Posted: March 6th, 2010 | Author: admin | Filed under: Co-Creation Projects | Tags: Co-creation in the arts, Helen Ball | No Comments »
Helen Ball, Community Engagement Co-ordinator at Audiences London
Helen Ball is the Community Engagement Coordinator at Audiences London. Here she talks about the future of arts ambassadors, recent case studies and the challenges and ethics of working in this way.
What is your role at Audiences London?
I support and advise cultural organisations about how they can do more community engagement, what community engagement could mean to them, and where it could get them, and with that real focus on community engagement as a two-way exchange, not simply a way of getting more tickets sold or that kind of thing. It’s actually about developing a partnership approach to working with communities. My connection to arts ambassadors is that they form one of many different ways that you might actually set about delivering a specific kind of intervention to encourage community engagement.
We have worked on several projects where we’ve worked with different organisations and they’ve set up ambassador schemes and we’ve helped support and advise on that, and also through our open training programme, we have information about arts ambassadors. We’ve done a couple of workshops and invited people interested in that subject to come together, hear from someone that’s done it, and look at some of the models and look at the resource that you wrote for the Arts Council and that kind of thing.
There are a lot of different names for this kind of work. What do you call it? Do you use the term arts ambassadors, or brand ambassadors…?
I probably wouldn’t talk about brand ambassadors because the work that I’m particularly involved with probably goes a bit beyond that. It’s more centred on who those ambassadors are necessarily, than trying to recruit them on the basis of, ‘be a brand ambassador for this organisation’. I do call them ambassadors, but largely for recognition in the cultural sector.
I’ve been working with LIFT recently, and, interestingly, they wanted an ambassador’s programme and it ended up being called Arts Activists and being a slightly different model, and there was a strong reaction from the person setting up that programme and the people she was working with that they didn’t want to call it Ambassadors. So I am kind of aware that it’s a bit difficult.
It’s a funny name, isn’t it? It’s not the kind of most successful term in a way.
And yet it’s funny when you actually think about the derivation of the word Ambassador. It is quite funny.
Especially when some, (not all) organisations just want a quick fix. They want some people to kind of give kudos and to get the word out, and so it seems like a bit of an odd word to use in that situation.
Obviously, you think ambassador programmes are worth doing because you’re involved in them, but can you say why? I think there’s still a lot of people are excited about it but also there are questions about whether its worth doing.
Okay. I definitely think they’re worth doing. I think there’s issues about the thinking that has happened before in an organisation, before they’re necessarily set up, but I think they’re definitely worth doing. They’re just a brilliant way of reaching far beyond yourself, you know, the unanticipated outcomes are really significant once you’re engaging with a group of people that can go off and engage with more people, and be excited about doing that. And obviously it doesn’t necessarily cost you much.
There’s a lot of effective community engagement structures that perhaps started off with like an ambassador’s thing, and that’s now relaxed and its now much more naturally just happening. That’s perhaps where some organisations that I’m working with would quite like to get to in the end. That would answer a lot of their problems to do with audiences. But the reason I think they really work is that it’s my experience that people – particularly people who aren’t engaged with arts, for example – they need something to get their teeth into, and it’s peoples’ natural instincts to do rather than just be done to.
So they work really well for that because they really enable people to use their skills, realise that there’s value in all the people and things they know, and do something very active. I think that’s always much more effective at keeping people interested than a kind of more one way offer, you know, ‘We’ll give you this’.
Yes. I find people find it quite a social thing to do as well, and, as you said, there’s all sorts of unexpected outcomes that can come out of these programmes. Okay, so let’s look at some of the programmes that you’ve come across. Which ones have caught your eye?
Camden Arts Centre was an ambassador programme that we were involved with as part of a family friendly project. Through working with us, we mapped and identified that despite having a really good family programme that people went to liked, they weren’t attracting many local families. So they decided to do a kind of pilot project on the Lithos Road Estate, and, it was essentially about them getting out there and talking, attending Tenants and Residents Association meetings, that kind of thing. And out of that, two ambassadors emerged that lived on that estate and they became the conduit for information about the family activities, so quite a straightforward model.
Those ambassadors recruited families that came into Camden Arts Centre and did a session, which was a bit focus group-like, and that gave a lot of feedback about Camden Arts Centre and perceptions of it, and the main problem was not what they were doing but the fact that people did not perceive that it was a public space and they weren’t aware, what the offers were coming from there. So the ambassadors programme really cut through to that, but the thing I like about it the most is that out of that programme, Camden Arts Centre commissioned an artist to do some work with young people on that estate and they made films actually using the estate as the set, and that has had an effect on local people in their interest in arts, and the ambassadors have now set themselves up as a constituted group and are fundraising for their own arts activity on the estate. Camden Arts Centre are facilitating that by their development team. Their fundraisers mentor them, so they support them to fundraise. So it has evolved into this really nice relationship where they’re both getting different things out of it, and it’s just grown up, you know, and I really like that. I think that’s a really nice example.
Do you find that a lot of people who start off on these programmes really have no idea where it’s going to take them. I know you talked earlier about that, but in the sense of not them being prepared for it as well.
Yeah, I think there’s a massive thing about someone comes to you and they’ve got an objective which may or may not be shared by their organisation. Often not, and that can be the first issue trying to figure out how that works. But I think that if they’ve not been in a culture where that open communication has been happening with communities and that kind of thing, then they’re not remotely aware how much time it’s going to take, and they’re not necessarily aware that that community is going to have a lot of ideas and a lot of creativity themselves. If it is a good experience for them, they’re probably not just going to fit into exactly the mould they’ve got for them, and I think that can be quite… really exciting but also quite scary.
And quite scary for the organisation I think because generally it is an individual or two from a cultural organisation that’s leading and the organisation isn’t necessarily caught up with it, so…
But I think the strength of the Camden Arts Centre one was that they involved marketing and education people. They shared out the workload so it just made for better continuity. The ambassadors are now part of this community leaders group and they get invited, along with teachers and community workers, and those sorts of people, along to events and private views and that kind of thing, and that’s how they keep the information up. So they’ve graduated into a group themselves, so the relationship has definitely grown up and it’s not still about just one worker being the contact point for those two people. So I think that’s been quite a success there.
So it can often be a kind of starting point for something completely new that isn’t really about what people thought it was going to be about in the beginning.
Yeah, and almost just realise that, you know, the initial objectives sometimes become a bit more incidental, like their family programme has got more local families attending now but all these other things have happened too that are really substantial. I mean Camden Arts Centre has really taken on some of that information that they got back and they are completely changing their signage and stuff this year.
Okay, I’ve got another. Big Art in St Helens, have you heard of that?
That was a public art contest that Channel 4 did and six places around the country applied for money to run their own public art projects, and the one in St Helens was a piece of work that was installed at a colliery. And the ambassadors in this case were local ex-miners, and basically they were central to applying for the project, along with the economic development team, and various council structures, and that kind of thing, but they were involved the whole way through with the curatorial development, and they commissioned the artists, and someone from Liverpool Biennial, Laurie Peak, worked with them to facilitate them getting to know more about art, and they were completely invaluable.
I had a chat with the guy from economic development at St Helens. I was asking him about how they recruited ambassadors and he said, ‘It wasn’t hard to get them together because we were pushing at an open door, you know. We’d done that much engagement before that this was a true group of ambassadors, rather than recruiting, ‘we want six people who we don’t know who they are’. So what they did is a lot of the press liaison and they did a lot of the transferring of public ownership about this piece of art because obviously public art can be like a nightmare, can’t it, in terms of feelings it generates?
And, you know, there’s been no vandalism to it, and there is a programme, but hearing them talk about the art just gives it more meaning and I really liked that.
I think the other one I would talk about is… we’ve had the sales promotions model, the audience development model, and then there’s … I almost think there’s a new thing emerging which is sort of about artistic development, sort of these people as creators and them coming together around the ambassadors idea because that’s what they want to do, that’s what they identify with more, and I guess Croydon Clock Tower has got elements of that.
This is what happened really on the LIFT work that I’ve been involved with over the past year. They brought in someone through the Cultural Leadership Programme for nine months part-time and what they wanted was an ambassadors model for the festival in Barking, Dagenham: the Molten Festival, and what happened was that the person they brought in was an applied theatre practitioner, very skilled at community engagement, but she argued against this idea of there just being ambassadors to drive festival audiences, because she was being asked to recruit people that weren’t arts attenders, that were very much entrenched locally, local community members, and weren’t necessarily going to see that there was much in it for them to just be getting fifty people to come to the LIFT festival.
