Socially engaged participatory practice needs incredible skill and a long-term approach

At the end of this month I will be leaving Spare Tyre after nearly 4 years as Executive Director. I’m excited to be going on to new things, but really very sad to be leaving such a potent little organisation. 

We had one of our busiest years in 2017/18, reaching over 7,000 people with our work. The term ‘punching above our weight’ definitely springs to mind. Reflecting back I realise how incredibly important being here has been for me, both personally and professionally. Being political (with a little ‘p’) was not something that had been fundamental to my work in the past. At Spare Tyre I’ve been part of the front-line of creating art with and for people who are truly at the edges of our society. Being bold and vocal has been at its core. It has often been an utterly joyous and enervating experience, but it has also at times made me frustrated, angry and sad at the barriers and challenges the people we work with face every day. 

But these kinds of experiences are important. Being exposed to the reality of the society we live in, to the diversity of the people who inhabit this little globe, is what helps us to build our own political voice. It motivates us to create something better, and I’ve seen here how art can play a valuable role in that. The first time I visited a care home, watching our skilful artist-facilitators perform The Garden for people with dementia, was a mind-blowing experience. It was my first real exposure to the world of social care, in all its terrifying piss-smelling glory. It was a thoroughly depressing place. But seeing how the residents responded and were stimulated helped me to fully understand the power of what we as artists can achieve. To make that kind of compelling art happen requires incredible skill and valuing the quality of engagement above all else. 

In my first blog for Spare Tyre, which I wrote in 2015, I described our work as ‘sophisticated and subtle’. I now know that to achieve that kind of product requires a process that supports detailed reflection, responds to the complex needs of participants, and takes as long as it takes (that can sometimes be no time at all, sometimes a frustratingly long time). 
In that blog I also said ‘What worries me is just how difficult it is becoming to convince people of the need for this long-term, person-centred approach. People don’t seem to have the patience to wait for results.’ 

Am I still worried? Even more so. Times are continuing to get tougher, and the environments where Spare Tyre works (social care, health care, community engagement, disability) are all on the edge of a financial and ideological precipice. It makes the work that we and our peer companies do even more vital, but also even harder. And it is something we absolutely must be conscious of in the arts sector too – if we want to see the best results then we have to nurture people’s talents over the long-term, not just through one-off opportunities. We have to allow people space and give them the support to grow, fail, try again and succeed. We have to keep the faith when things don’t quite go to plan. We have to look for aptitude and potential in those people who haven’t yet been given the opportunity to take part in the life of our sector. 

Both here and in my previous role at Little Angel Theatre, the importance of the company ‘family’ has been essential. It is people that make a company, their ideas, ambitions, personalities and humour. And this takes time to nurture. For me the best bit of my work is always watching people flourish. As a ‘manager’ in the arts I see it as my role to facilitate art to happen, which basically means supporting, mentoring and capacitating brilliantly creative people to be the best they can be.  At Spare Tyre that doesn’t just mean professional artists – it means everyone from participant to placement. It has been a privilege to nudge so many people along the flow of their creative journeys. 

In my next role at Polka Theatre I’ll be joining another vibrant creative ‘family’. But I have a suspicion that I won’t be leaving the Spare Tyre extended family any time soon.