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Fun Palaces

"The Fun Palace idea that it is whatever you want to do can be really liberating for people like us – people who are not professional artists."

Fun Palaces was established in 2013 by Stella Duffy and Sarah-Jane Rawlings, to bring into the 21st century an idea originally suggested by Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price. Duffy and Rawlings lead the organisation along with two producers and one administrator, all working part-time (two days a week). Based in the Albany in south-east London, its activities take place nationally and internationally, with 292 Fun Palaces in 2016, led by 4,800 local people and 124,000 taking part. The organisation is supported by a team of five local ambassadors, in Stoke, Sheffield, Cornwall, Bristol and Scotland. Its turnover is approximately £110,000 a year, with the bulk of funding coming from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.

Mission: everyone an artist and everyone a scientist

Fun Palaces’ co-founder Stella Duffy says that the organisation doesn’t have a mission but a manifesto: “We believe in the genius in everyone, in everyone an artist and everyone a scientist, and that creativity in community can change the world for the better. We believe we can do this together, locally, with radical fun – and that anyone, anywhere, can make a Fun Palace.” Its work has two strands: the annual weekend of action in October, during which local people – with hands-off support from the organisation – present Fun Palaces in, for and by their own communities; and ongoing campaigning for a cultural democracy that makes the means of cultural production accessible to all, raising the profile of production and participation that is already happening to challenge the hierarchies around ownership of and engagement with the arts.

“We believe in the genius in everyone, in everyone an artist and everyone a scientist, and that creativity in community can change the world for the better.”

Within that democracy, each Fun Palace is its own micro-organisation. As such, it felt right for this case study to interview, not Duffy or Sarah-Jane Rawlings, but someone who has created their own Fun Palace since the invitation was first extended. Carine Osmont and her friend Alexandre Mendonca have now curated three Fun Palaces in Farnham; Osmont’s experience demonstrates not only how the overarching organisation functions, and how individual Fun Palaces articulate a civic role of the arts in their own right, but some limitations in the community ethos of other institutions with whom she has interacted.

Accessible and liberating

By her own admission, neither Osmont nor Mendonca is an artist or a scientist. The thing that attracted them to Fun Palaces was: “We related to the word everyone. And we liked the fact that nobody told us what to do, it was up to us. If a festival said, ‘Do you want to join us in making a festival, it will be according to the rules’, I wouldn’t. The Fun Palace idea that it is whatever you want to do can be really liberating for people like us – people who are not professional artists. If we have a question or problem, HQ is like a safety net, but otherwise we’re absolutely free to do whatever we want, which is really what made it accessible to us.”

It also gave them permission to fail. “The first year, 2014, we thought: it doesn’t need to be big, it doesn’t need to be good, we can just try to do something and if it doesn’t work out that’s fine, no one’s going to die. And it was a completely failure in terms of the event but it was probably our best year as far as learning goes. And the people who took part in it with us say that makes it more accessible for them too, because it’s not professional, it’s not very well-organised, it’s messy during the day but it’s fun.”

Among the mistakes, Osmont identifies a failure to promote Farnham Fun Palace, whether in local schools or local media, and an ongoing lack of science activities. In 2015 the museum supported the duo in making flyers and sharing contacts with newspapers, which boosted audience attendance. And in 2016 they won a £600 grant to use on promotional tools such as banners – but “in the end we didn’t even spend the money, because participants were genuinely generous and kind, and said they could help with materials”.

Community cohesion

That sense of community cohesion has been amplified by Osmont and Mendonca’s personal experience. Both are immigrants from continental Europe (French and Portuguese respectively), who felt they “didn’t know our neighbours, didn’t know the people whatsoever. We saw the Fun Palace as a way to speak to them.” In just three years of making Fun Palaces, they have encountered myriad community groups using arts and crafts, and Osmont has been invited to support the French class in the local University of the Third Age.

The duo are also more engaged in local politics: “Alex and I pay attention to what’s happening when they have town meetings, which we never did before – and we give our opinion, whether in the meetings, or by sending emails, or writing to the papers. Before I started a Fun Palace, if there was a decision I thought was wrong, I would blame it on the people who took that decision, and completely ignore the fact that I didn’t take part. That’s something I never realised before. When you’re not engaged you don’t realise how important it is.”

“When you’re not engaged you don’t realise how important it is.”

Community incohesion

Osmont has also become forthright in identifying the cracks in the community-friendly rhetoric of her local arts institutions. The museum has been “extremely supportive” from the beginning: “they didn’t ask any questins, they never tell us what to do, they talk to us about their experiences and what they learned from it, and then it’s up to us to go with it or not. They have an amazing way of handing over their venues and their knowledge, and are genuinely open. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think we would have made a Fun Palace.”

By contrast, another local arts centre “wondered why we were taking part if we were not artists. They were extremely reluctant to let non-experts do something, and they didn’t want to be affiliated with something that could potentially fail. They talk a lot about the importance of reaching the community, but what they actually mean is they want to do things for the community but not with, definitely not with.” Osmont had similar experiences at several public venues, including the library, prompting her to think that: “All these public buildings are actually closed – they need to redefine public.”

She’s also been shocked to discover how private ownership operates in Farnham: in 2014 the duo hoped to use an empty shop as a venue, but discovered that “90% of the buildings in Farnham are owned by one estate agent, and this estate agent said we’ve never lent a shop to anyone, not even students, and we have no intention to do so. That made us learn a lot about the town and how it works.”

Expanding through being expansive

Even if the Fun Palaces movement stopped, Osmont believes she would “find a way to do something else in the same way, because socially I need it”. As well as becoming more political engaged, and being invited to participate in other community projects, the duo have become connected to their community in more personal ways – for instance, supporting one of the elderly Fun Palace attendees after she fell and needed hospitalisation. Osmont hopes in coming years to build “a skill exchange: people leave a note of what they need and what they could offer for the community”.

She and Mendonca want to keep growing their Fun Palace, and to encourage more people to create their own Fun Palaces in the villages around Farnham, but they have recognised a flaw in their programming: “The people we approach to make the Fun Palace are already involved in arts or sciences, because we need to attract people to come and play on the day, but by doing that we’re cutting off people like ourselves. When Alex and I started it we didn’t know what to do: apart from reading and listening to music, we had no hobbies, we didn’t make anything with our hands. And since then we’ve learned a lot, so why wouldn’t someone who works in a shop, or the postman, bring what they know to Fun Palace? After all, that’s what we’re doing.”

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