Founded in 2004 by Eloise Malone, Effervescent is based in Plymouth and works primarily with vulnerable children and young people. It has four staff (three full-time), and works with approximately 10 associate artists when creating projects. Funding is received on a project basis and so changes yearly: during the last financial year turnover was £250,000, of which 80% was project funding, and the primary funders were Arts Council England, Children in Need, Big Lottery and Big Potential. It also raises a small amount of earned income through space rentals at its creative hub (a former bank building in the city centre), contracts to deliver services, and philanthropic donations.
Mission: making the world kinder
Effervescent spent its first decade honing its devising process, working in creative partnerships across the UK to create performances, film and installations in response to a brief. Feeling that her skills lay in “creating conversations between people in very engineered ways”, Eloise Malone altered the business model in 2014: settling in Plymouth, acquiring a building to house a gallery and cafe, and encouraging clients to “tell me what their problems were, rather than what they wanted me to do”.
“Give them social connectivity, and help them to articulate and make sense of the world”
These clients – all local – include Barnardo’s South West, Plymouth University, Exeter University and Plymouth City Council, and the problem tends to express a need to communicate more effectively with vulnerable young people who are not accessing their services fully. Effervescent works with identified groups, using “arts, creativity and innovation thinking” to shape anything from advertising campaigns to public art displays. The work builds on the young people’s lived experience and knowledge, and aims to “give them social connectivity, and help them to articulate and make sense of the world”.
Malone describes the core of this work as kindness, because “it’s based in supportiveness, and believing in people. I’m trying to give young people a platform to do something genuinely new and culturally beautiful, extraordinary work which shows that investing money in children in a wise and creative way can create real positive change that not only improves this young person’s life, but improves the entire social environment, saves public money, relieves the health services of burdens, and creates a platform for this young person to maybe go on and be the next Jeremy Dyson, or the next Jeremy Deller.”
Malone is a trained youth worker, with degrees in cultural practice and social pedagogy, a duality reflected in Effervescent’s methodology:
1: Humanist education
Effervescent works with small groups of young people, training them intensively in “creativity and design thinking”. That begins with looking at messaging and affect: how adverts work, how galleries create experience, “how you make people feel things, how you engage audiences”. The group are then given creative tasks, and learn to deconstruct each other’s work through a critical feedback process. The “images, words and concepts, pulled from their own subconscious” that emerge through this imaginative stage become the basis for the devised work.
This is created and/or curated in the gallery, both for a general public to attend, and to address the specific problem raised by the client: for instance, the risk of child sexual exploitation in Plymouth, or unhealthy relationships among teenagers. To make the exhibition, the group will collaborate with professionals “almost as creative directors, so it doesn’t look like amateur work”, and then will promote it, by designing flyers, doing interviews, or publishing journalism. All of this supports “the message that children can create work that engages with people, that has a really strong concept and that is without bounds. We’re raising the bar in terms of peoples’ expectations of what children can do within the cultural sector as well as within our client sector.”
“We’re raising the bar in terms of peoples’ expectations of what children can do within the cultural sector as well as within our client sector”
2: Therapeutic principles
That message is designed not just to communicate out to the public, but in to the young people themselves. Malone accepts she cannot change their environment, but says she can “help people become more resilient, self-sufficient, and able to cope with what’s happening in their lives. Effervescent is giving them the tools to deal with what life’s going to throw at them.”
Each project is self-contained and builds on a “solution-based brief therapy” model, intervening in a participant’s life within an agreed time framework. Malone does offer a final meeting that involves “helping everyone get to something they want to do next, whether it’s go on to university or getting in to a youth theatre”. But the project itself is finite: “The young people understand what the offer is, and we manage that carefully by reflecting at the beginning what they want to get from it, checking their progress as a group and individually, and making sure that they think they’re on track and putting sufficient effort in to getting that.”
Increasingly Malone is gathering evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of her approach. A project made with sexual abuse survivors produced not only the gallery’s most successful show, with an estimated footfall of up to 20,000 in its 13-week run, but a number of benefits for the participants, who reported: “they felt better, more confident, happier, more able to talk about what had happened to them. They realised they weren’t alone. And they lowered their risk-taking behaviours by something like 70% using Barnardo’s measurements.”
Malone faces three battles in pursuing this path:
1: The idea that children are not artists
Accessing funding is more difficult, Malone argues, because children are not accepted as “cultural practitioners in their own right. There’s an assumption that children aren’t going to do good work – but a nine-year-old is as capable of astonishing ideas as a 30-year-old, and with the right support, very small children could be creating things that are socially and culturally relevant and engaging.”
2: The idea that artists work for love
Pay is limited further by the expectation that artists receive emotional benefits from their work that need not be remunerated. Malone wants Effervescent to “move from being seen as an arts organisation, to being seen as a design lab”, because as a “designer with a specialist consultant role” she can double or triple what the company charges out, and put the surplus into funding risk-taking work.
3: Competition for core staff
Investment on a project basis has left Malone unable to build a core team that might allow her to “work in a more long-term, sustainable way”. She needs “people with the skill-set to develop commercially viable products in a social-realm company”, yet cannot afford the salaries commanded in the commercial sector over the period of time needed to make those roles cost-beneficial.
All these challenges support Malone’s ambition for Effervescent to become “self-sufficient”, by developing a methodology “that can be marketed, and invested in, and gives us an ability to create demand for more of it. People don’t understand what they could have: too often they’re asking for things rather than change.” She plans to begin repeating projects intensively, with multiple groups, not only to hone how they happen but “to figure out what the cost per child is and what the return on that investment is in terms of diversion from risk, from social care, from suicide, from being picked up by the police, with the hope that we can make that a socially investable product going forwards. We want to make the world better not just by making beautiful things, but by changing young people’s lives and public services in a considered, measurable, rigorous way.”