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Research Summary

Art, Education, Space: A study of multi-public educational organisations in the UK since the late nineteenth century (working title)

My PhD thesis researches models of educational organisations in the UK, historically and today, that have combined the functions of school, community space, and cultural centre. It does so through the analysis of three main case studies:

  • The late 19th century university settlement Toynbee Hall - a residential centre for educational, social, and cultural work among the socioeconomically deprived in Whitechapel, East London;
  • The 1970s community arts space Centerprise - a neighbourhood centre integrating a bookshop, literacy and publishing activities, and an advice centre in Hackney, East London;
  • The 2010s independent art school and cultural space Open School East in Hackney and later Margate, East Kent.

The multi-vision, multi-purpose, and multi-public nature of these three organisations distinguishes them from the more common model by which schools serve students through the means of learning activities, community centres serve members of the local community through the means of social and cultural inclusion activities, and cultural centres serve spectators and/or viewers through the means of artistic experiences and activities. In contrast, Toynbee Hall, Centerprise, and Open School East provide activities and programmes that are simultaneously engaged with learning, social inclusion, and the provision of cultural and artistic experiences, and that concurrently serve people of diverse generations, classes, cultures, and communities of interests; amateurs and professionals; and locals and non-locals.

The organisational model under scrutiny in this PhD tends towards agility and improvisation, and away from constraint and convention; towards an ideal of alternativeness, a determination to operate differently, unexpectedly, and in a reactive manner rather than by design. Its characteristics are: a small staff with generalist and/or multitasking skills; a flexible approach to space use; an informal and often participant-led approach to programming and delivery; an agenda in flux, responding to needs, circumstances, and events as they occur; and, last but not least, unsteady finances. Put differently, and in a nutshell, the type of organisation this PhD is enquiring into is non-specialist, collaborative, reactive, nimble, and grassroots. Its informal and ever-evolving nature, so crucial to its ethos, can also place a strain on both its human resources and ability to sustain itself financially.

The present research sets out to unpick this model at the levels of pedagogical, cultural, and social practice and engagement; conceptualisation and use of architectural space; and governance, management, and finance. It aims to analyse, based on three different case studies and beyond, the patterns, benefits, potentials, and pitfalls of multi-public educational organisations, and to weigh up ideals versus reality, intent versus outcome. This PhD asks: What makes organisations alternative and what are they alternatives to? What does it take to remain alternative or, put differently, do alternatives have a lifespan? Can these organisations constitute more widespread models of practice?

The topics and fields of enquiry relevant to my research include community, adult, democratic, and arts education; critical pedagogy; architecture; spatial, utopian, critical, and organisationsal studies; and community, socially-engaged, and public art.

School of Geography

Sir Clive Granger Building
University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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