AWA member Gerri Moriarty sets out the research ArtsChain carried out over the summer, in order to better understand the current needs of the participatory arts sector, and the three proposals made to Arts Council England with their initial reflections.

As part of its campaign to advocate for participatory arts (see the Open Letter and responses to the letter at, ArtsChain met recently with Rebecca Blackman (Arts Council England Director for Engagement and Audiences) and Catherine Mitchell (Interim Director, Combined Arts and the North). We were joined by Artworks Alliance members Adrian Sinclair and Sarah Thornton, and by Abdul Shayek (Artistic Director and CEO, Tara Arts) and Pragya Kumar (visual artist, founder of Cultural Connections), both of whom are London-based.

This piece sets out the research ArtsChain carried out over the summer, in order to better understand the current needs of the sector, the three proposals we made to Arts Council England and initial reflections from Rebecca and Catherine.

As a small, unresourced network, there are inevitable limitations to what ArtsChain can do. We hope that all those who care about participatory arts – and especially members and supporters of Artworks Alliance – will continue with the work of influencing decision-makers of all kinds at local, regional and national level.

As the Brazilian philosopher and activist Paolo Freire said ‘The future isn’t something hidden in a corner. The future is something we build in the present.’

Research findings

ArtsChain presented findings based on a survey of freelance practitioners and participatory organisations (170 respondents), our National Workshop which was attended by 89 people and in-depth qualitative interviews. These findings are indicative, rather than definitive but highlight:

  • concern about loss of connection with participants and the subsequent impact for individuals and communities.
  • concern about the loss of income for both organisations and freelance practitioners.
  • a strong belief that issues of equality and diversity (for example Black Lives Matter and digital exclusion) needed to be addressed even more urgently
  • a desire for recognition for the sector and for flexible funding approaches
  • a need for space/time for organisations to plan for real change, not just adapt

Underpinning all of these issues is a strong feeling of uncertainty about the future. We also commented on the clear risk to the mental health and wellbeing of practitioners, given the uncertainties they were facing personally and professionally and the fact that they are on the front-line of listening and responding to communities deeply affected by Covid-19 and the current economic crisis. We also raised the issue of exclusion because of digital poverty

Three Proposals

Our group made three proposals to Arts Council England, linked to these findings:

Proposal 1. Recognition of the Participatory Arts Sector

‘Participatory Arts in England has a rich history and is currently practised by groups of committed individuals and organisations in every region of the country. It has its own sets of skills and competencies and is a distinct sub-set of the arts in the same way that the theatre sector or the visual arts sector is. And very well placed to support communities following COVID…

The Arts Council’s new strategy, Let’s Create, aims to: “recognise and champion the creative activities and cultural experiences of every person in every town, village and city in this country, and to ensure that, over the next 10 years, we support more people to express and develop their creativity…”

Participatory Arts is the flag-bearer and role model for this ambition. As the Participatory Arts sector organises itself locally, regionally, nationally and internationally we have a simple ask from the Arts Council: for the first time to recognise Participatory Arts as a sector in its own right. And that means the Arts Council developing structures and processes to deal with us as a sector.’

This proposal was presented by Adrian Sinclair (Heads Together) and supported by Hannah Whitlow (Blaze Arts), who talked about why this proposal was important for young artists in the early stages of developing their careers and Sarah Thornton (Collective Encounters) who pointed out that recognition of the sector would mean:

  • supporting the collective voice of the participatory arts sector
  • ensuring organisations and individuals have breathing space to adapt to new and
  • ever-changing circumstances e.g. through a flexible approach to targets and by reducing administration
  • encouraging the sharing of information gathered through monitoring and evaluation to support learning and build evidence of impact and value of the sector
  • Helping to make participatory arts better. Focus on improving quality.


Proposal 2   A new £15 million Arts Council England funding programme

‘A radical new programme which is targeted at communities and individuals who have been worst affected by Covid-19 and are also likely to suffer most in the economic crisis

  • Hyper-local, co-designed, participatory arts-focused, led primarily by communities and partnerships rather than artists.
  • Individual grants in the region of £10,000 – £35,000, with a total fund of £15 million set aside specifically. Applications would be encouraged from the breadth of organisations who work in the youth, community and voluntary sector, with arts and cultural organisations as partners but not applicants and including strong links with the Voluntary sector.
  • The application process would be light touch to encourage community led projects to apply, and would be proactively supported by Arts Council including offering feedback to – unsuccessful applicants to strengthen resubmission

In addition, we would propose that this funding programme has a strong mental health, well-being and loneliness focus. It would be a great signal of ACE’s commitment to one of the key outcomes of ‘Let’s Create’ – that everyone can develop and express creativity throughout their lives.

We know this is an area where participatory arts has both expertise and experience and the crossover between other sectors beyond the arts feels like it is going to be even more significant as we start to rebuild programmes and develop practice over the next 2-5 years.’

This proposal was presented by Ben Turner (freelance producer with specialist experience in community engagement) and supported by Pragya Kumar (Eltham Arts and Cultural Connections).

Proposal 3 Developing the workforce and leadership and becoming more diverse.

We need ring-fenced resources for experienced and emerging freelance practitioners to develop their participatory practice and navigate and progress in the sector. This targeted support for CPD for participatory artists should come through substantial ring-fenced funding from the ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ funding stream. The support needs of emerging practitioners need to be met through this fund if they are to develop their skills and remain in the sector.

The sector also needs ACE support for a national, joined up approach to leadership in the sector to ensure future diversity and the high ethical standards in artistic practice and employment necessary for good communities’ work. This might be the subject of a future national three-year funding bid from a consortium of organisations already providing some sector support and would develop a needs-responsive, sector-led, inclusive CPD offer and reflective learning opportunities for freelancers and micro-organisations. We are asking ACE to consider setting aside strategic funds for this Sector Leadership work.’

This proposal was presented by Stella Barnes (Community Arts North West) and supported by Cara Looij (freelance practitioner) who spoke about why CPD is important for emerging participatory arts practitioners and argued that a strategic approach to CPD would build a confidently equipped freelance work force. Reece Williams (poet, performer and community engagement manager for Manchester City of Literature) contrasted artists’ truly disheartening experiences with some organisations in the cultural sector to the benefits which have flowed from working with organisations that demonstrate best practice in leadership.

Cecilia Wee, who was not able to be at the meeting, had sent comments arguing for the need to ‘recognise the diverse leadership that already exists within the participatory /community arts sector. I feel there are many leaders already in our midst in our many communities and the response needed is to ensure that these people have the agency and resources to act, to progress and to carry out their creative leadership – through a mixture of bursaries, peer mentoring opportunities and skills development. This is hugely important, because without such opportunities, diverse (whether that is Black people or people of colour or disabled or working class) practitioners are those who are more frequently under financial pressure to leave the arts sector. This is compounded by experiences of marginalisation in terms of discrimination, less development opportunities, and lack of visibility.

Sue Caudle (DIY Theatre) summed up, saying that the participatory arts sector needs support to resource and establish a tailored, strategic approach to Professional Development, underpinned by a strong ethical framework which supports and drives our agendas of inclusion and diversity.

Initial responses from Rebecca Blackman and Catherine Mitchell

The concerns that ArtsChain highlighted are in alignment with those of Arts Council England (ACE); they resonate with other discussions and findings. ACE remain completely committed to the “Let’s Create” strategy but are reviewing it to ensure that it is fit for purpose, given Covid-19.

With regard to Proposal 1, ACE does value participatory arts as a specialist sector and aims to reflect this in its strategies – but Rebecca acknowledged that this may need to be made more visible. She expressed an interest in Proposal 2, as it appeared to have similarities to the “Creative People and Places” programme but would aim to make smaller scale project funding available to community groups. She thought there could be an opportunity for peer learning as a possible approach to CPD.

Catherine felt that Arts Council England would be happy to continue conversations around quality principles, without trying to apply a prescriptive and limiting framework.

Arts Council England are currently collecting examples of practice that has been delivered non-digitally with communities during the pandemic, as they recognise the issues we highlighted around digital exclusion. Rebecca thought that if ACE were to develop an initiative to support the mental health and wellbeing, it was more likely to do something that would be relevant across the whole cultural sector. Much depended on the outcome of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

Rebecca and Catherine urged those attending the meeting to continue to talk to them as they were open to hearing that they need to do more.

And finally…….

Reece Williams brought the meeting to a close with his spoken word piece ‘Despite Covid-19’, which was inspired by reading the messages of support sent by signatories to the ArtsChain Open Letter. Here is an extract from it.

‘As we look to this new normal,

Meet head on the new challenges,

We need to take the opportunity to address the imbalances,

We need to continue talking,

Then take it beyond conversation.

Without a balanced dialogue,

How can there be stabilisation?…………………


And talk is cheap

without the means to make it happen,

We need ACE specific funds to revolutionise the pattern,

Funds to support practitioners, develop leadership and insight,

Coz it’s a travesty when an artist changes career

Instead of changing lives.