A (very short) history of the British community arts movement

EM Shape, © the photographer - 2

From ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’ East Midlands Shape 1990

The British community arts movement was a loose grouping of artists who began their professional lives during the 1960s and 1970s. Their artistic and political ideas varied, as did their backgrounds, training and interests. Some had been educated at art schools and identified as artists. Others, trained in youth work, community development or political activism, saw themselves differently. They worked in public art (especially murals) theatre, adventure playgrounds, carnival, community printshops, video, writing, music and many other forms. London had the largest concentration of community arts projects in Britain, but they existed in every city, from Glasgow to Plymouth, in new towns like Telford and Milton Keynes, and in rural areas including the Peak District and Devon.

In all their diversity, community artists had one thing in common. They believed that everyone could create art if they had the resources and support to do so. They wanted to make art collaboratively, with and for communities, in places and ways that validated people’s own culture. They mostly had little interest in individual practice or careers, though the artists’ own vision and aesthetics often had a greater influence than they recognised. Their project grew from a rejection – particularly by those who had attended art school – of art world values, which they saw as detached from and careless of most people’s concerns. Some of community art’s early originality arose from the attempt to reconcile avant-garde ideas with everyday culture and traditions.

The idea of taking the arts to the people was not new. It had long shaped cultural philanthropy in Britain, from the civic galleries of Victorian cities to the Shakespeare productions touring industrial towns in the 1930s. The community arts movement was innovative – and radical – in rejecting the idea of educating the poor to appreciate the culture of the rich. Instead, the movement asserted the right of working people to create their own art, rooted in their own experience and values, and their capacity to do that as well as anyone else with fair access to the resources of creative production. Where others spoke of democratising culture, community artists argued for cultural democracy.

Community arts challenged the distribution of cultural resources and, more profoundly, the legitimacy of the institutions claiming to judge what was artistically worthwhile and what was not. It was a far-reaching idea that provoked a fiercely defensive response from the art establishment, which protected itself by asserting that community art was just bad art. The central argument over community art was always about artistic quality, but it was not really about the work itself. It was about who was entitled to determine its value(s). When the institutional art world sought to reject such work artistically, ex cathedra, it was not just defending certain ideas about art. It was also defending its authority as judge of the value of art.

The community arts movement was therefore an inherently political project and it attracted people with leftist sympathies. But there were at least two interpretations of its politics. For some, community art was a project to undermine the authoritarianism of an elitist art world. For others, that was an expression of and contribution to the struggle for socialism. Arguments about this weakened the community arts movement in the 1970s and led to its collapse in the 1980s. After that, few people talked about community arts as a movement. The political context had changed anyway, with the neoliberal ascendancy cemented by a third Conservative government in 1987. Some community artists left to do other things. The rest dug in and started talking about their work as participatory art.


  1. Kathy OBrien

    Dear Francois Really enjoyed reading your ‘short history’, everything you say resonates. There is no doubt that the arts as we know it are now in a very different place, there are the ACE funded portfolio clients, and those who manage to score the odd hit from the Grants for the Arts or the Charitable sector. There is also the ‘let’s do it anyway’ methodology that is emerging, specifically from the students who have accepted debt as part of the process.  Looking back over the many years in the sector, this timescale has to be the worst. 20-30 years ago I willingly engaged in creating, delivering and making work, now the options are not so easy. As a student at Goldsmiths, I saw the impact of the Hirst clique and the damage these millionaires subsequently made to the sector –  they have nothing to do with the arts – it is just a market. Sadly, those of us working in the ‘community’ or ‘social engagement’ sector are being driven out, or carry out activities for the love of it. The concept of ‘community’ itself is now hard to find, when any person who is not in work has to seek resources or visit the job centre weekly in order to receive a stipend. However, I do have confidence that this will change, there is a very savvy generation emerging and there are signs of green shoots – where people are doing it for themselves.   I am, and I do not think I am alone! Wishing you well Thank you  Kathy Kathy O’Brien Development Manager Carl Campbell Dance Company 7

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Kathy. Like you I see good things happening and the third generation to come into the field has much of the the radicalism and energy of the first – with some new ideas and some lessons from the past.


  2. Hi, just to add, the following book is published by Manchester University, and it allows old community artists like me to try to remember how it was, all those years ago.
    ‘Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art; The British Community Arts Movement’
    edited by Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty
    published by Bloomsbury
    ISBN 978-1-4742-5835-7


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