The restless purposes of community art

‘In the Netherlands, community art is predominantly result-oriented, whereas, until recently, in English-speaking countries the focus was on participation and the process.’

These words come from a book produced in preparation for Leeuwarden’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2018. The Dutch city’s programme aims ‘to strengthen community feeling through cultural participation’, and much thought has been given to how and why this happens. The Search Compass is described as a ‘methodology for cultural intervention’ and it gives a good overview of current thinking about community art in the Netherlands.

'Maxima Komt!,' Community Play (Stut Theatre)
‘Maxima Komt!,’ Community Play (Stut Theatre)

Holland been an important centre of practice for at least 15 years, with some great work being done with its changing communities. Rotterdam has an International Community Arts Festival and CAL-XL in Utrecht is a centre for documentation and reflection on community arts. Some of the best work I’ve seen has been the Netherlands and yet, reading The Search Compass, I see some of what I’ve missed or misunderstood. Because my own approach has been rights-based, I may have underestimated the social purpose of some Dutch projects and how that shaped what was happening. For instance, the book suggests that community art projects:

‘have in common that they imply the participation of a specific target group in a cultural event, that it concerns a creative process under the guidance of (social and creative) professionals and that they seek to achieve a social goal.’

This vision of community art as an agent of social change under the control of professionals makes me uncomfortable, though I know it’s how many people see it. Achieving social change has always been one of the objectives of community art – but only one. Moreover, such change can occur in other ways than ‘under the guidance of (social and creative) professionals’.

Part of what makes this practice vital is the tension between this objective and others rooted either in democratization of art or cultural rights. The different emphases placed on these three goals, by different people in different places at different times, make it ‘a restless art’, as people try to balance competing but not necessarily conflicting purposes. There isn’t a ‘right’ purpose to community arts: there are many depending on people and situation. But each raises ethical, political and artistic dilemmas that need to be considered – and discussing them openly is one way of doing the work well.

This week, I’ll have a chance to talk about these questions with people involved in community arts in the Netherlands: it will be a rewarding few days.