High Street Art


I’ve managed to clock two conferences in two days, both about the future of the arts (and arts funding), but otherwise different in every possible way.

On Thursday 5 June, Owning the Arts: Making Things Happen, organised by Rowan Arts as part of the Holloway Road Festival, aimed at “artists, arts managers, producers, educators and community activists”, was all about creative and collective problem-solving. The following day, Arts Development UK’s national seminar on The Value of Public Commissioning gathered arts and cultural organisations engaged in community building, well-being and regeneration together with public service commissioners for a day of keynote speeches and case studies presentations to discuss evidence, outcomes and evaluation.

I’m probably going to blog for quite a while about all the people I met, projects I’ve discovered,  and things I’ve agreed and disagreed with, just in the space of these two days, but to start with I wanted to highlight two great projects taking art to the high street – by taking over retail spaces and codes – that were presented at each conference. I’m also throwing in a personal favourite for good measure, to follow my preferred tripartite format. As I haven’t – yet – fully experienced these projects myself, I’ll let them speak for themselves in their own words, photos and videos.

1. Fully dysfunctioning: Hunt & Darton Café

A nice treat at Owning the Arts: participants didn’t just get to hear about the concept of live art duo Jennifer Hunt and Holly Darton’s project. We first got into teams to compete in the Not Great British Bake-Off, a sugar sandwich competition, to get a taste of the Hunt and Darton Café’s live experience, before getting into details of the project background and history.

Here’s what they say themselves about it:

Hunt & Darton Cafe is the product of Hunt & Darton, artist led producers creating theatrical experiences in unconventional spaces. Audience experience is our priority.

A fully functioning Café that blends art with the everyday, Hunt & Darton Cafe is a social and artistic hub where spontaneity and performance meet great food and drink.

Jenny Hunt and Holly Darton expose the inner workings of their business by presenting everything as art-from public display of their bank balance to the lovingly handpicked charity shop crockery.

Hunt & Darton Cafe encourages playful participation and meaningful social encounters. It can operate as an offsite micro-venue or temporarily transform and existing space in a gallery, theatre, public building or outdoors under canvas. Whether seeking surprising art or a relaxing place to spend the afternoon, customers can expect a welcoming atmosphere and food served with a twist. This is an exciting, innovative and entrepreneurial project unveiling and celebrating the ‘Cafe’ as an iconic and socially important hub for creative productivity and conversation.

The Cafe takes over empty shops, often working with council initiatives and art centres to benefit and increase artistic activity within the area. The alternative service from Hunt & Darton themselves (often wearing their iconic pineapple outfits and hats) comprises deadpan style and theme days such as ‘you-do-it-day’ where customers are encouraged to serve each other. Hunt & Darton also commission local artists to wait on the tables and create unique performances as they serve. (…)

Hunt and Darton Café, Hackney, 2013

Hunt and Darton Café, Hackney, 2013

The café started in Cambridge in April 2012, travelled to Hackney, Edinburgh and Brighton, and is about to embark on a 5-city tour over the next 18 months. Here’s where and when to catch it:

Colchester – Oct 2014
Folkestone  – Feb 2015
Manchester – March 2015
Harlow – June 2015
Peterborough – Oct 2015


2. Social & Emotional Transactions: Encounters Shop

Ruth Ben-Tovim presented her work with Encounters Arts in a Cultural Commissioning session on place-based outcomes. It’s an art based on co-production, dialogue and long-term relationships – and for Ruth, the essential part of her work is to craft the invitation.

From the website

Since 2003 Encounters have been taking up residence in disused Shops across the UK, working with thousands of people to create evolving, co-authored artworks about the joys and challenges of everyday life.

Shops have taken place in Sheffield, Winchester, Liverpool, Dewsbury, Totnes and London. We also deliver Mobile Shop projects that tour and connect different locations within a neighbourhood.

Encounters Shops become meeting places in which local communities can collect and exchange experiences, memories, objects, journeys and thoughts about their lives, where they live and the wider world.

We use photography, visual art and text to collect personal material from visitors reflecting this back through the creation of interactive, evolving displays and verbatim performance events and publications. Talks, workshops, community visioning, feasts, inter-generational exchanges and cross-cultural dialogue processes can also take place in the Shops.

