Artists for Change from Church Action on Poverty

If we ask you to imagine a meeting aimed at ending poverty, what comes to mind, and where are you?

Perhaps you’re thinking of a gathering of professionals in a formal meeting room, discussing strategies and policies. (Exciting? No?)

Perhaps you’re imagining something more dynamic and grounded in community: people bouncing ideas around and seeking to reclaim power.

It’s maybe less likely you’re imaging yourself at an art exhibition, or a live gig, or a poetry reading.

Why is that? We all know the immense emotional and connectional power of the arts. If we ask you what was the last thing you read, saw or heard that moved or excited you, there’s a high chance it was something creative - a song, a poem, a piece of literature or a visual artwork, perhaps.

And yet despite knowing that, despite being made up of humans who live that reality, a great number of charities often fail to channel that power.

That’s why the new Artists For Change strand of the Let’s End Poverty campaign is so refreshing.

When people gathered in Manchester last month, seeking to help end poverty, they weren’t in a conference hall listening to keynote speakers - they were at Manchester’s famous Band On The Wall venue, listening to artists expressing their hopes and aspirations through music.

Likewise, when hundreds of people met in Sheffield and Newcastle, it wasn’t to watch powerpoint presentations, but to view the deeply moving Dreams & Realities exhibition: a collection of nine portraits showing the faces, dreams and realities of people living in deep hardship. (There were brief explanatory texts too, but the paintings led the show).

We know that messages of hope or defiance often ring through music, art, poetry and theatre. Artists For Change reflects that. Polls show a huge national desire to tackle poverty in the UK and to build a country where poverty keeps nobody down - but politicians have not responded to this.

Artists For Change is a community of artists keen to use their opportunities on-stage, online and in written word, to say: Let’s End Poverty.

Last month’s gig in Manchester was fantastic. The event featured energetic performances from Duvet and local Manchester legends Loose Articles as well as stunning sets from Hannah Ashcroft and Lindsay Munroe and the moving, politically charged Matt Hill.

Alongside the music Yo Tozer-Loft spoke powerfully about UK poverty and the Dreams and Realities exhibition she helped to put together, prints of which were up on display. The event also featured stalls from Let’s End Poverty and community union ACORN.

The Dreams & Realities exhibition is powerful and memorable, and tells real stories that resonate with people. Artist Stephen Martin has painted portraits of himself and eight other people in Sheffield. His own portrait includes a well-being journal, which has helped with his mental health. The background is black, as he has lived without electricity in his home for more than ten years.

The stories in the exhibition are deep and diverse.

For instance, Wayne, who is homeless and who supports people hit hard by the cost of living scandal, dreams of empowering others to overcome issues such as racial injustice and homeless.

Liudmyla moved to Sheffield as a refugee from Ukraine, and the school where she had taught was bombed in the war. Her dream is to gain English teaching qualifications so she can resume teaching, but the great uncertainty around the war and her right to stay in England are represented in the painting by a crystal ball.

In all nine paintings it is the visual impact that elevates the stories.

For the organisations most closely involved in the Let’s End Poverty campaign, this is pretty new territory, but we like to see it as the continuation of a steady shift.

Organisations such as Church Action on Poverty have become increasingly appreciative in the past decade of the role of art in engaging and energising people towards social change.

In recent years, we have worked with a poet and a photography club highlighting inequality in Salford, a choir in Sheffield campaigning against food injustice, and with a poet and a group of people in poverty, to produce an anthology about poverty and lockdown.

We have also benefited from the insights of several artists taking part in programmes we have run. Many of our partner organisations also host art groups, which have shown us anew the power of art.

We didn’t go seeking artists in particular, but it has become an ever-brighter flame in so much of the work we have seen, and we are increasingly moved by the impact it has, on the creators and on wider audiences. So, as the Let’s End Poverty campaign gathers pace, we are thrilled to see the artistic strands thriving.

Dreams & Realities is the first major exhibition we have curated, and the biggest example of us taking a localised project to a physical audience in so many places. We are excited by the possibilities that a longer-running project could generate. If you’ll forgive us the irony of saying

this in a written blog…. We know that art can prompt people to reflect more thoroughly and to feel more connected with the people they are introduced to than mere prose ever can. And we’re excited to see where this might lead next. 

Key links:

Church Action on Poverty

Dreams and Realitites 

Lets End Poverty

Artists for Change


Blog by Gavin Aitchison, the Media and storytelling coordinator at Church Action on Poverty.