Kathryn Davies is the principal arts officer for Plymouth City Council. We got in touch with a few questions to find out what that involves
What’s your role as a council arts officer?
My role is to enable, facilitate and promote partnership working to develop the creative economy of Plymouth.
The role encourages positive working practices to enhance the current cultural offer of the city. I also work strategically to develop and support creative practice in Plymouth.
How is art seen by the council – what department does it fall into and what does that mean?
Across the board art is seen positively, and it falls into many departments – some you wouldn’t expect. I work closely with officers in Services for Children and Young People, Development and Regeneration, Economic Development, Planning, Project Services, the City Centre Company, and of course our department, Culture Sport and Leisure.
We sit alongside all aspects of culture in our department from: the City Museum and Art Gallery; the Library Service; Mount Edgecumbe; Events; and Sports (which ranges from Sports Development to facilities such as the swimming pools).
We act as a champion and a translator, we support and understand the arts and the creative process and we work hard to support officers in the council in engaging with artists. We work within systems and processes that can be challenging or confusing for artists who choose to work with the local authority, and we endeavour to explain and translate these.
How does what you do affect the average artists in Plymouth?
Interesting question, is there an average artist?
The Arts Unit continually promotes and champions the artist, the creative process and the need to engage with artists and increase opportunities.
I am in the process of finalising an Arts Plan, which explains our work and maps out the plan for the next three years. When complete, it will be made available on our website, the main aim I hope to achieve is to uncover our work, our partners and the rationale for what we do.
On this basis, I believe the Arts Unit and its partners are working very hard to support, recognise and encourage every artist in the city, and for audiences in Plymouth to engage with art.
What other agencies do you work with?
The Arts Unit has so many partners across the city, some have a direct link through funding, some are through shared agendas whether it is for a specific project or target group, or because we have signed up to the Cultural Strategy for the City ‘the Vital Spark’.
Simply listing everyone would not do justice to the work we do together, and would simply be too long!
With councils facing cuts, how important is an arts officer?
Again interesting question, in an organisation as big and expansive as a local authority or district authority (thinking Devon), I believe it is important to have someone who understands art, artists, and creativity.
It is hard enough for those external to local government to deliver exciting projects without having to explain the fundamentals, and internally someone to advocate the need to support art.
As we know, art has so many functions and possibilities, it impacts on the health and well being of society, supports the education system and process for all, gives us our identity and in my view creativity is the start of the individual – even if it is what colour clothes we choose to wear.
So to answer the question, I would say, ‘very’.
How important is cultural life in promoting other aspects of well-being for the broader community – do you have any examples?
I touched on this in the previous question.
There are so many, from the Attik (Dance) project, Time to Dance, to the fantastic work coming out of the Theatre Royal’s Creative Learning team.
You have places like Plymouth Music Collective, whose membership covers the whole city and who managed Underage, the youth music festival at Saltram House, to the great work of Plymouth Music Zone in Devonport.
Or, Freesound, Plymouth Arts Centre’s FM and online radio station, which is broadcast across Plymouth and the world. It has been running during the summer for three years, reflecting the diversity of Plymouth through music and debate; contributors’ ages have ranged from 14 to 89; and programmes have been broadcast in five languages.
Approximately 110 volunteers each year offer their talent and time as presenters and guests. For 28 days, the contributors drive the content of the station and consequently an element of Plymouth Arts Centre’s programme.
I could go on.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your role as arts officer?
The biggest challenge is managing expectation.
Plymouth has moved on immensely in the past few years, the critical mass of artists is growing, we have partnerships and projects that are breaking new ground.
However, some of the work, due to its infancy is not as visible as perhaps we would like, or they need time to establish. The problems won’t be solved over night, but Plymouth has a great group of exciting and creative people all working very hard, and if the past few years has anything to go by, it won’t be long!
If I were to ask how does the future look for art and culture in Plymouth, I’m sure you’d say it was rosy, but what conditions need to be in place to ensure a vibrant arts and culture community and how can the council assist with that?
This question can either be very complex or very simple.
Simply, Plymouth needs artists – in the broadest sense, including musicians, to practice to make, and to creates. Artists with their intrinsic nature to find new ways of approaching problems, finding solutions and challenge our way of thinking.
The more complex answer involves many partners, cultural stakeholders organisations and the city council working together to achieve the vision of ‘the vibrant cultural waterfront city’. Collectively we need to increase opportunities and resolve some of the key creative issues for the city
I’ve always seen Plymouth as an arts performance town. What stands out for you for creative themes that run through the city?
Another interesting question!
I think there is collective thinking around festivals and events and what is the significance and diversity of these. The International Jazz and Blues festival has great ambitions, and In the Flesh grows from strength-to-strength showcasing some very cutting edge, avant garde performance art and experimental theatre.
We also have big projects coming to the city which, I am unable to say anything about just yet!
Plymouth is also celebrating the Cultural Olympiad with a number of key projects, and for example we are looking into public art as well as auditing the performance stages in the city.
Can you sum up the Plymouth arts scene and/or what you do in 140 characters in a Twitter-esque stylee?
The arts scene in the city is exciting, diverse, and showcases quality from local practitioners and the national/international stage.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I love being in Plymouth.
(Image: Kath Davies, courtesy of Pete Davies)
This is an article from our Plymouth ArtsCulture magazine, which you can read for free online, or buy your own copy to cherish and hold.
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