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.

A Conversation about Decision Making


On March the 8th 2016 both Sarah and Nicole visited the Creative Barking and Dagenham (CBD) project. They met with Helen Ball, engagement director, and a group of five Cultural Connectors who have all been directly involved in the decision making processes choosing artists to lead CBD commissions. Following their visit Sarah Butler and Nicole Mollett reflected and exchanged thoughts on the project, focusing on the theme ‘Decision Making’.

The drawing, by Nicole Mollett is titled 'The people come first' and is of the Dagenham Idol.

The People Come First

NM: I found it really remarkable to see how central the Cultural Connectors are to the project. They did most of the talking. They were not passive. To the degree that, had I not been told their roles I could have presumed they were part of the core team. I especially liked when someone said;

‘The idea of commissioning artworks without local input needs to die’

This is quite a radical notion. The idea that the mythical autonomous curator is dead, or obsolete. It makes me think of the very funny Bedwyr Williams Curator Cake ( Is possible to create a system whereby collective, democratic decision is in fact better?

SB: I was also impressed by the cultural connectors model. When I asked where they thought CBD would be in 10 years time, Miro responded: 'we'll be running it', without a moment's hesitation. There was a genuine sense of ownership there. It struck me that CBD has started with local people first and then addressed the matter of commissioning art. I suppose a more curated programme might start the other way around (though not necessarily).

I remember being struck by the fact that Right Up Our Street in Doncaster explicitly don’t have an artistic vision – in an attempt to keep things very open to community decision making. They also don’t have one artistic lead overseeing all strands of their programme. How do you get that balance between artistic vision and curation and community involvement? I’m a great believer in good, ambitious leadership, but for CPP it needs to accommodate a whole multitude of voices.

Is it possible to create the system you suggest? It seems so, having spent time with CBD. I find myself thinking 'but commissioning by committee is always a nightmare'. Maybe it often is, but it feels like CBD are developing long term relationships with local people, keeping that process very open and calm and inclusive. Helen said something really interesting when we asked about how the decision making process works in practice. She said 'the conversation clears the way' and that even though people will come with very different ideas and their own initial preferences about who will be chosen (all panel members read applications independently before meeting as a panel) they have always ended up with a decision everyone is on board with.

What seems crucial is that they always bring the conversation back to what they feel other local people will like and respond to, rather than the personal tastes and egos of the cultural connectors. So the conversation is about the wider good/impact. This feels much more democratic than making it about a small group of people's personal preferences and tastes. I'm not suggesting they represent everyone's ideas (is that even possible?!) but they are a diverse group of people living locally and that has to give them a particular perspective which might take a curator years and years to gain.

My question for you is maybe slightly off the decision-making theme and closer to our theme of time... I'd noticed through my conversations with CBD that it seemed like a calm project - very focused and deliberate. It was more a feeling than anything else. Talking to Helen during our visit, she mentioned the sense of panic at the beginning of the process (which is fair enough, delivering a big new programme in a place with a suspicion of big new programmes - it's something I've noted about other CPP projects too). She said 'you can't do this kind of engagement work in an atmosphere of panic so I was determined to change that'. What are your thoughts on panic in relation to CBD and CPP more widely?

Oh, and I love the curator cake!

NM: Me too; I wonder what flavour the brain was?

Yes, I agree there was certainly a sense of calmness during our visit to CBD. I was so inspired by what she said, I wrote the sentence down; ‘It is really important not to create an atmosphere of panic’. This could be a mantra for any a public art project. ‘Slow down, and do not panic’ it is a bit like the pre-war poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Not that I am insinuating this is a battle field, but the refusal to entertain panic-mode is an essential CPP personality trait in my opinion.

I think a lot of the CPP’s teams are under great pressure to provide results quickly and be successful. They each have 3 years to deliver their proposed aims. Initially this might sound like a luxury compared to most art projects, but what they are trying to achieve is seriously complex. They are attempting to insert and grow something new (and exciting) within communities and places where ‘stuff’ already exists. They are trying to embed these ideas and motivate new audiences and networks. Thus it could be suggested that CPP is a process of change or change instigator.

Fear of change can provoke panic, as can pressure to be a success and meet targets. Does getting the glossy photograph of the ‘hard-to-reach’ audience spectrum smiling whilst experiencing their first art enlightenment come before the possibly invisible moment in which true change occurs? I guess my point is that CPP teams are being pulled in many directions, and therefore it is important that they get their priorities right. Within the CBD project the priority seemed to be the people. The people come first, and by working with them we (the CPP team) can achieve great things.