Forming Ideas Evaluation Report

 Introduction

Executive Summary
Full Report

Delivered by Art Projects and Solutions, Forming Ideas was a three-year professional development programme that aimed to broaden and strengthen debate around contemporary craft practice, build national and international networks and lead to new opportunities for presenting international crafts in the UK. The total project budget was £249,000. The project was part of the Arts Council’s craft development strategy Forming the Future.The aims defined for Forming Ideas were:

  • to increase the level and rigour of critical discourse around craft
  • to broaden critical debate around craft and curatorial practice
  • to advance collaborative working practice across sectors, regionally, trans-nationally and internationally
  • to build curatorial networks inside and outside of the UK
  • to build and share skills and knowledge
  • to build links for future international exchange
  • to contribute to a more diverse visual arts sector by exploring global issues
  • to grow greater, more informed audiences for craft by enabling curators to communicate and present work clearly and in the best possible context

The Forming Ideas programme comprised research visits that led to events aimed at sharing new research and knowledge with the sector. Three cohorts of curators made four international visits – one visit to Cairo, two visits spanning all five Nordic countries and a visit to Brazil. These took place between October 2008 and March 2010. These visits led to a series of five conferences, seminars and debates which took place in London and Birmingham. In addition, a web-site was established to support the development of a Forming Ideas community.

Forming Ideas was evaluated by an external evaluator, using the logic model defined for the project. The evaluation was both formative (supporting and challenging the project as it evolved) and summative (capturing evidence about the outputs, outcomes and likely impact of the project.

Outputs

International visits

38 crafts professionals took part in international research visits that ranged in length between 7 and 14 days.

The richness and diversity of the itineraries were a particular strength of the project. All visits clearly provided inspiration and provoked enthusiasm, offering in-depth understanding and valuable contacts.  

The groups were diverse, comprising arts council officers, curators (from a range of organisations including galleries and museums) and academics. Participants agreed that visiting as a group provided space and context for debate. Collectively negotiating the exposure to a new cultural territory had raised understanding and insight. Opinions were challenged and different perceptions shared, leading to a depth of understanding.  The strength of the connections forged between academia, design, craft and contemporary art as well as the different ages and levels of experience of those involved effectively broadened thinking. This experience enabled solid and respectful connections to be forged.

Brazil and Egypt were considered to have been the most successful choices of destination. The Brazil visit had been particularly successful in generating enthusiasm and ideas, revealing a dynamic interplay between art, craft, design and their application in the context of social enterprise. Egypt also offered excitement and challenge. Though the models seen in Cairo were not easy to translate into the UK context, the visit provided the curators with an important insight into a time of struggle for a new Egyptian visual identity. Of the Nordic countries, Iceland stood out as the most interesting. Within the context of a strong oral, rather than visual tradition, curators witnessed a time of rapid development in contemporary art, craft and design that was not constrained by visual legacies from the past. Finland, Sweden and Denmark offered less in the way of new ideas.

Dissemination events

Approximately 330 participants attended the five dissemination events. All were well attended and the majority well-received, with the evaluation evidence suggesting that audiences gained new insights, contacts, ideas and enthusiasm. Each event was very different in approach and focus. The smallest attracted an audience of 27, the largest around 117.  Across them, the five events addressed all the aims of the Forming Ideas project.

The success of the dissemination events was enhanced by the willingness of the cohorts and project team to learn from formative evaluation feedback to enhance the offer of each subsequent event. The range of models responded effectively to different audience needs, from academic conference, seminars with break-out sessions and round-table discussions.

The second and third Nordic events were the most successful in meeting the needs of those attending, followed by the Brazil conference. The first Nordic event was the least successful in meeting needs.

The Egypt Khamseen symposium examined the role of craft in a changing society. Praise for the event centred on the value of the presentations and debate. The scope of the event however was of rather limited appeal and numbers were smaller than envisaged. There was also a charge for this event, which proved onerous on administration and may have contributed to lower audience numbers. A particular success of the Khamseen symposium was the way the cohort team worked together very effectively, dividing up the workload appropriately and taking an active role in generating the audience for the event.

The Nordic cohort chose to work in small groups on three different events. The first Nordic event Craft and Identity explored how a nation’s identity can manifest in its craft. This was the least successful in meeting audience needs. One speaker was unable to attend and those who did present didn’t stick to topic. This was a learning experience about the need to ensure that presentations were seen well in advance; allowing dialogue between the team and speakers to ensure that presentations were relevant.  The event was held in the context of Collect. While this context helped to swell audiences the downside was that it seemed an ’add-on’.

