In her last blog as Alliance Consultant Director, Kathryn Deane tackles market issues…

I’m in hot water again. This time for using the term ‘market’ to describe the relationship between a participatory artist and a hirer of their services. The argument appears to be that it’s distasteful, somehow, to talk about a market in the vulnerable people or those in challenging circumstances who are mostly our participants in participatory arts.

Sensitivity is a large part of being a good, empathetic participatory artist. But in this case that sensitivity is misplaced, and is doing harm to the work, its artists – and most of all to its participants.

The sensitivity is misplaced because it’s a misunderstanding of the term market. It’s a kind of category error: the marketplace here being described is not a market in vulnerable people – I am very happy to make it clear that I’m not advocating increasing the number of vulnerable people – but the market in support for vulnerable people. And if, as I never tire of saying, participatory arts is beneficial to participants for social, communal, and personal reasons – why wouldn’t we want more people to have the opportunity to experience the support it can give? Thus, just as we need to grow the market in doctors, nurses, and those uber-heroes the paramedics, we need to grow the market in the work of participatory artists.

It is particularly important that we talk directly in these terms because the market for participatory arts is rather complicated. The purchasers of artists’ services are usually not the consumers of those services; the reasons a purchaser wants your services may be different from the reasons the consumer likes your services; and the purposes you see in your practice may be only tangentially similar to the policy issues that the purchaser is looking for you to address. To sell participatory arts work into this complex market we must (as community musician and one-time chair of Social Enterprise East of England Ben Higham described some eight years ago) ‘confidently sell our particular value; particularly as this value is what attracts our customers. We need to understand and interpret our purpose and ideology in a robust way that satisfies our own expectations of the usefulness of our work, and hopefully those of our users, while managing to deliver results through unfamiliar mechanisms.’

Many of those unfamiliar mechanisms have become much more familiar over the last decade. Community Interest Companies (CICs) mix the rules of running a successful commercial company with the ethos of community work (my volunteer-run village community shop is a CIC). Marketing is now not solely synonymous with financial gain – that would now need to be described as “commercial marketing,” to distinguish it from social marketing which has the primary aim of social good. Social investment, social enterprise, social justice – more innovations which show that “market” is a term with wider connotations than commercialism.

Participatory arts has value, both social and financial. Those values are increasingly understood and appreciated by many of those working in social care, education, criminal justice, and other public sector areas; and recognised in policy terms. But participatory arts is only one voice among many claiming to offer social, community, or personal benefits in various ways; and the specific value of art-making, the alternative experiences it offers and the revolutionary sheen it can deliver, can be complicated enough to explain and sell.

Purchasers of our offers are comfortable with social marketing language. Let us not put barriers in their way or ours by declining to use clear and direct marketing approaches in our pitches. In particular, let us be clear that the arena in which we explain what we do, why, and what that might result in; and in which we listen to what potential purchasers tell us they want to achieve; and where appropriate we try to match the former with the latter to the mutual benefit of us, them and most of all the participants is a market. And if we enable that market to grow we will have more purchasers, more sellers, more participants, more public good (and, whisper it, perhaps even the chance of more diversity though I doubt it).

If we don’t recognise the market for what it is, then we risk losing the attention of potential purchasers – and worse, losing their gigs, as they contemplate easier investments elsewhere or even nowhere at all. And we would end up with more poorly-explained participatory arts, fewer opportunities for artists, and worst of all, less support for participants.