• Delivering socially-engaged collaboration in a small town image 1

    The Working End (2015) Nancy J Clemance. Socially engaged project commissioned by Bridport Museum as part of the New Opportunities Award strand of New Expressions 3

Delivering socially-engaged collaboration in a small town

The Working End - Nancy J Clemance, artist, and Bridport Museum

New Opportunities Award beneficiary Nancy J Clemance used face-to-face interactions with Bridport’s residents, using the universal act of tying a knot to unlock new perspectives on the town’s net- and rope-making history. Here both artist and museum curator reflect on adjusting to changes of plan, working with the community and the distinction between gallery learning and socially-engaged arts practice.

Budget: £4,000

Artist Nancy J Clemance has lived in the small town of Bridport, Dorset, for three years. During this time she has worked with Bridport Museum on several projects, including providing creative learning opportunities for young people through the national Arts Award scheme.

For The Working End, Nancy’s New Opportunities Award (NOA) collaboration, the artist used face-to-face interactions with Bridport’s residents, employees and visitors, using the universal act of tying a knot to unlock new perspectives on the town’s net- and rope-making history.

Nancy explored museum archive boxes and accounts ledgers and spoke to past net-makers: “I was clear that the modest, repetitive and skilled hand labour of tying knots was what I wanted to pay tribute to”, she explains.

The museum had been developing plans for a major capital redevelopment, spurred by its acquisition of a collection documenting the town’s historic rope and net industry. This collection also became the inspiration for Nancy’s New Expressions 3 commission. For the museum, The Working End was chance to take an important, but as yet unexplored, collection (rope and net), and use it as a stimulus for engaging with new audiences.

“We wanted a commission that used the museum collection to celebrate the local heritage”, says Emily Hicks, the museum’s curator. “More directly, it was also a means to engage local people with their heritage in a fun, quirky and accessible way. We wanted to challenge people’s expectations of what a small local history museum can, or should, do. By placing the work in a gallery, amongst historical artefacts, we wanted to excite debate and question what a local history museum is”.

Adapting to change

One of the challenges for The Working End was a change of plan in the siting of the commission. As Emily explains: “In very practical terms, display was difficult because we simply don’t have a designated, suitable gallery space for a commission such as this. In the research and development phase, Nancy intended for the piece to be suspended in our extremely tiny courtyard. Unfortunately, some archaeological investigations had to take place there as part of our capital project, so the work was moved inside, into an upstairs gallery space”.

“This was a difficult challenge”, says Nancy, “I relied on my years of curatorial and arts practice experience to get through it”.

Emily later reflects: “Although Nancy was amenable and adaptable, this (upstairs gallery) space didn’t quite do the work justice. I would advise anyone taking on such a project to think really carefully about the practicalities of display – and also to make sure you have a contingency in place, in case one of the factors in the project changes”.

Importance of continuity of staff

The curator of the museum was a key contact for the artist at the start of the project. While this was important to the setting up of the project, it became more problematic when the curator later went on maternity leave, and the person in charge in her absence subsequently had to take planned sick leave. Like many small museums, Bridport Museum is largely run by volunteers, and the temporary loss of its one member of staff had an impact on the commission. This is an inherent risk in any museum-artist collaboration.

“It was more collaborative when the curator was in post”, said Nancy during the project, “The museum and my project have slightly gone on in parallel since the curator’s maternity leave. I don’t know how they feel about it. That’s particularly tricky for me as a socially-engaged artist”.

Community involvement

The involvement of Bridport residents and visitors in the process of making The Working End was one of the major successes of the project.

The artist built relationships with the town’s current industries, including modern net makers AmSafe and local restaurants, touring factories, talking to past and present employees, and taking her knot-making booth to their sites.

Altogether, hundreds of participants made and donated knots at the town’s library, at museum events, on the town square and in local industries.

But it didn’t stop there, as Nancy explains: “Once I’d gathered, gilded and installed hundreds of knots for The Working End, I thought the work was finished. But, wonderfully, museum visitors continued to spontaneously and anonymously leave their own knots. So I installed two balls of string next to the work for them to use, which were quickly used up. Every knot that was made is now part of The Working End”.

“For me this was one of the greatest successes of the project”, agrees Emily. “I saw firsthand that people understood what the work was about and were delighted to take part. It wasn’t something that an artist had just created and imposed on the museum and town, but people had been involved in its creation.

“This element only worked because Nancy is greatly experienced in social engagement. It shows the importance of being very clear about what you want your commission to achieve, and choosing exactly the right person to deliver it”.

Socially-engaged practice and authorship

In a consideration that can sometimes arise in socially-engaged practice, it was important to the artist that the activity was not seen as gallery education. For Nancy, it was important that The Working End differed from the youth work that she is also known for in Bridport. As she explains:

“When you work with people as a creative learning practitioner, they have lots of ideas, and it’s a privilege to enable and realise those ideas as far as possible. The work is driven by the participants’ wishes.

“For the New Opportunities Award commission, the work is driven by my personal interests, judgments and experience: I’m the author of the work. There was no participant expectation beyond people agreeing to make and donate a knot in tribute to the netmakers, and that it would become part of the artwork.

“I’m really pleased that so many people understood and supported what I was aiming to do”.

Working in a small town

“Bridport is known as an ‘arty’ town, says Emily. “It has always been a place that has attracted creative people, and continues to do so. However, it is also a town with a long-standing industrial heritage. The netting side is still thriving: there are 15 businesses, each with a different specialism, from cargo netting to camouflage nets”.

The artist observes that there are unique challenges to working in a small town, particularly when it is the town that you live in. Nancy says: “Bridport is small and quite intense. You have to deal with everything head-on. If I can work in my own town I can work anywhere! In fact, I’ve now developed my face-to-face interactions practice in Birmingham and Bournemouth”.

Artist’s advice

Nancy offers the following advice to artists thinking of collaborating with a museum:

“Be friendly and open. Museums are about people.

“Be clear with yourself about why you’re there. Of course your ideas for your work will change as the project progresses, but history is very interesting and other people will have their ideas and you need to work hard not to be distracted by so many different stories”.

Audience response

The most positive audience responses were among those who had contributed knots to The Working End: 76% of those who made knots said that they felt part of the artistic experience themselves. 79% said that the activity was different from things they had experienced before. 94% said that they saw a link between the activity, the artist’s work and the museum collections.

Audience comments included:

‘It was interesting to look at and discuss with my children’

‘Interesting, I’ve never seen an installation of string before’

‘The art activity helped me to understand the history of town and how people worked. It also inspired me as an art piece’

‘The event went well with the exhibition and gave a great sense of community and continuity’.