At the Art of Society: Nottingham City Arts

Times are hard. And we really have no way of forgetting it. Moreover, since announcing a proposal of £7bn of public spending cuts it seems that David Cameron has officially sold his halo to Cash4Gold and admitted that it is going to be a while before things get better, no matter who’s running the country.

In times such as these, it is inevitable that the justification for spending on the arts will be called into question: why should we pay for a new wing of the Tate Modern, when our own houses face repossession? Speaking at the Conservative Culture is Right conference in October this year, the Director of the Arts Council, Alan Davey, gave an impressive rebuttal to a summer’s worth of criticism of this kind, stating that money for the arts is essential for ‘any future government that which places quality of life for its citizens at the heart of its agenda and wants to encourage a distinctive national cultural identity’.
Impressive words Mr Davey, but where does it translate into reality? Surprisingly enough, I believe that evidence can be found in that little known melting pot of culture; the Radford estate, Nottingham.

City Arts is a charity that has been operating in Nottingham for over 30 years, developing city and citizens through a plethora of arts projects. In conversation with Kate Duncan, the Creative Programme Manager and Alma Cunliffe, the Creative Programme Officer at City Arts, I was overwhelmed by the breadth of achievement of the charity, and the relative modesty of its building and employees.

“As an organization we spread ourselves quite broadly,” understates Duncan; their main focuses at the moment can be roughly divided into Arts and Health, Arts and Young People, and Artists and Marginalised Groups, though these frameworks are “always moving, growing, and evolving” depending on need. Despite receiving national acclaim and a vote of confidence from the Arts Council in their continued funding, at the heart of the charity’s agenda is Nottingham; it’s all about “getting communities together, to give a shared experience through the arts, particularly those that aren’t necessarily accessing arts or cultural activities”. Indeed, funding from the Government relies upon relentless grassroots fundraising to start with.

When I say that community building is high on the agenda at City Arts, it would be doing them a disservice to fail to mention the work that they do with those on the peripheral of communities. That is, “new arrivals to the area, who for whatever reason have had to leave their countries and may well have been well established artists back home”. The brilliance of this kind of project is that it demonstrates the cyclic nature of arts projects, by helping out incoming artists, the charity then has workshop leaders for future projects, it breeds integration and collaboration across communities, generations and nations.
However, this feeling of co-operation also stretches beyond other arts charities and into the very infrastructure of our country. I am speaking of the growing positive public conception of Arts and Health, which has boomed in the past 3 or 4 years. “Because the Health Sector is being given more issue based objectives,” Duncan and Cunliffe explain, “they are becoming more open to using arts and creativity to work with community groups to produce outcomes or just raise awareness”. One such issue currently on the national health agenda is teenage pregnancy, with Nottingham having the highest rates of such in the country. As a result, Nottingham Primary Care Trust is working with City Arts on a workshop project for girls in ‘hotspot’ zones in the city. It aims to “dispel myths surrounding sexual health and the negative press that Nottingham might have by raising the aspirations of young women in the area, and giving them the opportunity to succeed”. The success of the project has seeded a second one that will invite more participants from all over the city, with the hope of also “addressing the territorial issues with young people in Nottingham”.
Like all of us, though, City Arts is not recession-proof, as Duncan points out, “it’s a vicious circle, there has been an increase in mental health referrals” since the crunch, and yet they could end up less equipped to deal with it. However, City Arts is “gearing up for inevitable changes come May”, by training staff to employ more business-like models to future projects, in the hope of proving sustainability.

No matter the outcome of next year’s election, something tells me that City Arts is not going anywhere; the mutualism built between communities and individuals cannot help but ensure its longevity.

Victoria Urqhart


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