Kate Cotton talks to art + power about their programme for supporting artists' professional development
The organisation, whose bold mission is to put an end to all cultural exclusion through art and empowerment, were showcasing works of art from disabled and other socially excluded artists at the city’s Grant Bradley gallery. Some 25 artists, including eight actors, were involved in the interactive exhibition, which for many was the culmination of a year's work on the art + power Personal Arts Support Scheme (PASS).
Work on display reflected the diverse interests and enthusiasms of the individual artists including abstract work, collage, comic strip-inspired pieces and a collection of impressive paintings of famous bridges by up-and-coming artist Matthew Roche.
As I walked around the gallery with the group’s outreach manager, Faye Stewart, it was very clear that each artist has developed their own unique style. This wasn’t an autonomous collection of paintings by disabled and excluded artists – it was a dynamic display reflecting many individuals' own stories.
"At art + power everyone has their own theme and style and are given support to explore their artistic journey. Generally people feel more confident and feel they can achieve many experiences through the support scheme, not only the artistic self becoming empowered but the personal self, too. We have noticed how the artwork changes as people evolve. It’s all very positive. The great thing about my job is seeing people grow both personally and artistically."
The individualised scheme is central to art + power’s work. It is a noble and innovative shift from delivery of arts programmes to support of the individual artist - providing the inspiration and resources to enable people to empower themselves. And the results hanging in the Grant Bradley gallery were certainly testimony to their success, with many pieces sold during the exhibition.
One of the artists who has sold work on display is 29-year-old Matthew Roche, a member of art + power since September 2006. An avid fan of bridges and skyscrapers, he is successfully developing his own distinctive style of painting bold structures such as the famous Golden Gate bridge, which he visited in San Francisco. Faye commented:
"In his initial interview Matthew was very nervous but now he has changed so much. He’s sold a lot of work and now leads projects including a recent spray-painting one."
Although regrettably I couldn’t get to the exhibition until its final days, it was still clear how much positive energy was involved. Participants gave the work its transformARTive title and many were involved in setting up and working in the exhibition space.
A rolling programme of special events included performance interventions and poetry, with descriptions written café-style on a blackboard. And to fully engage visitors, a transformARTive printed arts menu was provided in the gallery café, allowing visitors to enhance their arts experience with information about a piece of art, such as "Choose from two delicious toppings: content = what is the art piece about? And medium = what materials has the artist used?" The menu also included items such as “Meet the Artist” and 'See an artist’s creative profile'.
The menu concluded with the art + power recipe for the empowering arts. The list of ingredients is artists, supporters, mentors, and a model of empowering arts practice. And the method includes removing barriers to participation, measuring results and using these results to improve the model. The final element is to repeat the process as often as required or until cultural exclusion is removed.
As they approach their 10th anniversary in September the group is looking to evolve this recipe further. Plans are afoot to redevelop the PASS course and their website.
Creative manager Angie Belcher said: "We see our role as an organisation to be like a bridge between the artists and the public. We now want to move this role towards more of a broker type relationship with the artists - not just responding to needs but to be more of a transparent enabler."
To this end they presently have 19 artists enrolled on business start up courses. Art + power has certainly come a long way in 10 years, from a small arts project for people with learning difficulties to its present self-funding organisation based in the nationally-acclaimed Spike Island arts building. The building – historically a Brooke Bond tea warehouse – now houses the art + power offices. Five members of staff and around 20 volunteers operate from this creative hub, which also provides studio space and computer equipment for art + power members.
As well as visual artists, they also support a weekly emerging writers group at Bristol’s Arnolfini arts centre and a performance arts project at the city’s old tobacco factory. Future events include screenings of the film MAD (Ministry Against Decoration), created by art + power actors. It is an intriguing sounding film about a futuristic world where all art is banned.
From what I saw art + power are definitely making their mark on the city of Bristol. Before I set off to join the M5 I took a detour to visit another of their new projects – a huge mural at the Boston Tea Party café on Park Street, near the city’s university. It is a gorgeous mural of bold colour and outlines, with individual touches including Matthew Roche’s trademark structural forms. And there, in the corner, is the distinctive art + power logo - discreetly lending its support to the artists it was established to assist.
For more information about Art + Power visit their website. Anyone wanting to get involved can also contact them on 0117 946 8630.
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