you’ll find a link to it here. This type of development activity helps to skill artists in the city up to achieve more ambitious projects, year-round, which would contribute greatly to the city’s arts and cultural eco system.

Development of knowledge sharing resources

If organised differently, the PAW website / online resource could provide a useful ‘directory’ of cultural producers in the city (including makers, artists, curators, producers), profiling current activity in Plymouth and showcasing this more widely. This would mean expanding the existing provision further than simply a ‘listings’ format, with self-maintained profiles on artists/practitioners and those making the events happen.

Exposing the existing networks of creative activity and those working to make things happen would be beneficial internally (to the people involved) and externally (for curators / programmers etc from outside the city who would like to bring the work of artists based in Plymouth to a wider audience). Focussed and relevant events throughout the year that bring these people together (to mix, get to know eachother’s work and approaches, share knowledge and insights) would be useful to improve visibility of those producing artwork / cultural activity. These events would compliment existing open forums, rather than replace them.

Documentation / Writing / Coverage

PAW could greatly support artists by arranging / providing / paying for professional documentation of all work presented over the Weekender. This work could then be made available on the PAW website (or web resource) for download / sharing etc. after the event, using Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licensing to allow it to be used by the artists, event organisers, those reporting on the event. Visitors and members of the public could also be encouraged to upload hi-res versions of their own photographs & footage, under a similar CC licence, as well as via social media.

In a similar way, PAW could provide valuable support to artists & event producers by securing local, regional and national coverage of the programme in a variety of press outlets. As PAW is an artist-led project, press releases should also represent a variety of voices of those presenting work / projects, with quotes from artists participating alongside those of the co-ordinator. On-going and focussed engagement with local/regional bloggers and writers (and development of this community / encouragement to attend and cover events). Here’s an interesting link to a Plymouth blogger who has started to generate this type of community in the city.

 


What do you think was great about Plymouth Art Weekender? What still needs improving? What do you agree with in what I have written? What have I got completely wrong? Tell me in the comments… or tweet me to start a conversation about it!!

You can feed back to PAW via their official feedback form – your thoughts and comments will be really valuable to the further development of the project.


Rachel Dobbs is one half of LOW PROFILE, an artist and educator based in Plymouth, UK. Rachel works on community projects, has a long-term interest in creative approaches to community development and runs workshops, teaching & training sessions for a range of formal & informal groups including students, arts practitioners and communities – contact me for more details.