Why are there so few books about community art?

There are very few books about community art in Britain, despite its 50 year history. The key texts are:

  • 1978, Artists and People by Su Braden
  • 1984, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels by Owen Kelly
  • 1995, Art with People, edited by Malcolm Dickson

To them can be added two recent books:

  • Kate Crehan’s Community Art, An Anthropological Perspective(2011) uses Free Form as a case study for a fine analysis of community art more broadly; and
  • Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty’s edited volume, Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement(2017) gives a good account of the early history  from different perspectives.

There are valuable books on community practice within specific art forms, especially in theatre (Janet Cohen-Cruz, James Thompson, Eugene van Erven and others), and to a lesser extent dance (Diane Amans) and music (Lee Higgins). There are some individual project histories, such as See Red, and more are starting to appear.  There is a growing library on participation in contemporary art (Grant Kester, Pablo Helguera, Mary Jane Jacob, Claire Bishop etc.), but that isn’t community art.

Here’s the thing. Su Braden, Owen Kelly and Malcolm Dickson were all practitioners, writing about community art principally for other practitioners. Many of the best academic books have also come from people who were or are practitioners  (Thompson, van Erven, Amans, Higgins, Moriarty etc.)  I see my own writing, from Regular Marvels in 1994 to A Restless Art now, in that category too.

So why is there so little academic interest in community art, as theory, history or practice?

Is it because it can only be approached within established disciplines, such as theatre or dance? That might be understandable where practice is concerned, but the philosophy is independent of art form. History is another gap, perhaps because the traces are not as easily located as those of a conventional art movement with established figures. I don’t know the answer, but I’d be grateful for suggestions – or for any additions to the list of books below.

Some books on Community and participatory art – a partial list

  • ACGB, 1974, Community Arts, The Report of the Community Arts Working Party, June 1974, The Arts Council of Great Britain, London
  • Bartlett, B-L & Higgins, L, eds., 2018, The Oxford Handbook of Community Music, Oxford
  • Bishop, C., 2012, Artificial Hells, Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London
  • Boal, A., 2000, Theater of the Oppressed, (trans. McBride, C. & M-O, & Fryer, E.) London
  • Bonet, L. & Négrier, E., eds., 2018, Breaking the Fourth Wall: Proactive Audiences in the Performing Arts, Elverum
  • Braden, S., 1978, Artists and People, London.
  • Cleveland, B., 2008, Art and Upheaval, Artists on World’s Frontline, Oakland
  • Cohen-Cruz, J., 2005 Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States, New Brunswick
  • Craig, S. 1980, Dreams and Deconstructions, Alternative theatre in Britain, Ambergate
  • Crehan, K, 2011, Community Art, An Anthropological Perspective, London.
  • De Bruyne, P., Gielen, P., eds. 2011, Community Art, The Politics of Trespassing, Amsterdam
  • Dickson, M., ed. 1995, Art with People, Sunderland
  • Fitzgerald, S., ed., 2004, An Outburst of Frankness: Community Arts in Ireland – A Reader. Dublin
  • Fox, J., 2002, Eyes on Stalks, London.
  • Goldbard, A., 2006, New Creative Community, The Art of Cultural Development, Oakland
  • Graves, J., 2005, Cultural Democracy, The Arts, Community and the Public Purpose, Chicago
  • Helguera, P., 2011, Education for Socially Engaged Art, A Materials and Techniques Handbook, New York
  • Higgins, L., 2012, Community Music, In Theory and In Practice, Oxford
  • Jacob, M., & Zeller, K., eds. 2015, A Lived Practice, Chicago
  • Jeffers, A., & Moriarty, G., eds. 2017, Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement, London
  • Kelly, O., 1984, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels, London.
  • Kelly, O., Lock, J., & Merkel, K., 1986, Another Standard 86, Culture and Democracy: The Manifesto, London
  • Kenna, C., & Medcalf. R., eds. 1986, Printing is Easy…?, Community Printshops, 1970-86, London
  • Kershaw, B. & Coult, T, 1990, Engineers of the Imagination, London.
  • Kester, G. 2011, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, London
  • Matarasso, F., 1994, Regular Marvels, A handbook for animateurs, practitioners and development workers in dance, mime, music and literature, Leicester
  • Matarasso, F. 1997, Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts, Stroud
  • Moser, P., & MacKay, G., eds. 2005, Community Music, A Handbook, Lyme Regis
  • Peaker, A. & Vincent, J., 1990, Arts in Prison: Towards a Sense of Achievement, London
  • See Red, 2016, See Red Women’s Workshop, Feminist Posters 1974-1990, London
  • Simon, N., 2010, The Participatory Museum,Museum 2.0. Kindle Edition
  • Thompson, J., 2009 Performance Affects: Applied Theatre and the End of Effect, London
  • Thompson, J., Hughes, J. & Balfour, M. 2009 Performance in Place of War, London
  • Turino, C., 2014, The Point of Culture: Brazil Turned Upside Down, ed. Paul Heritage. Rosie Hunter & Poppy Spowage, London
  • Turnbull, G., ed., 2015, The Questions We Ask Together, Open Engagement
  • Van Erven, E., 1988, Radical People’s Theatre, Indiana
  • Van Erven, E., 1992, The Playful Revolution: Theatre and Liberation in Asia, Indiana
  • Van Erven, E., 2001, Community Theatre: Global Perspectives, London
  • van Erven, E., 2013, Community Art Power: Essays from ICAF 2011Rotterdam
  • Van Erven, E., 2013, Community Arts Dialogues, Utrecht
  • White, M., 2009, Arts Development in Community Health: A Social Tonic, Oxford


  1. Hi Francois,I just had to write to say how much I love reading your blogs. I am amazed each time I read them as you capture so much I am thinking about or then want to go away to explore!I’m based over in York and work as an artist, community participation and am currently the Arts Development Manager up at York Hospital. I just find your work and questioning so valuable to my practice and it always is written so well.So just to say thank you really! Bests for nowGriselda Griselda Goldsbrough

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for this feedback, Griselda. I really appreciate it. I’ve always written with the people who do the work in mind, and it means so much to hear that you find it helpful. François


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