What participatory art needs: Trust

Despite the demand for their work, participatory artists remain second-class citizens in the arts funding system. When a choreographer or curator approaches a funding body, they can assume a shared belief in the intrinsic value of dance or contemporary art. A participatory artist in the same position can make no such assumption. The professional expertise of actors, musicians, curators, artists and directors is presumed, their judgement about creative matters trusted. Participatory artists can rarely count on similar esteem. This is not about whether or not an individual artist is admired. It is about different ways of valuing art forms. A grant application for participatory art will be expected to show, each time and in advance, the proposed project’s value—its rationale, need, anticipated outputs, outcomes, and legacy. A theory of change or log frame may even be required, as if it were a development project. That would be understandable from a social fund, but this is typically how arts bodies consider participatory work. The limited interest in artistic questions or the applicant’s record of work is one problem, but the real concern is the ingrained mistrust of participatory art’s intrinsic worth. It is simply not regarded by most people in the art system as a body of knowledge equal to music or theatre. So administrators who rarely have first- hand understanding of the field demand advance guarantees of its value to be verified by evaluation (not experience) on completion. 

this doubt about participatory art’s value and, implicitly, the expertise of those who male it, has led to simplistic, burdensome and misguided requirements. Apart from the normal monitoring of public funds, there is no reason to evaluate the outcomes of every local arts project. It is the equivalent of placing a full-time Ofsted inspector in every classroom—costly, pointless and intrusive. Like teachers, com- munity artists should assess, reflect on and learn from their practice. Self-evaluation is a professional responsibility and doing it well requires training and support, including payment for the time involved. The evaluation effort of funders should be directed by policy and aim to generate new, relevant knowledge to inform future decisions. Investment should be monitored as a matter of course. Much could be learnt from analysis of the quantitative data it produces. There is also a need to recognise the value of art as a source of well grounded qualitative data, acknowledging that artistic creations and the participatory processes by which they are produced, can be at least as valuable in these terms as data sought through social science or management methodologies. Art too is a form of knowledge. 

Evaluation is a complex and demanding process. Grantees need effective approaches to self-evaluation, but external evaluation of participatory art should be used only when there is clear value in doing so. External evaluation by independent experts of a representative or targeted sample of projects would produce a better return on investment. It would also be worth commissioning meta-analyses of the vast bodies of data funders now hold. This multitiered approach (effective monitoring, self-evaluation, targeted external evaluation and research into historic data) would create knowledge that could improve practice, policy and spending decisions. But only if commissioners had systems to reflect on, learn from and respond to the information they produce. Reports do not in themselves produce change. Information flows like treacle, not water. Huge quantities of research have been produced about participatory art in Britain during the past 15 years. How much has been read by anyone not involved in the work? Extracting and applying the knowledge buried in these data graveyards requires commitment from those who commission and assess participatory art. That could begin by committing to generate less but better data. The present approach is wasteful, interferes in the artistic process and undermines trust. In 2002, the philosopher, Onora O’Neill, was already warning:

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.

O’Neill, O., 2002, A Question of Trust, Cambridge

The position has only deteriorated since then. The culture of literalist accountability is widespread in arts management and the burden falls hardest on the participatory arts sector where, as O’Neill goes on to note, it provides ‘incentives for arbitrary and unprofessional choices’. We need a fundamental rethink of how, when and why participatory art is evaluated and what use is made of the results. And that depends on commissioners beginning to trust participatory art and the expertise of those who practice it.

Tomorrow – Part 4: Professional development


  1. How true! Research as a displacement activity perhaps? What about peer reviews as evaluation? Actually being there during both preparation and delivery? And having a chat with participants later?

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    1. Not so much displacement activity, I think, as an inability to trust the judgment of people who work in participatory art (because they are self-evidently not good enough or they would work as ‘real’ artists). Unfortunately, that belief is not addressed by peer review because it’s the whole category of artists whose judgement cannot be relied on.


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