Connecting people to art, art to people

International projects in public space: a research study on audience engagement, CORNERS of Europe in Blyth, UK (May 9-22, 2016)

By Mariangela Dalfovo, University of Bologna

This research takes place within the framework of an extended Erasmus placement at ISIS Arts in Newcastle, UK and whilst it brings in other artists working with ISIS Arts in this period, it focuses on a large scale transnational project Corners.


If you have any thoughts or suggestions as to how to improve it, please send an email to mariangela [at] dalfovo [dot] gmail [dot] com





The context

CORNERS of Europe (2014-2018)

CORNERS of Europe is a large transnational project with 11 partner organisations and 55 international artists in 10 counties across Europe and beyond. Both cultural organisations and artists are based at the edges of Europe, the outliers of the continent.

As part of the project, groups of artists have developed artistic Co-Creations during research and development gatherings hosted by project partners that are called Xpeditions. These artistic productions are presented in Corners Events (or Tours) that are organised by each partner organisation in their town or area and usually build on connections and ideas that result from Xpeditions.

Artists with different backgrounds and from different countries but with shared values, experiences or concerns have developed more than 15 artistic Co-Creations in groups of 2-5 people. These are all touring productions and have been shown in different locations since the start of Corners in 2014. They are designed to be accessible to local people and promote their involvement in the process; they also need to be adaptable to other locations and communities across Europe, and grow with the input of participants.

The artists are telling stories that are not only meaningful, but that really connect countries as well as people, and show how we share similar issues, politically, culturally, socially and economically regardless of where we live.

Each event is always profoundly different. This is not only because of the different spatial-geographical setting, but also and especially for the very nature of those projects: the focus on the involvement of local people in the co-creation of work.

CORNERS of Europe in Blyth (May 2016)

Blyth is where ISIS Arts hosted the first of two events scheduled to happen in the NE of England as part of their involvement in Corners of Europe. The event took place between May 9-22nd, 2016, and presented six Corners Co-Creations (Oh My Home! Lost & Found; [VOICEOVER]; Safari Here; Bridging the Silence; Birdhouse Gallery; Windows), a short film screening curated by Dokufest (Kosovo) and many satellite art projects developed with local artists around the main Corners Co-Creations in the lead up to May.

Over the two weeks about 870 people had the opportunity for direct participation and engagement and over 4,200 people experienced the artists’ work as live audiences, with many more online. It is estimated that only 10% of the people who engaged with Corners of Europe in that particular occasion had had previous experience with the arts.


A research grounded in hands-on experience (April-November 2016)

As part of my work with ISIS Arts I supported the delivery and evaluation of Corners in Blyth, including observation and feedback questionnaires during the two weeks of the event, follow-up interviews in the months immediately after and six months later. This allowed me to get a glimpse of the impact that this experience had on the people and the place, and also to reflect upon why that is so.

With things like Corners in Blyth the event is just the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t give out how big the iceberg is, how deep it goes or what the effects in time will be. Much of the work is hidden, and only getting closer can give out some clues by looking at the ripples.

The experience with Corners fostered my interest in researching further the processes at work in the delivery of a complex international project at a local level. This presentation doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it is rather an effort grounded in empirical research to identify the most important elements for successful audience engagement, pull them together under the same URL and provide some examples to contextualise the theory.

What is the value of engaging people in the arts?

How can cultural producers make art accessible and meaningful to people?

What is the role of arts producers as interlocutors with artists and participants?

How can we nurture and expand engagement beyond the life of the project?

This research project tries to explore these questions by looking at the example of CORNERS of Europe. The research took place between November 2016 and March 2017 and involved interviews with cultural producers, artists, partners, and audience groups and thus reflects the different viewpoints. The elements that are highlighted throughout the research are all important to various degrees to these different actors.

Why engage?

Having an experience with the arts taught me that it was ok to mess up a little bit and make mistakes sometimes, it taught me to be resilient, to work with other people, to think about things in a creative way. And actually, aren’t those just fundamental things of life enabling us to survive as humans?

- Nikki Locke, director of East Durham Creates

Why is art important?


Why do we think art is important and valuable and should be accessible to the many? What are people’s motivations to be involved in the arts?

In order to understand why engaging people in the arts is important and valuable to people this research looked at why art itself is important and valuable. It looked at the motivations that push people to make art, at the intended effect (or purpose) and the actual impact.

When talking about the purpose and value of art, ‘exactly’ feels like a word that doesn’t belong. People's responses to these important questions tend to cluster around four main reasons. Use the arrows at the sides of the screen to discover their answers.

How can we engage local people in a meaningful way?

There are a handful of concepts and roles that are the basis needed in order to create experiences that have meaning and value to the people involved. Engagement is a two way process and the gain should be on all sides.


Shouldn’t be a secondary thought, in the art as in the engagement. Always aim at the maximum quality in the selection process: choosing great art/artist/collaborators will make challenges easier to face.


Having a commitment to a place over time is fundamental in order to avoid just 'parachuting in' projects. Partnerships help to gain an understanding of the place, but they don’t substitute spending time doing research and getting to know the community. This may seem a relative waste of resources, but it is instead an investment that will save time in the next stages of the projects.


Time and quality make the ground for trust. When approaching people in a community, artists, producers and facilitators should all go in as people before than art practitioners, and build human relationships based on trust, on a two-way mutual respect.
These three elements and trust in particular are very important towards the relationship with all partners and also within the organisation itself, and not just with artists or public or local partners.

Beyond this, it’s important that cultural producers...

With quality, time and trust laying the foundation for the production of meaningful cultural experiences, it’s important that cultural producers do their job: making art accessible, creating, brokering and facilitating the relationship between art, artists, partners and participants.

Create partnerships

Especially when doing projects that work with art and society (socially engaged practice), partnerships with the civil society are equally important to those within the art sector and crucial in mediating the relationship with the community. Local partners can provide a solid base of knowledge of the place and existing connections as a ‘way in’ to the community. Partnerships work when there is a meeting of values; clarity about the aims of what you are trying to achieve; and clarity about roles (who does what). They are about getting the balance right between having a clear plan but enough flexibility to adjust and adapt.

Broker the relationships between art/artists and audience

Another important role of cultural producers is to either be or find the right people to moderate and facilitate the interaction between people, artists and audience – ‘providing that bit of oil to get conversations off the ground’. There is this role that we need to carry out as mediators between the art and the artist and people. It’s about interpretation and negotiation, listening to the needs of the artists and participants while working with partners. We do that providing the tools to unlock meanings, as for instance people (e.g. local volunteers) or communication material that is adequate to the audience.

Develop work that is bespoke to each place

Having a rigorous plan is as important as being flexible, change and adapt it to respond to the people and the place. We must leave room to readjust and respond to reactions and suggestions; be responsive to who you are working with and allow partners to share ownership of the plan instead of pressing upon a set framework of how you want to develop things. Chief requirements of cultural producers in this sense are being creative when facing challenges and ready to take risks sometimes.


Before you start

Why do you want to engage?

Be clear about your motivations and the content on which you want to engage people, in order to avoid providing an experience which is mere engagement.

This concerns the reason why we are doing it (e.g. providing an international experience at a local level; showing people how we can connect with other corners of the world beyond our differences…), the content we are going to use (e.g. topics that are relevant to both artists and audience; new media low budget techniques…) and what we want to achieve (e.g. increasing people’s awareness of their place in the world and of what they can do; production of great art and professional growth of artists…).

Look out for people’s needs

Before worrying about how to give people a voice, we should practice listening better.

Time, research, trust, partnerships allow cultural producers to understand what the needs of artists and audience are in order to provide content that is relevant and thus meaningful to them. Then it’s about putting things together, and seeing what your project can be to them, how it can help meet their needs. Engagement isn’t only about getting an audience or stories to feed an artwork; it’s about how we can enable those people to gain new knowledge, to learn a new way to express themselves, or…

Test assumptions

One of the responsibilities of artists and cultural producers is to tackle things that are not seen and test assumptions and prejudice.

It’s about equalising, filling a gap. You cannot assume that people o communities are similar because they have something in common. Just because they live at the outskirts of Europe we cannot expect that every community is going to be the same: Blyth and Taranto might both be slightly ‘difficult’ communities, but they are so in a very different way.


Shaping your project

Choice of artists and artforms

Finding the best possible way to respond to people’s needs. Listening to their needs and at the same time being able to challenge them in a critical way. This is the argument of quality all over again: ‘quality of thought’, namely choose the right artist and artforms to engage with a certain topic and community.

Make art fit in with people’s life

It’s about time, when is your activity taking place, does it fit in people’s schedule? This also involves taking into account external elements such as school holidays, exam sessions or weather conditions (i.e. when doing work in public space in the UK). It’s also about the place, the location in space. Is the location accessible to the people you want to engage with? Depending on what kind of audience you are making work for, having events in the public space might allow you to gather more people.

Doing as a way into understanding

We can listen, read and watch, but in the end there definitely is something about ‘doing’. Doing art, being involved in the creative process, can give an understanding of what art is and how it is made, and allow people to measure themselves with different subjects. This can actually create a demand for art activities – you need to know something in order to ask for it, and there’s no best way of knowing than actually doing it.

Sharing skills or interests as a starting point for engagement

Sharing something with the group you are working with is a great starting point. Artists do their greatest work when they do something they truly care about: making art is a very personal thing. Engaging people in making art should be the same. This common ground can be a million things: from the artist that uses her photography to engage and teach people to the one that uses someone else’s interest to develop a relationship.

Focus: case studies from CORNERS in Blyth

In order to complement the theory with real life examples the research focused on three local audience groups that were involved in Corners of Europe in Blyth in different ways: Blyth Academy, who worked with Birdhouse Gallery; NDAS, local connection for Bridging the Silence; and SILX, who was involved on many levels.


Birdhouse Gallery is a Corners project developed by theatre director Nedyalko Delchev (Bulgaria) and visual artist Maciej Salamon (Gdansk, Poland). It aims to encourage imagination, develop children’s creative ideas, improve their artistic skills and strengthen appreciation for the arts. In every location where the project tours, the artists work with a group of children who create miniature art galleries in the shape of birdhouses.


Corners’ Bridging the Silence by audio artist Hrvoslava Brkušić (Zagreb, Croatia), visual artist and dancer Beatriz Churruca (Basque Country) and writer Deirdre Cartmill (Belfast, Northern Ireland) is a 17’ audio walk and visual installation designed for a pedestrian bridge. It represents the emotional journey survivors move through as they pass from the storm inside to peace; crossing the bridge reflects this inner journey. The sound piece uses personal testimonies from survivors: it changes and grows as it tours, collecting new stories.


Silx Teen Bar is a youth club providing recreational, educational projects, activities and positive interventions to young people aged 11 to 25, many of which are not in employment, education or training. They work on a broad range of themes such as health, wellbeing, social and emotional issues. Their team consists of professionally qualified youth workers and volunteers; they are open 50 weeks each year and all their activities are free.

Birdhouse Gallery

Bringing an international perspective to a local school


Blyth Academy was the local connection for Birdhouse Gallery. 15 pupils from diverse backgrounds and cultures made intricate wooden birdhouses over two weeks.

The kids were selected across two different year groups, year 7 and 8 (age 12-13) on the criterion of their existing interest in the arts. Three of them were from international backgrounds, two from Romania and one from Czech Republic.

The international dimension of the project and the bridging function of art were the main reasons why the school decided to participate in Corners.

At the end of the two weeks, the work was presented to the community with a public exhibition in Blyth marketplace. This was a powerful element of public recognition and an occasion of pride for both participants and their families. This event of community sharing was deemed extremely important by all parties and could possibly be what some other project lacked. Before this public exhibition the students held a peer presentation event at the school, where they showed and talked about their work to classmates and schoolmates.

There is a video below with some of the work. All quotes are by Jenny Blake, Blyth Academy art teacher.

Bridging the Silence

Deep and meaningful local connections


Northumberland Domestic Abuse Service (NDAS) was the local connection for Bridging the Silence. The artists ran workshops with people involved in NDAS and women from a local refuge. One of the stories recorded in Northumberland now forms part of the audio walk and has since been presented in Zagreb and Ljubljana (June-July 2016) and Donostia/San Sebastian (September 2016).

What’s particularly important about the partnership of ISIS Arts with NDAS is the preliminary work that was done. Dominic Smith (artist and curator) worked for 3 months with a Young Person’s Participant Group set up by NDAS. Linking themes raised in Bridging the Silence with the young people’s own experiences they created a radio play called Headphone Theatre, which explores the issues connected to domestic abuse. This pilot group of young people was the premise for a new NDAS service aimed at younger people; CADAN (Children Against Domestic Abuse Northumberland), presented in spring 2016 at Hexham Abbey in County Northumberland.