The second Nordic event Language and Craft focused on the language used to contextualise and present craft. This event was particularly successful with a clear focus which was of genuine relevance and value to the audience. Speakers were well briefed and stuck to topic. Speakers were asked to set provocations and these contributed to effective discussion through lots of break-out sessions.

The third Nordic event Practice makes Perfect explored different models of support for the production of challenging work. This event was successful in the depth and quality of discussion and the clarity of its focus. The event was attended by a small invited audience, and emphasised discussion, which generated a collective buzz around new ideas. The organisation worked well, with a small core team devising the concept and Art Projects and Solutions picking up main responsibility for the development and organisation in conjunction with the Stanley Picker Gallery.

The Brazil event, The Cultural Contemporary provided a broad exposé of contemporary visual practice in Brazil and was very successful in attracting large numbers and delivering an ambitious programme. The event enabled the audience to dramatically increase their knowledge of Brazil, though there was some dissatisfaction with the limited opportunities for break-out discussion. As the event fell to one person to plan with only marginal input from others in the cohort, it was however less successful in engendering further debate and collaboration across the wider group.

Sustained collaboration and dialogue were integral to delivering the project aims. Consequently, there was frustration that some of those participating in the visits contributed very little (in some cases nothing) to the organisation and delivery of events.  

International links

Forming Ideas facilitated international connections and exchange with in excess of 250 individuals working independently and within organisations.  Contacts were made through scheduled meetings as well as through networking events, private views and conferences. As well as benefiting those visiting from the UK, there is also evidence of the value these connections have offered to those in the countries visited.

Web-site (www.formingideas.co.uk)

The initial aim for the web-site was that it would be a tool by which cohorts could collaborate and exchange ideas during the programme through blogging and forums. Disappointingly, use of the web-site varied and in their evaluation feedback participants’ feelings about its value were frequently lukewarm. 

Some participants did use the site for blogging and valuable collections of photographs and accounts of visits exist on the site. However much of the material on the site was contributed by the project team. Those consulted put their limited involvement down to time constraints, lack of confidence about blogging and a reluctance to share raw thinking in a public domain.  Feedback also suggested that the site may have been more useful to participants in preparing them for visits and supporting them with organising events if a greater range of papers and articles could have been made available before visits took place.

Despite these challenges, at the end of the project the web-site provides a valuable legacy of the Forming Ideas project that will remain live until 2013.  Over the duration of the project, there were well over 10,500 visits to the Forming Ideas web-site by visitors from at least 25 different countries.  

Outcomes

The intended outcomes of the Forming Ideas programme were that it would:

  • stimulate debate of craft across the craft, design and visual arts sectors
  • develop national and international networks
  • enhance confidence among participants to work internationally
  • stimulate collaborative projects and exhibitions, leading to new opportunities available to galleries and museums

Across the life of the project, all of the desired outcomes were met, some more strongly than others. The project very effectively simulated debate of craft across sectors. Feedback suggested that debate was broadened and deepened in a number of ways, specifically:

  • a broader charting of possibilities around the territory of craft, beyond what appears now to be seen by many of those involved as a rather narrowly defined Western orthodoxy
  • new ideas about possibilities for promoting craft in the UK around production, promotion and interpretation
  • a greater sense of shared discourse between people from very varied backgrounds and at different stages in their career development, for example those from the museums sector, galleries, higher education and academia.
  • inter-disciplinary debate about how craft permeates art, social enterprise, design, architecture and street art

The project effectively developed networks and potential for collaboration, particularly within the UK. The intention is that CraftNet will provide a mechanism to sustain the spirit of Forming Ideas and provide an ongoing context for debate and networking.

Participants feel more confident about working internationally. There were many comments that suggest an increase in enthusiasm for presenting work from the countries visited and, importantly, enhanced confidence in being able to present this work in appropriate, informed and insightful ways. Three case studies in the main report detail the specific professional development opportunities offered by the project to individuals.

Collaborative projects and exhibitions have resulted, and are continuing to emerge from the programme. These include:

  • Cairo that are now on display at BristolCityMuseum and Art Gallery
  • Stockholm based artist Albin Karlsson at Yorkshire ArtSpace
  • an exhibition of contemporary Brazilian Jewellery curated by Adelia Borges (a contact made in ) that will tour to four venues in the UK
  • an online guide to Brazilian contemporary art
  • an exhibition of the work of 22 Brazilian artists to form part of Barnsley Diversity Festival
  • a seminar funded by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry to take place in May 2012 that will follow up previous Forming Ideas debates

It is important to recognise that concrete outcomes may take several years to gestate and at time of writing are continuing to emerge. There is evidence that the slow speed of this development process has been exacerbated by the current political and financial climate.  However, given that there were 38 participants, there was some disappointment about the lack of follow-up activity from many of those who took part in the visits. 

