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.

Asking Why – visiting East Durham Creates, Friday 6th May


Discussing my visit on the phone, a couple of months ago, Nikki and I decided we would focus on the theme of partnership. The consortia behind East Durham Creates is unique in that it is made up of a community trust – whose stated aim is to alleviate the poverty and problems which have resulted from the pit-closures in the area; a museum, which is not physically in the region covered by the CPP funding; and an arts producing organisation which started in Newcastle but is now based in London. The partnership and the programme have had a long and difficult road to get to where they are now: Nikki grinning as she drives me from the station in Seaham to their office in Peterlee, telling me how excited she is about the programme and its potential to effect real change locally; and later, Malcolm, Chief Executive of East Durham Trust, saying that he has more faith and confidence in the power and importance of the arts now than he did when they were writing the funding bid.

I keep banging on about CPP’s action learning approach, but it is central to the programme, and EDC is an example of a project where things did not work out as planned, and where those involved admitted that, stopped, reassessed and re-planned, and are now in a much stronger position as a result. The initial festival helped EDC test out a lot of things very quickly, but they realised that it wouldn’t work as a long term and sustainable model. They took a nine month break from delivery in order to reflect and plan. Nikki admits that it was a long time, and problematic in terms of others’ perception of the programme, but she said it needed to be that long, because she wasn’t prepared to go out with ‘half a message’. We talked about how much of her role is that of a broker, of being the one persuading people to ‘just hold on’ when things get tough.

We talked a lot about testing things out; experimenting; giving it a go and being honest about what works and what doesn’t; having the bravery to cut through the bullshit and ask the difficult questions that need asking. 'We listen and respond,’ she tells me. ‘The confidence we feel now comes from listening. It’s confidence in asking ‘why’, not confidence in knowing what’s right.’

Asking why. Such a small word; such an important question. One of the things I love about CPP is that it brings local people, often with little or no background or knowledge of the arts, together with artists working at the top of their game, and that this results in a kind of flattening: a willingness on the part of the community members to ask why, to ask artists to explain their process, their product, their thinking, in a way that can feel quite revolutionary to someone inside the ‘arts world’ who might be intimidated by an artist’s reputation and status. Nikki also talked about the importance of her asking why, of challenging artists to explain, listen, rethink, and through doing so allowing other ‘non-arts’ partners involved in project planning to voice their own questions.

I spent time touring the local area – a series of towns and villages, including numerous former collieries, woefully poorly connected by public transport – with Malcolm, Chief Executive of East Durham Trust. We talked about trust – about how the initial festival highlighted the need to involve local people from the very beginning in making decisions about arts activity happening locally. We talked about the deprivation locally, and an issue common to many CPP projects: the legacy of mistrust created in areas which have in the past attracted large organisations and large amounts of funding. When the funding has run out the organisations have left, and in doing so created a sense of abandonment and wariness. We also talked about the past – it was noticeable how many times Malcolm apologised for ‘dwelling’ on it, but it is a difficult past, of pit closures, strikes, job losses. The towns and villages grew up because of the mines; now they are gone, but the people are still here. It reminded me of something Laurie Peake said when I visited Super Slow Way in Burnley: ‘what do we do with all this emptiness?’ Maybe another question is ‘what do we do with all these memories?’

Later in the day I met Jason, one quarter of Brooklyn-based quartet SO percussion, who have been commissioned to create a new piece of work with and for East Durham. He told me how they didn’t set out to make work about the pits, deliberately so, and yet much of the work they have made, which has come from conversations, stories, observations, has ended up leading them to the pits. I think there is something different though, in ending up somewhere rather than starting off from there.

I also met with Jess from East Durham Trust, who talked me through the go and see programme and the community funding pot where local groups can apply for small pots of money to support artistic activity. I loved how she’d mapped successful and unsuccessful applications in order to easily see any ‘cold spots’ which might need more support and encouragement to get involved.

In a couple of weeks*, EDC are producing an event called The Pirates of Crimdon Dene: The Treasure of Many Happy Returns – two days of family friendly arts activities, which hinge around a new story about the pirates who visit Crimdon Dene each year to share stories of their adventures. I visited the site with Nikki. It’s a beautiful, though underused, area (I obviously forget to take a photo, but imagine a steep-sided wooded valley, a river meandering its way through on its way to the sea, birdsong and dandelions). There’s a real local desire to revive what used to be a vibrant place, to reimagine the space and its potential, and what better way to do that than through the arts?

* I am posting this after the event, which attracted around 2500 people - see main image.