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Transforming families with community arts

Jon Dean, Family Learning Tutor and freelance Community Artist spoke to us about his experience of organising a Family Learning Festival event with Dudley MBC’s Adult and Community Learning Service.

How did you hear about the Family Learning Festival?

I first discovered the annual festival through attending a Grundtvig-funded Lifelong Learning course in Finland! Due to my passionate belief in the transformative qualities of both community arts and education I am always interested in projects which place people at the very centre of learning. The Family Learning Festival always seems to hold the potential for such meaningful and creative activities.

What made you want to organise an event? Five years ago in Dudley we decided to plan an ambitious and expansive programme of events that would represent a vibrant celebration of intergenerational learning. Our aims were multiple: provide local people the opportunity to produce thematic arts work, curate a borough-wide public art exhibition, promote and widen participation in adult learning, create new opportunities for further progression, build lasting partnerships so that Family Learning would continue to grow and develop throughout the borough. Moreover, the core focus was to initiate educational events that would embed the amazing history of diverse cultural celebrations through delivering creative, fun and participatory shared learning experiences.

How did you start organising your event?

We initially started by identifying the annual theme and then considering appropriate workshops and short courses we could offer that would also result in a Family Learning exhibition.

The next stage was to contact local primary schools, family/children's centres, libraries, community centres and voluntary sector organisations to promote the festival concept and agree partnership procedures.

Following on from this we would then advertise the different events; ultimately delivering negotiated workshops and classes throughout the borough. As regards art materials, we attempted to purchase local resources and also used the art recycling centre whenever possible.

What types of activities did you organise? From the very start we attempted to be ambitious and organise a wide range of activities. For instance, we were able to offer both single workshops and also short courses (up to 6 hours).

The actual content of each session was always negotiated and included: 2D visual arts on canvas (printing, painting, collage, marbling and mixed-media techniques), 3D sculpture using recycled materials, T-shirt and textile design, mask making, storytelling and poetry writing. Finally, learners were then invited to curate and install the Family Learning exhibition at Dudley Artspace.

The opening of the show was designed to be a truly festive event, including: food, refreshments, invited guests and a T-shirt parade!!

What is the impact of the Festival?

Huge, both in terms of attendance figures and also the degree of community participation.

The majority of participants not only attended a Family Learning workshop for the first time, but also then created amazing art work for a public exhibition. The intergenerational element was pivotal and the success of this methodology was clearly reflected in the huge turnout of people visiting the opening event in central Dudley, regardless of the weather!!!

Following on from the exhibition a large number of learners then progressed onto longer Family Learning courses delivered by Dudley MBC’s Adult and Community Learning service.

Do you think that it is different from other arts activities or events that you organise?

The generic and community-focused approach certainly offers the possibility to work in unique and exciting ways through facilitating the production of culture by everybody; as opposed to the routine consumption of arts and culture.

Essentially, the festival provides an opportunity to organise dynamic and participatory activities that respond to different interests, needs and aspirations. It is always important not to follow prescriptive formulas. The shared learning structure generates an amazing opportunity to work in cooperative and fresh ways through the process of joint decision making. Such creative achievements certainly endorse the famous phrase that "we are all Family Learning artists”.

What advice can you give any other arts organisations looking to hold Family Learning Festival for the first time?

First of all, be bold and explore as many creative avenues as possible.

Furthermore, it is vitally important that all organisations clearly reflect the structure and methods of shared learning, thus ensuring that all festival environments and activities are appropriately inclusive.

Finally, it is a festival... HAVE FUN!!!

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