‘Why can’t art be an end in itself?’

James Steventon.

Fermynwoods Contemporary Art is an educational charity that commissions innovative and meaningful ways for artists to engage with audiences in public spaces across Northamptonshire and online. James Steventon’s role is very much that of Artistic Director, but also includes many other, more strategic and general management functions, reporting to the board of trustees. Broadly speaking, he’s in charge of the day-to-day running: not an easy job, but one he enjoys.

The organisation tends to work through thematic cycles, taking place within an interlocking framework of four elements: Art, Education, Digital and Environment.

“The absolute sweet spot is where the four circles of this Venn diagram intersect, of course,” says James, “but it’s hard to think of a project we’ve done that is in just one circle. My biggest passion is in the Arts/Education intersection. We regularly work with young people who are not in mainstream education, many of whom can be quite fragile, using creativity to help them open up and explore. It’s not just about painting and drawing, but also electronics, robotics and other types of contemporary art that are quite hard to categorise – what some people have described as: ‘weird stuff.’

“I’ve come across studies that ask, ‘Does participation in art lead to higher attainment in Maths?’ This frustrates me. Why not ask the question the other way round? And why can’t art be an end in itself? I’ve seen for myself the transformation that occurs when people are given the opportunity to engage with art. For example, we’ve been delighted to offer a paid placement to a student who first participated in our education programme in 2016, as part of a placement and vocational training model that seeks to address the lack of diversity within the sector and develop pathways into cultural education and employment in areas of low cultural engagement. This was in partnership with Engage, the UK’s leading charity for promoting engagement and participation in the visual arts.”

Primary funding source for the organisation is Arts Council England, but it also has some support from Northants Community Foundation and various local authorities, including North Northants Council.

“We’ve been around for over 25 years, and most organisations of our age and quality are what are called National Portfolio Organisations, and as such they get regular finance. We’re not currently an NPO, so we have to be nimble. Regular funding would be useful, though. It can feel like it’s a constant cycle of applications for money.”

Alongside James’s interest in the educational element, all sections of the organisation’s work are important to him.

“The Digital side is key to a lot of what we do. Working online removes access barriers and much of our innovation happens in the digital realm. On the Environment, we often address this topic and climate-related issues through our creative programme and have received a special commendation from the Nick Reeves Arts and Environment Award for this. We also work in an environmentally responsible way, recently achieving Active Membership Status with Gallery Climate Coalition’s international community. While we value the diversity that comes with working internationally, we no longer fly artists and instead look for more sustainable solutions.”

A digital art project with local students.

James’s boundless enthusiasm shines through as he struggles to pick out a favourite project. One highlight, though, was Child’s Play, a sculpture-performance-play created by Aeneas Wilder in The Core at Corby Cube in September 2022. Over the course of five days, thousands of uniform lengths of recycled Iroko wood were used to build a self-supporting structure on the floor of the theatre space. The construction process was open to the public to view. Then on the sixth day the entire piece was ceremoniously knocked down, subverting any ideas of hierarchy.

Aeneas Wilder’s performance play.

“This was an amazing thing to be involved with. Watching the sculpture grow with only balance and gravity holding the wood in place was fascinating. When it fell it was eerily beautiful. The sound was incredible. One key result, though, was the extensive reach the project had. Aeneas had been into Exeter Primary School and Lodge Park Academy in Corby and worked with the children there, many of whom hadn’t had anything much to do with art before.

“They were fascinated by him – he’s part Scottish and part Japanese – and told their parents about him, and encouraged them to take them to The Core to see the sculpture. For some of the visitors, it was the first time they’d set foot inside, even though it’s right in the middle of the town. Having broken down that barrier, though, we know from the theatre that many of them have since returned for other performances, which is great.

“One of the most inciteful questions came from a member of the public who asked, ‘When is the sculpture finished? When it’s fully built or when it’s knocked down?’ A great question and absolutely the sort of response we’re looking for to demonstrate that art can be for everyone. This is one of the rewards of the job, that and achieving recognition for the Fermynwoods Contemporary Art name not just with audiences, but also throughout the artistic community.”

At the moment, the team members work remotely, although there is an admin base in Thrapston. They are, however, currently looking for a permanent physical home.

“We work across a range of spaces, but it does mean that each group might be unaware of all that we are doing. It would also help us engage with the public more if they knew where to find us regularly.

“By crossing physical thresholds we can overcome perceptions of elitism in art. We want to enable audiences to explore commonality and difference through artistic experiences and new perspectives, to develop wellbeing, to reach their potential and find their place in the world through art.”

Learn more about Fermynwoods Contemporary Art on its website.

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