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Big is not big enough

Yesterday’s meeting of people from right across the visual arts sector in the Yorkshire region was undoubtedly a big moment for the people who have been helping to drive the development of a Turning Point Yorkshire & Humberside.

The context of the conversation was an idea that first emerged at a meeting of more than 50 people working across the visual arts, at the arts council’s Dewsbury office, in late 2008: The Yorkshire Project. This would be a programme driven by collaborations between visual artists, organisations, independents and audiences right across the region. The first Turning Point Yorkshire and Humber ‘Sector Forum Event’ was then the ideal place to pose a challenge to the sector to dream up ideas for what a ‘big’ project for Yorkshire might constitute and why.

Providing some inspiration were three speakers involved in unquestionably big things: 

Paul Domela from Liverpool Biennial talked about the benefits of big (visibility, diversity and the ability to make structural change), but also highlighted the challenges (resource heavy and difficult to balance stakeholder agendas). He described the need to build up from a series of small stabs, where both people and trust are critical to success. Paul ended his presentation with a provocation – “big is not big enough” – and offered the following pieces of advice to the Yorkshire contingent:

  • It’s important to have a dream that’s bigger than the big project.
  • Start with your local assets.
  • Make sure you are adding value to local assets.
  • Make sure you have people.
  • Communicate.

Jean Cameron from Glasgow International Festival of Visual Arts (GI) talked about the idea of the festival, of each occurrence of the festival, as a moment in a continuum. Jean highlighted the importance of the distribution of roles between people across Glasgow, speaking to and of its participants: this way of working had built attendances by 50% for all those involved in GI. She explained that collective buy-in was critical to success, and that successful big projects can secure support from outside of the sector. Civic, Economic and Tourist policies are all important to GI, but navigation is complex, and the speed of taking a funder on a journey to understand other kinds of economic drives can be frustrating. Jean offered the following pieces of advice to help thinking around the Yorkshire Project idea:

  • It’s important to remember the need to make good art – and not get sidetracked by agendas.
  • Managing expectations is key.
  • Maintain relevance, visibility and dynamism, between festivals is hard but critical.
  • Profile raising goes hand in hand with strengthening: a continuum.
  • Ambassadors play a vital role.

Peter Jenkinson an independent Cultural Broker who was a key player in Channel 4’s Big Art project, discussed the idea of possibility.

“Where you look and see nothing, it’s not nothing at all. It’s possibility.”

He discussed the idea of Yorkshire as a Death Valley of possibility, and the “absolutely fabulous and totally odious, totally hideous” biennial culture (which is ‘totally ironic’ given that I just spotted him at Istanbul 2009 - added September 09). He discussed the ideas of an opening out, of spectacular ambition and impossible ambition, of being unapologetic, and of collaboration, co-creation, sharing and inclusiveness that is purposeful. He discussed the idea of bringing “community of all kinds into collision”. He made reference to Charles Ledbeater’s Art of With essay and announced the “death of the audience”, going on to describe an experience culture that supported big ideas like The Big Lunch, and provided the possibility of a “total 360 degrees between people living in a city or region.” Finally, he challenged those in attendance to be “impossibly optimistic” in their approach.

The session continued with a short presentation from a representative of Wakefield council about the West Yorkshire Sculpture Initiative, followed by a series of group discussions about the possibilities for a region wide project. As one might expect, there were an extremely wide range of ideas and opinions. In general people seemed to question the feasibility of one big project across such a huge geography, favouring a strategy that creates synthesis between a range of initiatives to create a whole that is bigger than the sum of it’s parts: this was described by one group as a rhizome – a complex, and mutually dependent network of roots existing below the surface, whose collective efforts give life to the visible things above.

Video and notes from the day will be available on this website soon. Please subscribe for updates today! 

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Reader Comments (5)

where is the video then?

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoris

Hi Joris. The video is on its way, promise!

It's about two hours long and needs editing, but will be online soon.

Meanwhile all the other videos are now up.


Simon Zimmerman

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