As well as using a selection of these favourites in each new Shop we set up, we tailor-make Invitations to Join In that respond to the place, context or commissioners focus.

Over the years, Encounters have developed a tried and tested series of participatory Invitations to Join In that you are likely to find in any of our shops including; Blackboard Questions, Memory and Story Maps, Recipe Cards, Stepping Stones, Lake of Tears, Tell Me a Story About, Seeds of Change, Family Portraits, Journeys, Collage Blocks, Anyone Who’s, and Lost and Found.

Where’s the heart of Andover? Inside the Encounters Shop.

Inside the Encounters Shop – photo (c) Paul Bevan Photography

The 10th Encounters Shop is currently in Andover, Hampshire, until 15th June.


3. Heart-felt nostalgia: The Cornershop

Felt artist Lucy Sparrow crowdsourced over £10,000 – from an initial £2,000 bid – for her Cornershop project, and she is now creating enormous amounts of felt-replicas of everyday objects that will go on the shelves of her pop-up Cornershop.

From the Kickstarter campaign:

In 2014 I, Lucy Sparrow, will be restocking an abandoned Cornershop in London with felt products. Each item – from the bean cans, to the cigarette packets, the chewing gum and the porn mags – will be made entirely out of felt: each item meticulously hand sewn, stuffed and priced by yours-truly. During the month-long installation The Cornershop will be visited by both local passers-by and art audiences, once inside the shop they can not only view the products, but can handle, and even buy them. They will also be able to watch live-sewing events, participate in workshops and can even be drawn into improvised performance works that make them reflect on our taken-for granted shopping behaviours. The installation will be accompanied by a series of making workshops. In addition to drop-in workshops for one and all, I will also offer more specialist workshops for the local community and the neurologically diverse communities.


Weetabix -work in progress


Over the counter emergencies


A cross-section of rolling papers

Cat food

Cat food (supermeat)

Lucy’s ambition is to create in felt every single item usually found in a cornershop, in the right proportions: here’s the full list of everything that needs to be made. The shop’s opening is currently planned for August 2014 in Bethnal Green, and Lucy’s progress can be followed on her blog, website, Instagram and Twitter.

Festival City 1: Cannes


It’s officially spring, and this means one thing: Cannes season is approaching. Growing up in France, there was a sense of the cycle of life, always and never the same, in the yearly media coverage “en direct de la Croisette”, with all of our six national TV channels – those were the days – reporting daily on the films, the stars, and the topless starlettes on the beach.

For a strictly invitation-only event, ‘le Festival’ is big business: according to City of Cannes website, it “provide[s] both the city council and all sectors of activity in Cannes with a very large proportion of their annual income. (…) Local businesses see a ten- or even fifteen-fold increase in turnover. Shops stay open longer – some even for part of the night – and employ twice the number of staff. This increase is not only noticeable during the Festival period, but also during the various conferences held each year at the Palais, and more broadly in the million tourists who visit the city throughout the year. Cannes is second only to Paris as the French city that hosts the greatest number of conferences, and this favourable position comes as a result of the film festival.”

Cannes Film Festival was created to make up for the lack of tourists in low season. The first festival, planned for 1939, was postponed by the war and eventually took place in 1947. The original vision included right from the start a purpose-built venue, the first Palais des festivals, opened in 1949. The new Palais, inaugurated in 1982, has a total surface of 35,000 m² and spaces for all purposes, from a 2,000+ theatre to multiple reception rooms for cocktails and galas, huge exhibition halls and a terrace overlooking Cannes’ marina.

The Palais plays host to many other festivals and events throughout the year, such as the MIDEM, a 7,000-delegate international music industry conference; the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, an 11,000-delegate advertising festival; and major events programmed by the Palais itself, such as the Festival International des Jeux, a free fair all about gaming which attracted 175,000 visitors over 3 days in March 2013; the Festival de Danse, a contemporary dance biennial ; and an annual performance series, “Sortir à Cannes“, which 2012-2013 season highlights included Alvin Ailey II, Amadou et Mariam and the stage version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses directed by John Malkovich.

