Community cultural development in 1990s Australia

A Community Arts Event in Launceston (Tasmania) 2010

The late Deidre Williams was an important figure in Australian community arts, as a director of CAN South Australia and subsequently as a pioneering researcher. In 1995, she published one of the earliest and best pieces of research into the social outcomes of community art practice, Creating Social Capital. At the time, I was doing the research that would become Use of Ornament? and I approached Deidre about writing a working paper on her experience in Australia. She responded with characteristic generosity, producing a text that drew on her original findings and took forward her arguments about the place of the arts in community development. Her original study has been long out of print, but her 1997 working paper can now be downloaded here:

Deidre Williams, How the Arts Measure Up (1997)

Here are the opening paragraphs of her text, which remains as informative as it was 20 years ago.


Debates about community art—what it is, why it is important and how to assess its value— have abounded in Australia for more than 20 years. Historically the work has been primarily resourced through government arts funding programs. This has generated a continuing problem in that community arts projects have been required to demonstrate their value against the criteria of the relevant arts funding bodies. As many community arts practitioners have discovered, within a traditional, or fine arts policy framework, you’re stuck with an agenda which, in both popular and professional opinion, places community art at one end of a hierarchy with opera at the other. The value of community-based arts production will always be severely compromised while it is stuck in a fine arts paradigm.

To date it has proved extremely difficult to get arts funding bodies to place community art in a broader paradigm—community culture. This is not surprising considering the difficulties in defining the term ‘culture’, or the implications for government arts bodies in broadening their fine arts policy paradigm to encompass art in community culture.

Community art is most commonly known as the poor cousin in the art family, or the naive newcomer to the social work family. But community art is not concerned with social work as we know it, nor is it focused on the production of art as a commodity, rather the production of art as the expression of community culture.

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