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Who knew that poor little old Dartford, kicked and teased like the runt of the Kent litter, abandoned in droves by its own people in preference for the nearby shiny happy Bluewater and sneered at down shiny noses by outsiders, should now be found to be hiding such a wealth of undiscovered creativity? Despite living in the area for 29 years, I have in the past few months realised I have barely scratched the surface of what seems to be an impressive but currently sadly under-connected network of artists and art-lovers.

Dartford Creative, an initiative brought to us by Icon Theatre, aims to unearth and develop these links, stimulating that much-neglected erogenous zone of the area; its creative core. Thanks to the tireless and dedicated co-ordination of Nancy, Michelle and countless others involved in the programme, whose belief and optimism have succeeded in overcoming even the most cynical challenges in their path, the enterprise has resulted in an inspiring programme of art events running every Saturday until Christmas. The thinking behind the plan is effectively simple; this series of events is a starter for ten, intended to whet the creative whistle of locals and to initiate a dialogue which will extend to next year, and the next, carrying on the tide the potentially valuable trawl which will be unearthed through this exercise.

Dartford itself has a long and fascinating history involving no less than rebel kings of England, revolutionary leaders and a few famous Artist/Sirs of its own, including Sir Peter Blake who, for those of you who don’t know, designed the famous Beatles Sgt. Pepper album cover. In fact rather a lot of impressively significant events have touched upon the area, as well as some of the more insignificant but equally fascinating! I was, much like many other Dartfordians I imagine, sadly bereft of much of this information until researching for a piece in Dartford Living on the local gasworks. Upon beginning to dig for information I found myself enthralled at the stories I found, each painting a vivid picture of what the town had been, decades, or even centuries before.

Bringing this history to life is one important facet of the Dartford Creative event and will ensure that this knowledge is both stored and nurtured by participants, passed on and down to the next generation; a treasure hunt on 21st September explores local buildings perhaps usually passed by without a second thought. A beautiful 17th Century pub goes unnoticed day by day, while Victorian shop first floor facades gaze down on the high street mournfully, unseen by shoppers. Events such as the treasure hunt specifically aim to point out sites of local importance, but a running theme throughout the programme is the importance of highlighting of a side to Dartford which lies largely in our unconscious; the historical side, the artistic side, the worth-listening-to side. The effects of probing this point continuously, weekly, are that it will stick and grow. It will germinate and spread tendrils of thought which could lead, well, who knows where? I myself have already made nearly 10 fascinating new acquaintances with whom I’m in regular contact and will continue to be after the event finishes. How many could you make? You see the potential.

Since the project launched on 10th August we have already seen a 50’s style street party, clay model making, the launch of the much-anticipated film competition (which will culminate in the winning film being shown in the eye-wateringly cool mini solar cinema), and, brightening up a rather rainy day last Saturday, ukelele lessons from inspiring teacher Steve Ball. Coming up this weekend is your chance to find out about the history of the street you live in and contribute to the town’s own Blue Plaque programme. If you have any sense at all you’ll be down there each and every Saturday without fail, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 10am like a dog on a promise for some buttery toast. But for those of you who might, like me, be a freakishly over-organised planner and not be able to make this one, don’t panic. DON’T PANIC. There’s the treasure hunt the week after that,  then Mr E’s intriguing theatrical museum on the 28th and much, much more to come. Let me not hear you say ‘Oh that’s not for me, I’m no good at art”, as is often the standard, negative protest from the crowd; if even the dog can get involved in playing the ukelele (see photos), I’ve not doubt you can manage it too.

Expect to see a few more posts on this, intended to both keep you up to date and to nag you like a spoilt 10 year old until you defeatedly submit to getting involved, and are within minutes running around gleefully covered in paint/clay/ukeleles etc.

Dartford Creative runs every Saturday at One Bell Corner from 10am-3pm.

Informal artist networking meetings are taking place at the Bull & Vic on the high street (opposite Lloyds bank) on the following dates:

  • Tuesday 17 September, 7-9pm
  • Saturday 28 September 4-6pm and
  • Saturday 5 October,  4-6pm

All welcome. Please come, I want to meet you all!

To enter the film competition see the details on the website and submit your entry to Vimeo by 1st Nov.

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele...even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele…even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Clay model making

Clay model making

A clay face materialises out of the table...

A clay face materialises out of the table…

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Free popcorn while you paint - what's not to like!?

Free popcorn while you paint – what’s not to like!?

