Once lauded by the BBC as a village that likes to ‘make an exhibition of itself’, Creetown has little problem expressing its inherent creativity, even with a population that fails to exceed 1,000 people. Perched on the west coast of Scotland more than 40 miles from Dumfries, patrons of a multi-million-pound arts sector could be forgiven for a lack of familiarity with the rural community. Failure to rectify that, though, would be foolish.
Crowned one of Scotland’s most creative places earlier this year, in an inaugural set of awards launched by national arts body Creative Scotland to mark the Year of Creative Scotland 2012, Creetown has won a reputation recently for punching above its weight when it comes to the arts. “We realised in terms of art there was very little opportunity for people in an area like this – a bit of a cultural wasteland in some respects – and yet there is an interest,” says Andrew Ward, senior project worker at Creetown Initiative, a social enterprise and development trust launched in 2004 with the aim of spearheading regeneration in the community.
A year-long arts project, ‘Inspire’, formed the foundation of Creetown’s engagement with the arts. It involved up to 2,000 people across all ages and gave them the opportunity to experience the likes of sculpture, photography, drama and dance for the first time via a series of workshops. A 20-foot-tall willow baby, consisting of a metal frame around which roses and clematis will be woven over time, was unveiled last year, resonating with the sculpture that started with the creation of a new village square in 2006 by renowned Japanese visionary, Hideo Furuta, who had put down roots in the area.
A storytelling project, tasked with the mission to create a modern folktale, drew in local children, while a unique art exhibition by local photographer Val Horton showcased images of 126 of the villagers in front windows as part of an ‘open-air museum’ stretching down the main street.
Plans are now being fine-tuned to launch another programme of events this August and September using the £40,000 Creative Places award the project has secured. These include a visit by the National Symphony Orchestra which will not only perform but coordinate classes with children, adults and the local silver band.
At the centre of it all is a strong impression of the arts as something that exist not just to be observed but experienced. “It’s all about opportunity for us,” says Ward. “That opportunity to make a big difference, not just giving people the opportunity to engage with cultural activities but it can also make a huge diff erence to the economy… In a place like this, there is very little in terms of a bus service, there are very few local facilities, there are very few opportunities, particularly for kids but for everybody else, so things like Creative Places creates a whole range of opportunities not just for the project itself but beyond.”
He adds: “It’s all about connections, making it relevant to somebody as opposed to plonking something down and saying this is art, enjoy and away you go. Th e whole programme has been about people connecting to art, whatever form, in a way that they understand and is relevant. There is quite a lot of art, particularly shall we say, the high arts, that isn’t relevant to people in a place like this. But what we do very much is. And it has given them a lot of opportunities.”
Even the most creatively-minded communities are not immune to an increasing squeeze on investment, though. Creative Scotland has found itself in the line of fi re of late amid anxieties among arts organisation over a proposed funding shake-up that is set to see some 49 groups across the country lose their regular funding. However, strains much closer to home have left Creetown riddled with concerns. Closure of a small steel factory at the top of the village has taken with it the 40-odd jobs on which the community depended.
“Funding in rural areas is an issue,” adds Ward. “We don’t have the critical numbers that some funders might like to see. For every pound invested in us, it might aff ect 500 people; every pound invested in Glasgow might aff ect 2,000 people. Th at doesn’t mean they mustn’t continue to fund rural areas because what do you do, do you just say thank you very much and last minute, turn the lights off .
“It’s important that rural communities are given the opportunity to do these things because it has an impact on their sustainability, on tourism and a whole range of different things. Creative Places and Inspire have been great projects in terms of rural areas and we need them to continue.”
It is this vision of the arts as the preserve not of the few but the many that strikes a note with Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) Managing Director, Joanna Baker. Born and brought up in a cut-off part of south-west England, Baker communicates an appreciation of the arts that knows no limits.
“An opera company, a theatre company, your big theatre here doesn’t survive unless there’s grassroots work happening everywhere,” she says. “That is actually creating that interest, desire and need. But I don’t want to imply there is some kind of progression. For me personally, I grew up in a very rural part of Cornwall where most of my exposure to any kind of culture was that, it was stuff in my local village hall.
“You had the occasional professional theatre company coming in but most of it was community work. If I was still there, that was what I was doing and that was the most of what I had exposure to, that would be equally valid. What I believe is whatever kind of cultural provision it is, it’s part of the glue of our society. It’s what actually helps people to communicate and interact with each other, whether it’s community arts, whether it’s at the Festival. That’s what the best of the arts do.”
The three-week Festival featuring productions from 47 countries around the world will return for a 65th year on 9 August as audiences flock to the capital from all over. Perceptions among some of a pre-occupation with the ‘high’ arts are misguided though, insists Baker, stressing that the postwar ideals of opening up Edinburgh to international excellence in a range of forms does not leave locals on the outside peering in.