The management structure of the Palais des festivals is a public-private partnership quite common in France: a single entity, called the Société d’Economie Mixte pour les Evénements Cannois (SEMEC), is in charge of managing the Palais des festivals, leading the municipal tourism strategy and programming cultural events. It’s run like a private company, but funded at 80% by the City of Cannes and under contract to deliver its public service mandate of economic growth and cultural excellence: in other words, a heavy public investment into the cultural life of the city, with the understanding that it will improve its reputation, bring visitors, increase spending and create jobs.

There’s a festival for everything in Cannes, from Flamenco to Fireworks, and even one dedicated to the art of shopping – which turns out to be a rather classic Fashion Festival with lots of coupons. Most of these festivals are publicly funded and managed, and the oldest and most famous of them, a non-for-profit organisation created upon the suggestion of the pre-war Minister for Education and Fine Arts, Jean Zay, sees half of its €20 million budget provided by the Ministry of Culture (via the National Cinema Centre), the City of Cannes and other regional authorities. Cannes Film Festival’s economic impact was estimated between €130 million and €200 million in recent years.

Pierre Viot, Festival President from 1984 to 2000, has a simple and pragmatic way of describing this impact:

“Le Festival, c’est la culture plus l’économie.”

For a more poetic vision, Jean Cocteau has the perfect quote:

“The Festival is an apolitical no-man’s-land, a microcosm of what the world would be like if people could make direct contact with one another and speak the same language.

And just for the absurdity of the analogy:

“The Festival is like the telephone. One may criticise it, but it is useful.” Louis Malle.

The City of Cannes website features a great selection of quotes, figures and anecdotes about the Festival.

– – –

The 66th Festival de Cannes runs from 15th to 26th May 2013, with Steven Spielberg as Président du jury. The Great Gatsby by Australian director Baz Luhrmann will be screened on the opening night, in 3D (out of competition).

Emotional Impact of the Arts

The Long Read

Impact studies are generally conducted to assess – and prove – the value of a venue, event or festival, in economic and sometimes social terms. They measure the difference in hotel occupancy, average spend in local businesses and many other factors to show what would have happened if the festival hadn’t taken place or the venue didn’t exist.

When I was at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2009-2010, we participated in a somewhat different type of impact study, along with the 7 other arts organisations that formed the Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium at that time. The LARC team, working with consultants Baker Richards and WolfBrown, coordinated audience research across several museums (Tate Liverpool and National Museums Liverpool), theatres (Unity, Everyman & Playhouse), two multi-disciplinary arts centres (Bluecoat and FACT), an orchestra and programming venue (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) and an arts biennial (Liverpool Biennial) to assess the  emotional impact of the arts, asking audiences across all artforms and settings questions about “captivation, emotional resonance, spiritual value, intellectual stimulation, aesthetic growth and social bonding”.

The results of the Intrinsic Impacts pilot study are available for download on LARC’s website, and come with a warning: it’s an exploratory research, aimed at developing research protocols. The report itself is rather cautious, highlighting biases and issues, but concludes with a few assertions and ambitions:

“What is certain beyond a doubt is that audiences and visitors measurably benefit from attending the arts, in many ways. Intrinsic impact is at the core of the value system surrounding the arts. If the impact doesn’t occur at the time of the exchange between the art and the audience, then the economic, social and civic benefits associated with the arts can’t happen.  This is why the quality of the experience is so important, and why investments in artistic processes and creative programming endeavours can pay substantial dividends to individuals, families and the community.”  

“Focusing on intrinsic impact shifts attention to transformative outcomes in the economy of meaning, not just the economy of money, and provides civic and cultural leaders with a new vocabulary to describe the primary benefits of arts and culture, and their many contributions to civic engagement and quality of life.”

The Intrinsic Impacts pilot study investigates methods and tools to answer the report’s opening question: “How are people transformed by arts experiences?”. One of its avowed objectives is to help programmers and curators in understanding the consequences of their artistic choices,  a question at the heart of public art programming, audience development and engagement efforts. Perhaps this quote by John Dewey can provide, if not an answer, then at least an interesting take on cause and consequence:

“Works of art that are not remote from common life, that are widely enjoyed in a community, are signs of a unified collective life. But they are also marvelous aids in the creation of such a life.” – John Dewey, Art as Experience, 1934