MA Curation Practices alumnus tells us about his Armley lockdown community art projects

23 October 2020
James Gray, MA Curation Practices

MA Curation Practices alumnus, James Gray, shares how two years of study at Leeds Arts University led to the founding of a community-interest-company, Graft Collaborative CIC, and projects addressing lockdown challenges in the Leeds ward of Armley.  

I moved to Armley in 2018 around the same time that I began studying towards my MA Curation Practices at Leeds Arts University. I have enjoyed discovering a new area with a wealth of parks; community centres, organisations and groups; and network of creatives and a fantastic community, driven to make neighbourhood improvements and connect with each other.

Image: MA Curation Practises alumni, James Gray, in Armley, Leeds  

My background is in interdisciplinary performative practice, social entrepreneurship and community engagement and during the MA I chose to focus on developing a practice that would allow me to create informative, engaging and unusual works, tackling some of the barriers to arts and culture present in our city.

I call this my ‘living’ practice. Principles of community ownership, empowerment, independent learning choices, self-led discoveries, playful exploration, meaningful collaborations, locality, sustainability, revisionist approaches, accessible spaces, are the foundations from which I create projects, providing opportunities for learning, growth and fun.

For my final MA project, I founded a non-profit community-interest-company, Graft Collaborative CIC. The company’s aims follow key areas of learning on the MA course: bringing together creatives to develop projects for communities; getting to the heart of curation; to ‘care’ and inspire others to do the same; to unite in exploring and tackling important social issues, while sharing our skills and knowledge to grow together.

This ethos has inspired the creation of an unusual, nomadic exhibition space PLAYGROUND:. Each ‘playground’ is a site-specific design, in a non-institutional space, aimed at allowing participants to explore important social issues for themselves in fun, playful, non-traditional ways. PLAYGROUND: Exploring Armley gave residents the opportunity to explore hidden facts about their community. With funding from local councillors, I installed a sign, in Armley Park, with a scannable QR code that brought up a daily link to something ‘Armley-ish’, such as hidden histories, local stories and details of local businesses and charities.

Using digital technologies in analogue ways is something the course helped me to discover and am keen to explore further. Over 35 days, we had over 120 unique visitors, with 20,000 engagements across social media. This project saw us nominated by the community for Best Newcomer Volunteer Award, which we won and were included in the West Leeds Dispatch’s lockdown edition. We have now received funding from Leeds Inspired and Assembly House to create an online map with these discoveries and artwork by local creatives, which we will expand year on year with a permanent sign.

Our new project, PLAYGROUND: Exploring Mental Health Awareness is funded and supported by Leeds Community Foundation and Interplay Theatre. We’re creating a rockery where residents and creatives can place painted rocks around the themes of isolation, grief and loss. These will include messages of support, connectivity, memorials and information about local mental health services, groups and organisations. We will be filming this project and interviews for our digital networking platform, Grafters Space, funded by Leeds City Council Inner West Community Committee. To get involved, connect through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.