“Do you want a cup of tea?” – Learning from The White House

Thursday, 18 July 2019

by Susanne Burns, Evaluation Support Consultant

Back in late 2017, when I was asked to work with Create London to develop and support their approach to evaluating The White House in Dagenham, I was intrigued. Here was a project that I had not heard of – an artists’ house on the Becontree Estate in Dagenham which was the largest social housing estate in Europe when it was built almost 100 years ago. This was different, exciting and appealed to my need to be constantly challenged.

(c) Emil Charlaff

My initial conversations with the team took place by Skype and I remember being blown away by their openness and determination to embed reflection and learning into the work they were doing in the House and to use it to inform the project as it moved forward. This approach resonated with my own approach and we began working together in early 2018.

Our learning is already rich and is informing the programme in an iterative way. It is being drawn from largely qualitative data gathering – which sounds technical but it really isn’t. It is a joy to visit the house every couple of months and catch up with Dave who is the caretaker, to meet with the poet Terry who is also one of the leading “Keepers” of the House, chat to 19-year-old Aislinn who tells me they have been accepted for University and to meet Paul, Colin and Melody who have been working in the garden.  Their stories tell us about the impact the house is having on the people who use it, who drink tea in its kitchen, who answer the doorbell and who will tend its community garden now it is completed. Alongside this, I have had the privilege of meeting with some exceptionally committed artists who have taken up residence for periods of time in the house’s studios and bedrooms. We have discussed socially engaged art, their own practices and approaches and the impact of working in a domestic environment on their art. 

The house is a domestic space – it has a living room, bedrooms, a garden and a kitchen. The community of people who engage with the space is growing, the programme of activity is being co-created with those that wish to access it and the team who run the house are seen as equals. Artists become temporary community members and traditional boundaries and hierarchies are challenged: “….. living and working with people in The White House makes the usual boundaries less distinct. I have visited a lot of people’s houses and have some understanding of the neighbourhood and the nature of the community as a result. I’ve made close friends with a lot of people.”

(c) Emil Charlaff

What is it that the house has that nowhere else has, that keeps them coming back? It is safe, open and inclusive, it provides a social space. In the words of one regular, “It is a home with a history. A house where artists live upstairs and where there is a kitchen and a programme of workshops for local people downstairs. A friendly atmosphere where the first thing you get asked as you come in ‘do you want a cup of tea?’ A garden with events. Not a gallery or an arts centre …. ”

(c) Emil Charlaff

Importantly, the long-term aim is to work towards a bespoke company model and governance structure that transfers decision making to the community. This will not be an easy journey but is already proving rewarding and is generating a great deal of learning. In the words of a local artist: “For too long, there had been projects here but they would end and there was no legacy. People took things with them. The White House can be a legacy in itself.”

In working towards The White House becoming a truly different kind of space which doesn’t emulate the traditional institutional practices of the art world, there are many challenges. Fairness and transparency, open communication and working in non-hierarchical ways whilst balancing governance and accountability, enabling different voices to be heard whilst working inter-generationally and inter-culturally all requires careful orchestration, careful questioning of ‘the way things are run’ and the traditional practices of running an arts space. 

The White House is different – it potentially represents a new kind of arts space in a community and this requires new approaches to both day to day and strategic management, project planning and facilitation and curation. It is challenging hierarchies, exploring approaches to co-creation and community driven provision and decision making and this requires an openness and honesty from the team as well as the organisation who are ultimately accountable for it. What is being achieved – and what can potentially be achieved – takes – and will take – time and trust and phased approaches to generating ownership and localized empowerment. This is no quick fix.

(c) Emil Charlaff

Getting to know the Create team and their ethos has been exciting and our learning journey has developed into a shared one. We are seeking to use the evaluation of The White House to inform the wider Create London programme, to explore approaches that might be transferable and to develop capacity across the organisation. We are also seeking to find ways to share our learning with the wider sector and to create opportunities where we might learn from others doing similar work.  Why keep it to ourselves? 

Read Susanne’s Interim Evaluation report here.