Category: Women, Women in Leadership, Arts Council England, Women in Arts, gender and equality, leading women
In the latest instalment of our Women in Leadership series, we speak with Claire Somerville, Chief Executive of Babylon Arts, about the importance of culture and creativity and her drive to champion young people’s access to it through opportunities. She tells us more about the projects she’s been involved with as well as reflecting on the past year and giving some advice to her younger self.
Babylon Arts is an organisation with a mission to develop creativity & connect communities with arts & culture, can you tell us more about its work and the part you play?
I recently found out that Babylon Arts sprang to life 27 years ago, after a discussion by a group of locals around the kitchen table. They saw the potential of creating arts opportunities for people in East Cambridgeshire and from that stems the development of our beautiful contemporary art gallery, independent cinema and a range of projects under our Creative Spaces and Creative Communities programmes.
When I joined Babylon Arts as Chief Executive in 2018, the organisation had been going through a challenging period of enormous change. I felt we needed to re-establish our connection with local and regional communities and develop new partnerships to carry out our mission. This has been the core of my decision making and seems to be working. We’re taking the lead on new initiatives such as the development of a Local Cultural Education Partnership (LCEP) for East Cambridgeshire and are being sought out as collaborators. I’m excited about the possibilities this is providing.
You do a lot of work with young people and education like the Young Curators programme – can you tell us more about that and why you think it’s so important to champion young people’s creative and cultural experiences?
I’m delighted that we’ve been able to develop the Young Curators project. We knew we had a fantastic opportunity, bringing together our art gallery and connections with Wysing Arts and Kettles Yard, to provide a unique and meaningful offer to young people at the start of their career. We received many excellent applications from 18-26 year olds, eager to be mentored and curate their own exhibition and our chosen curators Olu Taiwo and Sid White-Jones have grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
I’ve always been passionate about young people’s cultural education and creative experiences, having previously headed-up the U.Dance festivals and dance in education work at One Dance UK. I’m still driven by the need to champion young people’s access to arts and culture and provide them with opportunities to influence and lead on the arts they engage with. As ‘gate-keepers’ in the arts I see it as a moral responsibility.
Can you tell us how Covid-19 has affected Babylon Arts and how the Government's Culture Recovery Fund has helped support you?
It was fortunate that we were just coming out of a very positive year, with increased cinema audiences, a blossoming dance performance programme and new funding for our young people’s cultural education work, when the first Covid-19 lockdown hit. Whilst it was demoralising to have to make vast changes to planned activities, it also acted like a ‘re-boot’ and because we were still buoyed by the work we’d been doing before, we were able to re-connect quite quickly through new projects, such as our ‘Together in Isolation’ postcard project and Comic Book Windows.
The Culture Recovery Fund is enabling us to make more strategic advances; currently helping us to improve the diversity of our workforce and programme; strengthening our audience development strategy, creating artist opportunities and providing some essential core funds. It’s provided a stabilising factor at a critical time, when so much is constantly changing.
As well as being the lead partner for the Creative People and Places project MarketPlace, Babylon Arts has delivered projects like Somewhere in Ely – talk to us about the difference it makes putting the community and local residents at the heart of your work?
Both these projects explore ways in which people can get involved in, and lead on, the arts in their place and what’s clear is that there needs to be various different ways in which people can do this.
We see people, like those who sat around that kitchen table at the genesis of Babylon Arts, who are working with MarketPlace Creative Agents to test ideas, flex their creative producer muscles and create opportunities that speak to them and their neighbours.
Projects like Somewhere in Ely and ‘Window Wanderland’ (delivered with The Stained Glass Museum), enable people to dip a toe in the water of sharing their views and preferences and making their own public art. I think we want to continue providing many different ways to place local residents at the heart of our work. As soon as it’s possible, we’ll be out and about again doing exactly this.
Is there a piece of advice you wish you could have given your younger self?
Don’t worry that you started a Bio-Psychology degree because you thought you needed to do an ‘academic’ subject at university – it will help with home-schooling in 2020 and just be glad that you had the guts to switch to performing arts a year later, you’ll never look back.