‘Launch’ a film by Amber Collective (1974)

It is a curious thing that the first official account of community arts in Britain should have been overseen by a classicist. Professor Harold Baldry (1907-91) had been Professor of Classics at Southampton University and Chairman of Southern Arts Association before becoming a member of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1973. The year he joined, the Council

‘decided to set up a small working party whose task was essentially to examine the nature of community arts activities in this country and to advise the Council on what should be the extent of its own role and involvement in this development.’

Between January and June 1974, the Working Party met several times, read a variety of documents it was sent and visited community arts projects in London, Leeds, Bradford and Bracknell. It met representatives of arts associations, UNESCO, the French Embassy, the Home Office and Telford New Town Project, among others. And it produced a short, elegant report that argued for a new Community Arts Committee be established to fund the work, based on a loose definition of what community arts actually was.

‘Community artists’ are distinguishable not by the techniques they use, although some (e.g. video, inflatables) are specially suited to their purposes, but by their attitude towards the place of their activities in the life of society. Their primary concern is their impact on a community and their relationship with it: by assisting those with whom they make contact to become more aware of their situation and of their own creative powers, and by providing them with the facilities they need to make use of their abilities, they hope to widen and deepen the sensibilities of the community in which they work and so to enrich its existence. To a varying degree they see this as a means of change, whether psychological, social or political, within the community. They seek to bring about this increased awareness and creativity by involving the community in the activities they promote

For Owen Kelly, writing ten years later in Community, Art and the State, Storming the Citadels, that loose definition was how community art lost its way and became acceptable to the state. He argues that, in achieving its short term goal of securing Arts Council funding, the Baldry Report had destroyed the very thing it set out to help. This is because, for Kelly, it fails to recognise that collective creativity was at the centre of what made community art different and important:

The Baldry Report uses the word ‘technique’ as a synonym for ‘art form’, which is not only idiosyncratic but serves to mask the issues surrounding the ways in which those art forms were being used. It is not what was being done that is interesting but how it was being done. In fact, it was precisely in the area of technique (in the usual sense) that community artists were breaking new ground. They were devising methods of working which were based around groups, and they were trying to develop ways in which the groups could draw upon the strengths rather than the weaknesses of the people involved, and in which every member could make, a contribution without feeling debarred by the stronger or more confident members. They were also wrestling with some success with the problem of the artist’s contribution to the group; of how the artist could make a contribution without their skills and experience coming to dominate the group’s work. (Kelly:1984:18 – emphasis added)

With hindsight, one can have sympathy for Harold Baldry, whose report steers skilfully between the divided voices of the community arts world and the elitism of the Council of which he was a member. And with hindsight, one can see that his loose definition and Owen Kelly’s argument about collective work are not in themselves incompatible. The incompatibility lay in the political projects that different groups wanted to make them serve.

But Kelly is right that it was central to community art’s innovation to explore how people with different strengths, knowledge, expertise and power can co-create something unimagined by any of them beforehand. He was right that it posed problems but right too that it could be empowering. Some of that thinking has been lost. But not as much as Kelly believed in 1984, and some of it has gone to influence practice in other fields and places. Here is an essay I wrote in 2007, and have now updated, that argues for the continuing importance of collective action in contexts as different as rural touring and community development in South East Europe.

And here, for future historians, is a copy of the Baldry Report from 1974, with a warning that at 54MB the file is very big for a 38 page report.

One thought on “Co-creation and collective action, then and now

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