From a disaster movie, past the New Year’s Honours list and on to a care home. Some reflections on the profile, purpose and impact of participatory artists and arts organisations from the network’s Secretariat.


I’m not usually a great fan of disaster movies, and especially not now in times of a pandemic. But I was still drawn to watching Deep Impact once more during the Christmas holiday, just to hear the following lines again:

‘It is only prudent that we now take cautionary steps to ensure the continuation of our way of life, to guarantee that there will be enough of us left to rebuild a new world in the unlikely event that the comets do strike the Earth. So, in the soft limestone of Missouri, we’ve been preparing a network of immense caves, and they’re almost finished. And we can put a million people in them. And that million people can survive there, underground, for two years, until the air clears, and the dust settles. Now the cave is more than a dormitory. It’s our new Noah’s Ark. We’re storing seeds and seedlings, plants, animals, enough to start over. On August 10, a computer will randomly select 800,000 Americans, to join the 200,000 scientists, doctors, engineers, teachers, soldiers and artists who have already been chosen.’ 

While we might be prompted to be cynical and think about the real-world context in which US crisis leadership up until yesterday has felt like a horror movie made real, at least this science fiction gives space to imagine a better future in the most challenging of times. Artists have been chosen as key to re-building a new world. What a profile to have. What a purpose. What a potential impact. And while I know not everyone watching the film will have heard the word ‘artists’ with such excitement as me, I like to think that the underlying reach of the message through this creative medium is wider than an editorial and some letters in The Guardian

Back in the ‘here and now’ at the start of 2021, there has been other profiling of artists and arts organisations that helps reveal a narrative of positive purpose and impact in our particular sector. This is so important to note in the coronavirus context of sadness and stress. Here are just a few examples.

Kim Wide, from member Take a Part, was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours ‘for services to social engagement in the arts in South West England’. You can read her blog about this here, in which she describes her mix of thoughts about accepting this. It’s almost 20 years since Tina Glover, then Director of Junction Arts and who so sadly passed away last month, received her MBE for ‘services to art’. This was heralded then as the first time someone working in participatory arts was recognised in this way. Junction Arts is now over 40 years old, still going strong and another AWA member.

It is interesting to wonder how the change of terminology from services to ‘art’ to ‘social engagement in the arts’ may help our sector gain recognition. Interesting too, how perspectives may change through Alan Lane, Artistic Director of Slung Low, being awarded a BEM for ‘services to the community in South Leeds during Covid-19’. No mention of art there.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has just announced the 10 organisations shortlisted for the Award for Civic Arts Organisations, the panel for which included Fiona Doring from Impact Arts. One of the organisations is Eden Court Highlands in Inverness, in recognition that they:

…formed a partnership with the Highland Council and re-purposed their staff team and facilities as the humanitarian aid centre for the region. Their work with the community included activities for children of keyworkers, packing and distributing thousands of food parcels each week, and turning the venue’s restaurant windows into a temporary community exhibition site to display a collection of Black Lives Matters banners.

Chief Executive James Mackenzie-Blackman talked last week to the alumni of Extend, the cultural leadership programme run by Engage for mid-career participation, learning and education colleagues from across the cultural sector. Lots of leadership learning passed on amongst that community of practice about keeping to your values and thinking nimbly about the wider community role of a physical centre for arts.

And of course, it’s not all about the high profile, the organisations and the arts buildings. Participatory artists live their purpose and impact through all sorts of ‘significant acts of kindness’. That freelance community musician is still standing outside the care home singing with residents through the window. Keeping near while keeping apart and keeping close even though they are no longer all there.

Mary Schwarz