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08/18/2013 / katiemcgivney

Harris Flights: Interview with cultural development manager Samantha Blackburn

Recently I was lucky enough to get an interview with Preston City Council’s cultural development manager Samantha Blackburn. Heavily involved in the delivery of the project, I was eager to capture her voice and thoughts on the project.

KM: Can you tell me a little bit about your work with Preston City Council and how the collaboration with In Certain Places came about?

SB: I am Preston City Council’s Cultural Development Manager.  I’m based within the Harris Museum & Art Gallery team and also have a city wide remit to work with both the voluntary and professional arts sectors and a wide variety of community and other voluntary groups to develop the cultural landscape of Preston on a strategic level.  Preston City Council has a new cultural framework for 2013-18, that is out for consultation at the moment:  once the final framework is agreed and signed off, I will be involved in ensuring its’ themes are delivered and met.

I understand that Charles Quick from In Certain Places has had the concept of a temporary set of steps for the Harris in mind for several years and now seemed the right time to bring it to life.  Earlier this year after approaching architect Charlie Mackeith to design the temporary staircase installation, Charles Quick met with a small group of Preston City Council members of staff to discuss making it a reality – specifically Officers who were heavily involved in co-ordination and delivery of cultural projects and events for the 2012 Guild; including colleagues from our Events team and the Harris Museum & Art Gallery.  Once it was established that the Harris Flights was financially viable, a steering group was put together including me and aforementioned colleagues, with the aim of co-ordinating a month programme of cultural events for the Flights.  Of course, the wider steering group has been working with us throughout this process, including colleagues from health & safety, legal and finance to make sure that the project is managed safely and in accordance with all of Preston City Council’s policies and procedures.  The guidance we have received from colleagues in many additional departments such as marketing and communications, licensing and communities has been invaluable – Harris Flights would not have been possible if not for this team effort and partnership working across the Council.  One of the specific roles I have played in Harris Flights within the programming group has been to work with colleagues to decide which artists to commission and to make sure that when a ‘call-out’ was made to local and regional artists and community groups to get involved, that as many people as possible found out about the opportunity and had the chance to take part.

KM: How long have you been working on the Harris Flights project?

SB: Since about April this year – as with all projects and events of this nature, the momentum builds more and more, the closer you get to the event launch and it’s been a hive of activity in our offices across the Council over the last few weeks, ensuring everything is in place for the first weekend!

harris flights construction

Harris Flights under construction Credit: Charles Quick

KM: A lot of people don’t realise the amount of work put into a project like this and public arts practice in general, what kind of obstacles have your team faced/had to consider? 

I would support the comments made in previous posts by colleagues in terms of ensuring contingency plans are in place for the unpredictable English weather – plans are organised by our Events team in terms of the events logistics during the times on-site when the weather lets us down and threatens to interfere with all of the hard work taken to programme.  There are also plans that are put in place by colleagues in our Communications team to ensure that accurate and helpful messages are put out on such occasions so that the public know exactly what is happening and that they have the most up-to-date information on any changes to the programme.  We are signposting residents and visitors wanting to find any updates to follow the Harris Flights and Preston City Council Twitter hash tags to get this information in the fastest way possible.  I would also reiterate the comments by architect Charlie MacKeith that a challenge in the build was examining how the stairs, which were designed as stand-alone infrastructure, would work in conjunction with a Grade I listed building.   Again, this would not be possible without the collaboration between departments in Preston City Council and professionals based within In Certain Places.  In relation to the programming group, we have had to consider within each week’s schedule that there is, we hope, something for everyone – there is a huge range of ‘happenings’ taking place from science demonstrations organised with our partners UCLan such as martial arts demonstrations – it’s not just about appealing to the arts aficionados!  Although we do hope all ‘culture vultures’ come out to the amazing offer of theatre, dance and film on offer!

We have ensured that Preston City Council’s Inclusion Reference group members have been involved in feeding into the Equality Impact Assessment for Harris Flights – this is a essential process and ‘living’ document that is created for every event and project Preston City Council organises.  We need to ensure that access is considered for the Flights – ‘where can people with mobility impairments view the performances,’ for example, is a question that is addressed in the plan.  Access isn’t just about physical impairments of course, we have to look at all potential barriers to involvement including financial, social, and many more.  One method of making the events financially inclusive, for example, is making the decision that all of the event on Harris Flights will be free of charge to attend.

KM: The design for ‘Harris Flights’ features a performance space for community groups as well as professional performers, what are some of the benefits of this in your opinion?

It is absolutely essential that we provide an opportunity for locally based performers to utilise the space to showcase their talents and build their audiences.  Following up from previous mention of ensuring equal access, this includes enabling both local and regional performers, amateur groups and professionals to have their place in the programme.  There has been a call-out for buskers which we want to encourage in the scheduled programme during week day lunch time periods.

