A RECENTLY-completed ‘listening’ project will help shape the future of a popular Teesside arts venue.

ARC Stockton launched the What’s On Your Mind project earlier this year to explore the hopes and concerns of people living locally.

Creative Director for the project Paula Clark spoke to a wide range of community groups that regularly use ARC Stockton – including disabled, care-experienced children and young, LGBTQIA+ people, refugees and asylum seekers.

From these conversations, Paula identified a range of themes that were regularly raised. These included change, alcohol, anger, the future, money, kindness, care, climate and escape.

Paula then commissioned 14 artists to each respond to an individual theme that had emerged through the conversations. Two artists a week had their work uploaded to ARC’s website from mid October to earlier this month.

She said: “We didn’t give the artist long to interpret their theme – or provocation – and I think this helped in their response. Everyone agreed the rapid response needed helped their creativity – it gave them a freedom. Although the artforms used and the artists’ responses to their themes are very different, there is an urgency, a vibrancy, about them all.

“The project was about giving people who wouldn’t normally have a platform an opportunity to have their voices heard – to be listened to. The artists gave them a voice, and in many cases, a very powerful voice.

“Each consultation was completely different. At some I just listened, at others there was a real dialogue and exchange of views and ideas. Some were formally structured, others less so and every group included people from different backgrounds and with different experiences.

“There were so many topics and themes raised, but there were several that came through regularly – the main one being money. My role was to creatively shape these discussions into provocations to give to the artists."

Although the venue was in dialogue with the majority of the community groups, Paula also spoke to groups who don’t have a close relationship with ARC.

She said: “That was important to us, to ensure we weren’t missing any point of view.

“ARC already knew its audiences, but Chief Executive Annabel Turpin saw What’s On Your Mind as an opportunity to deepen the relationship and find out what they were talking about and what they were worried about.”

Artists commissioned for the project included: punk poet Henry Raby; photographer and film-maker Saya Rose Naruse; sound artist Dermot Daly; Syrian photographer and filmmaker Khalid Aljawad; writer and director Leo Skillbeck; artist Paula Varjack; writer, activist, poet and actor Lisette Auton; non-binary digital artist Ben Freeth, Sunderland-born musician Ross Millard and Geordie author and playwright Sarah Watson.

Paula said: “The huge diversity across the 14 artists led to a different approach and widely different content. A big part of the project for Annabel and ARC was to provide commissions for freelance artists at a very difficult time. Covid has decimated the opportunities for freelance creatives and Annabel wanted to provide work for as many as possible through this project.

“What they’ve produced is exceptional. I love Saya Rose’s film based on her theme ‘care,’ for which she took a glitter ball into the woods to create a moving and thought-provoking piece. Dermot Daly produced one of our first pieces – his theme was ‘before’ and he uses old Ceefax screens to ask if things are really as good as they were?

“Leo Skilbeck’s short film is quite beautiful and explores the theme ‘escape,’ while Ben Freeth responded to his theme of ‘kindness’ with an amazing digital installation.

“While each of our 14 artists have produced something very different, what unites them is that their pieces are so relevant for the here and now. They’re saying something important, particularly to the people of Stockton.”

Annabel said: “We’ve set out to make sure our programme is relevant to our local communities, and what better way than asking them what’s on their minds? The themes and aspects of life that came through the consultations are fascinating, and we have recently agreed that they will form the basis for our programme going forward.

“Over the next few years, we will be actively looking for performances, exhibitions and other events that connect to those themes. It is great that our communities are able to influence our programme in this way.”

Now Paula and Annabel are planning a celebratory event to share the What’s On Your Mind pieces with stakeholders and the wider Stockton community.

At the event, on January 18, guests will be given the opportunity to speak to Paula and Annabel, meet some of the artists and experience their work, and watch a film which records the project from start to finish.