This was the question that sixty or so Croydonians gathered to answer at TMRW, the business start-up hub in Croydon High Street, on the evening of Tuesday 2nd May. The event followed a format titled ‘Devoted and Disgruntled‘ (D&D), the umbrella title of a series of arts community events devised by drama company Improbable. This session was facilitated by the Human Zoo Theatre Company.

The facilitator explained that ‘open space technology’ would be used to structure the evening. It’s a process which hands responsibility back to participants: those who attend set the agenda, and it is up to them to make reports afterwards and identify what next steps are required. Anyone who wishes may begin a discussion by putting forward their topic, which is given a starting time and place. A self-selecting group convenes to tackle it for as long as it usefully takes with a final cut-off point of forty-five minutes.

The evening began with an explanation of the five D&D principles which would govern proceedings:

Whoever comes are the right people.

Wherever it happens is the right place.

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

Whenever it starts is the right time.

When it’s over, it’s over (so there’s no need to draw out discussion once everything useful has been said).

The ‘law of two feet’ would also apply: if any participant finds herself in a situation where she is not interested, not learning and not contributing to a discussion, she should simply leave and seek to do so elsewhere.

‘The right people’ turned out to include festival organisers, managers of drama venues and galleries, representatives of local media, musicians, educators, youth workers, arts administrators and environmentalists. Topics proposed for discussion included how and where Croydon can develop and foster new creative work of all kinds, the role of the arts in regeneration and in making Croydon an attractive place to live, how to access funding support, what lessons can be learned from the success of the tech start-up network Croydon Tech City, how mentoring can be provided, and above all, by what means Croydon’s artists can network, collaborate and lobby for their shared goals.

The D&D format gives attendees a unique experience according to their choice of discussions, and each takes away their own sense of what has transpired. It was noticeable, however, that those who moved between groups remarked on a common theme: isolation. Many in the room, while excited about their work, felt themselves to be lonely islanders rather than members of a supportive community.

There have been previous efforts to band together. The Croydon Arts Network, set up in March 2014, was an attempt to create, as was said at the time, ‘Croydon Tech City for the arts’. Since then there have been a number of positive developments, including the arrival of the high profile RISE Gallery and subsequent designation of Croydon’s Arts Quarter. The town centre is now the official street art capital of the UK. New art galleries have sprung up and existing ones have raised their profile further. Fairfield Halls, focal point of cultural life in the borough, may be dark for at least two years, but there is no shortage of energy and enthusiasm at grassroots level, and Croydon’s creativity finds expression in festivals, drama, music, poetry, comedy, life drawing, art walks and dance. The buzz in TMRW made this point once again.

But for those who had also been present at CAN’s launch at Matthews Yard in March 2014, there could not help but be a sense of returning to the same place. ‘Devoted and Disgruntled’ demonstrated that the artistic community is neither as organised nor as united as many wish. Let’s hope that this event will prove a catalyst for progress.