The programme was ambitious in its desire to bring together the craft and fine art sectors. Perhaps understandably, there was some reticence from each sector to get involved, with several key organisations not thinking the project was for them.  As a result there has been some disappointment with how few of the emerging projects really grapple with new ideas about how crafts might be represented and supported within the fine art context.

Impact

The intended impact of Forming Ideas was that the project would result in:

  • a breaking down of the barriers between visual art and craft / design 
  • an increase in the profile of craft as a means of creative expression
  • more contemporary craft exhibitions being programmed by visual arts venues
  • a development and growth in audiences for craft

It is early at this stage to say for certainty whether these aspirations will be met. However, evaluation feedback and discussions on the final evaluation day certainly demonstrated that the project has changed perceptions of craft among a sizeable group of those with influence in the UK and enhanced their confidence in leading and advocating for new approaches to presenting and promoting craft.

Forming Ideas has created a huge repository of knowledge, understanding, confidence and enthusiasm. Particular themes arising from discussions during the course of the project include:

  • the strong emphasis on craft in the Islamic world
  • how countries are defining cultural identity through crafts practice
  • different models of support for makers
  • social enterprise and outreach work
  • recycling / make do and mend / sustainability
  • collaborations between the contemporary art world and traditional crafts practice
  • politically engaged craft practice
  • strength of self-determined ‘grassroots’ crafts practice in countries lacking infrastructure / financial support for crafts
  • post-colonial sensitivities around Western patronage / support for crafts
  • contrast between global / culturally specific craft practices  
  • urban / rural contexts for crafts production and their influence
  • role of new technologies
  • involvement of young people in defining ‘crafts’

It is clear that the project has brought together some key movers in the craft world from across a range of organisations. These are people with passion, motivation and influence whose confidence and capacity to develop new models and advocate for the crafts has been enhanced by their involvement in Forming Ideas.

The project has made visible new possibilities for greater cross-fertilisation between sectors and disciplines; linking contemporary art, craft and design with traditional craft skills and making connections between the cultural sector and academia, where historically there has often been a divide. There is also evidence that those working with historical collections in museums and in the more traditional crafts sectors have forged connections with those in the contemporary visual arts sector, exposing them to its associated concepts and discourse.

It is clear that an arena for new practice and discourse has been opened up through the project, summed up by the project director.

'I saw huge potential in Forming Ideas to open up channels between the visual arts and crafts sectors. For me key questions that we need to grapple with in the UK are:

Where is the place for the hand-made object in the contemporary art gallery?

How might we engage audiences with the interesting social questions that arise around the unique traditions of making in the UK?

What could emerge when socially engaged contemporary art practice and traditional and new craft practice come together?

 

For me, the visits have certainly expanded my sense of what could exist in this territory between craft and contemporary fine art, between ideas and objects, thinking and making. It's my hope that projects will continue to emerge at this edge that will further expand and articulate the possibilities. I believe it’s through socially engaged practice that contemporary arts, design and crafts could merge comfortably. The time is right because we are all having to look again at our values as a society and the scope exists because there is a body of curators who are increasingly committed to working with socially engaged practice, some of whom have been part of Forming Ideas.

I also believe that looking outside the UK this will have enabled those involved to see what is within with greater openness and acuity.’

It is important to acknowledge the factors at play that may serve to limit the future impact of Forming Ideas.

While a core group of those initially involved clearly have the energy to carry ideas further, there was a heavy reliance on the Forming Ideas project team to coordinate networking and debate. With the end of this role, it remains a challenge to continue to operate a Forming Ideas network that will encourage and facilitate future collaboration, though CraftNet offers one possible route.  

 

Without doubt the biggest threat comes from the dramatic political and financial changes that occurred since the project began and which have had a major impact on the cultural sector. Furthermore, Arts Council restructuring means that of the nine officers initially involved in Forming Ideas who would have been in a strong strategic position to continue supporting the legacy of the project only four remain in post. 

Opportunities to support future impact lie with the four Arts Council England staff who took part in visits and remain in post with a strategic role in the development of the crafts. Outside of Arts Council England, the real legacy of the project lies with the curators who took part in Forming Ideas and who are actively working in the field and able to continue to influence and disseminate the thinking gained from their involvement.

Valuable information will continue to be available on the Forming Ideas web-site.  A re-design now enables participants to upload event information easily. Plans are in place for the web-site to remain live until 2013.

It will be valuable to continue to track the impact of Forming Ideas in the longer term, as the evidence suggests that outcomes are likely to continue emerging, particularly as the dust continues to settle on the funding situation for the arts in the UK and as organisations find their way to new financial opportunities.