“I think there is good art,” says Baker. “High art and low art, I think, is a completely irrelevant concept. You can see some great things here that some people might describe as low – let’s say popular as opposed to low, or familiar and less familiar is probably a better way of describing it. But I think there is a perception still of that and that’s unfortunate because if things are described as such, it automatically makes it sound as if it is difficult in some way. I passionately believe that if you put good things on then people will respond to it, even if it is complex. There is something there that you get something out of.”
The challenge posed then is how to communicate that to a younger audience. A performance by the 450-strong Big Noise children’s orchestra – a Stirling-based teaching project launched by Sistema Scotland in 2008, off the back of a longrunning initiative in Venezuela submerging thousands of children from the barrios in classical music – is one Baker alludes to with a touch of pride evident in her voice.
The globally-renowned Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, which played alongside children of the Raploch estate in front of 8,000 people in June, were presented at the Festival some years ago. “It’s not primarily aimed at making musicians. It’s primarily aimed at encouraging those values, which are about cooperation, about discipline, about communication, which is what you have to do if you’re playing together as opposed to individually,” says Baker.
Using the arts for alternative means will be the focus of a two-day conference this August attracting culture ministers from around the world to the Scottish Parliament. The Edinburgh International Culture Summit (EICS) is a collaboration between the Scottish Government, the UK Government, the British Council and EIF and is designed to discover how the arts can be employed as a tool for diplomacy, opening up dialogue between different countries.
A visit from the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI), organised by British Council Scotland in partnership with the Scottish Government, will no doubt serve as a shining example of how an outward-looking approach can succeed. Launched in 2009 by a then 17-year-old Baghdad-born pianist, NYOI has come to encapsulate the power of arts to transcend the difficulties of day-to-day life.
Indeed, it is part of a perpetual increase in inclusivity that Lloyd Anderson, Director of British Council Scotland, has seen embraced on the Scottish and international stage. “We work with Scottish Opera and in fact we are helping with them touring a number of Commonwealth countries ahead of the Commonwealth Games in 2014,” says Anderson. “I worked in Georgia before coming here and we had the Scottish Opera come out. It’s an interesting thing, opera, because it’s a mixture of everything – you’ve got music, acting, set-design, costumes, lighting – so it sort of covers a huge number of art forms. And they were using it to work with kids from disadvantaged communities because there’s a lot of refugees in Georgia from when the Russian invasion came.
“By working with kids, they could get them interested in some aspect of the arts. It was actually all about leadership, it was all about trying to get kids to engage in the arts, and become natural leaders in their schools or communities. Using the arts to social ends.
“Also the fact that … opera is considered a high art but if you talk to Jane Davidson over at Scottish Opera, she is doing outreach with rough kids in Glasgow and so on. And that’s actually translated well to post-Soviet countries where they’ve got problems with kids there.”
Dancing with joy
Allusion to the expressive art of dance often carries with it certain connotations. Few would likely associate it with those aged fifty and over.
It is this preconception that engagement with the physical end of the arts dwindles with age that Barrowland Ballet choreographer and artistic director Natasha Gilmore is determined to overcome.
Around 150 dancers from mid-fifties to mid-eighties are preparing to deliver Dancing Voices – a large-scale performance supported by a 40-strong choir drawn from singing groups across Glasgow – as part of the Merchant City Festival in July.
“Basically, it is an opportunity to work with a lot of older dancers and have a focus on dancers who are a bit later in life, which makes for a different approach because you’re so used to seeing dance pieces with lots of younger people,” Gilmore told Holyrood.
Coinciding with the year of the Olympic Games arriving in Glasgow, political, cultural and societal changes within society since the last Games’ seven decades ago will be the focus of a series of dance pieces.
The project has received backing via the First in a Lifetime investment programme coordinated by national arts body Creative Scotland and has brought together groups of friends, lunch clubs, bingo groups and the like from across north, east and south Glasgow. who will participate in the showcase.
“In 2010, I did a similar project in Southbank and it was really fantastic,” said Gilmore. “We decided this year that it would be brilliant to do something similar but to make it even bigger by adding a live choir so we have live singers as well to accompany the piece.
“The theme is really about experience of change because a lot of people performing will have experienced and lived through a lot of changes. The themes are change and those changes that have occurred in the period from the last London Olympics in 1948 to the present Olympic year and looking at major cultural changes but also just the process of change and coping with change, whether that is something even more personal like coping with the change of your own physicality.
“Really, the piece celebrates the fact that there is still such an amazing vitality among these dancers who are older and really looks at the fact that they’re still really vibrant and capable. They’re really committed. The commitment is absolutely fantastic and they turn up to work with such a sense of humour that it makes the work really pleasurable.
“I really love to work with all different people and to make the work of a really high quality with all different types of people with lots of different experiences. And there is something about the fact that these people have lived through so much change that they really bring a sincerity to the work and understanding that they may have dealt with quite a lot of difficult situations in their life but they’re stood there today, they’ve been through it and carried on. That idea that no matter what happens you can pick yourself up and keep moving forward.”
Dancing Voices will be performed at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow on Sunday 29 July as part of the Merchant City Festival.