An initiative to create a new creative network for Swansea was announced at this year’s Swansea Conference in a panel discussion that also explored the city’s cultural assets and how to make the most of them. Read on to find out more.
The second panel session of the Swansea Conference on March 29 focussed on creativity in Swansea: its benefits for the city and how to support its growth and development.
Introducing the session, Professor Ian Walsh, academic lead on UWTSD’s Innovation Matrix, emphasised the strength of the arts scene in the region.
“It’s a welcoming scene, it’s an open scene, it’s an inclusive scene,” he said. “Art and Culture has the power to create change – and today, we are probably more than ever people who uphold the values of truth, justice and equality, free expression and the desire to celebrate the joy of being alive.
“In Swansea, we have a very vibrant, creative scene bursting with artistic talents – young people, students, graduates, as well as people in every walk of life, who just find passion in making, whether it be physical things, or music, or whatever it might be. Arts and culture are also key to placemaking.”
Picking up the theme of placemaking, Tracey McNulty, head of Cultural Services at Swansea Council, said that placemaking can include telling the story of a place through mediums such as music or sculpture, or creating a space that people feel comfortable to be in.
“Squares quite often get designed to make sure people don’t feel comfortable in them – and artists working with landscape designers and planners can really create solutions,” she said.
Actor Richard Mylan, one of the founders of Grand Ambition, the arts collective and producing company based at Swansea Grand Theatre, highlighted the importance of telling local people’s stories through the arts.
“At Grand Ambition, we tell Swansea stories – and the way that we tell Swansea stories is important. We champion the unheard voices; we identify the universality of these stories, and that therefore has a wider impact.”
Also on the panel was award-winning Welsh-Nigerian contemporary pianist Ify Iwobi, founder and project manager of the Race Council Cymru Crossing Borders Project, which focuses on young ethnic musical and dance participants from around the world in Swansea. She noted that cultural placemaking is vital to keep talent in Wales.
“Cultural placemaking is key for integrating not just musical culture, but all cultural activities,” she said, adding that it’s important to champion the places in South Wales that showcase the arts. “We need to celebrate Welsh culture and let it not go from Wales to London,” she said.
Dan Staveley, co-founder of Elysium Gallery and artists’ studios, agreed that it’s vital to keep creative people in Swansea, highlighting Elysium’s work to turn creative people into entrepreneurs. He also praised the collaborative spirit of Swansea’s artistic community.
“I think Swansea artists are just brilliant – they have an amazing ability to help each other,” he said. “If you bring a lot of loose people together, you can transform places, as High Street has transformed since 2007.”
James Morgan, Creative Learning Producer at Swansea Arena, said that he would like to see more confidence in what Swansea has to offer.
“I think we need a bit more positivity when it comes to how we see ourselves and how we put ourselves out there in our cultural landscape in South Wales and across the UK as a whole,” he said.
Race Council Cymru founder Uzo Iwobi emphasised how the covid period showcased the importance of the arts.
“There were a lot of artists online singing to sustain us all,” she said, adding that it’s important to promote diversity in Swansea’s arts scene.
“We have a remarkable series of talented people from all over the world who feel attached to Swansea and have a clear Swansea identity, and now is the time to open the doors,” she said. “This is a powerful space; we need to ensure that Chinese people, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, the Thai community, Africans, come together with our white brothers and sisters and begin to have those important conversations and feel involved.”
The conversation moved onto the importance of planning for stimulating arts and culture. Morgan noted that there are only two places in Swansea for bands to rehearse, but there are about 300 bands in the city. He emphasised the need for developments to incorporate rehearsal space and to make these spaces available all over the city – especially considering that people in poorer areas are less likely to have access to private rehearsal spaces such as garages.
“An integral part of any young musician’s journey is the opportunity to have a place to rehearse,” he said.
McNulty emphasised the power and responsibility the Council has to support developers and other bodies seeking to create artistic spaces in the city.
“it’s my job to influence policy and to really champion the role of arts and culture in regeneration, education and health and wellbeing,” she said.
Taking questions from the floor, the panel discussed the potential benefits of a Universal Creative Income to keep artists out of poverty and enable them to make work that benefits not only themselves, but also others.
“A Universal Creative Income would be fantastic. Benefits are not fit for purpose,” said Morgan. “I do believe that it would help many artists who are struggling with poverty.”
“A Universal Creative Income would be a really amazing step recognising the value of arts – the preventative value, saving health authorities thousands of pounds, and the massive role the arts play in championing social and racial justice, and making sure that people understand where they live and how they can look at the world differently,” she said.
“Working with the lateral thinking of the musician, or a visual artist or a writer will help us to understand some of the biggest problems we’re facing now because they’re just too overwhelming otherwise.”
Mylan agreed that the value of the arts needs to be better understood.
“We live in a world where the narrative around the arts is negative from the top down,” he said. “That really boils my blood, because just look at the pandemic: culture and art held us up and held us together.
“Look at how art feeds into our television and film streaming platforms. I think the issue is that it’s not recognised as it should be from the top. There needs to be a fundamental shift.”
The conversation concluded with discussion of calls for a Creative Swansea network connecting the creative community.
“The notion of a creative network has been circulating again and again and again, with the idea of an arts forum or a shared marketing exchange,” said McNulty. “We have come to the conclusion that the reason we have not got a really solid, clear identity of some sort of forum is because there’s too much diversity within it.
“Many people want to be able to influence the music scene and they don’t necessarily want to be talking about what an artist’s studio looks like, or they may want to exhibit but don’t necessarily want to learn digital skills.
“Over the months we’ve been having various conversations with both universities as well as partners including 4theRegion about a new Creative Swansea and that would need to be owned by multiple agency approach to own a website and a social media platform.”
She added that it would include a funded co-ordinator role.
“I recently put some funding applications together for the coordinator role. I would like the network to be able to have multiple branches and the opportunity for people to uncheck some boxes so that they’re not deluged with information about things that they don’t feel are relevant to them.”