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by Kiara Corales, Programme Assistant at Arnolfini

My time as Arnolfini’s inaugural Programme Assistant has come to an end so I wanted to share my reflections on the joys of working with communities and the learnings I’ve taken from working with a small but ambitious team in the heart of Bristol.

I consider community engagement an important part of my creative practice. I’m interested in the ways that people and diverse communities interact with and experience art. My goal is to make cultural spaces accessible and empower people through art and creativity. But what does this look like?

Being Programme Assistant gave me the opportunity to step into the world of cultural programming, working primarily between two departments, Engagement and Exhibitions. I got to work with Arnolfini’s long-term community partners – AIM, creativeShift, Let’s Make Art, Rising Arts Agency, and Bridges for Communities – co-produce community events, and lead on developing some really fun projects.

Our audience and community partners heavily influence our decision making and the things we produce. This embedded practice of programming for and with the people that we serve resonated with my values. Over time I developed a deep interest in the art of interpretation. In art school, you don’t really think about meaningful ways people can engage with your artwork. You explore ideas that people might take from an artwork but not how they might come to this conclusion. You don’t even really think about who these people are. But in my role, this was something I thought about every single day. Who are walking in through those doors? What are the different ways people can connect with the work in a meaningful way? How do we bridge this gap between the artwork and audience, local community and cultural institution?

My wonderful mentors Gemma Brace (Head of Exhibitions) and Keiko Higashi (Head of Engagement) really broadened my understanding of what interpretation is and could be. It isn’t just the texts you read on the walls, but it certainly starts from the moment you enter the building. It could be a warm welcome, a tactile resource, a family workshop, a community exhibition, audio description, live music, a gathering, a creative wellbeing activity, a place to sit, a place to share your response – anything that provides a way for people to engage in a way that best suits their needs and interest. I loved unlearning art speak and deconstructing traditional notions of how art galleries ‘should’ be. It was also inspiring to be prioritising ways to ensure everyone feels welcome.

One of my favourite parts of the job was writing the audio descriptions for our major exhibitions. This resource offered an accessible way for people who are blind or partially sighted to experience visual arts. A bridge. I’d never done anything like this before but it’s such a fascinating exercise in observation and I’ve learned so much about different ways of ‘looking’ from the VI community that engage in our guided audio described tours. I am 100% an advocate for audio descriptions and will be carrying this learning and practice forward to future endeavours.

Another highlight was co-producing Moon Fest alongside ESEAS (East and Southeast Asian Solidarity) Bristol in 2022, and Desis Organise Takeover with Desis Organise during the final weekend of Bharti Kher: The Body is a Place in 2023, both local grassroots community groups that I am really inspired by. We proudly celebrated Asian heritage and culture and through a day of live music performances, poetry, film screenings, art markets, DJ’ing and food sharing. These projects taught me a lot about collaboration, community-centred approaches, and embedding care in the process of developing long-term partnerships.

I worked with Bristol-based charity Black2Nature on a Forestzine presented in Arnolfini during Forest: Wake this Ground. I and two talented artists, Jade Harding and Indiana Lawrence were invited to join one of their nature camps for young people where we offered print making workshops encouraging them to respond to their experiences of being in nature. The resulting co-created zine was an offering to visitors, centring young people of colour’s experiences of nature and providing an alternative way of understanding the exhibition through community voices. It’s fulfilling putting community perspectives first and working to ensure that people see themselves and their experiences represented and reflected in the galleries.

Other projects I worked on are the Feeling Wall and Making Cards during Threads: Breathing stories into materials. I’m particularly fond of the Feeling Wall and the benefits of providing multi-sensory and tactile resources in enhancing gallery experience. I’m also grateful to the talented artists and makers who generously contributed their textile artworks to this resource. I co-developed the Eye Spy trail and Arnolfini Activity Cards with Charlotte Callis, our amazing Visitors Services Supervisor, and designed by Jade Harding. I hope everyone can find joy in the details and in looking, listening, and exploring the spaces. I co-ordinated community gatherings, inviting community groups to use the gallery space for their group meeting, using the exhibition as a starting point for their activity. I also supported in various community exhibitions from creativeShift’s Tapestry, BE[LOVED] which was a Rising Arts Agency Takeover showcasing three talented Rising artists, Moss Habitats, a schools exhibition inspired by Juneau Projects and their public art project at UWE Frenchay campus, and Stitching Together, co-produced with Bridges for Communities and our Women’s Craft Group. The labels and vinyls you see when you go into the galleries? I made those.

As Programme Assistant I was a bridge between many different people and ideas, and I loved it. Especially seeing diverse communities thrive in historically unwelcoming spaces and engaging in art in ‘unconventional’ ways. No two days were the same, and I felt a real sense of joy in seeing how a gallery space can be transformed from being just a white cube with art we don’t understand or connect to, into a vibrant contemporary arts centre where people can have meaningful interactions with art and each other and engage in everyday creativity.

I’m going to miss working with the community groups I’ve gotten to know and work with in the past 18 months, our incredible partners who have taught me so much about compassion and art without borders, co-ordinating and delivering audio described tours with our incredible Visitors Services team who I’ve learned so much from, seeing all the amazing creative responses in the community workshop, our Women’s Craft Group (I’ll be back as a participant!), working with incredible artists, and most importantly the rest of the Arnolfini team with their kindness, ingenuity, generosity and vision of an arts centre I can get behind. What’s next for me? Who knows. But I think I’m going in the right direction.