How to Build a Creative Guild
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Director Gilly Bryerley knew a radical approach was needed.
Stepping into the charity felt to me like stepping back in time. I’d come from a creative learning organisation I’d set up 8 years previously and I was used to fast-paced, hand to mouth, remote working, so the set up came as something of a culture shock.
There was designer furniture, hefty overheads, significant reserves and no ongoing project delivery or plans for income generating activity. Then there were the bizarre policies – the sort that said fresh flowers should be bought and displayed in the office weekly.
Let me be clear; everything was completely above board and inline with regulations, it just felt strange to me, of a different era perhaps. A more plentiful, less desperate era. The charity had been operating since the 80’s and had an impressive portfolio of both local and national creative learning activity spanning decades – but was in a hiatus. It was clear some major change was needed.
Our approach now is about spearheading a movement, not offering a service
The concept of a ‘Guild’ was first presented to us by the creatives we had in to support us with a much-needed rebrand (we were at that point a ‘foundation’). They’d done the standard interrogation of what our vision, mission and values were and concluded that a ‘Guild’ represented what we were about.
At first I balked at the language: we were trying to get away from out-dated practices I associated ‘Guilds’ with medieval craftsmen (and indeed primarily men), but the team and I let it percolate. We did some research and went back to the original definition, which read as: “an association of people for mutual aid or the pursuit of a common goal”. Something in that resonated. It also seemed apt that if the charity’s journey was to be one of redefining our values so we could meaningfully engage with the sector as it was, then simultaneously redefining what a Guild could be in the 21st century was indeed what we were about.
Seeing the individual
The recent experience I’d had leading a delivery organisation echoed the mapping exercise the Guild then undertook in our locality. It showed that the majority of grassroots creative learning opportunities were down to one or two committed individuals who were often fighting against the tide. That the continuation of creative learning opportunities more often that not completely hinged on a key individuals willingness to keep fighting.
We could absolutely see the need for leading research advocacy at policy level (and RSA and Cultural Learning Alliance had that covered). We could also see the need to connect localised creative learning activity with national arts & cultural programmes & strategies (Children and the Arts the Bridge organisations were on the case with that).
But what was going to make a difference here and now for the lone dance teacher in a school terrified of losing their job and running dance clubs every single lunch-time (to try to boost sign-ups in the GSCE class)? Or the freelance artist; continuing to deliver workshops to young people in care even though the funding ran out 3 weeks ago?
We saw a gaping hole in the recognising, celebrating and supporting of individuals that are keeping creative learning alive and attempting to bring those individuals together “in pursuit of a common goal” seemed to be what the Guild could offer.
A values-led approach
It was very clear to me from the start that the Guilds’ role in the eco-system needed to be about spearheading a movement, not offering a service.
Amongst our core values are independence and impartiality. We aren’t restricted by a specific funders’ view of how creative learning should be delivered, nor are we trying to peddle our own approach to creative learning as a gold standard. In fact, we don’t have our own approach to creative learning, which is one of our guiding principles. Many infrastructure and support organisations (both in the arts and the third sector more widely) also deliver programmes that compete with those they are contracted and funded to support. This has seemed to grow as charities are under pressure to ‘diversify’ income streams and the pot(s) for infrastructure support is dwindling.
For the Guild, it seems crucial that if members are to feel genuinely supported we must maintain an ‘honest broker’ status and draw a clear line that we won’t seek to deliver activities that might compete with theirs.
Ultimately, our core value is ‘generosity’. Both in terms of the time, resources and un-dwindling praise we offer the fabulous individuals and organisations living and breathing creative learning.
Building a Guild
We built our business plan based on consultation we undertook with folk working in our locality in education, arts & culture, heritage, libraries and the third sector. (These are people who we are now proud to call members of the Guild). One of the options on the table right at the start was winding down the charity and distributing our reserves out as grants to projects that reflected our mission. Interestingly (and despite the dire financial constraints many of them faced) this was not the favored option.
As we were developing the business plan to address the four key issues flagged up in the consultation, it became apparent that the issues weren’t contained to our locality, nor would the response be drastically more costly to implement more widely. We consequently made the decision to operate nationally.
There’s not a straightforward way for schools to know what creative provision is on offer in the area, or for creatives to know what other people are delivering.
We created a website that allows every member to create a publically viewable profile. This is searchable on a map of the UK so people can literally pinpoint what is happening in their area.
Even though there’s good practice and research happening it seems impossible to find it when you need it.
We created an interactive portal on our website for a ‘Creative Learning Library’. It provides a search function by art form, curriculum area and key stage that then offers accessible and digestable overviews of research and practice (linking out to the original content).
It’s really hard to demonstrate the difference you make
From October 2018 the Guild are co-ordinating national awards to recognise the educators, innovators and creatives who live and breathe creative learning. We have a panel of high profile judges who are using a criteria designed by our members. Nominations can be made via the website.
There’s a lack of affordable and good quality spaces for extra-curricular creative learning to happen
We have taken on part of grade 2 listed ‘Causey Hall’ and have secured philanthropic support to remodel it into a fully accessible centre for creative learning. Based in Halifax, West Yorkshire it’s a stones throw from the train station with direct trains to London, Leeds and Manchester (amongst others) and will be available for creative learning activities from November 2018.
Developing national support
Our membership has just launched and individuals and organisations can sign up on the website. We request an annual contribution of £10 and upwards from members (depending on circumstances) to support ongoing running costs, but are clear that if people can’t afford it and cost is a barrier they should get in touch and we will find a way. We anticipate the membership will grow as word of the awards get out and then we’ll begin consultation anew to find out what the current concerns are of members nationally.
It also feels to me that a next step should be to actively engage with organisations and initiatives who seem to be our natural allies in advocating the value of creative learning. Opening up more conversations between grassroots practitioners and researchers, policy influencers and strategic players seems very much the place of the Guild: “an association of people for mutual aid or the pursuit of a common goal”.
Gilly Bryerley is Managing Director at the Creative Learning Guild
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