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A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

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An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event - just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event – just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

Street art by local artist Gee

Street art by local artist Gee

Human beings thrive on arts and culture.This is evidenced not only by the huge swathes of visitors to museums and art galleries every day (Tate Modern counted nearly 4,000 visitors per day for the 2011 Gaugin show), but also by the abundance of organisations and activities related to the arts. If you attempt to type in to a search engine some vague term such as ‘arts uk’, you are immediately bombarded with millions of links to the seemingly infinite facets of the arts industry; theatre, dance, fine art, to name just the most obvious. So with all this huge wealth of resources in the arts surely our kids have more than they need in the way of access to them. Not so. A recent UNICEF report showed that, unsurprisingly, ‘in the UK inequality was…seen in access to outdoor, sporting and creative activities, with poorer children spending more sedentary time in front of screens whilst the more affluent had access to a wide range of sports and other pursuits’, and a new report by the Children’s Society shows that half a million children in Britain are unhappy with their lives.

Some of this must be a direct result of the elitist tradition of arts and culture for the upper classes which still abounds in the UK, perpetuated by rising costs of attendance and lowered wages, which completely prices out a whole chunk of society who couldn’t possibly afford to spend £60 on a ticket to the Opera. And what of your average west end show? You’re still looking at around £20-30 per ticket. More affordable for the so called ‘squeezed middle’ but still out of reach for the average family, except perhaps as an irregular treat. No wonder then that cultural activities such as these are seen as being ‘for posh people’ or ‘for university bods’. Having grown up in a working class town on a council estate, these are genuine descriptions I still hear regularly from both adults and children, which is depressing in its self-defeatism. Any one of the people on that estate could enjoy a gallery or theatre show just as much as a ‘uni bod’ if they could go with an open mind and the self confidence that comes with knowing these things are there for THEM. Cultural public ownership often doesn’t feel as if it includes the working classes.

With these entitlement attitudes being cyclically ingrained in kids at home and the government demonising the working class even more than usual, through a constant barrage of recession-approved negative association (welfare – they don’t deserve it, jobs – they can’t be bothered, health – they can pay for it themselves etc.) the middle and upper classes dominate the market almost entirely. This attitude has to be changed and to do that, prices need to drop to a reasonable level, as well as provision of far more free outreach workshops which take the theatre out of the west end and encourage parents and children to get involved. It is do-able if the funding were there. It’s investment in our children, and you’d think we’d jump at the idea. But this brings us squarely to the general British attitude towards children and childhood. To be blunt we just don’t respect it. This attitude leaches into the top echelons of many arts organisations, where children appear to be an afterthought. I’m not saying people don’t care, or that they don’t do their best; in fact I’m generalising in a big way, but I’m talking more about an overarching attitude and social manner. Our modern family zeitgeist, if you like. Capitalism and major corporative influence of a level never seen before, sees us now buying into the commercialisation of our own children, then feigning ironic surprise when they riot angrily and prioritise free clothes and shoes. The arts have been proven to have a beneficial effect on cognitive development, so why are we allowing this aspect of childhood experience to be pushed aside by a Gove-led education system concerned only with academic league tables and in churning out future business graduates from business-run Academies expected to ‘save the failing system’? We need to mobilise.

Action for Children’s Arts, a lobbying and campaigning arts charity for whom I volunteer, recently sent Freedom of Information requests to 20 major arts organisations in the UK, asking them what percentage of their annual budget was spent on producing work for children. The results were shocking. Children under 12 make up 15% of the population and yet rarely more than 1% of any organisation’s budget was spent on them alone. We should, in fact, be spending more than the technical 15% on them – like I say, investing in their and our futures. But as well as not being bestowed with extra, they are refused even their fair share. 1% funding for our children is a disgracefully poor representation of our public arts industry. ACA held a conference on 19th June to discuss how we can work together to change this. The conference was insightful and full of optimism for future policy reform, both within the government itself and individual organisations such as the BBC and the Arts Council, among others. We are continuing to discuss and gather ideas, via twitter and on the website, to inform a discussion group in the pipeline, whereby we aim for the outcome of a solid action plan and potential children’s arts charter.

      

Let us not forget how many organisations there are who do provide arts services for children and work tirelessly to keep our children’s imagination filled with fun and play and wondrous things: Unicorn Theatre, Polka Theatre5x5x5=creativity and Imaginate to name but a very very few. However, children as a whole section of society are underrepresented in the arts and are too often lumped into ‘families’ groups whereby an adult event is deemed suitable for children rather than being devised with children in mind.

The number of arts facilities provided just for children does in no way represent their percentage numbers in society and this fact alone does them a great injustice. It’s about time we started making children our priority, the future of this country. It’s about time we started taking responsibility for the fact that they feel angry and undervalued and not lazily blame the parents, but blame the culture. When art becomes truly art for all, for the whole of society, we will have achieved our goal. Until then, join us in fighting for an undeniable right for our children, the right to have access to the arts.

To join Action for Children’s Arts or to find out more about what we do and how we do it, see our website www.childrensarts.org.uk