The first time I encountered Soft Touch Arts was at an exhibition at their permanent home, 50 New Walk earlier this year. Inside Outside Prison Art showcased the work by young men at HMP Glen Parva. Soft Touch Arts had provided creative workshops for the inmates for over a year and a half, offering a vital line of communication to the outside world, providing them with a socialising space, and reminding them that they have a purpose beyond that of being an ‘inmate’ or ‘young offender.’ Walking into that particular exhibition I was met by a huge bird sculpture, suspended from the ceiling, wings outstretched and in full flight. The imagery has stuck with me as a statement, and visual metaphor to what Soft Touch Arts is about – inspiring confidence and aspiration, and making young people realise their true potential.

Photography by David Wilson Clarke
Photography by David Wilson Clarke

At any one time, Soft Touch Arts facilitates up to 20 projects of this kind; creative outreach programs offering support to young people who may have fallen through the gaps in the society, perhaps via the exclusive UK education system or in family infrastructure. Vulnerable to trouble, these young people are welcomed as part of the ‘Soft Touch family’ through various creative outreach programmes – from music to arts, crafts or cultural education – all offering a more positive engagement and identity than they may have encountered so far.

“The police love us as anti-social behaviour stops when we’re around!”

With projects varying so much, they now employ 14 staff and have an expanding pool of volunteers to call on. Most recently, the organisation joined the Voluntary Action Leicestershire (VAL) group on a £1.94m project to support some of Leicester and Leicestershire’s most at risk young people, specifically supporting them to gain employment, and, whilst long-term projects such as this take place, Soft Touch continues to experiment with new ways of connecting with vulnerable young people in the immediate communities. For example, every Friday and Saturday night the Soft Touch Arts Studio Van is taken to local estates to run creative sessions on the streets. Speaking with Business Strategic Director, Christina Wigmore, she states “The police love us as anti-social behaviour stops when we’re around!” Using solar power, the van is kitted out with a high quality music studio, and a ‘creative kit’ that enables t-shirt printing, digital photography and other craft activities to take place.

Photography by David Wilson Clarke
Photography by David Wilson Clarke

But no matter how big or small, the common ground every Soft Touch Arts project shares is the participant-centric attitude. The Soft Touch team ask ‘What do you want to do?’ rather than ‘Here is some arts materials, and this is what you should be doing.’ By putting their opinions and creative ideas at the forefront, these young people receive a respect, dedication and attention that may have been absent from their lives in other senses.

Set up in 1986 co-founders Sally Norman and Vince Attwood quickly established Soft Touch Arts as a modest Co-operative, automatically aligning the organisation with an entrepreneurial aspect. It was against everyone’s advice that Soft Touch Arts came to fruition. Thatcher’s 1980’s Britain didn’t have a great belief in the arts, and especially in the arts as an outreach programme. Thatcher famously said that community arts are actually socialist arts – which suited Soft Touch Arts just fine, and confirmed their belief in what they were doing. This absolute determination runs true in every aspect of Soft Touch Arts work. Certainly, this is the crux to their 30 years success, and essential if you’re to make a business of arts outreach programmes to excluded and hard to reach communities.

Photography by David Wilson Clarke
Photography by David Wilson Clarke

To celebrate the milestone Soft Touch Arts will be returning to the iconic 80’s for inspiration, hosting an array of themed projects and events for the community. An exhibition featuring the work of current project groups will be displayed at the 86:16 Exhibition that has been produced with sponsorship from local businesses. RG+P Architects have contributed the time of two young architects, to produce a feature Rubik’s cube sculpture in co-ordination with a Soft Touch program. Local designer Betty Brown has been designing iconic 80’s fashion garments with another group – hopefully shoulder pads galore! Other companies have offered sponsorship in kind; press liaison from Mocha Marketing; a new website and animated logos from Arch Creative. All of the above demonstrating Soft Touch’s creative attitude to funding and business too – key as it continues to establish itself within the Leicester business network.

“it’s art for art’s sake, because it’s good for the soul.”

They are now established as the first Leicester youth arts and heritage centre, a statement that came with the move to its venue on New Walk. Co-founder Vince Attwood so rightly states, the arts and cultural venues are only just wising up to Soft Touch’s initial motivation back in the 80’s. “Every museum, every gallery, every theatre now has an education team, an outreach team, an audience development team,” says Vince.  What makes them different is “that we’ve no ulterior motive… We’re not doing outreach for something else, that is the work we do – it’s art for art’s sake, because it’s good for the soul.”

Photography by David Wilson Clarke
Photography by David Wilson Clarke

Though it may be ‘good for the soul,’ how does Soft Touch Arts quantify its success? On one level, the organisation has to answer to the systemic evaluation of funding from public bodies, trusts or foundations, measuring the change and progression for those that take part on an analytical level. On another level, it is a ‘vote of feet.’ If it’s not interesting, quality and relevant, young people will not engage – “quite simple” as Christina puts it. Then, there are the personal stories. No matter how much analysis you can attempt to constrict Soft Touch Art’s work within, to satisfy red tape officials, certain stories concisely define the success of Soft Touch Arts to a T. “There’s one young man we work with and they key difference for him is not so much that we’ve stopped his offending – it’s that he gets up in the morning excited about what he’s going to do that day. That’s the power of what we do and everyone needs that in their lives.” The stories are not in isolation, and it’s the volume of them that make me intrigued and excited to see the development of the Soft Touch Arts legacy in the future.

Join in the celebrations at upcoming Soft Touch Arts events on Friday 25 November for 86:16 – a multimedia design exhibition featuring the work from young people, and all those “blasts from the past” and Saturday 26 November for I Love the 80’s.

 

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Country bumpkin from down the road in Northamptonshire, Emily is a new face to the Leicester arts world – lover of all things creative, and interested in bridging the gap between the art world and the public sphere.

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