Groundwork was developed in response to Milton Keynes Community Foundation’s Vital Signs Report 2014. The report categorised MK as a Grade B for its level of arts, culture and heritage provision, exceeding the national average, whereas employment opportunities in the creative sector were identified as the poorest in the region. A lack of provision for artistic development meant support beyond state education, and for those returning from higher education, was virtually non-existent. Indeed many university graduates do not return to Milton Keynes after their studies. This “brain drain” is particularly prevalent in the arts due to the lack of resourcing and infrastructures for emerging and mid-career artists. Milton Keynes currently has few (and even less sustainable) performance and live art opportunities for emerging to mid-career artists. This dilemma inspired TTP to work with artists in MK to identify their needs for professional development and create a platform to change this.
In May 2015 and 2017 this vision manifested itself under the guise of our site artist scheme through which we invited individuals, or companies/collectives, to take up residency in Milton Keynes. Internationally renowned artists Beatrice Jarvis, Hayley Newman, Laura Cooper and Phil Smith spent 10 days exploring how the people of Milton Keynes live, work and play, engaging in creative methods to discover and champion connections between the place, people, heritage, geography and history of Milton Keynes. During this initial research period Beatrice, Phil, Hayley and Laura worked alongside emerging and MK-associated artists Aaron James and Sapphire Goss who were offered the opportunity to document and capture the site artists’ experience of Milton Keynes and then use this material to create a response to these artists' responses to the city. Local residents in Milton Keynes were also given the unique opportunity to learn directly from these artists in a way that isn’t currently being offered by any other scheme in the UK - people were able to join our residency artists in their temporary studios at Milton Keynes Arts Centre (of which MKAC is a Groundwork project partner), in order to observe and participate in their practice at any time during the artists’ stay. This professional development opportunity was supplemented by workshops and public sharing events, which drew people from across Europe into the city, as well as attracting many Milton Keynes artists who had never met one another before. At the end of these 10 days the artists in residence were encouraged to celebrate diverse aspects of Milton Keynes’ cultural, geophysical, and architectural identity, closing the residence with a presentation of tailor-made project ideas for and about Milton Keynes.
Having initially run a pilot of the scheme in 2015 supported by funding from the Milton Keynes Community Foundation we found there was a significant need for a regular platform and programme for artists in MK to connect with new styles of performance and debate its relationship to the heritage of the town. Our workshop participants, made up of local artists, local non-artists and national artists, fed back on the necessity of formal and informal development opportunities for learning and for viewing and participating in the work of other artists. The Site Artist Scheme began to achieve this by bringing together a disparate community of artists and creatively curious individuals to explore, learn and develop ideas together. These shared experiences provided a platform through which a stronger community was formed and so we believe it is vital to find ways for the project to remain active and to continue to grow, but determining how was problematic in a climate where the Vital Signs Report 2017 evidences huge disparity between the economic growth indicators for the city and the levels of poverty and disadvantaged households in the town, hence a disparity between those that could afford and access arts and cultural activities and those that cannot. To overcome some of these challenges Groundwork has been established as an interdisciplinary project that works alongside charities, arts organisations, the council, food vendors and local businesses striving to engage new and diverse audiences from across the town and its surrounding villages to provide a free programme of events.