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Art as an eye-opener in a development perspective

by Peter E. Steens and Thomas Olesen, Skive Municipality, Communication, Development and Business and Commerce

Grasslands has been a revelation for us as municipal development consultants. One can really describe a “before and after”. Prior to Grasslands, we had never encountered art and culture as an active element in creating development and change in either rural, business or tourism development. It is thought-provoking that Grasslands in a surprisingly short length of time has gone from being a small, relatively unknown and quite literally far-out art project, to collaborative partner, often namechecked in national contexts.

In the municipality of Skive there are many local communities that through the virtue of proximity, volunteerism and community, shoulder a great deal. The degree of involvement varies over time depending on factors such as the constellation of individuals, momentum, projects’ success, project fatigue etc. Grasslands has proved to be a catalyst for that energy to be reinforced or revitalised and the effect of working with art has resulted in new understandings and changes.

Citizen participatory art such as Grasslands is not without its challenges, as the process involving the residents of Selde, Thorum, Åsted and Junget clearly demonstrates. Citizen participatory art demands much of the artists: patience, empathy and a willingness to compromise. Equally, it requires that the citizens, who have not previously had art as part of their daily life, are willing to be challenged and to enter into uncharted waters. This process has succeeded beyond all expectations in Grasslands.

In a development perspective, it has been, as we have mentioned, an eye-opener for us that citizen participatory art and the processes involved can led to an increase in engagement and change.

In Åsted, for example, it has proved possible to revive a local communities history and create a common awareness that the individual citizen can make a large difference and, to a great extent, influence how stimulating ones village can be to live in. In both Junget and Thorum, the residents themselves had already contemplated development initiatives, where the artists succeeded in raising the bar. In Junget, the collaboration with the artists clearly upped the ante in relation to the visions the residents of Junget had for the village park. The process up to this point had not been easy, but it is our understanding that red lines and mental barriers were shifted by all involved. Moreover, this is the premise for spurring development that progresses both physically and mentally. Junget has ended up with a unique work of art. On driving through the village, you unexpectedly encounter something that is both a sculpture and a building of sorts. And everyone who goes in and sits down for the first time is guaranteed a sensory experience, whether one is with others, or looking for peace and quiet alone.

The Art and Rural Development Conference, Rural Forum, proved that art could accomplish something very special in relation to energising dialogue across attitudes and disciplines. Rural Forum produced a meeting of artists, artworks, and experts from a variety of different professional backgrounds and locals with expertise in local conditions and practices. On the face of it, it sounds like a hotchpotch of differences but the results were fantastic. It led to enriching discussions between different interests, agendas and professional backgrounds that yielded new approaches and insights into the shaping of rural development.

The power of the Grasslands concept and citizen participatory art can also be felt in the continuation of new projects. With Project CHAIR, which focuses on the region’s tradition of furniture production, the circle behind Grasslands continues, and many of the associated volunteers work in the Fursund region in new organisations. Project CHAIR holds an exciting potential to create new activities and local engagement.

Grasslands has had a noticeable effect. The Fursund region is an area where art now spreads like rings in water and where it has become a vital part of development. Out there in the landscape, opinions are still divided in relation to art and the value of art in the public realm, but for us, it is indisputable, that Grasslands has begun a series of processes that have given new life to local initiatives and prompted a development, that will effect positive change in the region for many years to come.