So she recruited on a completely different basis and she asked people to come forward that wanted to be arts activists and were interested in talking about art in their local community, with local people. It led to an inter-generational group, ranging from someone who was sixteen to someone who was eighty – three men and three women – and they’ve worked together over the summer and they’ve done all kinds of things. They’ve all worked in different ways. Some of them have worked with artists. There was a sound artist involved for a while. Some of them have written poetry. They all made big cut-outs of themselves, like life size cut outs, and they took them round the markets of Barking and Dagenham and got people talking about them, and they put sound bites on some of the cut-outs.
They’ve basically just started conversations about art in Barking and Dagenham. They’ve done some really exciting stuff. And then they did a performance at LIFT and I think about seventy-five people came. It was a really diverse group of people that came – lots of people that, you know, would not have come to a ticketed event, or seen that as of value.
Its very, very exciting, and what’s come out of that is six new, aspiring artists, and the word of mouth around that has been amazing, you know: them talking to their family and friends, so doing that kind of ambassador stuff. So a different way of thinking really about this kind of term, ‘hard-to-reach’ and what that really means, and is it us being difficult because we’re having quite static offers?
Maybe we’re hard-to-reach.
Yeah, definitely. Definitely. So I think that’s probably the one I’m most excited about at the moment.
So co-creation and community empowerment is the next step?
Yeah, very much so.
And is there a future for arts ambassadors because I read that the Guardian newspaper stopped doing their brand ambassador programme when they found on campus there were loads of other brands doing the same thing. You know, sometimes I think, what if everyone starts doing this? Is it going to somehow lose its power?
You know, outside of specific communities for those that want to do a broader outreach. Do you think it’s going to…
I was thinking about this actually. My gut feeling is that there is a future. It got me thinking about the internet and about how, like on my Facebook profile, up until very recently I just used it for friends, but I’ve started to identify that I am a fan of certain things. I’ve got quite a passion for outsider art…
We should talk about that.
There’s very, very exciting things happening. I’ve just started up doing some more stuff recently after, you know, just being a fan more quietly for the past few years, and so that made me identify an arts centre in America. It brought that to mind that actually I’d quite like to stay up to date with them and this is probably quite an easy way. My values are linked to that interest and then there is a cinema near where I live, which I probably mentioned because I talk about it all the time now, and it’s a social enterprise cinema, and any profit they make goes to a school in South Africa.
And again that really appeals to my values, so I’ve been volunteering for them. So I feel that my personal experience is that once you’re empowered enough to be engaged and make decisions about things then you probably naturally are becoming ambassadors for certain things in a more organic way, and I think the internet is really encouraging you to do that because it’s much easier to get information now, whereas before there wouldn’t have been any value. I mean I wouldn’t have just worn a badge that said “I like outsider art”, you know! I could have done, but that’s the only way that that would have translated, whereas now I can find things online and stuff just by not doing much at all. Like people are looking perhaps to be more ambassadorial for the things that they are passionate about…
And I think that’s reflected in increasing interests in the community, engagement, and where that can take people. So I think there is a future, but I can see completely why the Guardian might have thought ‘..we’re not going to do something that everyone else is doing.’ So I think perhaps it does have to be re-thought a bit, and also I think, a bit like arts activists, what is the driver for those people? Do they really want to sell you tickets? Can you really get them excited about an event that they haven’t got any experience of, they’re not involved with, and back to the thing I said at the beginning about people needing to do something rather than just be passive, so I think it might need to be thought through, but if cultural organisations can get their community engagement right, I think there will always be a role for ambassadors, but sometimes they’re doing the ambassadors before they’re doing the community engagement.
Yes, it’s kind of the door that leads them to something isn’t it, like we said before.
And then they suddenly realise, this is deeper than we thought it was.
And then ultimately, hopefully they realise it’s more enriching than they thought it was going to be as well.
Yes. So in an organisation like Theatre Royal Stratford East, it’s very, very passionate about why it wants to include local people. It does not need ambassadors because their ethos is such that all their structures are allowing for people to be ambassadors, and encouraging that. I guess I’m just trying to say that it’s not so much that ambassadors are the future but I think that they’re a part of it and I think that will carry on.
We may have touched on it already, but what would you say was the biggest challenge faced by people working in this way?
