One for the historians

In my view community arts must still be regarded as an experiment—an experiment in ‘cultural democracy’ of great importance not only for the immediate stimulus and enjoyment it can provide, but because its long-term results—or lack of results—will throw light on the question ‘arts for whom?’ which is vital for the future of our society.

Harold Baldry, The Case for the Arts (1981), p.147

It has to be confessed that community artists are most difficult clients for the Arts Council to deal with. It is not easy to work with artists who not only consistently bite the hand that feeds them (a fairly general practice) but often explicitly repudiate the basic premise of the Arts Council’s Charter.

Roy Shaw, Secretary-General’s Report, ACGB Annual Report 1978/9

The emergence of community art in the late 1960s caused the Arts Council of Great Britain much trouble and anguish, which was exactly what many of its young advocates intended. They challenged the authority of a staid and conservative institution by claiming support for art that it did not value but lacked the confidence to dismiss outright. Documents of the period, including Annual Reports and memoirs of some of its leaders, suggest an organisation that was simultaneously patrician and insecure. The world was changing fast, and its leadership struggled to know how to adapt.

The exception was Harold Baldry,  a retired professor of Classics from Southampton, who was a founder member of Southern Arts Association and sat on the Arts Council between 1973 and 1978. Although he calls himself an ‘autocrat’ during this period, that’s unfair. He had a broad appreciation for the arts but he remained independent of the system. That made him a good choice, in 1974, to take on the delicate task of chairing a working party tasked with looking at community arts and advising the Arts Council on how it should respond to the new movement. The Baldry  report – admirably clear and succinct by today’s standards – recommended that the Arts Council should fund community art on an experimental basis for two years, with a new committee and a budget of £250,000. A committee was established, but it was given much less funding to distribute. In 1977, its work was reviewed, approved and confirmed, which led the poet Roy Fuller to resign angrily from the Council, which he claimed was being ‘taken for a ride by at best modestly talented individuals, at worst exhibitionists or those primarily politically motivated‘.

The Case for the Arts (1981)The Baldry Report was a fair-minded attempt to understand community arts by people who were mostly from a different generation and social background to the young artists they met. In 1981, after the end of his term on the Council, Baldry published a short book called The Case for the Arts. In it he made a cogent argument for the importance of public subsidy and fairness in its distribution. He also gave the best and most sympathetic account of community art that had yet come from anyone associated with the arts establishment.  He understood what community artists did and why—and he thought they were right to do it. His argument was based on justice, creative potential and social value:

 Funds provided for the continuation of the community arts experiment are money well spent. Faced with a future where one of our greatest problems is likely to be how people, especially young people, use their time, warned already by daily experience of the anti-social consequences which enforced leisure can have when there is no opportunity or inspiration to make better use of it, we should be fools indeed to halt now a development which may have so much to offer.

Harold Baldry, The Case for the Arts, p.148

He understood why the work would always need public subsidy, and advocated local control over spending decisions. He understood and supported cultural democracy, though not to the exclusion of initiatives to democratise culture. In a chapter called ‘Arts for Whom?’ he rightly observed that the idea that everyone can create and appreciate art is older and more widespread than the belief, held by F. R. Leavis, that ‘in any period it is upon a very small minority that the discerning appreciation of art and literary depends‘.  Harold Baldry was a democrat who took democracy seriously, and admired Telford Community Arts for being managed by its local community. He followed that principle further than some community artists, even if his language now seems a bit dated:

The decisive role will be played by the local community itself, and the wise community artist, whether he emerges from within the community or is a newcomer from outside, will do his utmost to ensure that the community, not he, is in control. Whether they want to improvise a play protesting against rent increases, or to celebrate a royal jubilee, it is for them to decide. 

Harold Baldry, The Case for the Arts, p. 147

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‘They shouldn’t treat us different to men’, Telford Community Arts, (V&A Collection)

Remarkably, Baldry saw that community art might have historic effects on culture:

The champions of community arts are convinced that it is a development of enormous potential, which will in time transform both the nature and the extent of artistic activity throughout Britain, ending the situation where the arts are (as they see it) a minority preserve. Are they right, or is their movement only a passing phase, a legacy from student aspirations in the sixties which has made an impact on the lives of some sections of the population, but will in time be absorbed into the ever-changing history of the arts as other new movements have been in the past? Is it just another tributary to the river, or a flood that will irrigate our ‘cultural deserts’ and promote new growth which seemed impossible before? I do not know the answer; nor, I think, does anyone else.

Harold Baldry, The Case for the Arts, p. 146-7

He was rare in the 1970s arts establishment in being prepared to imagine that community art might turn out to be the most important cultural development of its time. Sir Roy Shaw, Secretary General of the Arts Council when Harold Baldry was a member, did not see that, indeed fought against it, despite a long career in adult education. In his 1987 memoir, The Arts and the People, he writes at length about why Owen Kelly and Su Braden are wrong before conceding, in tones of extraordinary condescension, that:

The efforts of community artists to serve ‘the people’ in centres of urban decay or neglected rural areas are often admirable attempts to apply in cultural terms the principle which John Wesley commended when sending his methodist missionaries to the working class: ‘Go not to those that need you, but to those that need you most.’

Roy Shaw, The Arts and the People, 1987

Patrician indeed.

Harold Baldry spent his life studying and teaching classical literature, but he had a better grasp of art’s potential in modern society and of the importance of cultural democracy. In The Case for the Arts, he concludes his chapter on community arts by saying that:

The need to keep the future of community arts still open by adequate funding seems to me to increase, not decrease, in urgency as our economic and financial problems accumulate and the social stresses which arise from them grow more acute.

Harold Baldry, The Case for the Arts, p. 149

Forty years later, his case stands.

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Telford Community Arts, 1978, (V&A Collection)

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