Speaking of community art

Someone recently suggested to me that I should speak of ‘Art in the Community’ because community art seemed to be a genre, like Pop Art. It was an interesting observation and I’m always glad to be reminded how differently ideas can be interpreted. Still, there are clear reasons why I continue to describe my work as community art after 35 years. One of them is that community art is a theory, not a genre or even a practice. It is rooted in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community [and] to enjoy the arts

Community art sees that right as reaching beyond the idea of giving people access to art, which might be what art in the community offers. Desirable as that may be, it’s not enough, since it leaves us as largely passive spectators rather than agents ‘in the cultural life of the community’.  Community art, as first imagined in the 1960s and 1970s, takes Article 27 to mean that everyone should have access to the means of cultural production as well as consumption. Recognising that is not the case, community artists work so that more people do have the resources, training, knowledge and means to create their own artistic work on their own terms.

Why does that matter? What’s so important about being able to create your own art? Because art is a way of making sense of existence, of defining, expressing and values. Art enables us to represent ourselves in the world, in all sorts of ways that go beyond speech. And if we cannot represent ourselves, we are at the mercy of other people’s representation of us. Imagine a world where women’s experience was represented mainly in the creative production of men. Actually, that’s most of Western art history…

You can download an essay setting out that theory more fully by clicking on this link.

Community art is a rights-based theory about art’s place in the world. You cannot recognise community art by looking at it because it is not expressed in form or aesthetics: that’s why it is not a genre. It is a way of working – the enacting of a framework of ideas and values. Even then, it’s easily confused with participatory art, socially-engaged practice relational aesthetics, dialogic practice, new genre public art, community cultural development and the many other practices that have emerged since the 1960s, mostly as more or less conscious offshoots from, or reactions, to community art.

But community art, the original spark, remains clear and meaningful to me. Its practice is fascinating, inspiring and creative, and the need for it is as great as ever.

So thanks for raising the question: I welcome the chance to think and talk about this restless art. If you too see things differently, please use the comments space below to share your perspective.



  1. Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on this topic Francois.

    This is a topic close to my heart and I am continually challenged by working within this broad range of genres, theories and activities. I wonder how the issues you’ve raised here fit with that of intangible heritage as well as being a functional human being. I submit a couple of thoughts and a few questions to add to the discussion….

    If individuals feel safe, sated and secure enough do they then feel creative? or if these conditions are compromised or threatened are they allowing themselves an opportunity to momentarily put these basic needs to one side and revel in a creative moment? Or does it go even deeper than that; we are a living organism, we are creative. Has the industrialisation and institutionalisation of ‘art’ and community art separated us (like jobs and other tasks that are broken down through industrialisation/modernisation) from that of our human ‘being’? Is our Intangible heritage of traditions, practices, stories, celebrations, community activities relating to the seasons, place, latitude and time being lost due to loss of ‘value’ as they have not been seen as ‘art’.

    Does the fact I am questioning these issues compromising my creativity? I acknowledge that we live in the 21st century and we have to function within this time and its conditions and to an extent we have to be able to be objective and analytical, but I guess my concern is that if we continually define/manage/separate art from the ‘being’ we are compromising and devaluing our human condition and thus agency to be a community of humans.

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    • Thanks for these reflections and questions, Anne. I share your wish to see art not just as doing but also being; to me, it feels quite comfortable in both, in the sense that it gives us the chance, whether we’re creating or responding to other people’s creativity, to be here in the moment.

      Intangible heritage fits in the concept of community art that I’ve outlined here, as does pretty much anything else people want to think of as art. I think there is a key difference between having the right/capacity/resources to do something and what you do with it. Freedom of speech is a good thing: what someone says may or may not be.

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  2. When you are talking about ‘key difference between having the right/capacity/resources to do something and what you do with it’ are you talking about individuals/consumers of ‘art’ or ‘art’ organisations?

    In relation to organisations, the distinction may trigger discussions around ethics, ‘corporate’ responsibility, diligence and risk and as decisions surrounding these topics are made by the management in organisations, is it the motivations, agendas, goals, personal drivers and philosophy of the management and boards that are more in question? Leading on from this, assuming funding is coming from a third party to support these organisations are the funders ensuring that the ‘art’ organisations’ goals align with the reasoning behind the funding being targeted in a particular area or subject being managed as well? and are the appropriate number and variety of people in the community benefiting in the way that the funders intended?

    There are numerous successes and failures documented in case studies and case law and not just from the community arts field that demonstrate the challenges. Furthermore, these challenges are supported by numerous opportunities for dissonance throughout the community art process. There are often differences between the individual’s (consumers’) experience of community arts and its impact on their ‘being’ and the narrative/documentation and marketing being presented by organisations to third party funders and the wider public, all of which are subjective points of view.

    Time is also a challenge for measuring impact and outputs, a seed of creativity planted in a community arts project for example with teenagers, may only grow to fruition on an individual’s retirement – funding generally is measured in project length, sometimes years not generations! and how do we even begin to monitor these outcomes and follow those who have accessed the activity over geography and time?

    All organisations and people have to deal with external factors such as political, social, economic, technology, legal and environmental factors that change over time and may impact on the delivery, availability or shape of the community arts, that is what makes it interesting. So I guess it comes back to the individual, their community and how they navigate through the changing world that is the most important thing. While there are gaps in housing, health and wellbeing there is still some way to go. What are funders, community arts organisations and communities doing to support, encourage and developing capacity, skills and sustainable communities?


    • I recognise your thorough and astute analysis of the ambiguities of (social) action. For me, they are inescapable. No one can control their environment or other people’s actions: it’s hard enough to understand and manage your own. I have never accept the mind frame of problem solving, transformation, social change partly because history and experience shows its limits and partly because, I wouldn’t tolerate anyone setting out to do me good, why would I think that would be acceptable the other way round. Community art is like education in this sense: it’s about helping people gain skills, knowledge and resources that give them more power in the world. It’s never been about saying how (if) that power is used. I’ve always like the film ‘Educating Rita’, because it’s a study in the rights and responsibilities of education – on both sides. Does this mean that community art is too complex, unpredictable and ethically to be attempted? Of course not: it’s just got all the same challenges as the rest of life. What matters is how aware we are of them and how well we try to navigate them – in other words, it’s back to being, not doing. Community art is a way of being creative with others, not of doing anything for them.

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  3. I couldn’t agree more, being not doing! and I see my role, as a creative practitioner, as an enabler and facilitator and creating the conditions for people to develop their own skills, knowledge and resources, share and celebrate them within their communities.

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