Loz Samuels talks about commissioning

Loz Samuels is Artistic Director of Devizes Outdoor Celebratory Arts  

I’m Loz Samuels. I’m a festival programmer. I’ve previously been an Arts Development Officer. But I come at this as someone who has made work and struggled to perform so I know both sides of the coin. Today, we have talked about ‘lack of support’, artists ‘feeling isolated’, having ‘no security’ and ‘having to do commercial work’. I can connect with those things – they are why I became a programmer.

I was previously a performer and got to do lots of anarchic, creative projects from big collaborations to small events. It was all very punk rock and not always very well rewarded. I smoked cigarettes through a trapeze act because Chesterfield were sponsoring us once, we did whatever it took to make it happen. And then I got to 32 and I thought, ‘God, no wonder my mother’s worried. Maybe it’s time to do something else.’

I was previously a performer and got to do lots of anarchic, creative projects from big collaborations to small events. It was all very punk rock and not always very well rewarded. I smoked cigarettes through a trapeze act because Chesterfield were sponsoring us once, we did whatever it took to make it happen. And then I got to 32 and I thought, ‘God, no wonder my mother’s worried. Maybe it’s time to do something else.’

So, I made the transition from performance and I worked for a regeneration company and I learned all about commissioning public art. I did a massive consultation to create a new community centre arts venue in London. I had no experience whatsoever,  I was plunged in at the deep end into situations where 200 people would come and shout aggressively at me and I would go, ‘Oh ok’ and take the feedback back to the office to try and mediate with the developers.  I worked my way through it all and a range of other arts related jobs and eventually became an arts officer. 

I worked with architects and planners, developers and residents from challenging neighbourhoods. I was trying to put pieces of public art on estates where they didn’t really want them because they thought it was a waste of money, it was shit and who was that artist anyway? So I worked through all that keeping on learning. I’ve been commissioning and creating work from all sorts of angles and trying to navigate my way through the commissioning process for a long time.

Reuben Powell

I have a friend called Reuben Powell. He’s an artist. I met him in Berlin in a massive show that we did there. He used to paint quirky portraits and pictures of boats, he lived in the Elephant and Castle. He was angry because he couldn’t get money off the Arts Council and developers were coming in and knocking down the Elephant and Castle. He couldn’t find any studio space and he was really disillusioned. 

I met him in Berlin in a massive show that we did there. He used to paint quirky portraits and pictures of boats, he lived in the Elephant and Castle. He was really angry because he could never get money off the Arts Council and developers were coming in and knocking down half the Elephant and Castle, he couldn’t find any studio space and he was really disillusioned. 

He came to Malvern where I was living with a creative block and he had a total meltdown and I put it to him that, ‘Maybe you should go to the developers and just talk to them? Tell them what you do and see what they think. Why don’t you try documenting their work? Just say, ‘I’ll come and paint your building sites or something if you give me a space.’’ 

So he did. He basically went cap in hand and said, ‘You’re really messing up my neighbourhood and I don’t have anywhere to work. And they said, ‘You can have an office space if you like.’ He did these amazing pictures of their building work. So they gave him this really good space and they commissioned one of his paintings for their head office, which he was quite chuffed about. And now he’s running a shared work and gallery space, Hotel Elephant and it’s really thriving. He really took the bull by the horns and got on with it and he’s changed his life. He’s a really dynamic part of the Elephant and Castle now and thriving as an artist. 

I’m interested in that way of working – where you’re frustrated and you feel that everything’s shifting around you and there’s one big player with lots of power and maybe some money and you knock on the door and ask to play with them. I’ve got quite a lot of money off developers in the past because quite often they’ve got to engage with communities and they don’t really know what to do or how to talk to them. They don’t know how to talk to artists. They just haven’t got a clue. So if you go with a good idea, then quite often it works out. 

The Severn Project 2008 – Sabrina and the Engineer – a collaboration between Avanti Display, Pa Boom and Emergency Exit Arts

The Severn Project was a really complex project with performances located all along the river. I was a local authority Arts Officer for Wyre Forest District Council. The council had no money. We were at the arse end of nowhere but I got something from the regeneration team. We were partnering with Gloucestershire and Shropshire – they had lots of money in comparison. So I didn’t have any power. I didn’t know what I was doing and at the same time I was trying to develop a festival and I had far too much work. But I just thought, ‘I really want to make big outdoor shows, so whatever happens this is going to happen. We’re going to be a part of it!’ 

It was a really difficult process working with complex partners – museums, schools, hotels – everybody. It was a nightmare. The budgets were really hard to manage and trying to report back was difficult. I delivered speeches to the councillors saying, ‘We’re doing this amazing project can you give me another 10 grand please?’ From the artists’ point of view, I was the commissioner from the Wyre Forest and lots of artists argues about what they wanted to do while there was not enough money. I was not able to be very creative but it happened. 

It was a 4 year project, everyone worked really hard and it was amazing. Then Shropshire Council pulled out because they lost their arts team and there was no more money so that was the end of it. I didn’t have anyone else to partner with and no way of levering a significant amount of money so I couldn’t’ continue. I was really gutted even though it was very painful and it nearly killed me to do it, because I loved the results and I was really passionate about it. 