This story highlights how a project can respond to the needs of people instead of it being just people responding to the needs of the project. In this case, the work with an artist provided a tool for the local partner/audience group to achieve a goal they already had in mind (‘raising awareness about domestic abuse in Northumberland’), and was inserted in an ongoing process that is now continuing. The audio piece has been presented as part of Corners in Blyth and is available on the online radio Corners Live.

Headphone Theatre was first presented at the Corners Headquarters in May. Make sure your audio is on and listen to a one-minute sample below.

Silx Youth Club

A partnership with a wider scope

Among the connections ISIS Arts established with local groups and organisations, the partnership with Silx Teen Bar was probably the one with the more transversal reach.

Silx is located in central Blyth, a stone’s throw away from where Corners activities were focused. The central location and the drop-in type of opening times of the youth club made of Silx a crossroad for encounters. The relationship with SILX started really early; both local artists and Corners artists delivered workshops formally and informally from January until May. Time and informality led to the establishment of a relationship based on trust.

During the two weeks of the event in May, young people were engaged in many of the projects. There were also casual sessions of MC-ing, animation and VJ-ing outside of the planned activities, where Corners artists made the most of what the young people normally do to work together (e.g. using the pool table as the starting point for a stop-motion animation). Some of the volunteers and staff helped the Corners crew with more hands-on jobs, from setting up installations to evaluation, providing a great addition to the team. 

The opportunity to show the young people different cultures and forms of art and to meet people from different countries was the main reason why SILX decided to join ISIS Arts and participate in Corners. The possibility for young people to get involved in non-arts ways was also very important. 

Through the preliminary work with local artists and some of the drop in workshops with the international ones the young people have learnt new skills (shooting video, editing, making and adding music, etc.). Working with international artists gave young people a better understanding of different people and where they come from, and it showed them that people have similar interest and do similar things across the world. There was also a sense of validation that derived from seeing that there were people in other parts of Europe genuinely interested in people’s stories, experiences, contributions to all the projects.

Impact and legacy

CORNERS was placed in Blyth because of the work and existing connections that bait, the major local partner, had in the place; it not only served the purpose of what they bait were and are trying to achieve in the area, but it was also suitable to be adapted according to specific needs and issues of interest. Through Corners, lasting relationships were created in Blyth.


  • SILX Teen Bar youth club is currently working with ISIS Arts and artist Lindsay Duncanson on Youth Work Revisited, an intergenerational project looking at history of youth clubs in Blyth.


  • NDAS keeps working with art practitioners to raise awareness about domestic abuse. This is the result of their most recent project.


  • Shannon Burn, 19 year-old NDAS participant is now leading her own group of young people within NDAS. In Summer 2017 she will be off to Africa on a volunteer experience.


  • Bait is working on new artistic commissions to develop the connections made in Blyth

Thank-you for participating in this research


Sharon Bailey – ISIS Arts Co-Director

Andrea Carter – freelance creative producer, Audience Development Manager for CORNERS in Blyth

Dominic Smith – artist and curator, conducted side projects in the lead up to the CORNERS event with a group of young people (NDAS Brighter Side)


Riccardo Spagnulo – artist, CORNERS’ Playground project

Simon Farid – artist, CORNERS’ Playground project

Lalya Gaye – artist, CORNERS’ Oh My Home project

FanSHEN (Rachel Briscoe and Dan Barnard) – theatre makers, currently doing a research residency at ISIS Arts

Juan DelGado – media artist, research residency at ISIS Arts (Jan 2017)

Fran Arnold – Artist and Creative Producer


Rachel Adam – director of bait (part of CPP, Creative People and Places, ACE), major local partner of ISIS Arts for CORNERS in Blyth

Nikki Locke - director of East Durham Creates (also part of CPP, ACE), local partner of ISIS Arts for the upcoming CORNERS in East Durham


Jackie Long – Director of Silx Teen Bar working with young people aged 13-25

Maggie Martin – Director of NDAS (Norhtumberland Domestic Abuse Service)

Shannon Burn – Group Leader for CADAN (Children Against Domestic Abuse Northumberland)

Jenny Blake – Art Teacher, Blyth Academy


Original music by Olavi.


This research project was supported by: