Towards an aesthetic approach to community development
“Beauty isn’t all about just nice loveliness, like. Beauty is about more rounded, substantial becoming. So I think beauty, in that sense, is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life” (O'Donahue, J. 2017).
Asking questions about the role of the arts over the last year has revealed not just information about the value of particular arts activities, but a far more comprehensive view of what I am identifying as movement towards an aesthetic approach to community development. I use the word 'towards' intentionally, because I believe that while these values are present, they have not yet been named or qualified as such, and in doing so, their 'unfolding' may direct or strengthen new organisational strategies.
Core values of progress, care, communities, relief and impact emerged again and again within the charity and the wider communities they serve. And, I would argue that these values are underpinned and carried out with a set of corresponding aesthetics.
Progress: The Aesthetics of Risk & Reservation
Care: The Aesthetics of Personality and Place
Communities: The Aesthetics of Cohesion
Relief to Need: The Aesthetics of Art itself
Impact: The Aesthetics of Measurement
Calling these values aesthetic is perhaps telling of my status as the artist-researcher; but, notions of beauty, quality and taste can be traced through the charity’s 400 year history—from founding documents emphasising care via shelter, food and clothes, to continuous maintenance of high quality homes and award-winning gardens, to the most recent extension of attentive shaping in the grants programmes for the wider, local communities.
These five aesthetics can construct a linear narrative–moving from the starting point for this research (at the crossroads of the past and the future) to what is typically thought of as ‘the end’ (impact measurement.) But equally, these aesthetics are overlapping and cyclical —constantly informing one another, ideally evolving with each ring around.
Progress: The aesthetics of risk & reservation
After 395 years of providing clear and tangible outcomes with bricks and mortar, the charity opened itself up to far more intangible results with a community grants program that now spends roughly a third of that new and separate budget on funding arts activities.
Staff and trustees alike noted tensions between honouring the past and regarding the needs of the future; however, this middle ground was never described as a black and white process of dismissing one for the other—rather as a delicate decision-making terrain considerate of how to hold on and how to let go.
My research begins to crystalize at this intersection of risk and reservation.
Navigating the past, the present and the future is nuanced. It is a carefully honed craft that in its greatest orchestration harmonises concern with curiosity. The ‘crescendo’ carries as much achievement and attention as the ‘rest.’
Below, I outline a kind of dialogue between the simultaneous curiosities and concerns raised by staff and trustees in our conversations. I highlight where the charity is intrigued to try new strategies and where and why they are more cautious.
"Despite the new grants programme maintaining a separate budget to housing, some staff and trustees are concerned that seeking funds for additional programming takes away support that could go to the regular improvement of the sheltered accommodation."
"Some trustees feel the approach to grant giving is ‘too scattered’ to be able to effectively evaluate how well the programs are working."
"Spending has always been careful and reserved. This keeps the charity functional in the long term and ideally able to serve more and more people in need.
The concern for spending on programs that don’t reap an economic return on investment is that the funding doesn’t sustain the long-term, while the needs do."
The grants programme encapsulates a juggling act of reservation and risk.
It holds a desire to carry on the successful attention to high quality care and space that sheltered accommodation has provided. It risks failure because it is new, because there are several more unknowns partially to do with serving new demographics. It also risks great success, opening up the potential for healthier, more connected communities, greater funding opportunities and role model status for the charity to share its strategies for other local bodies.
Balancing these conflicting perspectives, these potential successes or failures is where the art lies. The charity stands reverently on the ‘shoulders of giants’ and could imagine its best shape through a process of leaping into the unknown, climbing back on top of the shoulders and leaping again. As trustee Julian Hilman noted: “The charity’s long-cultivated stability enables the risk,” and I would argue the risk also enables the stability. Knowing how and when to stand strong with history and when to jump forward brings us to the next aesthetic.
