David Richmond from Arts in Development reflects on the AWA Gathering, which focused on workforce support and development in the times of Covid and climate crisis. Working in participatory arts, ‘We are not firefighters, but gardeners’, he argues.



At the recent AWA Gathering we had a fascinating discussion on sustainability and some excellent resources were shared. I was really encouraged to see AWA engaging so positively with such a difficult subject. When we’re faced with something so huge, complex and potentially all-consuming as climate breakdown, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless.


I must admit, I worry sometimes that that our response to climate crisis might actually feed this sense of hopelessness and make us less likely to pursue more positive ways forward. For example, I’m not sure that it is helpful to frame sustainability in terms of things we ought to give up. I recognise a similar underlying negativity when it comes to creativity, diversity, inclusion etc. which are often treated as if they were unpleasant issues rather than positive values that should be celebrated and built into everything we do.


It is important to recognise that the climate crisis, like inequality and oppression, occurs as a direct result of the choices we make. It should also be clear that the values and practices that led to (for example) climate crisis won’t get us out of it, neither will they help us in it. It is time to make some different choices we desperately need a positive way forward.


So, I was particularly encouraged about moves to reinvigorate the ‘participatory arts’ sector in Scotland. It does feel to me that this might be the moment for a radical repositioning of the sector. For too long we’ve been funded to provide sticking-plaster solutions when we have something far more important to offer. The role of the arts is not to tinker but to transform. Our role is not to use sustainability, creativity, inclusion, diversity etc. to mitigate the worse effects of the current system but to forge a new one. We are not firefighters, but gardeners.


I think it is time to take ourselves seriously and recognise that what we offer is a distinctly positive paradigm with a clear set of values, concepts and processes. A paradigm that focusses on the quality of our lives and the moments we experience (rather than the quantity of things we possess). (If we want to show that we are serious about this we could stop trying to quantify the benefits of the arts, but instead analyse other resources in terms of the quality they bring to our lives something that can be done every bit as rigorously as the other way around).


When we see sustainability as a positive value, we realise that it is not just plastics we throw away but that our current tendency to see the world in terms of expendable resources extends to how we treat each other. If we are to find a positive way forward, we need to first recognise that we are all part of the complex and constantly changing systems that shape the world we live in and that everything we do has implications for ourselves, other people and the wider world. To move forward we must first let go of certainty and recognise that we are all ’in development’ and find ways to balance our own lives with our relationships with others and the wider world.


The reality of how to realise this is of course complex. Fortunately, there are some simple and natural processes that can guide us on this journey. I have been exploring walking as our natural resource. Walking helps us think and listen to find the openness that is essential to all creative development. When we walk, we feel connected to the world, to others and to our natural selves. I’m planning a series of Walks in Development across the UK to help find out how we can bring this natural connection into everything we do and I’m looking for people who would like to explore this with me.


We will walk, listen and think and create, both together and alone. As we walk, we will explore what walking can teach us, how we can support each other and what resources we can build to keep us walking in development.


If anyone would like to join me, or can suggest any people or places ‘in development’ to visit and connect with, please get in touch.