Forty years ago, I doubt whether the need to carry out an initial cultural audit was much on the minds of the energetic and idealistic community artists who set up companies like Welfare State International in Cumbria, Jubilee Community Arts in Sandwell or Side, Amber Film Collective and Live Theatre on Tyneside. Commitment to the liberating power of art and to the creative potential of everyone in society, took the place of today’s cycle of planning and monitoring.
While not all of these pioneer organisations are now in existence, each has an illustrious history and can properly claim to have shaped the cultural life of their community and of the nation as a whole. Not everyone was within their reach even then, and recent times have seen community-based arts provision become especially vulnerable to the double whammy of funding cuts from Arts Council England and their local authority.
In its Creative People and Places programme (CPP), Arts Council England effectively reviewed its ‘map’ of the arts and attempted to rebalance the cultural economy by directing resources to what, according to the statistical map of arts attendance, appeared to be ‘cold spots’. The first six projects to receive CPP awards came together on 4 February at DARTS in Doncaster (one of the projects), for the first of the second series of Knowledge Exchange Network meetings, directed by Leila Jancovich and Franco Bianchini.
The directors and chief executives of what are often consortia of existing organisations are in the process of setting up and recruiting staff and putting programmes together. Despite having originated in a mechanistic analysis of the success of the subsidised arts, their plans, which are aimed at communities spread across England from the Medway towns to South East Northumberland, and from Lincolnshire to the Mersey, would not have looked out of place in the heyday of community arts.
Each project gave a one-minute presentation, and it quickly became clear that there were common objectives, such as: bringing together groups with common creative interests; providing easier access to mobile and flexible production facilities; and making alliances between arts and heritage organisations. So far, everything seemed very worthwhile and, furthermore, tried and tested over the decades.
The participatory principle, though bred in the countercultural politics of the late 20th century, is an emerging trend in economics and in social policy. The challenge put to the whole group at the outset had been how to respond to the likely outcome that the more real the participation in culture, the more likely that participants would demand to change the culture on offer.
The afternoon was directed as a group brainstorm, with small teams rotating to comment, constructively and critically in turn, on each plan. With such abbreviated presentations, it was not always possible to guess at the detail of what was intended but, perhaps because of this, some larger general features seemed to emerge.
Yet as an introductory talk on this subject made clear, while participatory budgeting may make the participants feel better about themselves, the process tends not to be used when mainstream or revenue budgets are at stake. It thus attracts few participants (and these are often the ‘already converted’), and it has little external impact on the reliability or perceived legitimacy of policy making and budget setting. As its critics have often said, much the same could be said of the community arts movement.
This sums up the potential and the limitations of the CPP programme. As some local authority members have realised when faced with using genuinely participatory democracy for the first time, if it is really to mean anything to the bulk of the population, it must become a mainstream element of decision-making. Working on the margins is not a long-term option. In the case of the arts, despite what seem like large budgets for each CPP project, the sum available is trivial compared to ACE’s total budget, let alone the combined national and local spend on arts, culture and sport.
Participation rates in the arts are unequal across the UK, but they are also stuck consistently and stubbornly at about 20%. Achieving higher participation means giving more people a say in more ways. It also demands that the condescending language of ‘cold spots’ be replaced by a genuine dialogue about cultural activity, with no limited definitions that prejudge the outcome, in full and mutual partnership with each community.
I wish all six initial CPP projects well, but it looks at this point as if their struggle will be, not to break through barriers of acceptance with their communities, but to break out of the straitjacket of assumptions set up by the scheme itself.
This article was originally published on the Knowledge Exchange Network website at www.participationandengagement-arts.co.uk