“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places—and on the conviction that it is the architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.” (DeBotton, 2006: 13)
Alain DeBotton writes about the value of spaces and specifically beautiful, well-designed spaces in The Architecture of Happiness. He points out the way "honey-lit limestone tiles can lend support to whatever is most hopeful within us" while “prison-like windows, stained carpet tiles and plastic curtains” can often shout the “incompleteness of life” (ibid). He speaks of the ways in which beauty is all the more appreciated and meaningful for those who have encountered deep trouble or pain, and how despite all attempts to create beautiful space, we cannot rely only on them to alleviate all our needs as “we are never far from damp stains and cracked ceilings, shattered cities and rusting dockyards (ibid)”.
The value of well-designed, high-quality housing is writ large for Hammersmith United Charities. Pride flows from the older residents, staff and trustees and visitors to the gardens. The charity is happy to lead the way in providing beautiful homes despite socio-economic status and strives to be a model in the borough for the obvious comparative scheme of local council supported housing as well as for the forthcoming developments in motion with the new high speed rail—where they might offer a helpful leading voice to corporate developers on high-quality provision for vulnerable people.
Appreciation and desire for beautiful and well-shaped space echoes in the local communities as well.
Housing- the residents housed by the charity are grateful for the gardens, the accessibility a first floor flat offers, or the window that opens up onto the gardens so that passersby can knock and say hello. Several residents at Edward Woods estate discussed the need for more beauty in the outdoor common spaces so that children could safely play and isolated residents who stay up in the tower blocks might be inspired to come down and spend time with others
Community Centres- so much activity happens in numerous community centres across the borough. The multi-purpose room is forged again and again in churches, schools and community designated spaces -but Liban from LIDO foundation and Adam Matan from ATM expressed a need for council support for more safe spaces for young people and culturally specific people who are isolated.
Arts & Cultural spaces- spaces like The Lyric and The Bush offer arts programming and cafe culture, inviting the public in for more than just a play. Some trustees have been to the Lyric for the cafe, but nothing else. Cultural spaces do suffer from an 'exclusive' ethos (from ticket costs to understandings that these are spaces for the middle class); but The Bush is attempting to combat this with their new building design (glass exterior lets passerbys understand what it is inside) and programming has reached out into the community to reflect who lives locally.
Care: The aesthetics of personality & place
"The design of people is just as crucial to a successful housing scheme as the design of place."
-Rita Nath-Dongre, Housing Scheme Manager, Hammersmith United Charities
Almshouses have historically promoted dignified, independent living for older people and a crucial part of shaping that dignity manifests through personalised care.
Care as curated by people and place.
In his article “Towards an aesthetics of care” academic and socially-engaged practitioner, James Thompson, specifically recognizes care in terms of ‘aesthetics’ because the quality of attention in relationships between service providers and beneficiaries holds the potential to reach a level of beauty that demands “to be appreciated using a language more usually associated with artistry.” (Thompson, 2015)
In the context of the charity and the wider Hammersmith community, people commit acts of care in many ways- by building and holding space, organising events and activities, listening, advocating, imagining, or just being around for chance encounters.
Equally places offer care as they shape opportunities for comfort, community, safety and imagination.
The way in which both beneficiaries and service providers described people and places to me, and ascribed value to them, was often synonymous with beauty and quality of attention. And the ‘need’ for beauty was as clear when discussing its presence as much as its absence.
No two toe-nail cutters are the same
When I asked the charity’s two housing scheme managers, Jill Hampson and Cathy Lehane, what they thought the residents needed, they responded fervently about the need for a toe-nail cutter. They had just lost a woman whom they described as much more than a toe-nail cutter for the residents.
She had a way of caring for the residents as she performed the basic task.
How she held each foot.
How she engaged each resident in conversation.
How she made them feel comfortable.
Someone else had come since. But it wasn’t the same.
What James Thompson identifies as a ‘network of care’ takes shape across a variety of roles:
Staff -residents mention particular gratitude for the way Jackie engages them in gardening, the way Cathy calls them 'love' or Jill lets the other residents know when someone is ill. Equally they acknowledge missing David, who used to manage repairs, and check in on them on the weekends.
Trustees- residents often expressed missing a past interaction with trustees that took shape in shared cups of tea and casual chat. They were pleased to see a couple trustees at the communal lunch we arranged in April.
Community Leaders- Abdirachid of Anti-Tribalism Movement described the wassap group he maintains with Somali communities to help with quick advice in response to prejudice backlash from the recent terrorist activity; Community Champions at Edward Woods Estate shifted a program to serve more young people in the aftermath of a murder of a young person on a nearby estate. They brought flowers to the young boy's mother, extended a series of outreach counseling sessions to young people and offered a graffitti arts workshop as an outlet for expression.
Beneficiaries- residents water each others' plants if they are away or ill, community champions share breakfast once a week to discuss issues concerning their neighbours on the Edward Woods estate.
Artists- Dance West facilitate heathy movement and social interaction every Wednesday morning for the older residents in Sycamore lounge, photographer Cinzia D'Ambrosia consistently strategises new ways to reach 'at-risk' young people
"I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways,
and the degree of the arcades' curves,
and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing.
The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the
measurements of its space and the events of its past:
…the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen's nuptial procession… the rips in the fish net and the three old men seated on the dock mending nets and telling each other for the hundredth time the story of the gun-boat of the usurper, who some say was the queen's illegitimate son, abandoned in his swaddling clothes there on the dock...
The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning
rods, the poles of the bags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls."
From Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Communities: The aesthetics of cohesion
Many of the communities I spoke with praised the diversity of Hammersmith--from the spectrum of shops, foods and languages spoken to the types of housing, public spaces and cultural activities. But the proximity of people and places does not naturally breed cohesion and many expressed a need to bridge intergenerational, socio-economic and inter-cultural tensions.
Community cohesion grows from the previously discussed aesthetic of care with the design of people and place. It doesn't happen overnight and it doesn't happen through quick token partnerships. With that in mind, here are some of the ways people and places are curating cohesion in the borough:
Food & Drink
Holding space for people to come together with a complimentary warm beverage or meal is a frequent occurrence in housing estates, community centres, and libraries. The regularity offers consistent connection and potential for new joiners. The food and drink offer an immediate, primal bond.
Cross community partnerships
When leaders from different organisations come together for events, their constituencies stand a greater chance of showing up (as opposed to a stranger attempting to get people together without any connected support.)
A number of arts projects like dance, painting and music bridge groups in more 'palletable' ways than direct socio-political agendas
Scaffolding the hyper local with the higher profile
Meeting people where they are, organising events in the places people naturally meet helps new activities thrive. There can be a flow to higher profile venues, but illuminating what is local is a crucial first step for engaging communities who may not be used to leaving their 'comfort zone.'
Embracing the notion that everyone has something to offer enables and empowers equity in community, rather than perpetuating a 'hand out' or 'deficit-model' that enforces notions of 'haves' and 'have-nots'
Relief to Need: The aesthetics of art itself
“Life is difficult…” -M. Scott Peck
“…if you can keep some kind of little contour that you can glimpse sideways at, now and again, you can endure great bleakness.” -John O’Donahue
In this five-act value structure, 'relief to need' is appropriately placed at the climax, with all the values discussed so far essentially working cumulatively to achieve this. The art of understanding new needs, of caring for those needs, and of addressing those needs for different communities strives ultimately for relief.
Sometimes relief looks like a meal,
Sometimes it looks like a house,
Sometimes relief is a chat with an old friend or a stranger,
Sometimes it’s a coat—passed down, or brand new.
Sometimes relief takes shape as debt advice,
Sometimes relief bubbles out in the cheer for a favourite footballer,
We meet relief as we listen to a particular song, watch a film in a crowded cinema, read a poem, or dance in our living rooms.
Much of what I have discussed with these values so far is about the aesthetic approach to relief. But in this section I want to concentrate on the way we meet relief through an engagement with arts activities themselves. (Likely where the charity thought these findings might begin.)
Through the interviews, focus groups and creative interventions, I consistently asked people to describe the art they love, the art that moves them, the art that is memorable. It’s not a question people get asked a lot, because the question garnered the most head-tilting, pause for reflection and subsequent spark behind the eyes as stories about arts experiences unfolded.
Below is a selection of art works Hammersmith locals are engaging with. Click on them to look, listen and find out more. Also, feel free to test who you think is engaging with what.
