What participatory art needs

Over the next few days, I’ll post some reflections on the present situation of participatory art in Britain, drawn from the final chapter of ‘A Restless Art’. The book’s thesis about the normalisation of participatory art seems to be clearer and clearer, as do the challenges that acceptance brings. In posting these extracts, I hope to highlight some fundamental questions that need answers – not least in Arts Council England’s new 10 year strategy, which is currently out for consultation. I’ll return to that document when I’ve thought more about it.


Participatory art is more extensive, more diverse and more secure than it has been in my lifetime and probably much longer. That is thanks to the tenacity over decades of people making good art in bad conditions, explaining the value of what they are doing, and advocating for it as a human right. They have been supported by far-sighted allies, including cultural leaders, civil society actors and foundations. The institutions of cultural and political power are coming round but not many are yet dependable partners. Most politicians have still to understand how their electors’ relationship with art changed, so they follow rather than lead in this field. And that is in the prosperous countries: elsewhere, the position of community artists is often much more fragile.

In Britain, participatory art is at a tipping point. It will continue to grow, for the reasons I have given, but how that happens will be influenced by choices that lie with public institutions: the Arts Councils in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, art schools and universities, local councils and services. That is also, of course, a matter for government, which finances, regulates and, to some degree, controls them. Until now, because participatory art has struggled for recognition, it has had to work much harder than other parts of the publicly-supported cultural sector. Do more, with less and prove the outcomes. It is a bit like trying to walk up a down escalator, and keep up with people on the stairs. 

That must change if participatory art is to fulfil its potential in society alongside conventional artistic production. It is a matter of fairness but of self-interest too. The normalisation described in the first chapter will not be sustained without structural change in how the country’s institutions support participatory art. Without that help, it will continue to grow, but in dissent. There is much to be said for that—it has characterised community art’s relationship with the art world for decades—but if cultural democracy is the goal, eternal opposition is a sign of failure. If a more democratic, inclusive and creative participatory art practice is to develop, if some of the promise described in this book is to be fulfilled, the institutions concerned need to take action now. There are three things that participatory artists need: money, trust and professional development. 

Tomorrow – Part 2: Resources


2 comments

  1. Thank you as always Francois. Yes a welcomed normalisation. Something else i would welcome would be a change in how funders and commissioners ask about quality and diverse inclusion as different sections. By framing them separately it implies they’re a separate thing & perpetuates hierarchies. And it drives me mad when i’m writing bids!

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