Working in community art often feels precarious, certainly in comparison to more institutionalised areas of the arts sector. Funding tends to be hand to mouth, so that you never know for sure whether you’ll still be working next year. And many community art organisations have closed over the years, including some of the best. But what is impressive, half a century after the first young community artists raised their banners, is how many of the organisations they started continue today.
Amber Collective, for example, was founded in 1968 to make documentary film and photography about and with communities in North East England. It recently had a major retrospective at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle and its refurbished premises are hosting a powerful programme of new work. A similar resilience is evident elsewhere: Community Arts North West (Manchester), London Print Studio (originally Paddington Printshop) Mid Pennine Arts (Burnley), The Nerve Centre (Derry/Londonderry) and Valley and Vale Community Arts (Bridgend) are just a few of the groups with roots in the 1970s and 1980s doing great work today. When I moved to the East Midlands in 1982, I joined the local Association for Community Arts. EMAFCA folded long ago, but many of its members are still at work, including City Arts (Nottingham), Soft Touch (Leicester), Junction Arts (North East Derbyshire), Corby Community Arts (Northamptonshire) and Charnwood Arts (Loughborough).
There have been changes of staff, location and sometimes name. Practice has expanded and diversified in response to new technology, changing social conditions and people’s interests. New artistic ideas (and fashions) have come and gone. The politics have changed. But when I listen to the people involved now, some of whom were not born when the organisations they work for were founded, I hear a remarkable consistency of vision. The commitment to social justice and a democratic culture is undiminished – like the enthusiasm for making exciting art.
The resilience of these organisations is testament to the commitment and resourcefulness of people who chose a harder path and made it flourish. But there is something else important here. Community and participatory art has always been the Cinderella of the public arts sector, receiving the smallest share of available funds. It is not the generosity of public funding that it has allowed it to survived and grow for 50 years. Nor has it depended on marketing and outreach programmes to bring in new audiences. Community and participatory art is stronger than it has ever been because it responds to people’s needs and desires. It is demand-led and that demand has only grown in the past half century.
PS Happy 40th Birthday City Arts!