Spark 2020

Spark 2020 connect celebrate collaborate

Meeting Johnathan Branson, Projects and Development Manager (Arts), in November 2019 as part of the consultation process for a new Creative Strategy for Warwick District Council was exciting.  The suggestion of an event to enable the creative sector to meet was brilliant and Spark 2020 was agreed as a good idea.  The strength of commitment to the strategy is testament to the incredible speed of producing the event that took place three months later on 14th February 2020.  Spark 2020 certainly ignited the passion and discussion for Warwick District’s goal to capitalise on the Art and Cultural community that is so strong and vibrant in the area.

“In the NESTA report, (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), The Geography of Creativity in the UK, Leamington Spa was placed at 17th in a ranking of growing creative clusters across the UK. This placed a town in Warwick District higher than any other creative cluster in the Midlands.”

“Around 130 of the UK’s best games businesses are based in the West Midlands – notably in and around Leamington Spa. At any one time, there are between 2,000 and 2,500 full time employees in 50+ games companies in and around Leamington, out of a total of 3,000- 3,500 games industry professionals across the West Midlands.”

The Geography of Creativity in the UK Hasan Bakhshi and Juan Mateos-Garcia

Personally the opportunity to network was a priority, as so much of this creative life is chugging away in the background, struggling for recognition locally, aching to make contact with others in the Arts.  Intersilient aims to drive those connections, but they must be found to make them happen!  Forums, space to chat, unexpected links to brilliant ideas are there, but only if we knew where to look.  The Whova App used at Spark 2020 appears to be one way that we could not only connect leading up to and on the day of the symposium, but also for a year after.  It takes a while to think over the ideas and contacts forged, so it is wonderful to remain in touch with fellow creatives offering support and encouragement.  It feels like a door to a creative world has been opened.  In spite of trying to navigate the app beforehand, using it on the day was useful and frustrating in equal measure.  The flexibility of the app was a little confusing and tricky to master, especially on a rather old mobile phone, and my connection to the wifi was intermittent, but thankfully Johnathan Branson was on hand as guide to the digital world of conferencing.

The day was woken up by Jane Ward’s lively singing as delegates arrived and found their seats, then Alan Heap, from Purple Monster, began his compere duties.  Entertaining us with a poem for Valentines Day, and explaining the events of the day, we settled down to an intense programme of talks, meetings and discussion introduced by Councillor Alan Day.

First on the stage was Martin Sutherland, CEO of Coventry UK City of Culture Trust, a talk I was expressly keen to hear.  It was encouraging to be given an outline of plans and the structure of the organisation from the bid process to now.  It was encouraging to hear a willingness to acknowledge Warwickshire and the areas around Coventry and the contributions available.  Claiming that the events need grass roots support and a team of willing volunteers from throughout the area was refreshing.  There has generally been a feeling of being ousted, ignored or sidelined amongst the art community in Leamington and Warwick since the bid was won.  For my sake I am keen to offer and support events; yes we want to hang on the shirt-tails of Coventry City of Culture, but surely they want a wide range of events for the masses of expected visitors to enjoy?  A few themes, and criteria would be useful.  One challenge from the floor was why there was such an emphasis on the youth of Coventry, even accepting the bid was won on its strength of youth involvement, elicited the response that Coventry City of Culture was interpreting this as “youthfulness” and so including a wider, less restrictive criteria.  A key concept also stated for Coventry was harmony, which seems more likely after a speech that appeared to be more inclusive and more open to others participating in the events of 2021.  I feel hopeful, and not so excluded from the festivities.

Christina Boxer, 1500m gold medal winner in the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Australia, opened this section on the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022, holding her gold medal aloft she enthusiastically told us of the friendliness and comradeship of the games.  How proud she is, and we should be, of having the Lawn Bowls competition in Royal Leamington Spa.  Keen to stress the importance of our royal connection of course, and the role of the art and cultural community in reinforcing the sporting links.  The bowls will be held over nine days with two sessions each day with the potential for thousands of visitors to Royal Leamington Spa all requiring entertainment, food and culture!  She passed the baton to Louisa Davies and Tim Hodgson, Senior Producers (Cultural Programme & Live Sites), from the Games team who clearly stated the plans for the Commonwealth Games 2022 in Birmingham, actively asking for people to be involved and to offer ideas and support.  Both commanded the room with their clear, succinct message, articulating plans and desires for the games and enthusing everyone with a sense of belonging to a wider community and having something wonderful to offer, not wanting to prescribe events, but to welcome ideas and offers of help.  Tim finished suggesting that the Commonwealth Games offered:

“A moment to be extraordinary”

Tim Hodgson Senior Producer (Cultural Programme & Live Sites)

Warwick District Creative Framework.  This talk was my planning downfall as I had secured a place on a different talk, so the problems of being everywhere all the time were highlighted for me.  The Creative Framework document is available here  and it makes interesting reading with many challenges, not only outlined, but also clear acceptance of them with strategies to make the plan happen.  A five year plan that will need work, but I am encouraged that the will to succeed is strong.  As a creative community we need to use this document not only as a tool to facilitate change, but also is a chance to influence how we want the sector to look in 2025.

Next in the main auditorium was Meet the Funders, valuable I am sure, but I had booked on the Art in the Public Realm with Sarah Collicott from Artscape Management.  This was illuminating on the power of art in the urban landscape and tapping into the latest thinking on wellbeing and highlighting mental awareness and environment.  The examples Sarah gave were uplifting, using our local Kings High School sculpture Spirit of Kings by Liz Middleton, and in Cambridge the Darwin Green housing estate.

Food was amazing!  Conferences are marked by the success or failure of the catering and the giant morning pastries, with endless cups of coffee, tea and alternatives, and delicious Mookies Indian Street Food curry at midday was a triumph.  Queues were long, but worth it and I ate mine watching the remarkable Motionhouse perform.  They always take my breath away and many a forkful stopped halfway as the mesmerising performance captivated me.  An international dance company proud to be based in Leamington’s Spencer Yard.

I work at the University of Warwick, for the Mead Gallery and Arts Centre Creative Learning, so avoiding a busman’s holiday I missed the main auditorium talk on Universities, and went instead to the Placemaking in Leamington Spa talk.  Checking my understanding of this term as outlined by the session facilitator Ross Sleight, the following is helpful:

placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value.”

Project for Public Spaces

The timescales for implementing this initiative are against the Warwick District Officers.  Guy Collier, Programme Manager Town Centres, described the plans for the Leamington Spa Creative Quarter, which includes Spencer Yard, and the Future High Street Development Fund which are all in consultation or moving ahead.  Frustrations in the room surrounding the Leamington Creative Quarter were expressed as many of the audience were somewhat cynical as these ideas have been floating around for thirty years and never materialised.  It appears this is more promising than before, but issues around red line boundaries and the envisaged use of the area and derelict buildings were many.  Will there be space for makers, or just office space?  Whereas the need for office space is recognised, the need for space to create and meet is also key, but this has to fight with the economic reality of prime town centre land.  Balancing the requirements and fulfilling criteria set in the framework document with commerce is tricky.

Guy was also challenged on the provision of cycleways in the town and an offer of advice was given from a local cycle group, however it was obvious that although the process requires collaboration, the timescales of a document by the end of March 2020 prohibit further consultation, so this was left hanging…later when challenged regarding car parking provision in Leamington the irony was not lost on the attended audience with Guy’s suggestion to use a bicycle!

I skipped another main auditorium event on The Value and Impact of Outdoor Events and Festivals, a subject I know something about as a Director of Warwick Words History Festival and a volunteer with Leamington Studio Artists, for a talk on Audience Data from the District.  Vishalakshi Roy, from Earthen Lamp had some interesting statistics to help with organising and promoting events.  The district has an estimated population of 142,000 with 61,000 households, a higher percentage of students and in general is more qualified as compared to the national average.  Our area is willing to travel, but are not good at seeking out information, as a rule they need a minimum of three different incentives, or pushes, to attend an event.  The importance of collecting data from events was stressed, but even just a postcode can reveal useful information.

My choice of How to Sell Your Art with Jaanika Okk from Okk Arts was useful with discernment being the best advice.  There were many other events happening across the day, with meet-ups arranged through the app, Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum exhibitions and talks, information stands, practical craft, PechaKucha event, drumming from Senegal with Vieux Bakayoko, amongst others to drinks in the pub afterwards.

Matt Western MP summed up the day with an obvious personal delight in the Arts, with more than a professional interest in supporting the Creative Framework and celebrating the wonderful creative essence of Leamington Spa and the surrounding area.  I personally found Spark 2020 inspiring, a valuable way to gauge how the sector is performing, and a chance to meet so many new people and forge new relationships.  This was definitely a day to connect celebrate and collaborate.


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