Working with communities to co-create public space - Museums Association

Working with communities to co-create public space

We asked what our communities wanted and hoped for from the gallery, says Woodrow Kernohan
Art Communities
Profile image for Woodrow Kernohan
Woodrow Kernohan

The seeds for Co-Creating Public Space began when John Hansard Gallery, part of University of Southampton, moved into Southampton city centre in 2017-18. Prior to this, we had been based on the university’s Highfield campus since 1980.

In preparation for this move, we actively developed relationships with our new neighbours and communities. Reaching out and working within communities, we asked what our communities wanted and hoped for from the gallery. This exchange shaped our porous approach to programming and forged the community partnerships that have led to Co-Creating Public Space.

For Co-Creating Public Space we invited communities to be a part of designing, developing and delivering five public art commissions, in conjunction with leading international artists. Each of the projects was developed in correspondence with partner festivals and involving community members as artists, participants and producers.

On 27 October, in collaboration with UP Projects, we are hosting Co-Creating Public Space: How Can We Thrive?, a conference exploring ideas of time, economics, power relations, accessibility and representation within public art and co-creation.

As part of Co-Creating Public Space a series of artworks and photographic portraits are currently on display across city centre shop windows and bus stops in Southampton. The artworks are some of the outcomes from Windrush Portraits by lead artists Mary Evans and Michael Elliott. The photographic portraits by Nosa Malcolm celebrate community leaders who are first- and second-generation members of Southampton’s Windrush community.

Mary Evans, Windrush Portraits, Southampton, 2023. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nosa Malcolm

Windrush Portraits was developed in response to specific requests from community leaders to highlight the Windrush generation and the impact of the UK government's "hostile environment" on communities. Throughout February 2023, artists Mary Evans (based in the UK) and Michael Elliott (based in Jamaica) presented artworks on billboards across Jamaica as part of Black History Month in partnership with Kingston Creative, Jamaica.


Subsequently, Mary and Michael undertook exchange visits to Southampton and Kingston, Jamaica, to develop new artworks through conversations with communities. These new artworks are currently being presented across city centre shop windows in Southampton as part of Black History Month South.

Michael Elliott, Windrush Portraits, Southampton, 2023. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nosa Malcolm

Through deepening relations with communities, we have found that our understanding of timescales has fundamentally changed. This has been particularly important when working with the Caribbean community for Windrush Portraits. Communities have previously experienced short-term projects that have taken emotional labour without the necessary provision of care and compassion.

In response, we have slowed projects and expectations to allow time for trust to develop and embed within the community. This has led to our consideration “collaboration moves at the speed of trust – create processes that allow time for trust and care-based processes to develop”.

Greg Bunbury & Nosa Malcolm, Windrush Legacy, Southampton, 2023. Courtesy the artists. Photo: Nosa Malcolm

This approach has encouraged community agency and enabled other community-led projects to evolve. For example, alongside Windrush Portraits we have actively supported further community-initiated projects Black Archives South and Windrush Legacy to develop.


Black Archives South is a comprehensive photo, film, audio and resource library of Black people in the south of England. As part of our support of the project, oral histories from community members and elders were recorded, transcribed and digitised. These oral histories highlight the personal stories, memories and impact on individuals of coming to the UK as part of the Windrush generation.

As a result of this work with Black Archives South, photographic portraits were made by Southampton-based photographer Nosa Malcolm, in collaboration with some of these community members. These portraits were then incorporated into billboards designed by Greg Bunbury through community consultation.

These impactful community-led projects were unanticipated outcomes and have become highlights of Co-Creating Public Space. This approach has led to our consideration “agency is currency – art projects can become seeds for other community-led projects to take root”.

These considerations from Windrush Portraits and Windrush Legacy, along with learnings from other Co-Creating Public Space projects, will be discussed during the conference and included in the Reader that will be published alongside the conference.

Woodrow Kernohan is director of the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton. Co-Creating Public Space: How Can We Thrive? takes place on 27 October 2023

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