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Brenda Baxter – Lady Bay Arts Festival

We thought it would be interesting to bring you good news stories from Nottingham Trent University graduates who have gone on to work in Nottingham’s thriving creative sector. To start the series, here’s our interview with Brenda Baxter, who graduated with an MA in Fine Art from NTU in 2012 and has gone on to become a practising artist and the Coordinator of the Lady Bay Arts Festival.

How long has Lady Bay Arts Festival been running?

Since 1995 artists living in Lady Bay have organised public open arts events as an alternative to showing in galleries. This allowed more artists control of the exhibition process. Between 1995 & 2010 artists opened their studios for one weekend every other summer, inviting other guest artists along to share their spaces. Today Lady Bay has a reputation as a place with a strong creative tradition that extends outside the area welcoming artists from all over to take part.

Formerly known as Lady Bay Open Studios, the Lady Bay Arts Festival was launched with a new logo in 2012. Sponsorship was secured from the Nottinghamshire County Councillors’ fund to help develop the festival’s new art programme aimed at young people, children and families. With addition of a small amount of funding from local businesses, the first Lady Bay Arts Festival took place in May. The event has grown each year to the extent that in 2016 over 70 artists exhibited in 26 venues with the addition of a range of workshops and activities throughout the arts trail. To make this happen, in the region of 100 volunteers were recruited to help manage and oversee the smooth running over the weekend.

Currently the festival takes place annually on every third weekend in May. In addition to artists’ studios, it recruits people in the community to open their homes and gardens to host artists. Public spaces such as All Hallows Church, the Scout Hut, two local pubs and cafes open to host artists. The Lady Bay Primary School is one of the main focal points with a weekend of art workshops and activities for children and families.

What is the aim of the festival?

The festival’s intention is to ensure that a diverse range of artistic practices is easily accessible to as wide a spectrum of visitors as possible. Furthermore, that visitors will experience something that is both informative and enjoyable. As the arts trail covers all corners of Lady Bay, refreshments are provided by the pubs, cafes and pop up eating places in homes and gardens. Ensuring accessibility for both participants and visitors underpins my role as coordinator in putting together a visual arts festival programme that provides interesting alternatives to galleries and other established art organisations.

Lady Bay traditionally has a strong sense of community. It’s important that the festival team positively engages people living and working in Lady Bay who support a culture of creativity in a welcoming environment. A significant new approach of engagement has been to expand the provision of workshops by commissioning experienced artists to run art related activities for both adults and children at the school and across the arts trail.

The festival is committed to investing in its own future. By raising enough funds from admission, commission of artists’ sales and sponsorship it can invest in other projects. Recently it launched a Young Persons Visual Arts Award offering £250 each to two artists aged between 16 – 25 years to develop their chosen project for the arts trail.

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How important are art festivals for culture/artists – as an alternative to arts organisations/galleries?

Whilst many art galleries bid and apply for public funds in order to fund complex organisational systems, the Arts Festival has existed on a small budget by operating a more grassroots, simplified system of selection managed by volunteers who are themselves practicing artists.

The Festival has been particularly important in the development of careers of artists, not just those living locally but from all over. It brings together an eclectic range of participants who have the motivation and talent to show in a temporary non-gallery environment. This is challenging as each venue is very different and as a result, each year curating their spaces changes and brings a sense of freshness and novelty to the programme.

As a non-profit organisation run by a team of volunteers, I’ve found a unique creative freedom to plan and develop each year’s programme differently. For example, introducing a new theme in some key venues to give visitors a more dynamic and unexpected experience of visual art. The theme in 2017 is Fabrication so I’m already speaking to artists about how this can be achieved. The festival has raised a small budget to commission site-specific pieces so it’s excited about Fabrication and engaging new artists. Hopefully this opportunity will help to develop their practice outside the usual experiences of galleries, studios and academic settings.

What is your background and story as an artist?

In 1978 I completed a BA History and Theory of Art at Sussex University. Since there were few art jobs in Brighton at that time, I worked on an arts programme for six months with adults with mental heath issues. My interest in working with people resulted in taking a Masters in Social Work and becoming employed as a social worker in Children’s Services. This career lasted for 25 years until in 2005 I gave up social work. Eventually I took a leap of faith in myself as a creative person and returned to studying. Firstly a Diploma in Creative Writing at Birmingham City University followed by a HNC in Fine Art at Central Nottingham. It was at this time whilst studying fine art that I became involved with Open Arts events in Lady Bay and opened my home to host and show my work with the Nottingham Calligraphers. Besides writing a blog Art I’ve Seen, I exhibited a large-scale drawing as part of the 9th East Wing Hang at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

In 2010 I registered on the MA Fine Art Registered Project at Nottingham Trent. My project was concerned with locating urban islands (Lady Bay being one) and exploring the concept of islomania – a love or obsession with islands. Inspired by times I had lived on and worked on Iona, Inner Hebrides. Based on Lady Bay as an island, I designed the Lady Bay Arts Festival logo, which has helped to brand and market the event.

Although disappointed by the fewer numbers of fine art postgraduates, there was a chance to meet other postgraduates on other courses. One photography postgraduate formed a vibrant group called White Tack to improve communication and support. I also took part in Giving The Eye, a visual art performance at Nottingham Contemporary collaborated by NTU and Dance4. Moreover Nottingham at this time was vibrant and interesting with the 7th British Art Show opening at the brand new award wining Nottingham Contemporary Gallery as well as exciting exhibitions and public events taking place against a backdrop of numerous artist-run shows in Nottingham based studios. So, inspired by these experiences, I accepted the chance to take over the organisation and development of the arts festival in Lady Bay.

Currently my time is spent coordinating the festival and working with a small team of volunteer artists. Typically this role means putting in about 300 hours a year. The fact that I do this as a volunteer means I can determine how much time to commit. I get great satisfaction from bringing together my skills and expertise as a public services manager with my artistic abilities. This is important to my identity as an artist. I can then set aside the time to concentrate upon working in my studio on writing, printing and drawing.

My advice is that anyone starting out on an artistic career should focus on nurturing their creative aspirations, especially at times of rejection because this is paramount to survival. By accepting positive criticism and learning opportunities, emerging artists should try holding on to an enduring self-belief. Ultimately this helps to propagate what we can contribute to societal well-being and to feel visible and significant.

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You became involved whilst studying at NTU – was it through university that you discovered the festival?

No – my supervisor and students I met in the Fine Art department seemed unaware of the festival. One Fine Art tutor commented, following a visit to his student showing in a domestic venue in Rutland Road, that he’d never visited Lady Bay before and hadn’t even know it existed! Previously there was some history of students living in Lady Bay who had taken on organising the festival. For example, Wolfgang Buttress, MA Fine Art 1987 – now award winning international artist and Honorary Doctor of Fine Art, who until recently lived in Lady Bay, organised the Open Arts Lady Bay maintaining links with NTU.

Fortunately in 2012 I had the chance to raise awareness of my involvement in the festival by exhibiting part of my MA project at All Hallows Church – to which my supervisor visited. There was also a chance to ask other students, both undergraduate and postgraduate to show since I was coordinating the event and curating the venues. Other factors have helped to increase links, for instance, the following year the School of Art and Design’s Marketing department offered sponsorship, which has continued each year.

How do you think the festival helps NTU students/graduates

The festival provides a platform for students and graduates to show their work outside their academic setting. In doing so, they will encounter a diverse audience and higher footfalls of visitors over the weekend, possibly more than a degree show… Most festival venues record in the region of 700 visitors over the weekend. The total number of admissions (i.e. brochures sold at the gate) was 1700 in 2015 & 2016 respectively. I do believe that it’s a brilliant event in which to participate for a student and emerging artist.

Showing in Lady Bay offers opportunities to engage with the public, to share practices and to deal with visitors’ responses and queries. It also gives a chance to sell work and to get an idea of what is successful. It also offers opportunities to show conceptual art. One of the most important aspects of my role is to identify the most suitable venue for every artist taking part. The aim is to try to look after every artist and to guarantee amazingly hospitable hosts who are prepared to adapt and clear their homes to accommodate an artist. Consequently it’s very rewarding to be part of a positive learning experience, which provides an enormous chance for students/graduates taking the first step to exhibiting.

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How is NTU involved in the festival?

It’s important as an organiser that I maintain links with NTU both through sponsorship and by offering opportunities for graduates, staff and alumni to show.

How far afield do artists/visitors come from?

Whilst it’s important to engage as many practicing local artists as we can, this isn’t of primary importance because what we want to show is an interesting range of high quality art. Artists have taken part from Nottingham, London, Wolverhampton, Shropshire, Leicester and Derby, to name a few. Over the past four years, visitor numbers have grown to 2,000 and mainly come from around Nottingham, Derby and Leicester.

Do you think the festival has helped to put Nottingham on the art map?

Yes, I definitely believe that the festival has increasingly contributed to the diversity of art opportunities available in Nottingham. We’re working on engaging the Creative Quarter and NTU to recognise us as a resource, which reaches out to city based artists and provides opportunities to sell work and to promote their businesses. This year artists’ overall sales were a record £19,000, which is remarkable achievement for one weekend. Next year we’d hope to be included as part of the Nottingham Art Weekender should our event fall on the same weekend. I feel quite passionate about this inclusivity especially as many of our exhibiting artists live and work within the city boundaries. City versus County boundaries really shouldn’t apply because creative relationships and partnerships do exist across geographical demarcations.

Nottingham is currently developing a 10 year strategy for culture in the city, what would you like to be included in that strategy?

I’ve just read up some more on this fantastic opportunity for Nottingham. The Nottingham Cultural Framework hopefully will consider Lady Bay Arts Festival. Despite being marginally outside the city boundaries we’re an organisation that wants to be part of maintaining our close links with Nottingham based artists and businesses, particularly since a number of artists who live in Lady Bay are also based in the city.

The festival has demonstrated over the past few years that its strategies in public and community engagement supported by volunteers works and are sustainable. An outcome of its success was in November 2014 it won the Rushcliffe Borough Council’s Award for Supporting the Local Economy. Evaluating this success has proved that it has more raised more capital to invest in future programmes, more than quadrupled visitor footfall and increased the scope of artists so it would be fantastic news if we were involved in some way.

To find out more about Brenda Baxter visit her website

To find out more about Lady Bay Arts Festival please visit ladybayarts.org.uk or email info@ladybayarts.org.uk