Artist Founder Director of ArtsGene, one of the local organisations supporting Barra' Culture, reflects on what becoming a CPP will mean for the local community.

November 4, 2019

Barrow-in-Furness – “famous for being forgotten and depressed", according to Bill Bryson - is one of the latest areas to join the Creative People and Places (CPP) portfolio, supported by locally-based arts organisation Art Gene. For Art Gene, the CPP is simply an extension of work they have been doing locally over the years: CPP fits Barrow rather than Barrow fitting CPP.

We spoke to Maddi Nicholson, Artist Founder Director at Art Gene, who reflected on her working-class roots and identity and how this has shaped her as an artist and Art Gene, based and working in Barrow.

I came from a not-even working-class background – we were rural poor. It really defined who I am… made me feel I was quite different. This always felt like an embarrassment until I was grown-up. My drive and determination has been from trying to prove I’m as good as anyone else. It’s made me who I am and my work has developed from this, made me understand people who sit outside the middle-class mainstream.

Maddi rejects the idea of communities like Barrow-in-Furness (one of the newest CPP areas) as culturally poor.

My company works in Barrow in Furness, a community with no interest in the word Art. Culture is defined by the middle-classes. Things that happen within working class communities – karaoke, singing in a pub, model boat building – this is all really rich here in Barrow. In Barrow, if you don’t know something you’re one step away from someone who knows. There’s a resilience, a making do, cobbling things together. It’s resourcefulness. There’s a pride in place too, even though you put it down before others can.

Maddi talks about ArtGene’s aspirations for the CPP.

We want to put artists directly into communities – in pubs, libraries, corner shops. Get them to draw out stories. Much working-class culture is hidden underground and ‘not considered’ or seen to be ‘arts' in the traditional sense. Ultimately it’s not about saying you need to bring opera ‘to the masses’, it’s about looking at the karaoke and open mic nights in pubs and working with that, taking it a step further, adding a twist by bringing an artist or musician or writer into that mix. It’s not about importing things, but reflecting and recognising and celebrating local distinctive culture. The big thing we can all do is listen and look … a lot of creativity /culture is really slight, but it already exists – it's there.

Barra’ Culture is a once-in-a-generation project using culture to transform community engagement and create a lasting arts infrastructure in the town of Barrow. The project will focus on creating new collaborations, deliver large-scale commissions and embedded residencies, initiate a vast range of community-led grassroots activity and stage a huge celebration festival in 2023.

Featured in the November edition of The Learning Diaries. Aimed at those working in learning, engagement or participation in the cultural sector, this newsletter will share updates from our team on sector events, ideas from some of our projects and links to new research. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.