Briar Monro, Arts Practice Director, Community and Youth at Creative New Zealand reflects on participatory arts in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the UK – and looks ahead to a slow spiral of development that honours the process and shared intentions of the work itself.

I’m writing this having just been to a panel discussion at Te Papa Tongarewa – New Zealand’s national museum and art gallery. The discussion was on arts and wellbeing and included a wide range (panel and audience) of participatory artists, arts therapists, arts educators, funders, health workers, policy makers, programmers and others.

When talking about the challenges facing the arts and wellbeing sector in New Zealand, the panellists lamented the differences between here and the UK.

One panellist is going to have to travel to London to study, as there’s no post-graduate training in New Zealand dedicated towards social practice. Another noted the lack of infrastructure, resources and recognition to support art therapy.

And had we more time, they might have also commented on the level of discourse in the UK, the impact that dedicated philanthropic bodies such as the Paul Hamlyn Foundation can make, the levels of thinking that can produce reports like the All Party Parliamentary Group Report on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, and the embedded knowledge and support that sits within local and central government and arts councils. These things have been honed by years of sustained practice, by trial and error and success, by academic research and by a critical mass of need.

With a population 1/14th of the UK over roughly the same land mass, our services, infrastructure, populations and practitioners are spread comparatively thinly.

Participatory arts practice (in the European tradition) has, as a result, been sporadic in its development. We lack the historical context of the art therapy movement as well as the sustained development of key organisations that have provided a back bone for community arts development in the UK. Our portfolio of recurrently funded arts organisations provides very little infrastructure for this area of practice (although this is shifting) and artists are often having to reinvent the wheel of resources, relationships and processes. And there is an unresolved complexity in the conversation around who should be funding what outcomes.

While at a gut level many understand the importance and value of participatory arts, there is a lack of critical understanding, recognition and discourse around cultural democracy and the artists’ role in this as a valid area of arts practice.

Conversations are not joined up.

Aware of all of this and wanting to understand more about what is working elsewhere in the world and what lessons we could learn, I spent five days in the UK in April meeting with a handful of practitioners in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Cardiff, having conversations with Artworks Alliance through the secretariat and partner Artworks Cymru and picking the brains of staff at Creative Scotland (also an ArtWorks Alliance partner through the work of ArtWorks Scotland), Arts Council Wales and Arts Council England (South West). It was a whirlwind trip – as ever trying to cram too much in.

And, of course, being in the business of arts development (with a background as a participatory artist), as I spoke with this broad community of dedicated people I was sifting and searching for the things that I could translate back to our context.

Would it be about building stronger conversations and more integrated approaches between partners to better co-ordinate funding and resources (Allan Farmer, ex-WHALE Arts and now at the Corra Foundation)? Would it be about front-footing the renewed conversation about cultural democracy and a deep commitment to empowerment of the community (Jed Milroy at Tinderbox, Iain Shaw at Media Education  and the amazing team at Platform)? Would it be more aligned with the work that Artworks Cymru and Artworks Scotland are doing to help artists and organisations to identify and support quality in their practice? Maybe the smart agency around building a knowledge bank of resources or supporting professional development (the Artworks Alliance partnership network)? A strategy for youth arts with leadership and decision-making by youth (Creative Scotland)? Illuminating the needs, the programmes, agendas and needs of potential commissioners (Arts Council England)? Or taking a stand with partners and insisting that their engagement embodies the co-learning principles of the project (Sparc – Valleys Kids Youth Arts project)?

What could I take back to NZ? What would be the best fit? What might be the things that would, in their perfect combination, springboard the development of our community arts sector into a better resourced, more recognised and more effective place? And at the same time, what would be so virtuosic, so breathtakingly simple and so innovative in its bright new shininess that it would excite and galvanise the decision makers into active support?

But back to Te Papa and our panellists.

Having lamented the gaps, they then turned to the advantages of being a small island in the South Pacific.

On these islands is an indigenous culture that has sharpened and articulated its value in the face of colonisation and that continues to express these values through a community-based arts and cultural practice which is integrated with daily existence. And who have, in the face of this and supported by their underpinning values, continued to show generosity towards the partnership formed by the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori and non-Maori.

Also here is a great diversity of immigrant populations primarily from Europe, from across the Pacific, and, most recently, from Asia who have arrived over the last 200 years and, because of our scale, we have to interact – to rub up against each other.

We have an accessibility to politicians and other decision makers.

And we have an emerging climate of change and partnership that should be able to make a difference to the sector and the people we serve, and the panellists spoke about the leadership role that this area of practice has to play in creating a space for better cross -sector collaboration.

As I listened, it struck me that the panel were articulating and following a community development model – appreciating what we have here, in our community and growing from that place. And it was a timely, and personal, reminder that we also need to maintain this within our work as development agencies.

As funders and people involved in arts development, we would love to find that illuminating something that will frame up an irrefutable argument for increased investment, infrastructure and CPD for practitioners. And it is very easy to rush towards the bright and shiny and new ideas, wanting change to be immediate, to have impact and to be sustained.

But, like most participatory projects there is complexity. It is most likely that we will, collectively, take three steps forward and two back. This is a slow spiral of development which needs to be based on shared intentions, recognising and valuing diversity, incremental growth and sustained engagement. And we need to remember that the process is the art work and that how we conduct ourselves, in this potential sea change, is as important as the outcome.

Image: ‘Fly Me Up To Where You Are’ – an ongoing collaborative project between social practice artist, Tiffany Singh, and year 5 & 6 students from Decile 1 & 2* schools across New Zealand. *Schools from communities where the average household income is at the bottom of the range.