More Than 100 Stories is a commission led by artists Sarah Butler and Nicole Mollet that explores and creatively maps the Creative People and Places programme.

‘We’re Always Learning’ – visiting The Cultural Spring, 9th May 2016


Early Monday morning, I arrived at The Customs House in South Shields to see a huge ferry making its ponderous way towards the sea, a line of passengers along the deck soaking up the morning sunshine. The day started with a team meeting – a run through of projects and opportunities, and a space for everyone to share their work and ideas – then brief one-to-one chats with Rob (PR and Marketing), David (Communications and project management) and Michael (community engagement).

I learnt about The Cultural Spring’s workshop programme: a regular and extensive set of workshops, planned in conversation with local communities, and delivered across ten wards in Sunderland and South Tyneside. The Your Art funding scheme: which allows local groups to apply for small amounts of money to make creative things happen, with funding decisions made by a panel of community representatives. And their commissioning programme: regular large scale commissions throughout the year, and smaller R&D commissions, which are supported with the ambition that they will grow and develop.

Chewing gum art

I got the real sense that The Cultural Spring have embraced CPP’s action learning approach – ‘we’re always learning’ Emma told me, and there was an evident openness in how the team talked to each other and the community members and artists we met later in the day. I also picked up on how they were constantly trying to join things together; starting small, trying things out, and laying the groundwork for people and projects to make their own, unique, supported creative journeys.

We spoke about the importance of local credibility, and about how the consortia partners and their staff already had strong reputations and extensive connections locally before The Cultural Spring started. The programme was launched January  2014 with The Great North Passion, a huge participatory project delivered in collaboration with the BBC and broadcast live on BBC1 on Good Friday. Rob and Emma both talked about how useful that was for the wider programme. Many CPP projects I’ve visited have talked about how long it took to get things up and running, because of the complexity of the partnerships involved and the scale of the work planned. Some felt that this created a huge pressure on them to deliver and demonstrate what they were doing before they were ready to do so. The Great North Passion seems to have solved that problem for The Cultural Spring, allowing them to start with a bang, be seen and recognised, and then develop work and partnerships from there.

We visited art works in Biddick Hall from the Street Art Heroes project curated by Garry Hunter, Fitzrovia Noir in autumn 2014. I particularly loved the chewing gum paintings outside a former community pop-up shop which depicted the names and faces and relationships of local people. We then moved on to The Quaker  Meeting House in Roker to meet with musician Sam Burt and Sandra and Arnold, who take part in the GUB (Guitar, Ukulele, Bass) group. It was great to hear about how the group has grown – from two members to over twenty – and how they are exploring ways to sustain themselves post-Cultural Spring funding. Sam talked about the challenge involved in managing a group with very different abilities and needs. He also talked about how with some art forms a participant can spend two hours and come away with something tangible that they’ve made and are proud of. Conversely, learning a musical instrument is a long-term venture, and he has to make sure that participants are in that ‘mind-set’ when they start out. The long game has great pay-offs he tells me, both musically and socially.

Our last stop of the day was Miss Tina’s coffee shop, which is in the old library building in Southwick and focuses on engaging with new parents. Tina’s become very involved with The Cultural Spring, having never been involved with the arts before. She listed a huge range of arts projects and groups who have connected with the café, talked about sitting on the decision making panel for Your Art, and how she is now about to put in her own application to fund creative play activities in the outside space of the café.

Tina made us all delicious coffee and we carried on our conversation with Padma and Sreelekha, and artists Miki and Lyn who work with Sangini, an organisation which addresses women’s health and well being through arts and culture. They secured Your Art funding for a six week course exploring abstract art with a group of women. They deliberately chose abstract art because it was unfamiliar and perhaps scary for the women, and deliberately chose Miki for her ability to engage the women in a process that has led to a strong core group, genuinely interested in art and curious to know more. It was great listening to Miki and Lyn talk about how they’ve been challenged to come up with new ideas and raise their game in response to the women’s curiosity and openness. I was also struck by Padma’s excitement about how The Cultural Spring has created opportunities for her organisation to experiment and try out new things. So often I hear people (myself included) talking about the need for long term projects, so it was refreshing to hear her talk about how short term, seed funding, can and does make a real difference (albeit within the context of a longer-term project/organisation).