The world is changing. The certainties we have been used to are shifting and, for many of us, this feels deeply unsettling. The UK referendum on EU membership in June 2016 revealed deep divisions between and within communities across the UK. Writing in The Guardian on 11 November 2017, Jonathan Freedland suggested that the leave vote was:“a cry of pain from industrial towns abandoned and left derelict, with few or bad jobs, stagnant wages and crumbling public services. They felt forgotten by the political establishment in London, and grabbed the first chance they had to make themselves heard.”

Disillusionment with traditional politics is widespread and growing, particularly locally. There is  an increasing feeling of disconnection between large parts of the population and those in power – a vicious circle of disenfranchisement that denies many a voice in decisions that make a real difference to their lives.

In addition we are an ageing population, working longer, with less leisure time and less disposable income. And while the range of people in our communities becomes ever more diverse, equality of access and opportunity remains an unattainable dream for many.

For community cultural activities the funding landscape looks increasingly bleak. Reduced state funding, the move from grants to contracts and an increasing focus on project funding looks unlikely to be reversed.

This is the new normal. But perhaps it is possible to find some ways of responding constructively to these many challenges in new approaches which draw on old traditions.

One encouraging feature of the current landscape across the UK and Ireland is the multiplicity of ways in which voluntary arts activity is flourishing in almost every locality. The innovation, dedication, determination and enthusiasm demonstrated by creative citizens, not least in communities where there is little financial investment, is remarkable.

New models based on centuries old traditions of collective endeavour and a commoning approach to culture and democracy are surfacing, often in the most unexpected places. And year by year, through Voluntary Arts’ EPIC Awards, some of the many creative and amazingly resourceful culturally creative initiatives that are happening in localities across these islands, come to light and are the focus for celebration.

Consider, for example, Rotherham Ethnic Minority Alliance, which set out in 2016 to counteract the negative perceptions of the town through an inclusive, creative project entitled Love is Louder. This initiative involved working with people from all across the borough, and engaging with over 75 different organisations, to challenge intolerance and division through cultural creativity. Love is Louder initially used arts as a vehicle for engagement to create influential pieces that could be used as educational tools. The work focused on people with ‘protected characteristics’ including race, religion or belief, disability and sexual orientation. An ‘artbomb’ process saw thousands of handmade textile pieces made by hundreds of people cooperating to form installations in the town centre, bringing together all sorts of groups within the community to create colour and positivity. A crowd of over 90 people were involved in spraying hoardings to create a piece of community art.. A Festival of Angels project involved hundreds of people creating interpretations of angels, which were displayed throughout the borough for the winter period as means of creativity, innovation and positivity to the area.

Rotherham Ethnic Minority Alliance told Voluntary Arts: “Rotherham has been hit by negative press and high numbers of far right marches which has seen a large disconnect in communities and high incidents of hate.  We wanted to challenge this creatively and develop something that everyone could be involved in and bring some positivity back to the town.”

In Glasgow the volunteer-led RE-Tune Project offers people with mental health difficulties the chance to make, and then play, their own stringed instrument. Based in a former boys’ home near Easterhouse in Glasgow, RE-Tune is the brainchild of David McHarg, a social worker for almost 20 years who became disillusioned with the effectiveness of his profession. After re-training in woodwork and ‘luthiery’ (the craft of building and repairing stringed instruments), he set up the RE-Tune Project in 2014 in a bid to help those suffering from mental health difficulties, experiencing isolation and loneliness – and in particular, ex-service personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We use anything and everything to make guitars – broomsticks, cigar boxes, skateboards," explained David. "We don’t throw anything away." Over a series of months, participants learn how to renovate disused tools which they then use to repair donated guitars back to their former glory. Those taking part have found that focussing on the discipline of daily tasks has led to a full, busy learning day that stimulates the desire to keep attending, and then seek out further education within the fine woodworking field and move on with their personal development. Various local and wider agencies have referred people to the project, including ex-services, NHS mental health and craft institutions.

What these and other examples suggest is that creative cultural activity can help to sustain our hearts and minds and crucially do so in difficult times. Hope, like many of our states of mind, can be lost. Returning to hopefulness is not as simple as picking up a paint brush or singing a song – its far more complex than that. But the journey towards a more hopeful state of mind can be enabled by engaging in the creative things you love to do especially with people you trust and who support you.

Getting involved in a common cause, in which your voice is valued and heard, also helps to foster a sense of hope and is the kind of civic participation that forms the bedrock of a healthy democracy. Here too creative citizens are active together.

In response to city proposals to demolish the Churchill Way Flyover (two elevated roads in Liverpool City Centre) three friends proposed the idea that the flyover could be transformed into a unique urban park and venue and began the Friends of the Flyover project. They felt that for less than the estimated £3-4 million costs of demolition the city could have something amazing in return that added a special public space for the city, its residents and visitors. Their proposition to local people was to help them build it, plant it and shape it:  ‘We are very excited to have planning permission for our first phase of occupation on site! Sited beneath the Flyover, ‘Urban Workbench’ will give local people the opportunity to get involved in learning skills of making and construction. Central to this will be WikiHouse, a flat-pack, digitally-cut house, designed for self-build. This project will give local people the opportunity to build objects for The Flyover, for themselves and for their own neighbourhoods. If you want to know more, you can find us during any Flyover Takeover event, drop us a line or meet us for a coffee!’

In Ireland The Hermit Collective is a poetry, music, art, craft and puppet ensemble which started in protest against the killing off of rural Ireland. Frustrated with a lack of support for artists  – both amateur and professional  – in their towns, the collective formed with the intention of uniting and energising the local arts scene.  Its approach is to bring the arts out to audiences, not just keeping them inside galleries or in rather distant cities. ”The Epic Award has meant so much to us, as verification that what we are doing isn’t pointless or simply amusing ourselves; it tells people that it is important to keep our communities active. That being creative is something that’s valuable. Our group is made up of about 40 people from all sorts of backgrounds, but living in the rural northwest of Ireland where opportunities for cultural exchange are scarce, and we bring a feeling of togetherness to our areas.”

By recognising, valuing and understanding the culture people choose to practice themselves, in their own time, at their own expense, we can find new connections between apparently divided communities and offer some much needed hope for a creative, cultural future.

Robin Simpson, Chief Executive, Voluntary Arts

Before joining Voluntary Arts in 2005, Robin was Deputy Chief Executive of Making Music – the national umbrella body for amateur music making, supporting over 2,000 amateur music groups throughout the UK, including choirs, orchestras, and music promoters. Previously, he worked as General Manager of the British Federation of Festivals, supporting the volunteer organisers of more than 300 festivals of music, dance and speech and drama across the UK.

Robin has substantial experience of working with volunteers, having also worked for six years for the Royal National Institute for the Blind, managing a team of over 130 volunteer readers to record academic textbooks onto tape for visually-impaired students. He completed his MBA with the Open University Business School in 2002.

This Our Cultural Commons Series will now pause for the Easter break returning on Wednesday 18th April with an article from Maryam Imran, a project management training and fundraising consultant based in Glasgow and currently working for Glasgow ANSAR, Diversity Arts and Noor Arts.

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