Then I started to consider how I wanted to develop relationships with artists. All the commissions that I’d done with public art projects went like, ‘Ok Loz, we’ve done all this development, we’ve built this hotel or these houses and we’ve got 15 grand. We need a piece of public art – can you do it? We’ve got a couple of weeks. Can you get some artists? It needs to be finished by the time we cut the ribbon and the mayor’s coming in a month. Is that ok?’ It was hideous. I couldn’t bear working with artists like that. 

So I just started thinking about other ways that I could work with artists – reflecting on what happened with Reuben. 

I was working as an arts officer in Kidderminster, which is where the carpet industry started, all around was carpet waste. All the streets were pilled up with it and I thought, ‘It would be really good to do something with that.’

I started talking to the rangers who were on the next desk when we moved into our open plan office. The rangers looked after all the nature reserves and the open spaces and they told me all about how the carpet industry was really bad and it polluted all the rivers. But the rivers are being cleaned up and there’s a big population of otters in Kidderminster. I got excited and thought ‘I really want to make something about this!’

So I went to Brintons carpets which was the last company making carpets in Kidderminster and said, ‘Right I’ve got this idea and I need shed loads of carpet. Can you give it to me?’ That was my match funding for the Arts Council. They gave me about 600 square metres of carpet and I got in touch with a pair of artists in Malvern called Jo and Kate De Burgh and I said, ‘I’ve got access to this space. I’ve got to pay for it but I’ll get it cheap because I’m employed by the council so they’ll give me preferential rates. It’s painted in pastel colours. It was built out of the money from the carpet industry for the workers so it’s a heritage space. Nobody goes in there because it’s a bit ominous and not very interesting. I got 100s of metres of carpet and I want to do something about the environment.’ They make really beautiful little things and I said, ‘I want you to make a full sized forest in this building. And I’ll get the money.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah whatever Loz…’

And I went back 3 months later and I said, ‘I’ve got the money and I got the carpet so shall we do this thing?’ I spent about 6 months with them probably, convincing them that they could do it. One of their partners made timber framed buildings and we all went out to dinner and I said, ‘So Tim will the trees be structurally safe if slotted them together?’ and so it went on….

Anyway, we made this carpet forest and it was supposed to be a one off thing that we put in the skip after the gig. It was there for 2 weeks and I also carpeted a square outside the town hall. Every morning I went out and hoovered it, which enabled me to have conversations with people. They were asking, ‘What are you doing?!’ I stuck all this carpet to the floor. I didn’t shut the road down because I didn’t have enough money. They wanted to charge me something like £1,800 to shut off a dead end street that led onto a private car park – it was ridiculous. I got some volunteers and my temporary assistant to help me lug these huge rolls of carpet and we just rolled them out by people’s feet and said, ‘Excuse me! Excuse Me!’, stuck it down and that was it. 

I talked to an artist called Andy Edwards – he was a drummer for Robert Plant who was teaching at the local college. I told him what I was doing and he said, ‘I’d like to make a soundtrack for it.’ He made this from the sound of the looms from the museum. I got a videographer to make a video. I worked with Heather Wastie, a poet who talked to lots of elderly people who were the last generation to work in the factories. Many of them had Alzheimer’s and were very old. She made songs and poems based on their stories and put them on MP3 players in little bird boxes where you could listen to them. This worked very well and it didn’t cost too much money. 

I took it to Bristol and it became a really lovely space. People would come and have picnics under the trees and hang out. I could hear people talking – ‘Oh yeah my granny had this carpet!’ It was really nice. It still was going and so we took it to Malvern. We put snow on it because it was winter and this disguised some of the accumulated damage! We got the local ballet company to do performances around it. 

All in all, I think I put 3 Arts Council applications in. The first one was for £12,000 to make it initially, the second was for about £7,000 and the third one was for about £5000. We stored it, packed it together and shifted it to the next place. And I worked with local artists to get more stuff happening in the space to animate it.  

It gave the lead artists loads of confidence. I worked really closely with them throughout. It was my concept but it was made totally in their style. To me this is my ideal kind of commission, as it was a really joint project and I was involved in it both creatively and on a practical level. 

Audience member 1: But was it a commission? Did someone come and set a brief?

Loz: I set the brief and took it to some artists. For them I was a commissioner. 

Audience member 1: But this was your project?

Audience member 2: You were kind of a creative producer?

Loz: I was creative producer but I was also working for the local council so it was a grey area. Technically the council owned it. But they didn’t have anywhere to store it. 

Audience member 3: As an arts officer you’ve got to go by their priorities. So you’re kind of being commissioned all the time as an arts officer aren’t you? You can’t just do what you like. 

Loz: – Although things work differently in every local authority.

Audience member 4: The difference between you being a commissioner and you being a producer is that you had access to some money. 

Loz: I got this through an Arts Council grant which I applied for as the artists weren’t confident to do this.