In addition to a wide range of types of events – lectures, book launches, science demonstrations, artistic interventions and sport demos, there is a wide cultural mix of performances.  We have ensured that young people can use the space to express themselves creatively – for example, there will be a music showcase co-ordinated by local organisation Shotta TV and DnB solutions and performances by up and coming young singer-songwriters from the area as part of the 4poets showcase on 24 August.  Also, local parkour experts Street Monkeys will be performing their acrobatics and the Blaze young producers are taking over on the 7th of September to perform an ‘interactive’ timeline’ featuring key figures from art, history and literature local to Preston and Lancashire.  There will also be a special Faith Forum and BME forum community day and some fantastic performances featuring Indian dance and a unique one-off Caribbean Carnival event representing only a small proportion of Preston’s rich multicultural population.  In addition to a wide community programme, we have commissioned 19 artists/arts organisations to create new work inspired by and including within the new devised work, the heritage of the Harris Museum & Art Gallery and of the city of Preston.  It was very important that the link between the museum and the history of Preston was included in the brief for the commissions to represent a creative bridge between the museum and the temporary set of steps linking from the inside to the outside of the building.

one voice performing flights

One Voice community choir performing at the Harris Flights opening weekend, Credit: Alex Walker

KM: Can you tell me about some of the featured acts and events?

SB: Where can I start?  There are 60 different events taking place over the five weekends and four weeks when the Harris Flights project is in place.  In addition to the events I have already mentioned, Ludus Dance working with young people from the Preston Youth Dance company and the Ludus Youth Dance Company will be presenting two new dance performances later on this month.

On Sunday, 1 September, artist Andy McKeown will be lighting up the museum with a newly devised lighting installation featuring images from the Harris’ architecture and collections and historical highlights of Preston.

We’ve also commissioned ‘Visio’ from arts organisation Bluestreak Arts.  This performance on Monday, 2 September, will fuse live music, audio visual media, live theatre and dance, all inspired by the story of James Hibbert, the architect of the Harris Museum & Art Gallery.

Of course, visitors will also have the opportunity to experience the Harris’ Volatile Light temporary exhibition until 26 August and visit a new touring exhibition from York Art Gallery – ‘Masterstrokes’ which opens on 7 September.

The final weekend will feature a two day film festival by arts organisation They Eat Culture that will provide a chance for visitors to get involved in a unique immersive experience!

KM: What do you hope the audience and the city of Preston will take away from Harris Flights?

SB: A real sense that exciting, unexpected and creative things can happen in Preston – not just for the Guild!

harris flights opening

Harris Flights opening ceremony, Credit: Alex Walker

KM: After a successful program of Guild celebrations last year, do you hope that the ‘Harris Flights’ will build on ‘the legacy of the guild’ and reaffirm Preston as a cultural destination?

SB: My experience of being involved in organising projects for the Guild and then ultimately being a part of one really hit home to me the huge significance that this event holds for Preston people, and not just people who live in the city, but those who have moved on to other places, all around the world, who come back to Preston for this very special occasion.  There was a huge variety of events and activities on offer last year for people to get involved with and we are very much trying to offer a wide range of programming within Harris Flights.  One main legacy of the Guild that will be evident during the Harris Flights include a revisiting of the sense of excitement in being part of events in Preston to which everyone is welcome to get involved in.  Further, people in Preston do like to shout about their talents when they are provided with the platform to do so and Harris Flights is an excellent ‘platform’ for this, and part of a new overall approach to how the Preston City Council will be planning cultural events and projects for years to come.   I think the partnership between Preston City Council, UCLan, the local community and arts sector is an absolute strength and essential to sustaining this approach.

KM: There has been a lot of debate locally about the navigation of the Museum. Do you think the Harris Flights project will encourage non-museum goers/ new audiences to enter the building and participate? 

SB: Absolutely!  In addition to the temporary physical structure and diverse programme, we have made sure to get the message out that visitors who are not able to traverse the steps will be welcomed to take our lifts up to the first floor of the museum.

KM: Do you hope the project will encourage debate about long term fixtures/changes to the city?

SB: Yes, in the context of the work that is happening along Fishergate to make that gateway a more ‘people friendly’ environment and other significant developments such as the cenotaph redevelopment supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund which will be unveiled later this year.  It’s worth mentioning the Forgotten Spaces Preston competition with RIBA North West, Preston City Council, UCLan, Lancs County Council with support from the Eric Wright group.  The competition asked entrants to consider specific redundant sites (such as flyovers and disused car parks) put forward by Preston City Council’s Planning Department as spaces that could be part of the local community.  Submissions will be showcased in the Old Post Office building this Autumn.  All of these projects, including Harris Flights, contribute to this dialogue in a constructive and creative manner.

harris flights opening day

Harris Flights opening ceremony, Credit: Alex Walker

KM: What regenerative effects if any, do you think the project may produce? 

SB: To regenerate the public’s passion for community events and re-spark the debate regarding creative uses for public spaces.

KM: What are your thoughts on the creative community in Preston?

SB: It’s quite diverse and it is growing – I am very keen for artists and arts organisations to raise their profile not just in the city but across Lancashire and beyond, and also to gain more investment in the future from lottery funding and other sources such as sponsorship to grow their organisations.  We are looking to help support the creative community as part of the new cultural framework albeit within a context of very uncertain times in local government.  The City Council has made a commitment to supporting culture in the city through the Harris Flights this year.

KM: Do you think the project will help gain a national profile for the city?

SB: It’s very difficult to predict what the media will pick up on!  A concerted effort has been made by our Marketing and Communications staff to ensure the message gets out there – a lot of hard work has taken place to ensure people know about Harris Flights and the programme of events.

It is our focus to offer a varied programme of events through Harris Flights for a wide range of residents and visitors, for their enjoyment and entertainment during the summer holidays.  It’s also very important to those involved to offer to new and returning students starting a new term at UCLan an exciting taste of what Preston has to offer.  Anything else we gain from Harris Flights will be a bonus!

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