Art Work Exeter
Responsible for programming Art Week Exeter, the city’s annual visual arts festival, Art Work Exeter (AWE) supports artists through exhibitions (often in unusual spaces, such as the Underground Passages, St Martin’s Church on Cathedral Close, and a shipping container on the Quay), events and initiatives. We spoke to Creative Director Stuart Crewes…
How did AWE start?
The initial spark came when I was asked to coordinate Exeter Open Studios. I’d been producing an event called NOSE (Art right in front of your face) for a few years, delivering work by up to 20 national artists into the streets and public spaces in the city. I thought that the Open Studios model was a bit outdated, so I chatted to artists locally and further away about what was working for them, and in 2016 we launched Art Week Exeter. The event has exponentially grown, involving most of the arts organisations and practicing artists in the city, and encouraging others to join in. For 2019 we’re taking a break, have changed our name to Art Work Exeter, and we are looking at how we support artists, alongside producing activity.
What do you do?
We operate wherever there’s an artist, group or inclination for an exhibition! For the festival, we encourage artists and organisations to focus on one week in the year to come together and showcase what the city can offer. We encourage people to collaborate, to follow common themes and support each other. The rest of the time, we run a gallery (the AWEsome Art Space on Paris Street) and the Exeter Visual Arts Forum, and we’re looking at where the city is going and how we can best serve the arts and culture sector. At the moment, this involves investigating how culture-makers in other cities are coping with a changing financial landscape and investigating ways of working with other people locally who provide opportunities for artists.
And what keeps you doing it?
On the bad days I say, “I do it because nobody else is doing it, and if I didn’t, it wouldn’t happen.” On good days I just enjoy the fact that I get to see art, spend time talking with and being inspired by creative people, travel and contribute to national conversations about culture and, of course, attend plenty of launches (aka parties with free wine).
Who do you work with and why?
The easy answer is ‘anybody’. We want to make art accessible and are constantly looking at forms of engagement and projects that will interest people and take us to new places. Our existing audience base – on the arts/education/leisure/family front – is growing slowly and surely but we’re always looking at how we can include and work with minority communities in ways and on projects that have meaning for them, rather than just outcomes for us. I try to be at the heart of conversations where community values and creative outcomes meet – the recent consultations about local authority funding were a great case in point. While it seems that an interactive sculpture doesn’t really stand a chance against a bus for people with mobility needs in the funding arena, grassroots activists champion the value of creative engagements for wellbeing and healthy communities. We’re looking at the model of Asset Based Community Development – the arts have so much to offer, from lateral ways of thinking, to rejuvenating commercial spaces, to positive and progressive ways of being and sharing together.
Name one thing that would make your life easier as an artist or arts organiser.
A telepathic administrator! About 5% of my work is about ideas, the rest is making them happen, and this can get bogged down in all sorts of banal stuff. I’d love to be able to download my thoughts and have them systematically sorted into the things that I need to do, those that I should delegate and the ones to save for a rainy day (or bin).
Talk us through a favourite project or piece.
I loved ‘We Built This City’, Robin Doyle’s piece in the Cathedral for Art Week 2018. It was created by people from all walks of life: some of the cardboard houses were heartbreaking, some just fun – the tactile one made by a deafblind man and his carer was definitely in the former category. People loved the sculpture; it was humble and yet glowingly present. The invigilators were fantastic, too – I was so proud of how our volunteer team were able to be subtle yet informative; they really made the experience valuable for audiences. You can expect more like that – meaningful social messages rendered in honest and fun ways.
What’s coming up?
For NOSE, I’ve already commissioned something for 2020’s Art Week that will be unmissable – truly right in front of the faces of the people of the city! It’s going to be big and… yellow! The bigger picture is that we want to be working with a broader range of artists, across sectors and forms. We’re aiming to get more involved with other artist-led spaces and producers. Sustainability seems like an old idea now – we need to be thriving! And we’ve got our sights set on bigger premises, for cross-sector development and delivery…
What’s been the best moment for you or your group in the last few years?
I personally loved Jimmy Cauty’s ‘Aftermath Dislocation Principle’ – the shipping container on the Quayside in 2016. It was well received by the people of the city, involved some proper partnership working and encouraged visitors to graffiti on it! The guerrilla marketing involved posting 50 fake planning notices around the city; when I went around to take them down afterwards, I met a pensioner who told me she’d read the notice and caught the bus to the Quay to find out what was going on – and she loved it! That made the whole event worthwhile for me.
In what ways are you helping to put Exeter on the cultural map, nationally or internationally?
Our reputation for the annual event has been growing: we’ve had visitors from up and down the peninsula and get enquiries from artists in Plymouth and Bristol about participating.
…we could engage the business sector more effectively. We know that government funding is currently drying up and that competition for Trusts, ACE and other national sources is getting fierce. There is knowledge in the sector and in other sectors about where the money is and how to get it, to put it bluntly. Apparently, Exeter is punching above its weight as a constantly growing commercial city – where’s the money? We’d love Exeter Culture to foster a closer working relationship with business leaders and financiers to help us to do more than just exist.
How do we find out more?