Hint: the people directly opposite each artist are not the ones who mentioned them
Resident at Edward Woods Estate
Resident at Sycamore House
Resident at John Betts
Somali Community member
Somali Community member
Attendee at Askew Road Library coffee morning
Project manager, Edward Woods Estate
Housing manager, HUC
Resident of Edward Woods Estate
Everyone I spoke with engages with art everyday in many many different ways. From listening to music at home, to the chance encounter with public art en route to somewhere else--from the intentional opera or museum visit, to the unintentional landing by way of a google search for something else. Even the self-proclaimed 'non-artsy' types find literature or photojournalism to be profound.
There are many who argue that we need art and beauty even more when we are vulnerable. They can offer comfort, escape, restoration or imagination for a better future. The charity supports people in need as defined by socio-economic deprivation; but, across class, culture and age, everyone spoke unanimously about the power of the arts to transform and transport.
Of course, not all arts experiences are equal. Not all are sublimely transformative and in fact many are painfully not. Identifying what moves whom and how this tranlates into understandable impact is highly subjective. So this brings me to the final act: Impact and the aesthetics of measurement.
Impact: The aesthetics of measurement
In the game intervention I led at the Trustee Dinner in May, one of the trustees was given an envelope with the question: "Has art ever provided relief to your needs?"
"Beethoven's 5th piano concerto…restored my belief in the nobility of man and of hope for the future”
I asked: "How?"
He quickly replied: "You’ve just got to listen to it..."
-from 2016 monitoring form, collated by Melanie Nock for Hammersmith United Charities
Despite the embrace of qualitative and quantitative measures, something is still lacking in this evaluation process.
"Some arts-based researchers, such as a/r/tographer Rita Irwin, have argued that arts-based research should constitute its own research paradigm separate from quantitative and qualitative methodologies (A/r/tography, 2008, cited Andrews 2009). Brad Haseman's 'A Manifesto for Performative Research' proposes such a third paradigm--arguing that reporting "expressed in nonnumeric data...in forms of symbolic data other than words in discursive text... of still and moving images, of music and sound, of live action and digital code" (5, 2006) might do better to elicit an understanding of work that also transcends traditional writing or numbers.
"Creative and arts based approaches can be particularly powerful, especially at the data collection and dissemination phases of the evaluation cycle. They include a vast array of techniques including photography, film and visual arts, poetry and creative writing, music, drama and performing arts. These are used in order to uncover hidden perspectives, add empathic power, and strengthen participants’ voices. They are also used in dissemination to make evaluation and research findings accessible to wider audiences beyond traditional academia or policy making circles. There is a need to consider the contribution of arts based approaches to evaluation and how these approaches can be adopted in a rigorous way." (Daykin, Creative & Credible, 2015:1)
While ethical and subjective challenges to these more aesthetic approaches still linger, pursuit of such newer methods will be explored in the next phase of my research. I describe this in further detail in the next and final section.
Measuring the arts is historically problematic. From not enough data, to too much, the impacts of process and product dance a fine line between gut instinct and rigorous approach. For funding bodies in particular (who are the key catalysts for such inquiry) there is a consistent commitment to evolving strategies for understanding this mysterious dance.
Did the program provide relief to need?
How and when will we know?
In one of our early conversations, Tim Hughes concurred with the view that New Labour’s hyper target driven arts funding policies in the first decade of the 21st century absolutely failed the arts. A local artist I spoke with argued that any attempt to measure the arts becomes the harbinger of its undoing. A funding symposium raised the point that artists need to become more articulate about the work that they do. And every arts organisation I have spoken with since beginning this research gives me the same knowing unknowing look when I mention the words ‘impact’ ‘measurement’ and ‘community arts’.
The successes and failures of community arts projects do not subscribe to one formula, nor do they disregard careful attention to shape. I would argue that the act of measurement is an art in and of itself.
Like many organisations (artistic and not) the current evaluation landscape for the charity comprises a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data collection. There are forms that connect funding amounts to numbers of people reached, and descriptions of accomplished goals. There are meetings that happen at the beginning and end of a project so that dialogue and relationship building can compliment and inform future funding potential.