A county’s cultural wellbeing can’t be gauged only by its flashy visitor attractions. Just as important, and arguably more so, are organisations like The Forge.
Its laudable purpose, according to the website, is to “create courageous and contemporary participatory arts projects that inspire young people to become successful, confident individuals capable of reaching their full potential”.
Executive director Tony Harrington traces the origins of The Forge to a time when the Arts Council was talking to local authorities about the quality of work happening in schools.
There was a sense, he explains, that it was variable and that opportunities were sometimes missed. To rectify matters, arts education agencies were established and in the heat of the moment The Forge was born.
Initially based at the old DLI Museum & Art Gallery in Durham, the organisation relocated to the former pit town of Stanley. From there, together with partners, it has been firing people’s imagination ever since.
Tony, whose passion has been crucial to its success, points to Eton College, famous producer of Prime Ministers, with its array of professionally staffed theatres.
He doesn’t use the phrase ‘levelling up’ but that’s what The Forge has been pursuing for years.
“I don’t understand why kids in Durham and the North East who aren’t at schools like that shouldn’t have access to the same level of cultural opportunity, because we all know that the more opportunities you have to engage with different ways of thinking and seeing the world, the more rounded a human being you’ll be.
“That’s at the heart of what has always driven the organisation.
“I say it grandly, but I kind of mean it really: we try to improve the life chances of young people in County Durham through opportunities to engage with culture, with artists, with people who they probably wouldn’t get the chance to work with normally.”
Some of the big projects have been extraordinary.
What participating pupil at Woodhouse Community Primary School in Bishop Auckland could ever forget Reimagining Beowulf, where they studied the Old English epic poem with writer and theatre director David Napthine before staging a performance in Auckland Castle’s medieval chapel?
Then there was the educational work inspired by The Tin Ring, the moving memoir of Holocaust survivor Zdenka Fantlova which was adapted for the stage by Jane Arnfield and Mike Alfreds.
As with another drama-based initiative funded by Prevent, the Government-led programme designed to protect young people from radicalisation, it was about inspiring empathy.
“It’s something we do a lot in our work, encouraging young people to walk in someone else’s shoes,” says Tony.
“The Tin Ring is about the Holocaust, it’s about love, it’s about all sorts of things… but for a young person it’s about placing themselves in Zdenka’s shoes and understanding from her perspective what the world was like and what it means to us now.”
The Forge works with communities and schools. The latter, he believes, have become more sophisticated in their understanding of culture while they have also become harder pressed.
Budgets are tighter for one thing, he says.
“There are more pressures on teachers,” adds Bev Briggs, creative producer at The Forge. “There’s a lot more plate-spinning that has to be done.”
Some of the showcase events of the early years would be less likely to happen now, they reckon. Instead, the emphasis is more on how to integrate arts and culture into an education sector subject to constant scrutiny.
“One-off events are fine, part of the mix, but to make a systemic shift, you have to think deeper and act longer. You’re asking schools to shift their thinking,” says Tony.
This is something many have been happy to do via the Artsmark Award scheme, a creative quality standard for schools and education settings accredited by Arts Council England.
The Forge, involved since Artsmark began 20 years ago, works with Culture Bridge North East to deliver the scheme across the region.
Bev Briggs says it works because it is sensitive to the pressures on teachers and is “a way for schools to deliver arts and culture in a way that’s absolutely appropriate to them”.
It has been “massively popular” in this region, says Tony, more so than in any other, with a quarter of schools getting involved
“We’ve worked with schools that have had a lot of issues and they’ve used Artsmark to improve the perception of the school and how teachers feel about working there.
“You don’t have to be a gold standard school to have a broad cultural offer. If you asked me what would make a school a better place to send my kid to, it’s probably if they’re doing an Artsmark award.”
The Artsmark approach chimes with The Forge’s bespoke method of working which has benefited many young people.
Tony and Bev run an arts development programme for DurhamWorks, which supports people aged 16 to 24, helping young artists turn a talent into a means of making a living.
They also cite the case of Katharine Goda, a “wonderful” writer who sent some poems to The Forge and was invited to join an emerging artist programme they developed in partnership with Northern Heartlands. She went on to become a key associate artist for The Forge and won a Northern Writers’ Award from New Writing North.
Katharine was involved in an innovative project The Forge undertook with funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, using cameras in schools to develop communication skills on the premise that modern children are adept at telling stories through image-making.
The pandemic brought challenges for The Forge, as it did for all, but nimble adaptations enabled good things to happen.
A Community Foundation-funded project which would have seen poets Bob Beagrie and Rowan McCabe going into schools instead went online, with the positive upshot that teachers became more closely involved as co-facilitators.
Another big schools and community project, delayed by Covid-19, is now starting to take shape.
Everyday Heroes, Everyday Lives, funded by Stanley Area Action Partnership, will, says Bev, “celebrate the resilience of the communities in Stanley and some of the local heroes who have gone above and beyond”.
Acclaimed portrait photographer Madeleine Waller is to be involved and the intended outcomes include an exhibition and work displayed outside on the high street.
It augurs well for the county’s UK City of Culture 2025 bid with which Tony has been heavily involved. He sees that year as “a starting point to move on in terms of what culture can do to make County Durham a better place to work, live and study in.
“It is there to enable us to up the stakes in all sorts of ways, in terms of the visitor economy but also how culture is delivered in schools and with young people.
“I’d want to see a big shift in what is currently on offer to young people.”