Lighting Up The Creative Potential Of Ashford: A project case study by Dr Ulrike Chouguley.
About The Project
In the summer of 2019, Emergency Exit Arts (EEA) was commissioned by Ashford Borough Council (ABC) to deliver a 2.5 year programme of creative events in Ashford, as part of the Love Ashford initiative. While the Council had delivered cultural events before, they were seeking to “elevate these, to bring some signature events and deliver something more spectacular to the town” (ABC representative). By providing a series of new, exciting and family-friendly events, the project aimed to improve the cultural offer in the town, to bring the community together and to help change the perception of Ashford town centre: “Ashford always had a bad reputation, it is known as ‘Trashford’ and as a place full of pound shops” (Project Manager). Therefore, the project aimed to increase footfall in the town centre, to encourage people to use local businesses and to work with independent shops to showcase their offer, thus helping to revitalise the local high street.
The commissioning of EEA, a London-based, nationally recognised organisation, was deliberate as a way of “quality assurance”, but ABC was keen to ensure that the project worked closely with local organisations to enhance the structures and capacity of the creative sector in Ashford. The delivery model of the project reflected this ambition: EEA worked with a project manager who was based in Ashford, and a range of local organisations and artists to deliver the events. Made in Ashford, a collective collaborative shop representing 60 local creatives, and the community arts organisation Branch and Brush became key partners, brokering relationships with local artists, delivering workshops, displaying artwork in the shop and providing spaces for events. Over time, they took on increasing responsibility for the planning and management of activities (see box below for an overview).
The main project costs of £140,000 were funded by ABC. In addition, Made in Ashford was successful in applying for two grants from Arts Council England, adding approximately £14,000 to the project funds. In-kind match funding was also provided by EEA and local community groups.
The Great British Bark Off (August 2019): a community event centred on an entertaining dog show (with a modern twist), as well as live music at the Ashford Bandstand, local food and craft stalls set up by local businesses, and providing a platform for local artists.
The Carnival of Baubles (December 2019): flagship event consisting of a lantern procession through Ashford, accompanied by two giant mechanical creatures, local musicians, dance groups and a brief handheld pyro finale. Free art workshops were run in local schools and in an empty shop front in Ashford Town Centre prior to the event to enable the community to create lanterns for the carnival procession. Giant Baubles were created by artists and displayed in local businesses’ shop fronts.
Ashford Banners – A story of community strength (Autumn 2020): local artists were trained by EEA to deliver workshops with community groups across the borough to create a series of banners that showcase the community spirit.
The Carnival of Baubles (December 2020): While the main carnival event had to be cancelled (due to Covid-19 restrictions), online lantern-making workshops were held for the community and artist-designed lanterns were displayed in local shops.
Fabric of Ashford (Summer 2021): Bunting and small banners carrying inspirational messages were created in community workshops, run by local artists, and displayed in an installation at the Bandstand.
The Carnival of Baubles (December 2021): A series of lantern-making workshops were run in local primary and secondary schools, as well as in the community leading up to the main event, a trail of artist-created baubles in local shops created and the main carnival event involving a lantern procession, performances of local artists and a family disco.
What difference did the project make?
Build Community and enhance local creative capacity
The project delivered almost 70 workshops for school children, community groups and the general public, reaching almost 2,900 participants. It involved 30 local businesses, 15 local artists and 12 community groups, among them those working with hard-to-reach communities, such as refugees or people with mental health issues. Many of the businesses, artists and groups were involved multiple times, thus increasing the impact of their engagement. 10 primary schools, 2 secondary schools and an HE College were also involved. The physical events attracted an estimated audience of 16,150 people, while the online Carnival of Baubles workshops reached at least 790 people. Up to 175,000 people are estimated to have seen the Fabric of Ashford Bandstand installations.
These figures support the views of key project stakeholders, that the project was successful in its aim to engage with, and build, community. The project reached out to specific (often disengaged) parts of the community, as well as drawing in the general public. According to one project beneficiary, this created “a togetherness. It’s just beautiful how everyone came together in the workshops.” Another one felt that “the community got a real buzz out of that engagement. Because of what had happened [the Covid-19 pandemic], we needed the community to come together and make something of it.” This strengthened sense of community belonging was exemplified by an incidence related to the Fabric of Ashford event, where some of the bunting and one banner displayed at the Bandstand were vandalised and stolen: “the community felt really devastated that something that they had made was destroyed and taken in just a moment” (Project beneficiary). However, in response to this negative incidence, there was “a community waking”, which showed local people’s attachment to the project and its outputs. Local people “became really protective about it” and “the pride and popularity were boosted”. Community members re-made the stolen banner in another workshop and reinstalled the bunting. The word “shine” (displayed on that particular banner) also became a motto of the following Carnival of Baubles, to show that “we are not going to have this negative incidence dampen our community and work.”
The open workshops as well the flagship public events were successful in engaging local families, a key target group of the project. One project stakeholder recounted how one family chanced upon the Carnival of Baubles 2021 event and went on to participate in a workshop to create a lantern in the afternoon, come back for the main procession and stay on for the entire duration of the family disco until 8 o’clock in the evening:
“At the end of the event, the family father came up to me and said that this had been the best day ever with his family. He was also blown away by the fact that we weren’t asking for donations, that the event was free and designed purely for the community and people like him.”
However, the project manager admitted that there was further scope to increase family engagement. While in 2021, the shop front baubles were ‘launched’ with a performance by the local dance group Liv2Dance, thus encouraging parents and other people to attend, it was felt that the lantern trail in itself was not sufficient to encourage people to specifically come to the town.
EEA’s work with local organisations and artists had a significant impact on local capacity in the creative sector of Ashford. In the first year, a group of local creatives was invited to come to London for a training session in lantern-making using the withy technique. Training sessions were also provided online in the later stages of the project. This helped Ashford artists to grow their skills, as well as their artistic aspirations. One of the local artists involved throughout the whole project talked of the learning journey she made: “We learned so much. I had never done this [the withy technique] before and it was a huge game changer in stuff that I do in my artistic practice.” Another project beneficiary explained: “This really opened our eyes to what we can do. We went from no experience at all to becoming much more skilled at making large-scale builds. [One of the artists involved] now wants to make this her living and continue working with EEA. For her it has been life changing.” The project has led to additional income and employment opportunities for at least two of the artists, who have continued to collaborate with EEA on other projects in the South-East.
In addition to artistic skills, the core group of creatives from Made in Ashford and Branch and Brush gained experience and skills in event management and production. Working closely with the EEA producers, according to two of the project beneficiaries, they learned “huge amounts on how to create a project, […] how to come up with a budget” and “the hoops that projects go through to get the go, constantly reviewing and reflecting on how they go and how to make them better.” One also recounted receiving very “hands-on” support from EEA in the submission of a (successful) funding application:
“EEA has really worked with us and cared for us […] overall, it’s been an incredible experience.”
Over time, the core group became increasingly involved in co-producing project: “it changed from something that was imposed on them to something that was led by them, which is now ‘theirs’” (Project manager). For instance, the Fabric of Ashford project element was not in the original EEA proposal but was built into the project in response to local interest and existing capacity in the crafts and textiles field. One of the beneficiaries explained: “I didn’t realise that we would have such an influence over the decision-making – as artists we were really encouraged to form and own these themes and events.” This has increased their confidence to apply their learning in different projects as well as giving them pride in their achievement.
The project also helped ABC to tap into networks built up by the project partners with community groups which the Council didn’t have a close connection with before. According to one representative: “The Council has developed a lot of good relationships and the diversity of groups that EEA were working with was very good.”
Enhance identity and reputation of Ashford
Most project stakeholders felt that the project had an impact on locals’ perception of Ashford, at least those who participated in the activities. One stakeholder argued: “For people who have been involved, the project has definitely changed their perception: it has shown what a town can do when they put their mind to it.” Several reported positive feedback from event audiences, with people saying that “this is the kind of event that Ashford needs” and that
“this has made me see Ashford in a completely new light.”
Stakeholders especially noted the atmosphere at the events and the “beautiful, positive images” from the Bandstand installation or the Recovery Poems, which helped to showcase Ashford as a family-friendly, inclusive and creative place: “It did a lot of favour to the town centre and has added a lot of colour” (ABC representative).
However, according to stakeholders, the project had only a minor impact on the external perception of the town. The project did work with schools from the rural areas of the Borough of Ashford, thus encouraging students and some of their parents to come into Ashford for the events. One of the artists involved also reported of a relative from an affluent area of Kent who, in the first year, came to the Carnival of Baubles merely to show “moral support to me”, but came back in subsequent years, “because the project is a good advert for what a town can do.” Nonetheless, stakeholders felt that the project could have been publicised more widely to affect external perception, while the social media campaign also did not go as well as planned.
Support local businesses and high street revitalisation
There was some evidence that the project had a positive effect on local business and high street revitalisation. Project stakeholders reported much increased footfall and visits to the town centre on event days. In the case of the last Carnival of Baubles event, this was despite adverse weather and uncertainty around the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the project manager,
“it was such an amazing sight. It was raining and people were out in the street, in places where people don’t normally hang out.”
In particular, project stakeholders mentioned the ‘reclaiming’ of the Bandstand through the project activities, a location in the centre of Ashford that is otherwise mainly known for anti-social behaviour.
Individual businesses also reported higher footfall to their shops and increased sales on the event days. For instance, Made In Ashford, had its best trading day in the business’ 6-year existence, and feedback of some others suggests that the events did encourage people not only to attend workshops or the parade, but also combine it with food purchases or shopping. However, ABC’s attempts to quantify the financial impact of the event on businesses has to-date been hampered by the low rate of responses and it is not clear how widespread the effect was. Moreover, while the project team tried to work with a range of businesses, including many independent retailers in the last Carnival of Baubles, this was challenging, also due to the effects of the pandemic. According to a representative of the ABC, “we lost a year due to Covid. In 2021, it was like starting from scratch in terms of advocating businesses to stay open later or to promote the event, to get involved…the project couldn’t benefit from the momentum built in 2019.”
While representatives from ABC were doubtful that the project had affected the “bottom-line of local businesses”, other project stakeholders were more optimistic about the project’s impact beyond the event days. The project manager highlighted that the project had “started to make a change”, that the Baubles in town had “created a talking point” and “the more visually interesting things there are, the more likely people are to come.” The manager of Made in Ashford agreed: “People are still talking about it […] – for a place that has a bad reputation for empty shops, going around the [baubles] trail and seeing the event, it does encourage them to come back.” She also reported that the shop has seen its highest-ever sale figures in the month of January, which she attributed to people becoming more aware of their offer due to their project participation.
Enjoyable and exciting cultural experiences
Project stakeholders agreed that the project has been greatly successful in increasing the cultural opportunities in Ashford and give people access to creative practice and the arts. According to one project beneficiary, “people think of Ashford as being barren of creativity. There is no real access to arts or galleries.” Another added: “Before, people would see that things are happening in other towns and were wondering ‘when is it our turn?’” In response to this, the project has made creative workshops and events available to a “huge number of people” in different areas of Ashford, across age groups and communities.
The project has also, as hoped, raised the quality and standard of the cultural offer in Ashford. In particular, the Carnival of Baubles event has grown into a very recognisable event, developing a ‘brand’ of its own. According to one representative of ABC: “we are very pleased with the Carnival of Baubles event, as it showcases Ashford in a really good light – pun intended.” A number of stakeholders also pointed to the innovation of the event, that seems to have inspired similar activity in the region: “Now everyone is doing light festivals in the different towns in Kent, whereas Ashford did it three years ago already: Ashford should feel really proud.” However, one representative of the council noted that in the last year of the Carnival of Baubles, “it felt some of the activities were ‘churned out’ again and not enough effort was made to reach out to new community groups and artists”, thus diminishing the innovative feel of the event.
There was, however, general agreement that the events had created a “real buzz”, “a very positive vibe” and “something fun, a happiness and pride” in the town centre. One project beneficiary recounted: “At the last carnival of Baubles, there was something really beautiful in the atmosphere, the joy that we could see on people’s faces, everyone was dancing on the street.” These feelings of excitement and enjoyment contributed to people’s well-being and were particularly meaningful in the context of the pandemic and lockdown experience, as this example, reported by one of the project beneficiaries, demonstrates:
“One of the ladies from my art club had recently been bereaved of her husband. She participated in the project and came along to the final event, carrying a lantern […]. At one point, she looked at me and said: ‘this is the first moment of pure joy that I have experienced since my husband has passed away.’ Others felt like this too. We needed something like this, after what everyone has been through during the pandemic.”
Project stakeholders agreed that the project has raised the aspirations and expectations locally: by the public, in terms of what a good event should look like; by local artists, in terms of their practice and community engagement; and by ABC, in terms of the quality and scale of events they would like to put on and how they should be run.
Representatives of ABC highlighted the additional benefits of EEA being able to bring in some of their existing infrastructure, such as the Recovery Poems that featured at the Fabric of Ashford event or the Disco Turtle mechanical creature that was brought in for the final Carnival of Baubles event. Moreover,
“EEA, because of their position as an arts organisation, have brough a new approach which has created new and different impacts compared to if we’d gone with a more ‘corporate events’ route. […] This has challenged us as a council on the type of events we run and it has broken down some barriers in that respect. […] I don’t think we would have seen the same changes as we have seen.”
Success factors and challenges
Some of the key factors that affected the project were:
- The Covid-19 pandemic: The pandemic provided challenges to the project. It required a contract extension, as activity had to be cancelled and adapted due to the restrictions. This also “took out some of the momentum” (ABC representative) and impacted audience confidence. At the same time, when activity could happen again, “people were even more exited and eager for it to take place” (Project beneficiary) and deeply impacted many on a personal level.
- The budget: Some local organisations felt that the budget was a limiting factor to some of their ideas and plans for the baubles and Fabric of Ashford event. Stakeholders also felt that there was not enough budget dedicated to marketing of the event to help affect external perceptions.
- Managing local expectations: The project team felt that they were not always able to fulfil expectations by local businesses, as those involved in earlier years were keen to participate again. As the project tried to reach new businesses, this led to some local disappointment.
- Logistics and organisation: While the artistic concept, community engagement and pre-production of the major events was “brilliant”, ABC representatives felt that they could have been improved logistically: there was a “chaotic nature of the procession”, as some elements were organised “at the very last minute”. There was a lack of clarity both at the start and end of the procession (e.g., where to pick up and drop off the lanterns) and requirements were not communicated clearly in advance or changed at short notice (e.g., storage and assembly space requirements for floats and lanterns, or volunteer support requirements). The approach to “the day itself, was a bit like ‘we’ll work it out then’” (ABC representative), something that was reflected in the public perception of the event.
- Capacity and resourcing: The above-mentioned organisational issues were in part due to capacity issues: ABC representatives felt that EEA should have committed additional resources to support the local project manager who “had so much on that some things fell off the cliff”. The core group at Made in Ashford also “took on too much” at times, in their desire to have ownership of the project.
Despite these challenges, the project was unanimously considered a great success – the biggest factor in which was EEA’s strong commitment to community engagement in its participatory activities and in creating local ownership. This gave the project “a real local feel” (ABC representative) and ensured that the artists involved had an “interest and stake in the community” (Project beneficiary), as well as investing in the local creative economy. The passion, commitment, and connections made by Made in Ashford were also noted as playing a crucial role.
Project sustainability and next steps
ABC recently announced a new framework for events, both heritage and culture, with an annual budget of about £175,000. The Carnival of Baubles and the Fabric of Ashford are part of the events that the Council would like to carry on with. Indeed, according to one representative of ABC, the success of the EEA project has
“brought about a justification to invest in this type of events for placemaking locally and to make the case within the Council.”
While EEA is hoping to play a central role in delivering events as part of this framework, the idea is that they will continue building capacity locally. Achievements made to-date in this area should be further built upon, with future training from EEA reaching more local artists and creatives. The project team is also keen to explore how the activities can reach more local businesses and schools. According to one project beneficiary, there is “a great basis, but there is room for growth. There is a real legacy that we can start establishing.”
High Colour was our banner-making project for Ashford designed as an enquiry into the Ashford community’s strengths and needs.
October 2020 kickstarted this project with a mix of socially distanced and online workshops with several groups across Ashford. These sessions were a creative mechanism for engaging in a non-direct and gentle way with people’s experiences from the Covid19 period which has been a time of huge change, isolation, anxiety and in some ways a period of collective grieving across society. In Spring 2020, Ashford residents were able to discover these beautiful artworks displayed on shop windows of selected businesses and also some of the empty shop units along the high street.
The workshops were kick-started with help from leading UK banner artist, Ed Hall. Hall is renowned for banner making and his eclectic and colourful banners have inspired the work of Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller and were integral to Alan Kane’s Folk Archive in 2007, with work also exhibited in Paris, Belgrade and Shanghai. Talking about the inspiration behind the banner, Mr Hall said: "I wanted to make a banner celebrating food and drink from the Garden of England. As Dicken’s said, ‘Everyone knows Kent’ so it will feature cider, wine, hops, apples and farming and people enjoying life. The 2-m tall banner (image above) was custom made for Macknade, a local independent organic grocer.
The banner now lives in the local farm shop, Macknade.