I am not the milkman of human kindness

If you’re lonely, I will call –
If you’re poorly, I will send poetry

Billy Bragg, The Milkman of Human Kindness (1983)

I don’t remember when artists began to speak of ‘delivering’ projects, but it may have been around the time when delivery entered the rhetoric of politics. That was worrying in itself – after all, government only talks up its delivery when it knows people aren’t persuaded that it is actually making things better.

Be that as it may, the metaphor has always made me uncomfortable. It imagines participatory art as a package that can be handed over. The artist just needs to turn up ready and equipped to ‘deliver’ the workshop and another box can be ticked. It doesn’t really matter who is being delivered to because delivery is one-sided. Some imagined public good is handed over and signed for. Job done: the commissioner is content.

But the essence of participatory art is co-creation and that is not one-sided. Ideas and imagination, influence and power, authorship, creativity – all shift restlessly between everyone involved. What happens is unpredictable because it emerges from a shared creative process. There is no plan to be delivered, like a lesson with learning outcomes. There is, with luck and a following wind, a creative journey to be shared towards a destination that may turn out to be quite different from the one that was anticipated. All the best results of community art – growth, empowerment, change – come from being together in that journey.

I have never delivered a community art project. I’m not a milkman, quietly placing a healthy pint on stranger’s doorsteps. Community arts does not give you calcium. I want only to share a part of my journey with someone who wants the same.


  1. Agree with most of this. However I think that informal/incidental learning can occur and that sometimes there are learning outcomes, whether these are intended from the outset or emerge through the process or both. These might be in relation to building relationships, confidence, skills in working together, developing skills in an art form etc. Anni Raw’s research is interesting in this regard – she proposes a model that recognises intuition as a core component of participatory arts facilitation (link below). There may be an element of your ‘luck and following wind’ but I don’t think this does justice to the skills and experience an artist brings to a project. I also think there will always be a semi structured plan of sorts, particularly in the first session, even if that plan simply sets out the opportunities for initial project ideas, ethos, co-creation, collaboration to happen. If there is an instigating artist for the project, what’s vital is how they wield that position of power to be non-hierarchical and inclusive. This takes knowledge and experience and intuition.

    Thanks for the thought provoking start to the week!

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    1. Thanks for this – it’s very helpful not least in prompting me to clarify a couple of things. Absolutely there can be and usually are all sorts of rewarding outcomes from this work. I’ve researched and advocated for that over many years. And it’s equally true that planning, resources and an artist’s personal qualities including knowledge, skills, experience and interpersonal abilities all contribute to the difference between better and less good projects. In this reflection I was just concerned (as I often am, it’s true) with the language we use and how it can unconsciously influence both our own thinking and practice and the expectations of funders, partners and even participants. Thanks also for the link. I’m traveling today but I’ll check it out as soon as I can.

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      1. I hadn’t really thought about the term ‘delivery’ in this sense before so your post was a light bulb for me. The language is important. I’m interested in the pedagogy of community dance and the language that dance artists use to describe what we do. My MA research was on the shifting role of the dance artist in shared ownership/authorship/collaboration. There were no participants. We were all (100 of us) creative collaborators and artists. Safe travels and thanks again for helping me develop my thinking around this topic.

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  2. Okay in the language debate…for the purpose of this comment…and holding onto the right to contradict myself later…i will identify as a participatory artist.
    Over many years and with much reflection
    I have gained knowledge and experience about the ways in which groups of people can be supported to engage in artistic endevour, and whilst co-creation of the mechanism of involvement may at times be desired it is not for me a prerequisite for those taking part to be directly involved in that aspect. Sometimes we will deliver a participatory arts process that has a track record of succesfully enabling genuine participation. An aspect of that ‘delivery’ will always involve being responsive, being open to change, listening a bit like the milkman reading those notes and responding appropriately
    ‘Extra pint today’
    ‘Gold top please’
    ‘Will pay you next week’

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    1. Thanks for this Adam. I recognise the variety of approaches to participatory art – one reason I called this project a ‘restless’ art was to underline how that diversity is positively destabilising. It is often necessary to make an offer, particularly if people have little experience of art or of the ways in which you might approach it. Then the interesting thing is how the artist responds to the response they get to that offer. As you say, listening, being open to change, shifting your balance – these are key to getting the ball rolling and making dialogue possible. There are many good pathways to making participatory art (as well as some bad ones).


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