Community art has proved its value over 50 years (and more) so its recognition in Arts Council England’s new strategy was both a vindication of the work and long overdue. Let’s Create was published just before the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything. Although it is far from over, it has already had devastating effects on people’s lives, communities, and jobs. Recovery and renewal will be difficult and will require the concerted efforts of our whole society. Community and participatory art has a vital part to play in that – perhaps more now than ever before – as a space in which people can rebuild confidence and solidarity, and use their creativity to find meaning in this experience. But there are two serious obstacles that will need to be overcome if that is to become a reality:
- The first involves the public health measures needed to contain the spread of the virus. Community art brings people together, in community, and we will need to find new approaches to secure the benefits of togetherness and the health of everyone involved. Since so many of them are especially vulnerable to the disease, because of age or other factors, community artists will have to use all their creativity and resourcefulness to reinvent their practice. But knowing so many of them, I have complete confidence that solutions will be found, and that they will enrich the spectrum of our work.
- The second problem, and the one that is not in our control, is the precariousness of the people on whom this work depends. Whatever their practice or job title people who work in participatory art are mostly freelance and low paid. They saw their work vanish overnight in March, and they have no idea when it will be possible to return to it. The people they worked with – and for whom that work can be a social lifeline – don’t know either when those opportunities will come again. Theatre, music and other more glamorous parts of the art world have their famous and noble advocates, their access to the media and their invitations to the rooms where policy is made. Community artists do not. They are trying to keep their heads above water.
Yesterday an open letter on the future of participatory art was published by some of the leading voices in the field. It is addressed to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and to the board and staff of Arts Council England. It sets out clearly the value of participatory art, and the problems faced by those who make it, and proposes some immediate solutions: dialogue, resources and sectoral support. The organisers of the letter are inviting further signatures. I’ve added my name, and if you agree with what I’ve just outlined here, here’s the link: