Writing about community arts
The first phase of community arts in Britain (roughly 1965-1990) has not had much attention from historians, art critics or other academics. In the one really substantial book on the subject, Kate Crehan suggests that may be because the art world refused to give attention to a practice that challenged its authority. As she writes: ‘If an artist wants to be accepted as a bona fide, serious artist, it is dangerous to stray too far from the dominant institutions of the art world.’
Insofar as the art world has looked at community art, it reads the story from an art historical perspective in which theoretical texts (like Owen Kelly’s 1984 book, Art, Community and the State) have an importance they may not have had at the time. Certainly it didn’t feel like that to me when I encountered community arts in 1981, through one of the pioneering visual art collectives. It was exciting, challenging, silly, unknown, committed, complex, practical, pious, moving, rigid, fascinating, naïve, technical, impossible – often at the same time. It’s hard to write about because I can’t be very objective about those early experiences, but it’s important too, because I was there.
Others who were there have contributed to a book that will be published this summer, Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art The British Community Arts Movement. Yu can already get a glimpse of some that thinking through a blog which has documented some of the research process: Community Arts Unwrapped.
Documents of British community arts 1975-1986
Such books are not the only way to get an idea of what community arts felt like though. The internet and digital technology – which for better or worse fulfil some of the early community arts movement’s dreams – have made it possible to share original documents of the time. On this page, I’ve put links to some films and publications of the long-defunct Association for Community Artists. There are also links to various online archives on this page about community arts in Britain, including some that cover both fields of practice (such as alternative theatre) and others from projects like Jubilee Arts and Mid-Pennine Arts. You’ll also find references to some of the main books on the subject.
Films about community art
Two fascinating films can be watched free online through the British Film Institute. There’s no substitute for seeing the world of 1970s London and the encounter between artists and people. The recent past really is a most strange kind of history.
- The first, ‘Morgan’s Wall’, documents the mural artists active in 1970s London, including the work of Brian Barnes at Wandsworth Mural Workshop and Carol Kenna and Steve Lobb at Greenwich Mural Workshop, where I started as an apprentice. It’s Steve’s words that I’ve used to title this post.
- The second, ‘Somewhere in Hackney’ documents a range of work in one inner London Borough, including Free Form (the case study in Kate Crehan’s book), Lenthall Road Printshop, Hoxton Hall Adult Drama Group, Centerprise and others. It was made in 1980 by the same team as Morgan’s Wall.
Last year Huw Wahl, made a documentary about Action Space, which was founded in 1969 by his father, Ken Turner.The film includes much archive footage of the early days of the company as well as reflections from some of those involved. You can read more about it (and watch a short trailer) by following this link.
Shelton Trust publications
The other documents here are from the Shelton Trust, which supported community arts until about 1986. Through the generosity of Ros Rigby (who worked for the Trust), Bernard Ross, its chair for a time and Graeme Rigby of Amber, I’ve added scans of some key publications. Some of the files are huge: the complete Community Arts Information Pack is almost 300MB, though the magazines tend to be smaller.
In 1982 The Shelton Trust published a Community Arts Information Pack that featured 29 projects representing a broad cross section of those active: this is a good place to start:
There are reports on two of the annual Shelton Trust conferences:
And copies of Another Standard, the Shelton Trust Magazine, ‘the only national community arts newsletter’, of which 600 copies were being distributed in 1981
An American Perspective on British Community Arts
In 1982, Andrew Duncan of Free Form gave a presentation at the Neighbourhood Arts Program National Organising Committee (NAPNOC) Conference in Omaha (USA). The notes of that meeting were published in the organisation’s newsletter, Cultural Democracy, #27. They provide a fascinating insight into the British community arts sector at the time (much talk of money and the Arts Council) and of the work of Free Form itself. Arlene Goldbard, a leading figure in community-based arts in the US, has kindly made available the relevant pages for inclusion here: