30 Jan 2015

The TANDEM Experience

By Millie Watkins, NYMAZ Projects Officer

I want to share an experience I had back in November – the ‘TANDEM’ experience. Tandem is an exchange programme matching cultural organisations, and the people who work for them, with others across Europe and the World in order to build long-lasting international partnerships. NYMAZ was lucky enough to be shortlisted for one of the Tandem schemes. Here’s what happened next…

The First Date
I was invited to participate in a Partner Forum, a five-day event in Rotterdam that was only the start of a wider scheme called Tandem Community & Participation. The programme aims to nurture partnerships between pairs of “cultural managers” from the Netherlands and its three neighbouring countries. I would be representing NYMAZ, among 31 other managers in the community and voluntary arts. By the end of the five days, most of us would be in pairs coming up with collaborative project proposals in order to apply to the main phase of the programme – and make our projects reality.

We were asked to prepare a ‘Pecha Kucha’ presentation – five slides, with one image and only 30 seconds to speak per slide. This was one way we could all immediately get to know a little about each other. But it was a tough task; not only to condense my own story into 2-and-a-half minutes, but to take everybody else’s in! Each individual had so much passion and pride in their work, but after twenty-or-so short bursts of inspiration, and two hours in, it was hard to keep track of each time I’d thought to myself “I’d love to find out more about that…”

Where do you stand?
One of the most interesting things about the experience for me was the heated discussions taking place around every corner, and the TANDEM team had no doubt programmed the event in such a way as to encourage this. Is your community arts practice ‘digestive’ (concerned with enhancing social integration and cohesion)? Or auto-relational (ultimately serving the purpose of the artist)? People I spoke to identified with a number of different points on this ‘map’ of community arts, the above points being two of many.

What does ‘community arts’ even mean? I met somebody who felt that community arts was a “cute, safe” kind of community engagement that does not add nor take away from society, but is a way for the state to keep the people happy. Others saw community arts as having the potential to amplify the voice of the people. Some thought the community arts were no place for professional artists, whereas I felt passionate that quality arts practice must be at its heart.

Each debate that I took part in brought me closer to understanding my own motivations, and these were the moments that made the Tandem experience not just about international partnerships, but personal development, too.

Tying the knot
Ultimately, the purpose of the Partner Forum was for each of us to find a Tandem partner. The whole event was chock-a-block with opportunities to discover common ground and forge ties. Speed dating, a grown-up musical chairs where two minutes per person was just long enough to gather a job title, a main art form and a wacky idea. A cookery lesson and a number of (delicious) dinners cooked for us, allowing us the space to think and talk about our interests and ambitions. ‘Appreciative questioning and witnessing’, encouraging us to open up to listening ears, reflect on what we do well, and be inspired by each other’s success stories. All of these activities provided opportunities for us to make connections, which might later become tandems.

There was a small catch. Some of the group, including myself, had found a partner before even arriving. I’d been in touch with Anouk Diepenbroek, the Head of Education at a contemporary concert venue in Amsterdam called Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, and we’d already thrown some ideas around for a joint project involving their unique education resource called the ‘Sound Playground’, and some of the accessible tools used by NYMAZ’s partners with young people with special educational needs and disabilities. We both felt that our organisations could learn from each other’s different strengths. And by the fourth day, we announced our engagement, ‘tied the knot’, and we were a Tandem.

Side Effects
After nearly a week of deep thought and ambitious planning, we were all exhausted. We’d seen so much, heard so much, connected so much that our brains were hurting! But we’d made it to the end with plans to move forward, and I don’t think many of the Tandems could have predicted the collaborative project idea they would be running with by the end.

Our project proposal, a Music Leader Exchange for community musicians in North Yorkshire and Amsterdam, was not one of the final seven to make it through to the main phase of the Tandem Community & Participation programme.  But we won’t forget that one of the recurring themes of the week was ‘side effects’, or unexpected outcomes. Our Tandem partners were not the only new connection we made during the five days, nor were our final project proposals the only ambitious ideas conceived that week. And the whole Tandem concept has opened up NYMAZ’s horizons to the potential of international collaboration. But sometimes, the best ideas come when you’re least expecting them.

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