NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 34th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 17 November 2023. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
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Sometimes we are lucky enough to interview someone who’s not only been in community-based arts for the long haul, but has been rooted for decades in a single community and organization. François started our interview by noting that he and Ralph Lister, Executive Director of Take Art, had known each other for 20 years.
Ralph was talking with us from his home in the historic Dorset coastal town of Lyme Regis, thirty-some miles from Take Art’s hub in South Petherton, from which they work in villages, towns and rural communities of Somerset in Southwest England. We asked Ralph to situate Somerset for listeners.
“Rural England is not homogeneous,” he explained. “Rural England takes in what used to be mining areas, kind of hinterland to heavy industrial areas. In some places—there’s the phrase ‘roses around the cottage,’ very beautiful, picturesque, very postcard desirable. But then there are parts of the country where there is quite severe deprivation. Agriculture plays a very small part of the local economy of most rural areas; it’s probably less than three percent of GDP nationally. There’s also quite a long history of in-migration, so whereas in many parts of the world you see people from rural areas relocating to urban areas where the jobs are, in the UK, you’re getting a lot of people moving out of cities where property prices are very high.”
Ralph has been with Take Art since 1989, when the organization was only 18 months old. In the podcast, he describes his journey after leaving school from community service work to pursuing arts work. He worked in fringe theater, then moved on to Inter-Action, a leading community arts group started by an American, Ed Berman. That dovetailed with the Miners’ Strike, which was such a catalytic event in the UK, Margaret Thatcher against labor. From there it was to the Inner City Theater Company, part of the London Bubble, plunging into social justice organizing and debates. Eventually, though, “London had lost its sheen. I had no money. I must have gone for like 30-odd interviews, and the first job I was offered was at Take Art in Somerset.”
“When I took it on, they were touring professional work into rural areas, working with village communities and with individuals in communities to put shows on. When they recruited me, they wanted me to develop the participatory work. What they didn’t tell me was that they hadn’t secured permanent funding or core funding. So my first job was to do the rounds of the local authorities to urge them to fund Take Art on a kind of semi-permanent basis.
“At first, there was just me. Then an assistant joined me, and we were based in a youth club on a further education campus. Every lunchtime, kids would hang out outside smoking discreetly, not doing what they should be doing. It was a quite vibrant in the community kind of location.
“It’s grown from being a rural touring agency across Somerset. We’re one of the few organizations in the country with an early years specialism, working with children aged under five and their carers and their parents. That was triggered by the experience of my own son when he was attending a preschool. He came back with a spirograph, like a drawing thing, and he said ‘Oh, we did art today.’ I looked at what he did and thought that’s not art at all. That’s not creative. So I did a taster program bringing art into early years settings. I am particularly interested in working with the under fives because that whole sector in the UK is absolutely and completely on its knees. There is no respect, there is no recognition for the role that early years staff have, the work that they do. It’s a very demoralized sector. I’m not sure how many people really realize it, but the learning that takes place at that particular age range is absolutely immense.
“We now support dance professionals and the dance program in the county, a theater program supporting the two main planks of the organization around participation but also about supporting professionals. To me they are two sides of the same coin. There are so many organizations that do one or the other but I can’t separate them—they both are equally important to me.”
Ralph described one project in more detail, working with young people, ten to 25, making music, one to one. “Actiontrack Performance Company are the deliverers. They have a recording studio in a town called Taunton in the middle of Somerset. I’ve worked with Nick Brace, the artistic director, over 20 years. Nick is an incredible practitioner when it comes to working with people, finding out what they’re interested in, finding out what they might want to do, and facilitating a kind of creative process with those people is at the heart of the practice that I’m particularly interested in.
“These young people are producing their own music. They write songs and they arrange them and they learn how to do the production. The work is incredibly varied. Actiontrack have a bag of tools, they are as comfortable in the classical music idiom as in grunge or rap. Most of the work is one-to-one. A lot of the young people are excluded from school for behavioral issues. The number of times we’ve talked to a teacher who said ‘Oh, I didn’t know So-and-so was capable of doing X’ because these kids are written off! Actiontrack work with them over a period of sessions, usually on a one-to-one basis where they get to know each other, and then they decide there is something that they want to make some music about.
That is just the beginning of the stories Ralph shares on the podcast. Our conversation bounced between specific projects and the larger policymaking environment for rural arts, including the sector’s woeful underfunding. What Ralph shared reflected something we’ve heard from many guests on the podcast: “Pre-COVID, I was very active. I was part the Arts Council’s rural stakeholder group, which would convene two or three times a year. One thing that we asked the Arts Council to do as part of that group was research, to collect data about what what activity was and funding was going into rural areas. (Here’s a link to the 2015 report.) I can tell you from the Arts Council’s own research that 17% of the population live in rural England, but only two to five percent of their core funding goes into organizations based in a rural area. I do believe in advocacy. I do believe in impacting on policy and strategy and strategy. I think it’s really important, but since COVID, everyone’s shrunk, everyone’s kind of disappeared into making sure their core business kind of carries on.”
Tune in to hear a discussion of the political forces that shape this situation, and a great many interesting examples of work that pursues culturally democratic goals despite them and artists that refuse to give up.
“Teach Your Children,” Playing for Change Band, Live in Australia.