Collective Power: Loudspeaker, Nottingham Contemporary

| Anna Eaton

This year we’ve been delighted to partner with the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance (CHWA) on their first ever annual awards. We’re excited that the awards have now been rearranged as a special online event on Friday 20th November – get your tickets here!

We are part of CHWA’s Collective Power Award which aims to recognise a project or programme in which partnership working has improved the health and wellbeing of individuals or communities using the arts and culture. 

We are big believers in collaborative working and the power of doing things together. There is so much to gain when we pool our time, resources, networks, ideas and imaginations. But we also know it isn’t always easy. We are running a blog series up until Christmas featuring reflections and information about each of the brilliant projects shortlisted for the Collective Power Award. People from the heart of each project tell us in their own words what they’ve learnt along the way, what surprised them and what have been their favourite parts.

The fourth in this series is Loudspeaker from Nottingham Contemporary.

Loudspeaker is an art project for Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire women based at Nottingham Contemporary. They use galleries and creativity to make a crucial difference in women’s lives. They support women in difficult circumstances, drawing on an extensive network of referral partners to reach women from many different backgrounds.

Loudspeaker consists of ten-week programmes providing women with new environments and experiences that allow them to step outside their immediate concerns to connect and respond to exhibitions, to form friendships and to enjoy themselves. They support women on personal journeys to value themselves and their creative ideas.

Programme Manager Katy Culbard and Associate Artist Gillian Brent have worked on the Loudspeaker for Nottingham Contemporary since 2016 with funding from the Big Lottery and the European Social Fund. In 2018, Support Worker Veronica O’Callaghan joined the team, and they are supported by Amanda Spruyt, Head of Learning at Nottingham Contemporary.

We asked Katy, Gillian, Veronica and women who took part in the groups some questions to learn more about the programme.

What have been your favourite moments during Loudspeaker projects?

Katy’s favourite moments occur at the beginning and end of projects. “We spend a great deal of time finding out about how to support women, talking to them on the phone, liaising with their Navigators, reading case notes and adjusting our provision, so when we finally meet and the first session is complete, it’s a great feeling of reward seeing our work behind the scenes realised.

At the beginning of each 10-week project, the women write personal goals that are sealed in envelopes and not looked at again until the final session. Without fail, it’s always a brilliant moment for the women to read what they wrote and reflect on how they felt 10 weeks previously. These conversations are gold dust when the women share their personal development.”

Artist Gillian Brent, who plans and delivers the creative activities says her favourite moments include, “when the women start to lead the discussions, ask difficult questions and express opinions. This often comes when they are looking at the artworks in the galleries and making connections with their own experiences.

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up when a participant realises that they have achieved something beyond what they thought they were able to and have taken ownership of their progression.”

Our Peer Mentor scheme offers opportunities for participants to extend their experiences and share their skills to help participants on future projects. Z was referred to a Loudspeaker on 2018 from the wonderful Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum. She progressed on to support new participants into 2019.

Z says, “I had dealt with lots of difficult circumstances, I was frustrated and not confident and my dreams in tatters. Attending Loudspeaker was the most favourite time after such hard experiences: a lovely building; a lovely friendly group; lovely support.

R was referred from Framework Nottinghamshire, and also progressed from participating to peer mentoring, and from there, with our help, applied for a University place. R says her favourite moments were, “seeing everybody so happy when we used the glowsticks. Worrying thoughts were forgotten when everyone relaxed and enjoyed the moment of fun.”

Some of Support Worker, Veronica O’Callaghan’s favourite moments she says, “are when the participants begin to relax a little and enjoy being part of a group. It is lovely when views and opinions are shared and debated, and the artwork does inspire this.”

What have you learnt along the way?

Z says, “I learnt that I was able to put myself across well in this new country, that I portrayed myself well, had respect for others, always accepting of others and I enjoyed myself. I am now volunteering at another project and hope to gain employment through this.”

As a team, Katy, Gillian and Veronica share the view that Loudspeaker is a continual process of planning, delivering, reflecting and adapting. We’re always learning new things about ourselves and about how to support new participants with complex needs. Each project is planned around a new, temporary exhibition of contemporary art at the gallery, so we never repeat a session. We take extra care to gather feedback from participants and peer mentors in a range of ways that helps us adjust our planning from week to week.

Over the years, we refined our peer mentor scheme to ensure that new peer mentors worked alongside experienced peer mentors and that opportunities spanned across two projects per peer mentor.  This way, we are able to maximise the number of women we offer this development opportunity to.

Has anything surprised you during the project?

Veronica says, “I am always surprised by the quality of the artwork and how it’s presented in the final exhibition. It’s brought together and displayed with such care, and the participants are very proud of their achievements and the decisions they collectively make to plan their exhibition.”

Gillian says, “there is usually an element of surprise when we finally meet the women for the first time. Sometimes, what we see on paper, or have relayed to us at the referral stage, contrasts quite a lot with what we find when we meet someone in person. I think this is because we are not focussing on the women’s history but on their responses to something new that is outside their everyday life. They start to feel more part of the world beyond their personal bubble as their ideas, strengths and differing attitudes are valued.”

Z says, “the kindness of staff and participants” surprised her most. “Not that that is strange or unusual, it is just that I, as a foreign lady had had experiences of racism in the street and on the bus. At Loudspeaker I felt completely comfortable.” Z also comments also that, “the trip at the end to a large park area was really nice.”

R says, “I have always liked art, yet the whole experience of Loudspeaker has given me confidence to now travel into a big city. Also, I now use Nottingham Contemporary as a place to go to when I have problems going on in my life.”

For Katy it’s the small gestures of kindness, acceptance, connection and support that occur in subtle, unannounced and unprompted ways throughout the project: “these positive gestures are lovely surprises and very encouraging to witness.”

To find out more about Loudspeaker visit Nottingham Contemporary’s website and follow them on Twitter.

Photo provided by Nottingham Contemporary.

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