‘The connection paradox’
Commissioned Artist: Jess Pemberton
"The central figure represents the spirit of the creative community’s individuals: a proud strength, quality of craft, resilience and a melancholic hope and fear for the future. The land that lays before the core figure reveals the disconnected infrastructure and foundations in which the creative community exists. Paradoxically, there is also a strong network between them: a connection yet disconnection"
In this section, we provide a quick overview of Truro as a place – the first of the locations we visited on our journey – and draw out some of the main themes that emerged during the workshop with the local workforce.
Truro is Cornwall’s only city, sitting in the east of the wider local authority area of Cornwall, at the mouth of the Truro River. At the point of the 2021 census, Cornwall it ranked 3rd for total population, out of 309 local authority areas in England, with Truro's population at 4.1% of this .
At the far west of the country, Cornwall has a unique and celebrated reputation within the UK’s creative and cultural sectors; the region recently made a bold and ambitious bid to become the ‘UK Capital of Culture’ in 2025 (though unfortunately unsuccessful), hot on the heels of hosting a successful G7 summit in June 2021.
During our research on 'Creative Improvement Districts', we were excited to find out more about Truro’s Cultural Compact (Tyller A Nerth) working with the Truro Business Improvement District (BID) which is benefitting the town centre’s economy and local creative and cultural sector workers alike. The work of the Compact is also supported by our hosts for the day at Hall for Cornwall; a Truro based live performance venue that recently reopened in 2021 after a three-year £26 million renovation to their Grade II listed building on the former Town Hall site, right in the heart of town  .
According to the PECs interactive tool for mapping Creative Clusters in the UK , Truro appears to be in an interesting spot within the wider Cornwall region. Though outside of the 47 established clusters, which are primarily based on commuting proximity to the nearest urban centre (in Cornwall’s case, this would be Penzance), Truro is home to a ‘micro-cluster’ – a smaller but nonetheless significant clustering of creative and cultural organisations at a hyper local level. Evidence of micro-cluster activity suggests that, despite being isolated from larger areas of activity in the region, there is definitely something interesting happening in Truro.
For all of these reasons, Truro was a perfect fit in terms of exploring our central considerations around place, and given the amount of hard work going on in the area for our relevant sectors, it seemed to warrant a moment of deeper investigation.
The Workshop Findings
The workshop participants in Truro consisted of performing art professionals, fine artists, musicians, film directors and community outreach practitioners. As the participants arrived at Hall for Cornwall, it was clear that many had worked together on projects before; both with each other and the Hall for Cornwall team. This perhaps reveals something about the nature of the established networks in the area.
As would be the pattern with all three of our workshops, we started by exploring what being freelance had been like in 2022.
Flexibility…to work all the hours anyway
Immediately several participants explained a sense of “always having to be on” when it came to their working life. They explained that this was linked both to the often-hidden administration and unpaid work involved in managing a freelance life, but also the general anxiety of lining up the next piece of work. One of the participants commented that she enjoyed the flexibility of a freelance lifestyle, but then paused and added, that it was a flexibility “to work all the hours anyway”. The group agreed that there was a huge level of responsibility associated with this type of working pattern, which required a large amount of “self-trust” in one’s individual ability to deliver.
A connected Cornwall
“Cornwall itself is artistically really well connected, I think out of every county in the UK”
From the moment the participants started to share their experiences, it was clear that this was a group of highly connected professionals. One of the participants commented that there was a type of “convergence of creators” going on in the area because of how geographically isolated they were from the rest of the UK. They explained: “They always meet each other, and they’re always talking, jumping off [each other]... its quite easy to set up meetings…discuss projects and ideas...because of the community...”
The group agreed that it was common for many of them to meet at the same events, not only those relevant to their sub-sectors but to support other art forms and practices too, whether that be theatre, galleries or festivals in the area. Indeed, one of the participants who had recently moved to the area from Bristol, commented that he immediately felt much more connected and engaged within the local “scene” than he had before in either Bristol or London. As a result of these highly developed ties, the group agreed that there was a form of "cross-pollination" between the sub-sectors going on across the wider area which made it easy to form collaborations on inter-disciplinary projects. However, when asked how much of these activities actually went on to take place within Truro itself, the group were less enthusiastic. One of the Truro residents told us: “I actually think most exciting stuff happens outside of Truro. I…feel that Truro lacks a bit of creative soul…And I don't drive so I have trouble getting out all these lovely things that are going on.” Another one of the participants added: “We always keep saying Cornwall because actually it's not just about Truro…it's a whole microbial thing…a bit like how you know how fungus is all interconnected...”
It became clear that the creative freelance, self-employed and atypical ecosystem was sustained by operating across the entire Cornwall region, rather than within Truro itself. As we continued to talk about the practicalities of operating in Truro, the group agreed that it was difficult to get around, access events and shows if you didn’t have access to your own car. The more the group discussed the difficulties of using public transport to access cultural venues across the area, it become increasingly clear that there was a contradiction between the close interpersonal ties in the area and the physical disconnection between the adjacent towns and villages and further afield.
Growth in Cornwall: a double-edged sword?
“Here you have the room to grow as an artist, and actually kind of take the helm of projects... But the flip side is that at a certain point, there is limited funding and opportunity.”
