Photography: The Laundromat Project
A couple of weeks ago I went to an event hosted by Axisweb and Heart of Glass called ‘With, For, About: Conversations about collaboration’. The day kicked off with a provocation quote from Lilla Watson (an artist, activist and academic): “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
This quote was particularly powerful for me as I’ve been clocking up the miles up and down the country and abroad meeting with organisations whose actions embody this quote. I’ve been asking questions like ‘what can you tell me about power?’ and ‘what does relevance look like?’ of Artistic Directors, CEOs and Engagement Managers of massive national and small, radical arts charities. My own research has fitted fantastically with my Clore secondment at Manchester International Festival, where I’m writing recommendations for the community led design of My Festival, a creative community of over 1000 people in Manchester.
My Clore Fellowship quest has taken me to Mexico City, New York, Manchester, Cardiff, Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, and London. In my last blog I talked about a multi-disciplinary approach to art and culture on an enormous city-wide scale in Mexico City. This time, I’ll be sharing my learning from a more grass roots approach. A month ago I went to New York City, where I visited one organisation that I can’t stop thinking about. It’s called The Laundromat Project.
On a beautiful sunny day, I met with Hatuey Ramos-Fermín, the Director of Programmes and Communities at the Kelly Street Collaborative, a new space that The Laundromat Project and partners are transforming from a two bedroom apartment into a thriving creative community hub with an artist studio, arts programming, and a community garden in the South Bronx.
Each year, The Laundromat Project supports artistic residencies in Laundromats in three ethnically diverse neighbourhoods: Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Over the past ten years, the organisation has worked with over 125 artists and designers, and over 40 different projects. What I loved about the Laundromat Project is that it fuses artistic practice and community development in a way that I hadn’t seen before, and that the Laundromat is the perfect place to start a relationship with the community.
Prior to beginning residencies in the Laundromats, artists who live or are connected to the neighbourhood of the laundromat are trained by community development leaders who also mentor them throughout their project. During the training, artists access training in community development approaches such as asset mapping (a community development tool used to map the best things about a neighbourhood), cultural organising, listening skills, and policy approaches to art. Crikey, I thought, if only the organisations that say ‘we’re really struggling to reach this community’ could see The Laundromat Project. If organisations had models that allowed them to be in and with the community starting from a place of dialogue, I don’t think we’d hear the phrase ‘hard to reach’ half as often! Stephanie Dinkins, Create Change resident and board member of The Laundromat Project said “the artists are making a conversation…and to stumble upon that, is magical.”
Of course, people do truly stumble upon the laundromats. What is geniusis that laundromats are where the majority of people do their laundry in NYC, since it’s unusual to have washing machines in apartments, and are therefore democratic, diverse, and social community spaces. People are going there anyway and they have plenty of time to collaborate. Artistic residencies have been multi-disciplinary, ranging from a project that recreated the Native American custom of trade in an urban environment, allowing a mutual exchange between neighbors, to Yoga workshops and a social hub where community members engaged and shared stories collected as a Lonely Planet-style guidebook. Nyoh Tittle, the owner of one of the Laundromats said “it has sparked such a creative interest in my daughter, she’s really into art now and she can’t go a day without creating something.” This model of working with artists who are already connected to the community, really approaching artistic practice using traditional community development methodologies, and working in social public spaces is powerful.
Ever since I met Hatuey, I’ve been wondering what the equivalent spaces are in the UK. I recently presented The Laundromat Project to my colleagues at Manchester International Festival. Afterwards, one colleague ran up to me and shouted ‘hairdressers’ - of course, everyone needs a haircut, and has time to kill whilst they’re doing it. I wonder what it would be like if some of the national arts organisations took a leaf out of the Laundromat project’s book when it comes to community engagement. Contemporary dance in a library? Opera at train platforms? Visual arts on a park run? I was so inspired by my trip to New York City that I’ve just applied to the School For Social Entrepreneurs to develop and pilot an artistic residency in my local bus station. Watch this space.