Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Community Arts and How PO! began

I love Community Arts.  It used to be a kind of yogurt-weaving joke; the idea that rough kids from inner city estates would do a bit of circus skills, parachute co-operation games and muck about with old lorry tyres and somehow get civilised. I still think it works. I still think that it's better than doing nothing.

There are half-dead men in their 40s, who grew up in affluent suburbs and never experienced Community Arts. If you grow up with financial stability and success as a default, it must seem weird that anyone would ever want to do those things -  how can making a giant elephant out of old pallets be useful for young people who should be training for jobs?

I guess there's always been bad parenting; there are selfish ones and immature ones and ones that just aren't around enough. But when I was younger, Community Arts filled that gap. There were dens and adventure playgrounds and youth centres, and arts workers who went out on the street to find the kids who might want to learn the bass guitar. This wasn't strict like school, but it was caring, like a home should be and it earnestly conveyed the idea that through arts activities you could become someone better.

Unleash children’s joy, fantasy, and creativity–then they are free, social, and curious children.” – Palle Nielsen


I don't really know what happens in inner cities now; some would have us believe that street gangs pop up to meet those emotional needs and provide activities for young people. I know that there are still many great youth projects, but Community Arts has lost status in our education and social system, and we really need to shout out and protect it.

Carolyn Drury's Community Theatre - still doing it 30 years later
My first encounter with anything like this was a drama group, in Newark, run by Carolyn Drury. I think she was influenced by 1970s  American improvisation group The Player's Workshop. Although I was doing all right at school, I was rather passive and didn't really understand a lot of what was going on around me.

 Drama brought me alive; I could be anyone I wanted to be; I could see the perspective of another person by talking with their tongue. Carolyn's passion for drama was obvious; she showed the teenagers in the group that life is fun and people are free, but that you need to do something worthwhile with that freedom.

In the summer of 1981, I got a holiday job in Camden with Inter-Action. The founder, Ed Berman had set up so many inspiring projects and I was employed on the first ever children's computer camp.

Nowadays, computer camps are often residential affairs for affluent nerdy-types, but then computers were only just evolving as an educational tool. The idea was that kids from the estates would come for free each day and be taught BBC BASIC programming by 19-year old tutors like me. It was a fun job; the children were really motivated and had ideas about what they wanted to do with this amazing new technology. Often they'd tell you about their lives; nothing dreadful, just about mums out at work cleaning and nobody to look after them over the summer.

The BBC B Computer as used at Computer Camp 

On page 14 of the 1988 report on the Inter-Action website, you can see that 200 young people a week used computers once the project became full-time; a project funded by the Department of Education and Science. 

After being in Leicester for a while, writing songs and rehearsing with The Soviets, I joined a course at Fosse Neighbourhood Centre Studios about sound recording. It was run by Multiplex, led by Teri Wyncoll.  I loved the activities and learning about sound engineering, and The Soviets recorded their first cassette release there. We met a few of the key people involved in bands in Leicester at the time and realised that there was a lot of support from the City Council for youth music. This included employment opportunities for musicians to work with younger kids, as well as more professional level training and workshops to develop your band.

Whilst Community Arts implies a collectivism and flexible response to the interests and needs of the community, I don't think it can be successful without clear leadership; it takes an individual or small group who are relentless in their push towards their goal. I know of many true collectives that have fallen apart in petty arguments, or wasted years on internal matters. Meanwhile, the mavericks, the inspired control freaks and the straight-talking action women and men get things done. Teri Wyncoll was such a person. She got things done in the Leicester music scene; courses, gigs, workshops and The Abbey Park festival - a miniature Glastonbury that kept growing and growing until the City Council decided that maybe it should be commercially funded and not come out of the Council Tax.

The Community Arts van takes PO! to play at a festival in Worcester with Hawkwind!

Looking back, Teri's Multiplex was vibrant and full of possibilities. When The Soviets fell apart, it made forming and launching a new band extremely easy as there were gigs, recording facilities and even grants for instruments on offer to young people. However, this doesn't mean to say that Teri was generally admired; in fact her power and influence engendered a huge amount of resentment from many musicians. The thinking was that she had a clique of friends, and 'ordinary decent bands' didn't stand a chance of sharing in the perceived millions of pounds on offer. At the heart of it was that Teri wasn't interested in covers bands, but in promoting original talent that might have a chance in the wider music business. This is why she encouraged us to train kids to play and form bands, but it's also why some 'ordinary decent bands' didn't really get picked to play the high profile gigs.

PO! playing at the Abbey Park Festival 1987

I always liked Teri's warm Geordie manner, her flat full of interesting objects and her determined pro-female outlook. PO! would not have lasted more than a couple of months had it not been for Multiplex and the Leicester music scene at the time.  However, Teri's interests were rooted in a desire for freedom and commercial success rather than dutifully following Council expectations for correct procedures and accountability. By 2002, the scene and funding possibilities had changed so much that Teri moved on to other projects, leaving a trail of unused community recording studios with outdated equipment across the city. After more than half a lifetime of banging on about the music business, Teri and her long-term partner Dave seem to be now pursuing a more peaceful world of  canal narrow boats. However, PO! must be eternally grateful to her for the opportunities and support that we had in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

In the meantime, another organisation, Soft Touch, has grown to become the main Community Arts organisation in Leicester, funded largely by the Arts Council, but also gaining status as a result of increased schools' music funding . Soft Touch's growth over many years has been controlled, professional and understated; their website shows the admirable work that they do, but it's also full of the policies, evaluations and risk assessments needed for a community organisation to succeed in today's climate. 

It's great that more young people are receiving a short burst of music tuition in schools, and that there are still projects that engage disaffected youth with the arts. However, we need so much more vision, funding and belief in Community Arts. So many people from other nations admire British edgy creative artists; the fashion, film and music industries could generate income to match our defence and chemical industries, if only we had the talent. If only we nurtured the talent....... 

Recent campaign in Leicester against huge City Council cuts to play scheme funding

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