Interview with Elaine Midgley

Director at Bedford Creative Arts

Can you tell me about your organisation’s rationale and main objective for your socially engaged work?

Bedford Creative Arts has been around for 35 years. We were born during the 1970s’ Community Arts Movement and we used to be called Bedford Community Arts. Things changed over the years and becoming an Arts Council NPO has meant that we’ve pushed the quality of our work. It’s been less about just working through the arts, but also about creating some important pieces of art. So sometimes the actual final outcome is very important to us, whereas a lot of socially engaged practice organisations focus on the process and not necessarily on the artistic outcome. That’s led us to work with a bigger range of practitioners. When we started, there was lots of work with local practitioners, now we also work with national and international artists. When I arrived, the organisation was very eclectic because we were the only national portfolio organisation in Bedford and outside of Luton. There was a temptation for us to do anything artistic that was asked of us. Lots of inquiries came our way. We had programmes with the refugee detention centre, for example, which was part of a national programme called Music In Detention. We also ran creative networks, and we had the studios. We had all of these different pieces, but they didn’t pull together towards a particular type of practice. When I arrived at BCA, in 2018, we rewrote the vision and mission statement and it became really clear that socially engaged practice had to be at the core, which is one of the reasons why I was quite comfortable to let go of the studios as the practice of the artists wasn’t necessarily socially engaged.

What’s important for us is our work with communities in Bedfordshire. Our work always has to stem from Bedfordshire, however, if the outcome of that work has a touring legacy or can be replicated or used nationally, then we might tour it, or we might take the project idea to another community. We work with communities of any kind. We might define a community as a neighbourhood, or we might define a community as a group of people with a shared characteristic like women, or people from the LGBTQ community. We’re always trying to do projects that look at a particular social issue. It will be about listening to that community about what they want to address, whether it’s an issue of social justice, or community cohesion, or engagement, or it might be around placemaking. Something that the community wants to explore. And then we will work out the approach. Whether it’s working with a particular artist, or launching an open call. We start from the premise of community and issue first before the artist as opposed to the other way around.  

We want communities to realise this intrinsic power the arts have to help them to be heard, to help them challenge issues of social justice, environmental justice, to change the status quo. We do it in different ways: we might do a commission or we might just work really embedded in the community. And that might manifest itself with something very simple, like workshops and small interventions. We do have The Culture Challenge programme, which is our main education strand, where we act as broker between schools and culture providers. We also do lots of developmental work and set up networks. We have recently revisited running something called Creative Bedfordshire, which is a free network for all creatives. It will allow us to debate, explore and connect with artists and build networks of practitioners that we can work with. We’re a very small organisation. We’ve only got one lead producer at the moment, a lead project manager, and then we have marketing and admin support. The idea is that we can expand and contract depending on the number of projects that we’re working on. When we’ll get some funding, we’ll bring in the team we need. At the moment, we’re doing a big placemaking project about airships. We’ve worked with 20 practitioners on that particular project over two years, and then we will contract back down again, when that project comes to an end.  


Can you tell me about one project that was particularly successful at creating a change in the people from the community that you worked with?

We work quite closely with a housing association called bpha, in the Queen’s Park ward in Bedford. It’s not the most deprived area in Bedford, but it’s very multicultural and with high levels of community cohesion. There are different communities, the Muslims, the Hindu communities, Parish and Christian communities. They all get along very well with each other, but we realised that if you were a resident that didn’t worship at one of the faith organisations and didn’t connect with one of those groups, you could be a bit isolated. The housing association was interested in these families that sort of fall between the net. Our approach was to take the two streets with the highest levels of housing association houses, and put a gazebo at the end of the road every weekend and ask who wanted to come and play. On that occasion, we invited two artists who were actually London based, Maria Anastasiou and Julie Myers. Their practice was based on film and visual art. They did bring down cameras and art materials. But we were also happy to look at board games, sport or at whatever the kids wanted to connect to. That community is very food focused and there was quite a lot of food sharing. It led to something called In-Situ Cinema, and we did some film work and animations with children. We ended up working regularly with about 60 residents, who were coming back again and again. Their levels of engagement had gone from virtually nothing to coming every weekend. The challenge we have, is funding and exit strategy. What we were trying to do is to signpost that community back into the structures that already existed in that part of the town. We did end up working with that community for three years. Unfortunately, there’s been quite a long gap between that and the project we’re doing now because of COVID. But we’re now back into that community and this time our brief is to work with the whole ward of the town. We are bringing some artists in again, but they aren’t coming in with a particular commission or project, they’ve come in to listen, first of all.

Did you contact the Housing Association, or they contacted you to?

They caught wind of us being around and wanted to have a conversation. At that time, I don’t think they knew what they wanted. They just were interested in the opportunities about working through art. Because of COVID, we spent a long time not being present in the neighbourhood. We’ve now found a local resident who’s working in that community and asked her if she will help with brokering us back into the community, we’re reconnecting with Councillors and faith groups. We have started to develop community ambassadors and hope in future we could mentor them on how to get their own funding.  

How do you decide how you are going to work with artists, via commissions or open call for example?

If we look at the Airship project, we had an inquiry from an artist who was interested in joining us as a board member. It turned out that he used to live in Bedford as a child, but now he’s gone off to live in the north.  We developed a relationship with Mike and realised that one of his fascinations during his childhood was in connection with the airship. We started to talk to older people in the community about their memories, we talked to the museum, and we broke the relationship with the Airship Heritage Trust, and realised that there was a project to be had around that. And there was a sense of urgency about the fact that memory of this piece of heritage was going to be lost, if we didn’t do something to preserve it. The idea did come from the artist and came from a relationship with him.  He had particular collaborators in mind that he wanted to work with, a projection artist, and we developed opportunities for local artists too. We did an open call, but it was for just a part of the project, to find a sound artist. We targeted not just the composing and visual art sector, but we also put it in sound magazines. We also approached artists whose practice we liked. We received nearly 200 applications and it suddenly became a huge process. We created an open call also for the Queen’s Park project. But the downside was that some of the stronger artists weren’t local. And there was definitely a tension between how strong their practice was, versus how well they were going to connect with the community and be available to the community during the time. In the end, we picked three artists in order to have a balance, one who came from Cambridgeshire, one who actually lived in that community, and then one who was based in London.  

