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The Turner Prize
City Of Culture

Resume: Welcome

Jonathan Jones

The Guardian

'The premise of this year's prize is that individualist art is dead and the future lies in the collective.'

The Turner Prize 2021 (The Turner) was not just a prestigious event, but a transformative journey that entrenched me to the world of community engagement projects. It was a baptism of fire, a thrilling initiation that unfolded at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum (The Herbert) in Coventry. This was my first step into the realm of large-scale cultural institutions, a leap that refueled an existing passion within me.

In 2021, Coventry was heralded as the City of Culture. A programme of creativity offered itself to the whole region of Warwickshire. The Herbert sat within this festival as a central hub but also separately from the City of Culture entity. I add this to my preamble as it describes how, in the heritage sector, complex contractual relationships have to be negotiated depending on embryonic decision-making, communication, cultural, financial and political systems. This situation is by no means unique but has to be recognised as it requires an added level of commitment to collaboratively meld a quality person-centred outcome.

Within two weeks of starting at The Herbert, I sat cross-legged on the floor as I watched Gentle/Radical create their beautiful 'emergent curriculum' painted directly onto a newly whitewashed wall. Rabab Ghazoul explained the group's community centring and ethos, and I truly felt inspired. This exhibition brought me to the epicentre where I had always wanted to be, amongst those who were brave, championing in teams how the arts could be an accessible, positive vehicle for all, irrespective of a person's heritage, history, labelling or pennies in their pocket. Indeed, Gentle/Radical had knocked on the doors of their Cardiff community to understand and craft what was needed. I was excited and taken back to my days in Moss Side in Manchester, getting to know the personality and heartbeat of a vicinity, honestly. I had done this somewhat alone; I would've loved to have done it with a gang - 'team player' is emblazoned on my soul. I saw all the collectives in a very simple way - community arts gangs, though each entity had a very different spirit and method of deliver.

Open The Doors As Wide As Possible

My role at The Herbert was not just to make The Turner accessible, but to make it a cultural experience for as broad an audience as possible. This task began with a challenge when a ticketing system failure forced me to cold-call community groups and invite them to the first days of the exhibition. As a newcomer to Coventry and Warwickshire, I had no established network to rely on. However, by the end of the project, I was nominated for several community awards, a testament to the challenges I overcame and the impact I made.

I had just a few hours to view The Turner exhibition, learn about it and each collective, and then deliver guided talks to community groups I had never met. The cajones needed were vast, and I still wince at my clumsiness. I continued with a programme of tours throughout the time The Turner was in Coventry, and with each delivery, I found myself improving and feeling an ever-increasing sense of pride that I was here representing these outstanding collectives and bringing the installations to life for people who had not only never been to The Turner before, but some had never stepped into a gallery.

One of my favourite memories of being the community engagement officer for The Turner came from a tour. The Herbert's business plan required me to examine the communities we were poorly serving, one of which was men. I had referred to Google (as we all do) and found Coventry Men's Shed. A colleague and I went along to introduce ourselves and see if we could support their offering. Coventry Men's Shed describes themselves as:

' organisation that was set up to help men with their health and wellbeing through different group activities and social events.'

We could definitely help.

Sing & Dance In A Gallery? Hell Yeah!

A few weeks later, I welcomed the group to The Herbert. Having shared a biscuit and a brew in the spirit of Gentle/Radical, who believe in the power of eating together, we set off into the exhibition. Array Collective had built a síbín (a 'pub without permission' pronounced 'seebbeen' to the best of my language skills) at the heart of their installation, complete with a bar, chips, and holy water on entry to genuflect (though I was reliably informed this was Irish whiskey!), tables and nicknacks. I had seen people linger at the síbín's entrance, unsure whether etiquette allowed them to go inside. It brought me tremendous joy being with outstretched arms and inviting people to come inside, sit, watch, and chat. I had once been a person who had no idea that I could go into an art gallery or installation, either. However, on this occasion, such was our enthusiasm that song and dance spontaneously broke out; we truly enjoyed our time together in Array's síbín, precisely as they had intended.

Each collective was required to have an engagement programme with the locality around The Herbert; some had a clear vision of what they wanted to do and with whom, whilst others were more of a blank sheet. My role was to develop these with the nominees and support their delivery. A real smorgasbord of goodies emerged, including:

  1. A whole-day workshop on engaging a locality and being within it

  2. Drop-in to allow the discussion of difficulties experienced by families supporting those with neurodiversity

  3. New menu items for The Herbert's Cafe incorporating new ingredients such as seaweed

  4. The creation of a sound system

  5. A local radio show

  6. The creation of an accessible guide with Anna Farley and sensory backpacks

  7. An exceptional beer made by a local brewery for the síbín

  8. And who could forget the live performance of Array's 'art project' going viral on TikTok with, 'Ok, I like it, Picasso.'

Table Cloth Community Arts Evaluation Method_edited.jpg

However, my favourite community intervention that I supported was by Project Artworks. They wanted their offering to be a living, breathing and working space hosting local artists who identified as neurodivergent creating their art. Such care was taken with the 'studio' area, cloaked in cardboard to soften sensory experiences, the shelving units held the best quality materials. I encouraged local artists to come and work. Some created on the floor, some on the walls, some painted, some drew, some made puppets, some used canes, some needed physical support, some had their back to the public, some had walls of cardboard boxes to limit the space...all adaptations were carefully considered, made, appraised and adapted if required.

Such was the success of this community engagement that a beautiful legacy dropped out of the bottom—a supported studio permanently located in Coventry. Established in the heart of what is widely considered the 'arty quarter', a beautiful, adapted space was sensitively created to allow those who had been artists with Project Artworks to continue their journey. Solo and collaborative exhibitions ensued, collaborating with Tate Liverpool and visiting Hastings to see Project Artworks in action. 

Individualist Art Is Not 'Dead'

In conclusion, my experience as a community engagement officer for the Turner Prize 2021 was a transformative journey that introduced me to the world of community engagement projects. The exhibition was a thrilling initiation that unfolded at The Herbert. It was my first step into the realm of large-scale cultural institutions, a leap that ignited a newfound passion within me.

The exhibition highlighted the importance of community engagement in the arts. As the community engagement officer, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand how the collectives worked tirelessly to create installations that were accessible and positive for all people, irrespective of their background. My role was not just to make The Turner accessible but to make it a cultural experience for as broad an audience as possible. 

The Turner Prize 2021 demonstrated that individualist art may not be dead, but the future is certainly healthy in the collective. It was an experience that I will never forget, one that inspired me and deepened my passion for community engagement in the arts.

Project Gallery

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