For all the creativity of the arts, their structures can seem very formal. It has become a cultural expectation that paintings are for galleries, drama for theatres. And while established institutions play an important role in showcasing talent, they’re not without their problems. Many people perceive these as spaces for observation only – look, but don’t touch. How then can the demographics who, statistically, do not engage with these institutions discover what participating in the arts can offer them? The answer lies in a different kind of organisation: user-led, community-based places, where exploration and discovery can happen organically.
Luckily for us, we have two such places at the heart of our city. The clash in architectural styles of THE BLACK-E and THE FLORRIE belies a mutual passion for community-driven arts projects that is central to both institutions.
The mission of The Black-E, the neo-classical building perched on the junction of Great George Street and Nelson Street, is best explained in the words of its founder, Bill Harpe. “When we started, we were virtually the only organisation who were saying ‘arts and community’, saying ‘participation’. People don’t just come in to look, they come in to do.” In 2018 the organisation will celebrate its 50th anniversary – making it the oldest community arts centre in the UK – and this mission has never changed. Come into the gallery space and you’ll find work by the internationally renowned artist Judy Chicago, displayed alongside pieces made by the local community.
But The Black-E team are particularly proud of their youth programme. Alongside work with specific disenfranchised groups such as children with neurological conditions, the centre hosts a range of workshops and activities that all young people can access for free. Free, and no obligation, are important here. As Deputy Director Maria Paule tells me, “The kind of young people we get at our door are young people who really are maybe not sure about where they want to go in life… they’ve maybe lost their focus a little bit. And then they come here and they find something that they’re interested in.”
These young people may initially visit out of curiosity about what the building is, but it’s this open-door model that keeps them coming back. It’s a relaxed environment with no obligations or expectations. “We will have the table tennis, will have other activities,” explains Paule, “but we’ll have a dance class going on next door. So, we’re not forcing young people to get involved with these arts activities. They can come here and if they just want to sit here and or have a conversation, they can do that. And eventually, it becomes their home.” It’s a policy which believes in the power of the arts to improve lives – but also in the will and potential of young people to engage by themselves.
The Black-E’s programmes can have a major impact on their participants. Take the Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu hellraiser Bill Drummond who, to Bill Harpe’s surprise, recently divulged a personal connection to the project. Drummond told Harpe that, “after a little while of volunteering at The Black-E, I thought ‘College Of Art’s a waste of time isn’t it?’. So, I gave up College Of Art and started promoting music. So, The Black-E changed my life.” This legacy is still part of The Black-E’s present – Paule tells me about one recent alumni who, after being inspired by the centre’s circus skills workshops, is now studying the subject at university. And regularly returning to volunteer, where her passion started, to be part of the community which will keep inspiring future generations.
Little more than a mile away from The Black-E on Mill Street, The Florrie also has its roots in youth engagement. Indeed, this was the very purpose behind its foundation as The Florence Institute in 1889 – to be “an acceptable place of recreation and instruction for the poor and working boys of this district of the city”. But that original incarnation of The Florrie closed in the 1980s, to be reborn in 2012 in the same grand, flame-coloured Jacobean building, designated as a place ‘for everyone’.
In some ways The Florrie’s strength lies in being less of an organiser than a facilitator. Most activities are volunteer-run, with the ideas for activities coming directly from users. CEO Anne Lundon explains that “we use our space and resources to help people who want to make things happen. It makes people feel like they belong. Giving people artistic freedom to share their skills and passions allows us to make things happen in the building.”
This passion for the projects is shared by Community Co-ordinator, Timothy Tierney. In conversation about The Florrie’s mission, he constantly uses the word “empowering”. It’s something he takes his own inspiration from: “People just giving opportunities to others… it’s empowered me into feeling anything is possible.” Tierney give the example of how this is put into practice in his own guitar group. With participants ranging in age from 13 to 70, he encourages them to learn from one another as much as from him. It’s a perfect example of the driving force of this organisation. It’s not background or money that count (all activities at The Florrie are, like those of The Black-E, free), but enthusiasm. And when The Florrie is even an inspiration to high fashion house Valentino, visitors can start to understand where this enthusiasm may take you.
Even if you’re not local to The Florrie, you’ve still likely visited or heard of their programme of art exhibitions and music events. This new artistic strategy has been pursued with particular gusto for the past year. Knowing that “music is a massive part of Liverpool heritage… it’s in our blood,” it’s recently hosted exhibitions of the work of punk artist Jamie Reid, a photographic exhibition of The La’s and served as a major venue in the Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu’s Welcome To The Dark Ages event. Indeed, The Florrie is another place that seems to have a particular significance for the JAMS – Jimmy Cauty recently gave his touring ADP Riot Tour installation as a permanent donation. Future projects include a major exhibition of work by Roger Dean, and the development of the performance space to provide an ever-better experience for artists and visitors. These events bring arts to the community but also, by appealing to a wide audience, potentially a new community to the building. And who knows what innovations that community may bring with it?
Access to, and time for, the arts is increasingly becoming a premium commodity. Opportunities for participation may be available in all the major institutions, but you’ll only know about these if you already interested, which leaves many people underserved. This is why centres like The Florrie and The Black-E, and their work on broadening access to diverse activities, are so essential. By responding directly to what the community wants and needs, they are giving people the chance to feel genuinely connected with the arts, in a way which just may change lives.