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Review: A Place of Our Own at Open Eye Gallery

County Road, Prescot High Street and the Chester Rows are palpably different places. Those differences in architecture, culture and purpose are blatant, but for those who live and work there, they are equally important, and equally supportive communities.

I always worry when I see the words ‘socially engaged’ plastered to the opening lines of an exhibition description. Not because the represented communities aren’t worth knowing, but because the resulting shows are rarely a true reflection of the community or culture they seek to support. And, more often than not, they ignore the need to offer benefit to the community they work with.

That’s not the case at all in A Place of Own at Open Eye Gallery (with other outcomes dotted around the streets they were made in, for, and about). A Place of Our Own is strikingly clear in its focus on legacy, without being remotely formulaic.

Lucy Hunter, Tony Mallon and Suzanne St Clare have been actively working with each site for over a year, and each of these artists have long-standing personal connections to Anfield, Knowsley and Chester respectively.

Their workshops, socially engaged programmes, and new connections with communities have been approached honestly and openly, and the results culminate in a community mindset.

Tony Mallon, working with Prescot High Street residents and traders, has been in situ for about two years. Lucy Hunter was working with users of the Walton Youth and Community Project for one year. Suzanne St Clare spent nearly three years working with Chester.

I’m not using that as a comparison between them, but it’s important to understand that each project was a self-sustaining bubble, managed and planned with its participants so it could best represent them, and work to a timeframe that actually suited the people they worked with.

The residents on each project are different too, and offer incredibly accurate images of the most important social histories for each area in a way that makes those who feel unheard, heard.

In Walton, that’s young people. They deserve the opportunity to share their perspective on the space they live in, and older generations on the same streets now have examples of that perspective outside their front door, and hanging at Open Eye Gallery (where the work is constantly being added to).

In Prescot, it’s residents of all ages working with Tony Mallon, which means that this place of their own shares a real mix of identities and histories. The result is a preservation of history in two senses. In one, it’s memorialising what Prescot meant to people. In another, it’s capsulizing the dramatic changes the area is undergoing.

In Chester, the iconic rows aren’t exactly about to be demolished, but they offer an insight into the city’s past – perhaps offering us an opportunity in the wider region to see how holding onto small traders helps us to retain a sense of social pride and identity.

In all projects, the participants learned new skills, and elements of the work are displayed on site, and at Open Eye Gallery, but because A Place of Our Own has been treated properly, those results aren’t standalone. They couple up with large numbers of residents who have now contributed to the future of their community, whether it’s by preserving the past, present, or encouraging a future they want.

A Place of Our Own is socially engaged practice at its best, by three artists who care deeply about the communities they’re with, and a gallery who is helping to define what good socially engaged practice is.

A Place of Our Own is open at Open Eye Gallery until 23rd December 2023
Words, Kathryn Wainwright