Dominic Gray: Creative thinking can boost the arts – and empower communities

Opera North is looking to reach out to younger people.
Opera North is looking to reach out to younger people.
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IN 2016, many of the challenges facing society can appear chaotic, cruel and unknowable.

To understand them and make positive change, we need expertise, knowledge and insight from the widest range of perspectives, including, but not limited to the usual statistically-oriented viewpoints.

The arts and culture are uniquely placed to bring the creative imagination to bear on these complex and difficult times, and to enable deeper understanding of who we are in relation to the world around us.

This summer the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation launched a three-year inquiry to identify what role the arts could – and should – be playing in promoting civic engagement in society. In my opinion, this couldn’t have come at a better time.

At Opera North, we feel we have a responsibility to equip and enable young people, and others experiencing transition, to understand their world and how they might change it; a process which is as much about self-awareness, identity and narrative as it is about economics and the workplace.

The arts have a powerful role to play in deconstructing the stories we are told, and in contributing to possible answers and new ways of thinking.

After all, a great deal of art, music and performance is about experiencing change; sometimes traumatic, sometimes joyful, but always life-changing. At the same time the arts can empower people young and old to contribute their own voices and imaginations to our possible shared futures.

At Opera North, we are three years into a new Community Engagement Programme, working specifically with groups and individuals who are perceived as disadvantaged in terms of their ability to engage with the arts and culture.

This project, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, entails close collaboration with other bodies including health, social services and charities such as City of Sanctuary, Leeds Refugee Forum, Age UK and Leeds Women’s Aid.

The project aims to open our art form up to wider and more diverse audiences, but it’s also making our city and our society more connected; we learn from each other. Since the project launched in 2013, we have had 6,500 attendances at performances ranging from Cosi fan tutte to Carousel, from people who would not otherwise have been able to come. These include adults with mental health issues, women who have suffered domestic abuse, older people experiencing isolation, carer support groups and refugees and asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, in the Belle Isle area of south Leeds, we are running In Harmony, a programme of high quality music tuition and regular performance opportunities at Windmill and Low Road Primary Schools.

The project aims to transform aspirations and learning outcomes for 650 children in full time education, as well as the wider community served by the schools. At Windmill Primary, 92 per cent of children come from families classified as ‘hard pressed’ and 60 per cent are eligible for free school meals.

The school was selected through extensive consultation with the Local Education Authority, based on the potential to create the greatest impact for the children and their families. In 2015 the school saw a 20 per cent rise in their KS2 SATS results, and while this cannot be solely attributed to In Harmony, headteacher Andy Gamble believes the programme has had a significant impact on both personal and academic development.

Or take the case of young Jamie (aged eight) at Bude Park Primary in Hull where we are running a long-term singing school, and who says: “I’ve only been here a few weeks, it’s very different from my old school as we do loads more music. When I grow up, I want to be a policeman. I think singing will be useful for this as it helps you think and listen more.”

Of course Opera North isn’t alone in any of this, and many other arts organisations are doing just as much or more with their communities. For many people already involved in the arts, the civic role they play is self-evident. Engagement is so obviously part of what we do, and why we went into the arts in the first place, that these conversations can seem almost nonsensical. But this story isn’t widely told or celebrated; it’s almost hidden in plain sight.

We need the arts to be better at articulating their role in civic engagement, and impressing their value upon wider society.

I’m thrilled that this new inquiry will be looking to organisations like Opera North to find ways for more of the arts to be engaged with communities, and better able to contribute to the big questions of our times.

The arts need to play a more visible role in how society is reorganising itself in the 21st century, and the inquiry is a first step in helping us to do this.

Dominic Gray, Projects Director for Opera North, sits on the advisory panel of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation funded inquiry in the civic role of arts organisations.