I think that there’s probably two. Probably the biggest one is the time, investing the time. Time in the relationships, but that’s often not understood. So it becomes the individual that’s just stressed that they need to get back to this set of people but the organisation is not really supporting them with that, and that creates quite a lot of tension, and, also before that, not unpicking the difference in opinions about why you’re doing it, who you’re targeting, and what they’re getting out of it. I think that becomes the problem later on.
Yes, when you start getting the information coming in about let’s try this new thing and everyone’s like ‘Oh my God, we can’t do it,’ or ‘Why’?
We didn’t bring them in for ideas, thank you.
Yeah, that’s it. All of a sudden everyone has to rethink everything.
What about ethical issues? Should people be paid to do this? Should it be unpaid? Is it evangelism? There’s all those kinds of things that are often hovering around in the background.
I think there’s massive ethical issues about expecting that any group of people you’re not in conversation with are going to want to do something just because you’ve thought of it, or it gets you somewhere. I definitely find it quite hard not to stick my oar in when people are making those kinds of assumptions. It’s like, so why is that group of young people going to want to update your blog every two seconds? It’s like maybe, but you’d need to ask them first if they’re remotely interested.
So there are really big ethical issues. Pressure to sell is a particular one, if that comes up in a particular programme, because that is obviously a different kind of demand. And the more structured the demands are, and if there’s a kind of set paid element, a selling element to them, then you should reward people financially. I think probably the deeper ambassador projects don’t necessarily require payment but they require much more time in building up the relationship and much more personalisation about understanding who that ambassador is, what motivates them, and what’s attractive to them. So rather than it just being three free tickets, it’s like, what tickets would that person like? Can you involve them in a deeper way? Are there people performing with you that they’d like to meet, and can you really individualise and make a deeper offer?
So, yeah, there really are ethical issues, and the majority of them come out of just not seeing the human aspect of the project, just seeing it as like a, you know, your action plan of x amount of tickets and then just not putting faces to the fact that, you know, is that a good offer? If you were presented with that offer, would you feel used by the organisation or would you feel that you’re part of it and you’re really getting something out of it? If I was advising on ambassador stuff, I would definitely kind of talk through ethical stuff because I do think it’s a problem.
It might sound like a bit of a grand thing to say, but as you’ve been talking I’ve been thinking that maybe ambassadors are almost like a crucible for arts organisations, and, you know, beyond the arts for people to learn about partnership and sharing, you know, which is all those things that even big businesses are talking about.
And it’s a great place to learn all that, and with all the risk, and all the mistakes, and the celebrations, and the surprises that come out of it as well.
So you’ve got a lot of experience here. What can Audiences London offer organisations who are starting up ambassador programmes or the similar kind of work, you know, the co-creation work and that kind of thing that you’ve been talking about, or those that are newbies, and also what about people who have been running the programme for sometime?
For people that are new to it, part of our strength is in our networks and relationship, so we can quite often match your aspirations with someone who is a bit further down the line and facilitate you going and seeing them, having a chat, meeting some of their ambassadors, that kind of thing.
We have a lot of paper-based resources that we’ve developed through our workshops, which have notes about models and approaches, examples with outcomes, and inspire you to think about what might be right for you, and what we can really do is pull all that together and have a targeted discussion about what your need is, whether your organisation is supporting that, whether there’s work that needs to be done on that first, and what might fit and what’s realistic.
Personally I do quite a lot of mentoring so I’m available in that way to just check in with people about how it’s going, and we’ve also got notes and experience about ethics and we’ve trained in the past venue staff that are going to be working with ambassadors. We can always bring forward people that have done it and live case studies, and that’s always really helpful.
For people who have been running a programme, we can facilitate a discussion with other people with a similar interest to help you professionalise and develop what you are doing. We can promote good practice examples, across the sector with other organisations, funders policymakers, that kind of thing, so I know that can be useful. We can also come out and actually do a bit of evaluation, observation about what’s working well in your scheme, what’s not, suggest some ways you might want to enliven it, or equally suggest some ways you might actually want to reduce it in a way so that you’re still getting the impact but it’s not running as such a formal programme.
They would probably be our main areas of support, really about kind of some immediate resources, putting you in touch with other people, and then sort of giving our insight based on the fact that we’re quite lucky to see a lot of these schemes in action, about what we think might work well for you for the future.
Great. Thank you so much.