Comment | Art, Austerity and the Haverfordwest Lab

Comment | Art, Austerity and the Haverfordwest Lab

‘We need more of this kind of thing’: The Value of Socially Engaged Arts Projects in Times of Austerity

Artist Toby Downing ran The Lab's lantern workshops and created the impressive skeleton puppet lantern for River of Lights, based on the story of the Fisherman and the Skeleton Woman
Artist Toby Downing ran The Lab’s lantern workshops and created the impressive skeleton puppet lantern for River of Lights, based on the story of the Fisherman and the Skeleton Woman. (Credit: Jenny Blackmore)

Amidst the chaos that comes of mixing any craft activity with large numbers of children, who take great glee in squeezing sponges saturated with PVA, globules of glue come from all angles attaching themselves irretrievable to my jeans. Having just pried a pair of pliers from her son’s fingers, one exhausted mother turns to me and says, “We need more of this kind of thing!” And she wasn’t the only one to say it.

The unpredictable psychology of a swarm of 1-12 year olds in the presence of long pointed sticks and secetuers, and the precious fragility of someone else’s children make for a nerve-wracking combination. It would have been tempting to question this mother’s judgement. But, witnessing the level of engagement, the joy at having spent time making something tangible, something beautiful that will be paraded and enjoyed, paid off the fraying patience, exhaustion, and loss of my voice through incidental solvent inhalation.

“This”, a series of public workshops on lantern making, culminating in the River of Lights procession along the Cleddau, was my first experience of helping to run socially engaged arts projects as part of The Lab, Haverfordwest.

Formally a bustling market town and hub for international trade in Wales, Haverfordwest is now in need of a bit of TLC. The retail and tourist appeal of St. Davids and neighbouring County Town, Carmarthen, has passed poor “Harford” by, and with high streets occupied by discount stores, charity shops and empty retail spaces the town stands as a case study for the impacts of a recession and austerity.

But, based in the travel bureau of former retail landmark Ocky Whites, The Lab is working to restore the town’s former vibrancy, engaging with the community to reignite ideas and creativity and positively reimagine Haverfordwest.

Recently employed as part of the JobsGrowth Wales scheme by community interest company, and one of the partners running The Lab, Spacetocreate, I have been working with The Lab since October. As an arts graduate who has taken bar and restaurant work in a struggle to establish any sustainable income as a freelance journalist, I have found myself back at home, and working in a similarly under-resourced sector.

It’s been over a year since Arts Council Wales has been operating on a budget reduction of 1.2% on previous years. The impacts of these cuts have been well-documented, with arts projects and companies suffering from the lack of financial resource (and some closing as a result of the loss of the income they had come to depend on). Spending on the arts has always been controversial, particularly in comparison to the sciences and public health spending. But what if it could help to reform a town that has also been victim to austerity, and disengaged with the arts for years?

A three year arts and regeneration programme, The Lab was part of a successful bid to Arts Council Wales by the Confluence partnership, a creative collaboration  between PLANED, spacetocreate,  iDeA Architects, Pembrokeshire County Council and Transition Haverfordwest. With money so sparse in the arts the successful bid, inspired by the river upon which the town was founded, was surely testament to the potential community value of the project.

Paticipatns in the Lab's first Open Space event (credit: Tangwen Roberts)
Paticipatns in the Lab’s first Open Space event (credit: Tangwen Roberts)

Within just six weeks of working with The Lab, I have witnessed the swell in community interest and desire for positive change in Haverfordwest: from seeing how many families, friends and individuals, from 18 months – to 80 years-old, turned out for the River of Lights workshops and procession (ran in collaboration with the wonderful team working on building rural communities at Span Arts), to the active engagement in public talks and events sharing knowledge and resources within the community.

Events like the Making Connections Open Space seminar hosted at The Lab last month. Opened by photographer and academic John Kippin, Making Connections invited residents of Haverfordwest and the surrounding area to help shape The Lab’s plans for the next 2 years.

Talking about The value of arts practice in the regeneration of places and communities, John drew on his series Nostalgia for the Future to introduce a new way of visualising and interpreting landscapes through a combination of photography and text. Encouraged by the prospect of resisting popular narratives that have come to surround the town, and the potential to create associations within Haverfordwest, those present came up with wide-ranging suggestions for how the arts can help to regenerate a County Town.

From an arts college and festival, celebrating and nurturing local talent, to a local currency and installations using abandoned historic buildings (some designed by Buckingham Palace architect John Nash and William Owen) as exhibition and workshop spaces.

The turnout of local residents, artists, community group leaders, business owners and council members was encouraging proof of a community who want to see their Haverfordwest returned to the thriving social centre it once was. And the will for change was evident in the enthusiasm of those present to carry forward their ideas, developing possible relationships within the group that might help to see their ideas realised. The potential of these first ideas are already being explored and developed by Confluence partner PLANED and the success of this first Open Space also means that it will become a regular feature in The Lab’s programme next year, as a monthly Ideas Lab. Similarly the ongoing Big Map project spear-headed earlier this year by Chris and Kevin at iDeA Architects (who are actively consulting the public on the design and planning of Haverfordwest) will develop into a 3-D model, visualising people’s ideas.

The Lab is about working with the local community to devise and test new and imaginative ways of working in and interacting with the town. The success of The Wild Hack event in collaboration with Bloc Creative Technologies, that took place in October, is another example of how pooling local knowledge and skills can change our perceptions of our surrounding environment. Involving tech and design students, robotics enthusiasts, academics, architects, makers and arts practitioners the Wild Hack saw people coming together to use technology to change the way we might interact with the town.

Regular visitor to Pembrokeshire, photographer John Kippin is keen to see positive change in Haverfordwest (credit: Tangwen Roberts)
Regular visitor to Pembrokeshire, photographer John Kippin is keen to see positive change in Haverfordwest (credit: Tangwen Roberts)

Having seen The Lab develop in its first year, I am so excited to be part of a project that is actively and demonstrable bringing about change in the town from the grassroots. The Lab is a much needed injection of energy and enthusiasm for the creativity flowing through the town and surrounding area.

As a teenager and undergraduate student I adopted the lackadaisical approach most young people take to their home town: desperate to disown anything to do with their former life. Like many of the young people resident here, Haverfordwest has, for years, been disillusioned, suffering low-self esteem: going through that challenging adolescent phase. But with a little injection of creative energy enabled and nurtured by financial investment, it can flourish.

Returning to Haverfordwest in my mid-twenties I now have the opportunity to have a say in the future of the place I grew up in and to help create social change through the arts, alongside old friends and neighbours. In the short time I have been part of The Lab I have witnessed just why socially engaged arts projects, and the public funding they receive are so valuable for the communities that they serve: They empower these communities. They illustrate the significance of sustainable community development through the generation and growth of ideas at the grassroots level – not just from external developers and decision-makers (oftentimes) far-removed from the resident experience of a town. We do need more of this kind of thing.


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