What participatory art needs: Professional development

With adequate resources and trust participatory art would be in a position to address its weaknesses in professional development. Young artists can now study various models of applied theatre, participatory art and socially engaged practice, full time or as modules in other degrees, but opportunities to build on that knowledge after graduation are limited. That is largely due to the structural weaknesses already discussed, but it is also a failure to take control of an issue that was already being discussed in the 1970s. More could be done within the sector, for example through in-work training, short courses, placements, apprenticeships, mentoring and so on. Partnership with higher education could provide theoretical resources, accreditation and practical support. 

Professional networks play a critical role in some disciplines. People Dancing, sound sense and engage have been vital, respectively, in community dance, community music and gallery education. But there are other fields without similar membership organisations, while participatory art as a whole is constrained by the absence of a national voice since the end of the National Association of Community Artists in 1987. ArtWorks Alliance, a network formed in 2015 with support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, might fill that gap. It already plays a valuable role in organising forum meetings and through an online knowledge bank, but it is still small and its focus is on organisations rather than the freelance artists most in need of support. 

It is easier to travel and network today than it was in the 1980s, but freelance artists rarely have funds for it. Travel bursaries would allow them to see work in other places and learn from their peers. There are EU programmes, such as Creative Europe, but small organisations often lack the capacity to apply for and manage these funds. An exception is acta, which has run community theatre festivals in Bristol with European funds, as well as having an admirable commitment to professional development and university partnerships. On a much larger scale is Tandem, an exchange programme for cultural managers in Europe and neighbouring regions (including the Middle East and North Africa), jointly managed by MitOst and the European Cultural Foundation. Participants work on joint projects and spend at least two weeks in each other’s countries, learning about different cultures, art systems and ways of working. Tandem has been a valuable route for training in participatory and cross-border work, but there is a limit to what a single programme can do. 

Bound up as it is in time, place and voluntary work, participatory art is difficult to present in the art world’s usual formats, which contributes to its isolation and low media profile. Solutions are beginning to be found, though they are still uncommon. the small team behind Rotterdam’s International Community Art Festival have achieved outstanding results in the past 15 years, creating Europe’s most important platform for participatory art and its best opportunity for networking. For 10 years, the Spanish Ministry of Culture and the British Council have supported a conference and festival on inclusion in the performing arts that has contributed to a huge growth of interest in the field. The more recent showcases organised by the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon have helped people working in participatory art get to know each other’s work and raised public awareness of the field. In Porto, Pele has independently organised four community art festivals under the title Mexe, presenting Portuguese and international theatre work alongside academic seminars. Undertaken on shoestring budgets, such examples show that imaginative solutions can be found and that there is a hunger for the opportunities to meet and learn that they offer. But they do not exist in most European countries and most artists do not have the means to attend anyway. not all participatory art’s challenges are straightforward but this one is. Support from national and European funds could make a big difference to the sector. 

These examples show that pathways to professional development exist, but they need strengthening and expanding. Without that, participatory art will continue to rely too much on young, inexperienced (and cheap) artists, while older ones leave for career opportunities or greater security. The weakness of the critical and theoretical base is closely related to this. For an artistic practice half a century old, community art has produced few critical texts. There are reports of variable quality, but serious consideration of the practice or theory is much less well developed. That too is the result of funders’ narrow focus on results. There is too much about what, and not enough about how or why. As community art enters its fifties, 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. 

Tomorrow – What participatory art does not need