What would you say are the biggest challenges of working with communities and artists?

I think safeguarding, and when you have communities where there are challenges that are far bigger than your own expertise. Our expertise is in the art, and we want to work with communities that might be deprived or might have social challenges. But what you’re doing isn’t going to solve their problems. And inevitably, those problems come into the work. We have had issues where you’ve had people with quite serious mental health concerns and we’ve realised that they’re not being supported by social services. We’ve often found ourselves vulnerable. We wouldn’t, for example, do anything around social prescribing without working directly with a counsellor or people who have the right sort of practice to support the individuals we’re working with. But sometimes, it’s unexpected. It might be an issue of suddenly realising there’s a safeguarding issue around domestic abuse. And you either need to raise a safeguarding concern, or you need to be ready to signpost people to charities that can help. We’ve also found that there are always political tensions in communities and you just can’t avoid it. We’ve discovered that in Bedford certain black-led community organisations don’t get on with each other. But we didn’t know that when we started having conversations with some, and then another organisation would approach us and ask why are you talking to them, you should be talking to us. Suddenly, you realise you’ve got caught up in these political tensions between groups. You have to just try and navigate your way through without ruffling too many feathers, but it can be very time consuming. And you can do something that you think is quite innocent, quite simple, but actually has a very big personal impact on particular individuals. In the Queen’s Park community, for example, we started talking about a mural project and the church invited us to use one of their walls. We were criticised for working with the church, because it was White-led and Christian. And we were being accused of being an overly white organisation in a multicultural community. There were also sensitivities around whether the church was accessible to the community.  It’s taken a really long time to complete a project that we thought would be done within a few months. We’ve had to therefore work very closely with all of our funders, to get them to support us through it. You can’t ignore what comes out of the community once you get into the thick of it. Thankfully, we’ve been lucky that the funders have been very understanding and allowed us to extend.

How did you manage the situation with the church and the community?  

We just did more consultation and we tried to make it as neutral as possible. Instead of going along to the key events, where there’s a perspective of bias, we would just pop up with a trestle table out on the playground to genuinely get a snapshot of people in the community. We collected a lot of data that helped support some resistance to the church community and then presented it back to the church. We kept on having conversations with them. They’ve now offered to host wider community meetings and started to accept the fact that if the wider community don’t want to engage with their idea, then it means we won’t be able to progress.

Apart from the logistical aspects and the closure of the studios, has Covid brought any changes to your way of operating?

We realised that when we had an office, we brought people to us all of the time. Even if you’re having a meeting with some community leaders or meeting with an artist, you tend to just do it in your office because it’s convenient. Originally, the reason why we were going to leave the office was cost based; it was expensive to keep an office that we didn’t use because of Covid. But we then decided to treat it like a project in itself. We have researched locations that have Wi Fi that don’t mind you turning up and can be rented for cheap price if you need to book a room. We try to talk to the proprietor and use it as another opportunity to listen to what’s going on in the town and then feed that back to the rest of the staff team. We deliberately try to make the most of being physically present. We also branded ourselves, silly things like putting our logo on coffee cups, it adds to that sense of us being visible. I’m interested to see how far we can push that. We’ve talked about whether we would even take a gazebo and pop up in a park and work there for half day just to see what happens. We’re going to document our learning and our experiences of working in that way and what worked and what didn’t. We want to keep pursuing with the experimentation. I’m really interested to find and try what we haven’t done yet by finding other people who are working in that way. Also looking at other sectors, looking at social workers and midwives, people who are used to working in the community and not working from an office space and how they do that.  

What changes would you like to see in this field that may have the potential to improve your work and increase your impact?

I feel as though organisations that work in this practice are not well networked to each other and well supported by each other. Artists seem to connect quite well as individual practitioners, but as organisations we’re still a bit unique. The Arts Council finds us challenging, because we don’t conform to a lot of the other national portfolio organisations’ structures. When we report to the Arts Council, sometimes the things that we’ve been doing just don’t fit in any of the boxes. We’ve been doing a lot of challenging back to the Arts Council but we’re a bit of a lone voice. We’re trying to reach out to other people who are like us and who have similar challenges in order to learn more from each other about things like reporting and evaluation. One of my eternal frustrations with the Arts Council actually is that we give them an enormous amount of data and yet, they don’t share it back. I would love them to open the database, show everything that was funded and share some of the key outcomes and budget mechanisms so that you can better connect to people doing work like yours and better show your outcomes on a national scale.  

I also find the phrase ‘socially engaged’ very interesting. I feel it’s being used more and more but I still think it’s one of those terms that everybody has their own different definition of.  Sometimes we’ve started working with an artist, and then we challenged them, because we don’t think they’re truly socially engaged. They’re artists using a social theme in their work, but they’re not truly socially engaged. We have started to think about how we can challenge artists that we might work with, and how we test our working relationship with them before we engage with them. That’s been the danger with an open call as someone gives you a great application, they talk very articulately, but actually, when you start working together, you realise that your definitions of practice are very different.

ID 1: Take Part Queen’s Park, photo by Andy Willsher
ID 2: Insitu Cinema. Photo Credit: Cat Lane
ID 3: Take Part Queen’s Park, photo by Andy Willsher