Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In the beginning, there was a meeting

It's almost two years since I first had an email about the Sea Change project in Weston. At the time, I was the secretary of the Weston Arts Festival. Somebody (I still don't know who for sure) had passed on my contact details to the then-newly appointed Sea Change Coordinator, Lesley Nel.

In that email, sent mid-February 2009, the project was identified as including 'an interactive arts trail' as part of a 'cultural-led regeneration'. The goal, at that time, was to bring together the Weston art world's key stakeholders. There was talk of 'Weston's cultural assets'.

A few weeks later, on 2 March 2009, we had our first Steering Group Meeting for what was being called 'Weston-Water-Way: Walk-on-Water'. It was the first time I'd gone into the depths of the Town Hall, sitting in the Old Council Chamber, a room that smells of stagnation and cultural conservatism.

 Even that smell, a combination of old wood, leather, and fabric, mixed with generations of hot air and stale coffee, didn't quite prepare me for that meeting. Being Weston, there were a few familiar faces, even for me, an American expat who had only been in the country for a few years. Weston is a small place, though. You meet people fast if you're doing much of anything. At the time, I was working on bringing organised graffiti to the town centre.

In the background information circulated before that meeting, we were told that CABE  had asked 'us' to provide a list of information points that go rather far in explaining what the rest of the world thinks of Weston. Within 29 days, out group was to provide the following:

  1. Designs for the Walk on Water Cultural Trail
  2. Revised programme and costs
  3. Confirmations of both an access audit and all the necessary consents
  4. An updated risk assessment
  5. Clarification of 'how the long term maintenance will be funded'
 No small list, that.

Then, in the first page of this document we were all sent, is the sentence I underlined in red with a long note in the margin.

In addition to this, CABE and SW Arts have voiced concern at the capacity locally to deliver an ongoing cultural plan based on and adding value to the cultural trail.
That is quite a statement right there. Before we'd met, we were already being denigrated by those holding the pursestrings. Then we met.

I was forced to agree with CABE and SW Arts.

This first meeting should have been a positive step for Weston. It should have been the start of a project that could make Weston something better. It should have been a good discussion of what 'culture-led regeneration' could be for Weston, after an educational presentation by the 'enabler' CABE had sent to the meeting. (If you aren't familiar with this sort of 'enabler', it's basically a consultant who goes to cultural backwaters and wows them with PowerPoint presentations full of pictures of artworks and stories of residual tourist income.)

At the time, this was all to relate to a water-themed arts trail. We were being brought together to develop a shared memory of Weston. It was supposed to be a positive memory that could be turned into art and 'change people's perception of Weston-super-Mare'.

There was a feeling of hope in that meeting. Despite all the negative things about Weston that were brought up, there was a vague hope that something better would come out of all of this. Even if it was just a big chunk of money coming into the town. (And I think most of the key stakeholders were trying to figure out how their littel corner of Weston could directly receive a bit of that chunk.)

From that meeting, though, came a brief that was sent out to three 'artists' (curators and commissioners, actually) that were recommended by CABE. (I'll write more about that later, though.)

One last interesting thing from that meeting was the draft timetable for the project. An arts consultant was to be contracted by the last day of March. Tenders were to be sent to artists by May. There were to be up to six community engagement events.

The broad Sea Change project was also to have some landscapes that were to be installed, too. The Water Play area was to have planning approval by April 2009 and be fully complete by June 2009. The Sea Front Arches, by John Maine, was to be designed and built between February 2009 and Winter 2009/10. Madeira Cove was to have its facelift occur between Summer 2009 and Winter 2009/10. Pier Square was to be revamped between Summer 2009 and Spring 2010. The launch of the art trail, and an associated community celebration event, was to take place at the height of summer tourism in July 2010.

Of course, timetables always slip. That's to be expected. After all, we should have had a pier by now, too.

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