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Art for a social purpose: Art for All

Art for a social purpose: Art for All

Art for a social purpose: Art for All

On a baking sunlit July Friday, 50 people met in the beautiful gardens of Watts Gallery Artists’ Village to discuss the work of museums and galleries in prisons. The talking inevitably cantered over territory that questioned how the restrained and reverential nature of many museums and galleries could be relevant to the lives of people in prisons. Yet the findings were clear. Museums and galleries should be about giving us the means to embrace, internalise and learn from what we see and feel in works of art and when making art throughout our lives. Art and objects are transformative because they change how we feel. They have a psychodynamic, therapeutic power stimulating reflection, empathy and insight. Arts bring meaning and purpose; a sense of community.

The seminar, part of the Watts Gallery Professional Practice Seminar Series, was organised in collaboration with the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance. The aim was to “hear case studies and explore how to develop partnerships between museums, galleries and criminal justice.”

The people brought a rich mix of thoughts, ideas and perspectives from across disciplines: arts practitioners, prison officers, psychotherapy, criminology, historians, researchers, curators and trustees of museums and galleries.

Implicit was the notion that arts and architecture, museums and galleries help people to flourish individually and collectively.

Explicit were many examples of partnership working and the practical and artistic considerations from the perspective of museums and archives, prisons and artists.  There was discussion about impact and evaluation, how to share this work and how to unlock at scale its potential to transform lives.

Jo Augustus, Head of Art Psychotherapy at HMP Grendon, opened the meeting by describing a creative partnership between HMP Grendon, artist Edmund Clark, and the Ikon Gallery.  As a psychotherapist she was seeing first-hand the value of visual arts and photography for the recovery and rehabilitation of men with complex mental health needs. “The unconscious process,” she said, “is easily accessed through the arts.”

Ruth Williams and Kara Wescombe Blackman presented their work with the Watts Gallery Trust and young offenders at HMP Feltham. Nothing about working in prisons is ever easy: the limited time available, the security issues, restrictions on the kinds of materials allowed. Overcoming the demotivating impact of incarceration on young lives, the noise and the constant challenge of maintaining focus and continuity were the biggest problems.

“Young people are locked up with their crimes, they have limited opportunity to explore their creative selves or to develop pro-social, positive skills and talents through arts.”
– Ruth Williams and Kara Wescombe Blackman, Watts Gallery

George Watts’ life story turned out to be a great starting point to overcome the frustrations and inertia of prison life. As a radical thinker, painter and sculptor he was unconventional but always passionate and powerful. As well as painting portraits of the rich and famous to make a living, Watts used his enormous talent for a social purpose. Shocked by the extremes of wealth and poverty in Victorian society he produced work such as Found Drowned showing the body of a young woman washed up under Waterloo Bridge. Another work of his, Under the Dry Arch, depicts a homeless woman sheltering beneath Blackfriars Bridge. Both have a startling realism that makes the subject impossible to overlook.

And it worked. Out of the hostile grey and often brutalising environment of a prison the men produced work that had power and colour and meaning. Responding to the simple materials used by the Watts’ they collected hair from the prison barber shop to collage a strong and beautiful horse. Henry Smithers, Head of Learning and Skills at HMP Feltham, added that the impact of arts from many years of working in prisons was “the best thing – the most powerful, a consistently significant impact, turning lives around”.

Historian Anthony Coubrey from the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex (working with HMP Lewes) and artist Lynn Weddle provided a change of pace – talking over the need for a better understanding of the lives of people in prisons. Working in prisons had had a profound impact on them, prompting personal advocacy for a more effective approach to rehabilitation through the arts.

Sally Varah, Chair of the Michael Varah Memorial Fund had a very personal story to tell. She spoke movingly about her mission to ensure that trust funds she was responsible for were not constrained by unhelpful rules. Her experience demonstrated how, by working imaginatively to develop partnerships between prisons and prisoners, museums and galleries, funders could optimise the potential of arts and culture to transform lives. This was providing, she said, “that they were prepared to take risks and push boundaries”.

Gerard Lemos challenged the ethos of many museums.

“Taking objects out of context created places – museums, galleries that – yes – were often awe inspiring, certainly worthy but could be unwelcoming.”
Gerard Lemos, Lemos and Crane

Contrasting this with the example of the Watts Gallery, which had also been the home and workplace of the founder, he contextualized how the research team at Lemos and Crane worked to improve access to arts for people in prisons.

They found that taking art and objects out of museums and galleries and into long stay, high secure prisons prompted startling new insights, reflection and discussion.  Empathy was at the core of the work. The art and objects aroused questioning: about the maker, the purpose, what materials had been used and why. Did it hold secrets?  The impact was considerable, it changed the way people were feeling. Gerard Lemos maintained that it was precisely this impact that should be used in evaluation. He asks “not; does access to arts reduce reoffending, a question clearly affected by so many factors it is out of the control of arts practitioners and not entirely relevant for people who may never be released, but; does it change the way you feel?”

The theme of emotional impact was developed in an intense and moving presentation from Artistic Director, Darren Raymond, who reflected on what museums and galleries could learn from the work of his theatre company, Intermission.

Intermission builds confidence and resilience in young people at risk of offending by bringing Shakespeare to their lives with huge success. Darren Raymond’s own introduction to drama was while in prison and he endorsed the need for museums and galleries to reach out into the community. Passionate about the power of the written word he uses or adapts plays that delve into young people’s experiences and really connect with the realities they face.

Artist Erika Flowers’ story ended what had been a remarkable day. Art had helped her to manage her emotions, the trauma, shame and stress of life in prison. As she talked a series of her drawings diarising the daily detail of 3 years behind bars were projected on screen. The story and its illustration highlighted talented, extraordinary and life-saving art.

Following the presentations, the themes of the day were brought together with a visit to Art for All, an exhibition curated by Watts Gallery marking 10 years of their work in prisons (on display until the end of August). Erika Flowers’ Postcards are also on display in the house and main gallery.

The day achieved its aims and the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance and the Watts Gallery will turn the findings into a Guide to good practice for developing the role of museums and galleries in criminal justice. My reflections are that – much like George Watts, who saw art as a means to social reform – people who run museums and galleries believe that art has a purpose. Their commitment is to art for all and projects in prisons is changing the way they work, with fantastic results for individuals, families and communities.