When we asked the participants about whether they thought local place mattered to the work they made, the participants talked about the physical environment of Truro and the wider Cornwall area with a huge sense of the pride and passion. One of artists spoke about the unique energy of living in this part of the world; something that has attracted and inspired painters, artists and creatives for centuries. A film maker in the group told us: “I use forests, coastlines featuring sunrise, sunlight…there's a reason big productions come down here…it's world class, and it’s all on your doorstep.”
There was a real sense of personal autonomy from operating as a freelancer in the area. Participants described an ability to run with your own projects at an early stage in your career, as opposed to the more ‘saturated’ experience of living in larger urban centres. Yet, as we continued to talk, the participants also began to unpack the downsides too.
Cornwall is known for its world class locations and attractions, seeing visiting production and projects coming in from right across the UK. However, the group shared a little frustration at the approach of some companies when it came to their level of engagement with the local workforce. Some in the group explained that UK and international companies would bring crew and talent with them, bypassing the local workforce in the area: “It’s almost like they don’t think we’re competent or professional enough” one of the participants explained. While another shared that sometimes incorrect assumptions are made about the levels of creative talent in the local area, with some visiting organisations incorrectly thinking “not much is happening…[that] it's a very small, deprived place”.
This lack of interest in creating opportunities for the local creative and cultural workforce from the private sector was particularly disheartening because the most dominant theme emerging from the Truro workshop was a concern about future sources of public funding. Most of the participants agreed that opportunities and sources of public funding were starting to reduce noticeably in the area when compared to previous years. Furthermore, it seemed that repeated opportunities for work, perhaps annual festivals or partnerships with local business or organisations, remained limited to those with very established relationships, leading to high levels of competition locally for a very limited pot of money. As one of the participants put it: “It’s always going to be limited...because it’s a setup with a sense of competition, funding and competition for resources”. Another shared: “The ceiling is definitely a thing, I found more and more that I had to be looking for work outside of county if I wanted to grow at all.”
It seemed that the participants shared that sense of restricted growth in the local area. They agreed that funding opportunities are well targeted to creatives “just coming in” or “starting out”, and that once you’d completed your first project it wasn’t easy to get funding again. For professionals moving out of early- and into their perceived mid-points of their careers, it could be a “sink or swim” situation.
This was also the concern for some of the creative programmes the participants themselves were running. One, running a parkour training programme for young people, explained: “We’ve been working with a young boy, he’s never been a problem participant for us, but he’s been cited in school…at risk of being expelled…but...there’s no infrastructure for us to be able to [continue to] support him without funding from other sources…the legacy aspect is kind of up in the air.”
One of the participants explained that they felt funding had recently been re-focused towards “practical tangible products” - particularly in the R&D space - which, for them, meant that funding work that was primarily focussed on developing creatives themselves was “being stripped back”. The fear caused by the direction of travel for future funding of the creative and cultural sectors was dominant in the room. One participant summarised the feelings of the group, stating: “We’re suffering from a cultural climate change”.
Freelancers as societal problem solvers
Talk of climate change prompted one participant to declare that the skills and roles that creative and cultural sector works could play locally was worth considering: “…thinking of actual climate change; the vast changes that we’re going to face…As agile, creative people, I think…as freelancers we are almost uniquely well placed to adapt and move, and to some extent, leap...”
Whilst many in the group talked about the strains of living a freelance life, one of the most positive elements of being a freelance that kept reappearing was ‘agility’. Some in the room suggested that the process of being continuously creative with limited funding or growth opportunities had forced them to lean into their individual creativity. For one of the participants, this agility and continued creativity meant that freelancers were perhaps well placed to respond to pressing societal issues, such as climate change, through creative practice.
Once we finished reflecting on the challenges that 2022 had brought, we explored what 2023 could hold, along with what practical legislative or policy changes mmight make it easier for them to develop their careers and businesses in Truro.
Bringing cultural awareness
When we talked specifically about change at the local level, one of the participants shared that they thought more could be done to foster “cultural awareness in civic organisations” from top to bottom. They described that it was very rare that artists get approached to produce projects from such organisations and, more often than not, it was left up to them to pitch collaborations or mutually beneficial events to fill their spaces.
The group mused on what it might look like if local ‘civic’ institutions like hospitals, schools, and other such council locations and local businesses, fully understood the socioeconomic benefits of commissioning creative freelancers.
Take a chance on us
This provocation prompted the group to circle back to public funding, and how barriers to access might be reduced. One member described how she felt funding requirements put her between a bit of a rock-and-a-hard-place. While she understood the need for well evidenced applications, she felt that she needed funding to build this up in the first place. She explained: “I know that things need to go through a certain process but there’s no element of risk...there’s no element of faith…You have to prove your worth and sometimes you can’t…because you haven’t done a project yet…There must be some kind of risk funding almost for somebody who wants to try something new…[or] to get up on their feet”.
A burning desire to create
As we neared the end of the workshop, we finished with a question that we would ask each workshop group: ‘what advice would you give to somebody just starting their freelance career?’. From Truro we got the following response: “The actual work involved…the instability of the risk, and the terror of it is only outweighed, if you love what you’re doing”. This was a group of artists who with “a burning desire to create”, compelled to continue their practice from a deep sense of pride, love and belief, not only in their own individual creatives careers, but the value this brings to Truro.
 Truro population data taken from: https://www.citypopulation.de/en/uk/southwestengland/cornwall/E35000778__truro/