Neither community arts practice nor its results are always good. Most art is, by definition, average—and that is good enough. Community art is generally competent, worthwhile in its time and place. Some, for one reason or another, is poor. And some is glorious, spectacular and life-changing: it takes your breath away. In this respect, community art is like every other form of art, but it gets funded less well and assessed more critically by a system that has still not come to terms with it. Here are three areas where things could be different.
Participatory art receives more public funding today than it did 20 years ago, but that is largely because the arts as a whole are better resourced than they were. Community art still accounts for a very small part of the Arts Council’s budget. What’s more, the expansion of funding has produced an increase in quantity rather than changing the conditions in which the art is created. Individual organisations and artists are not much better resourced than they were—there are just more of them. But, while commitment and imagination can overcome a lot, quality ultimately relates to materials, equipment, facilities, training and especially time. Underpaid, overworked artists cannot do their best work with poor materials. The people they work with are short-changed: most in need, they receive least in return. And, over time, the artists themselves burn out.
There have been attempts, over the decades, to set minimum fees, standards and working conditions but they will not come to anything as long as there are young, idealistic artists looking for work. Unpaid ‘training opportunities’ and internships are symptoms of a rotten culture. The conditions in which participatory art is produced should be rethought so that some basic standards are established. The Arts Council could be working with the sector to set benchmarks that defend good working practice and protect artists and participants. The relentless pressure to deliver more for less has to end.
Community artists are entitled to the same respect as their peers in other fields. The professional expertise of actors, musicians, curators, technicians, artists and directors is assumed. They account for the results of their work but not how it is produced, because its intrinsic purpose and value is accepted. There is no such presumption of worth for participatory art. On the contrary, it is obliged to prove, every time, the legitimacy of the small amounts of public funds it gets. I have seen an application rejected because the materials budget did not specify the cost of each item—this in an application for less than £5,000 by a professional organisation working with vulnerable people. No questions about the artistic vision: just the cost of paintbrushes.
This lack of confidence in the value of participatory arts work leads to simplistic, burdensome and wrong-headed approaches to evaluation. Apart from the normal monitoring of public funds, there is no reason for funding bodies to evaluate the outcomes of every community arts project. It would be like having an Ofsted inspector sitting permanently at the back of every classroom. Community artists, like teachers, should evaluate their own work as a professional responsibility, using methods helpful to them and in order to learn from and develop their practice. Funders should evaluate a representative sample of what they support—and then only if they have the systems to understand and act on the results. Doing this well would improve practice and support knowledge. Doing more is wasteful, interferes in the artistic process and undermines trust, as Onora O’Neill argued in her 2002 Reith Lectures:
‘The new accountability is widely experienced not just as changing but (I think) as distorting the proper aims of professional practice and indeed as damaging professional pride and integrity’.
The culture of literalist accountability is widespread in arts management but the burden has fallen hardest on the community arts sector where, as O’Neill goes on to warn, it provides ‘incentives for arbitrary and unprofessional choices’.
Higher education now provides young artists with a training in participatory arts practice, but continuing professional development is very limited. Partly, that’s down to the structural weaknesses of the sector, including under-funding, but it is also a failure to take responsibility for an issue that has been talked about for at least 30 years. More could be done within the sector, in terms of short courses, placements, mentoring and so on. Such approaches could be developed by the sector itself, perhaps with support and accreditation from imaginative art colleges.
Without paths for professional development, participatory art will continue to depend too much on young, inexperienced (and cheap) artists, while older ones leave to develop their careers. The weakness of community art’s critical and theoretical base is closely related to this. For an artistic practice that is half a century old, community art has produced few critical texts. There are many project evaluation reports, of variable quality, but little serious consideration of the practice or ideas that guide it. There is too much about what, and not enough about how or why. Writing about the theory and practice of community arts has been left to people with little first-hand experience or with very different ideological perspectives. Even when that work is valuable, it creates a one-sided discourse which needs to be questioned by artists and practitioners.
As community art enters its 50s, there are signs of a growing interest in its history, and it can only be hoped that will develop into a flourishing discourse about current and future practice. Perhaps that will also help win trust and unlock proper resources.
This text is adapted from a talk I gave at ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, community arts conference in Whitby, Yorkshire on 28 April 2005: not enough has changed in the intervening years. The quotes from Onora O’Neill come from her book A Question of Trust (Cambridge University Press 2002) pp. 50 and 56.
The photograph above was taken at the conclusion of the X Jornadas Sobre la Inclusión Social y la Educación en las Artes Escénicas on 12 May 2018 in Madrid, and shows the participants in the conference with the professional and non-professional performers from the National Ballet of Spain and the National Dance Company.