Audience member 2: I would say that you were working as a creative producer because you were bringing the team together. You met the musician, you were encouraging artists. But I wonder if what’s nice about this process is that there’s not a clear power hierarchy…

Loz: There wasn’t but it was a commission for the arts festival. I was an arts officer employed by the council to deliver an arts festival. Within the arts festival I commissioned this project. I just happened to shift the role a little bit so that I was much more involved.

Audience member 3: You were the person dealing with the grey areas and the power balance. 

Loz: It all depends where you’re coming from: what your role is, who’s standing between you and your objective, what the partnerships are like. I was negotiating with another council department to get that building as a venue. Even that was a massive battle and the artists don’t know anything about that. It’s like being a producer but then I had to abide by the council rules because I was a council officer. It’s all really complicated. 

Kathy Hinde

Another commission that I’ve really enjoyed was with a Bristol artist called Kathy Hinde. She put a group of about 3 paper cranes on an industrial crane in Bristol Harbour and there was a spotlight on them and some sound effects. And I thought, ‘They’re nice I can do something with them.’

At the time Kidderminster was having all it’s roads dug up. I was supposed to deliver an arts festival and there were no pitches so I thought, right I’ll put some stuff in the air then. I went to Kathy and didn’t say, ‘I’ve got an idea’ because I wanted her to have the idea. I started talking about the birds and the space that I had. I knew exactly what I wanted, although my idea wasn’t as good as the end result. After about an hour and a half of talking to her, she hadn’t quite got it. So I thought, ‘I’ll just go and I’ll let her think about it and I’ll come back.’ I’d just got my coat on and I was walking out of the door and she said, ‘Oh I know, we could do some strings of birds!’ So,I took my coat off!’ 

Luminous Birds by Kathy Hinde

The project is called Luminous Birds. She’d never done anything that big before. She’d only done small projects. With her partner she created a really complex computer programme for the lighting. They folded all the origami bird wings so as the lights move along a line of birds, it looks like stop frame animation. Then Cryptic who are a production house in Glasgow took it on a year later and they commissioned the sound for it, for which Kathy won a sonic arts award from the British Composers Awards. 

I had to go to the British Library to collect it and give a speech and it was very embarrassing. She was saying, ‘I won’t win, I won’t win. I don’t need to tell you anything. I won’t win.’ And they went, ‘And the winner is – Kathy Hinde!’ I was desperately texting her, ‘Kathy – who have I got to thank?’

She’s toured it all around the world now. It’s been to Australia. You had it didn’t you? [to Richard Headon, from Desperate Men]

Richard: Yes. We had it in Tintern Railway station [as part of the River Wye Festival] but it didn’t really work there. Although we got kids making 1000 origami birds and that was a big shift in terms of participation numbers. 

Loz: I commissioned it for the commemoration of the beginning of WWI. I did lots of other installations around it and we had it here for the commemoration of the armistice. We had lots of other installations that were inspired by it around the town. And we’re going to send 1,000 cranes to Hiroshima from the town. 

So this commission was great. It developed after a couple of 2 hour conversations about what I wanted, what the space was, what the project might be and she just ran with it. It was brilliant. 

So that was before I came here and now I want to do some creative stuff in Devizes. 

Next year we’re working with Ginkgo Projects. They are a production house and they came to us because they couldn’t find anybody else in Wiltshire – any arts officer or any organisation to partner with. So they rang us up and said, ‘Have you got any ideas?’

So, they are working with Bloor Homes who are building 4,500 houses in Amesbury. And Bloor Homes have said, ‘Right here you go, here’s £10,000. We want you to connect our new community with the old community in Amesbury with a creative project. 

They’ve done all sorts of public art projects and installations across the country and communities. I’ve proposed that we work with the museum. They’ve got a collection that they can take out. I had a meeting with the them and they said, ‘We’ve got this collection and we want the community to engage with it a bit more.’ So they showed me a bunch of pictures of some rocks and I thought, ‘Hmm I’m struggling with this a bit.’ And then I saw something and I asked, ‘What’s that? And they said, ‘It’s a baby woolly mammoth.’

I got in touch with Beautiful Creatures who have got a giant puppet stored at 101 that needs remodelling. So, we’re going to make a woolly mammoth and we’re going to take museum collections out and we’re going to work with young people and families. We’re going to put the woolly mammoth in a very traditional carnival in Amesbury and then it will come here to our carnival. 

They’ve got £10,000, so I’ve used that as match funding and attracted another 15 grand from Arts Council and they are so pleased. When they work with regeneration projects they generally never get match funding in. They just take the money and run the project. They’ve also put another 2 grand in for artists’ bursaries. So that’s all happening next year, which is exciting and hopefully it will have the same nurturing element as the other projects I’ve talked about.

I’ve done quite a lot of other commissioning but the process hasn’t always been as rewarding as the ones I’ve discussed, where you push artists’ practice and encouraged them to work in other contexts or in other sectors that they normally work in. 

So now I’ve got a festival and an organisation to work with and the potential to work across a whole town and I’m thinking, ‘Right – I want to do lots of commissioning and create new work. I don’t want to just shop for shows and put them in a festival as has traditionally happened here.

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