Arts at the Old Fire Station

The newly refurbished Old Fire Station in central Oxford re-opened in November 2011 as a public professional arts centre. We share the building with the homelessness charity, Crisis. We’re not neighbours – we co-habit. Members of the public come and see shows and exhibitions, attend dance classes, eat lunch in the café and buy beautiful items from our shop.

Artists come in to make and showcase work across art forms. Homeless people come to get advice and support to move away from homelessness. They all come through the same front door and find that they have overlapping interests. People from very different backgrounds share space and find common ground.

Our alliance with Lankelly Chase is focussed on people facing tough times who experience negative labels and whose voices are not heard – particularly those with nowhere secure to live.

We offer opportunities to be involved in an arts centre as audience, participant, volunteer, trainee, employee, artist, co-creator.

We want to build strong relationships which enable people to:
• have expanded cultural and artistic horizons
• have increased creative ability/ confidence
• have new skills
• try out new, positive identities and choose the labels they feel comfortable with and change them
• appreciate diversity
• contribute to and benefit from networks and collaboration
• be more resilient

We tend to be pre-occupied with what happens in our busy building. We are always putting on events, trying to attract audiences, looking for ways to include as many people as possible as deeply as possible. We spend a lot of time attending to relationships in the building.

We also have good relationships with organisations elsewhere in the City but we want to develop this further. This is because we think we have something to offer others as well as much to learn.

Research into place-based approaches shows that relationships are key . There is a growing appetite in some quarters in Oxford to look at City-wide collaborative approaches to tackling long-standing inequalities and severe disadvantage. We want to see how we can support city conversations about how we include people facing tough times in decisions that affect them, how we nurture good quality relationships at all levels and how we encourage citizens and organisations to share responsibility. We think art and culture has much to contribute to the creative thinking necessary to make progress.

So what are we doing?
We work to improve how we operate in our building. How we look after each other, listen to dissent and change course when we need to. We check this by reviewing constantly as a team. Members of the team are attending training via Lankelly and others to improve our confidence and skills in this regard.

We look for ways of co-creating with others including people facing tough times. This might be artistic co-creations (shows and exhibitions) or might be looking at how decisions are made and who makes them.

We try and understand what impact we have and are piloting a storytelling evaluation methodology known as Most Significant Change which focuses on the experience of the storyteller rather than the outcomes predetermined by us or our funders.

We look for ways of joining wider conversations. For example, we recently facilitated a city conversation between 100 people about rough sleeping. Each year we host the Marmalade festival which provides a platform for debate about interrogation of knotty social problems and, in 2018, will be focused on ‘place’.

We are slowly creating a plan to help us influence and learn. The plan will include
• clarifying what it is we want to share and with whom
• how we share learning from our evaluation processes,
• how we use Marmalade,
• how we use other platforms,
• how we link with national networks through our various funders and friends,
• how we engage with Oxford organisations and people
• how we include those we are focussed on in the process of influencing
• how we make sure we are learning as well as influencing.

We are a small arts centre and it is more than a full-time job to keep the centre open and balance the books. Finding the space and time to reflect, listen and co-produce is difficult. It is also very motivating.

As a small arts centre, it is easy to overclaim in terms of what change we can initiate and what influence we can have.

We want to be part of wider place-based conversations but we also want to hold onto the fact that our primary function is to be a popular, well-run arts centre.

Systems behaviours
We believe we are actively making progress with
1. People see themselves as part of an interconnected whole
2. There is shared purpose and vision
3. Feedback and collective learning drive adaptation
4. Open, trusting relationships enable effective dialogue
5. All people are viewed as resourceful and bringing strengths

We are less confident and more challenged by
6. Power is shared and equality of voice actively promoted
7. Decision making is devolved
8. Accountability is mutual
9. Leadership is collaborative and promoted at every level

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