We’ve spent a lot of time over the past decade in ArtWorks and ArtWorks Alliance on the quality of our participatory arts. It’s time we looked at how much of it we do, says Kathryn Deane.

If, as we believe, participatory arts is an important part of an artist’s practice – why wouldn’t we want all artists to be able to engage with it? If, as many of us believe, participatory arts is beneficial to participants for social, communal, or personal reasons – why wouldn’t we want everyone to have the opportunity to experience it? But it’s clear that not every artist, not every citizen does get the opportunity to engage with participatory arts, and that must be a loss. What should be done about it?

Very largely, what we have done about it is to enhance quality. As Pauline Tambling explained: ‘In the skills policy world there is an assumption that investment in skills and training within formal education will lead to economic growth.’ In other words, more jobs. I don’t necessarily buy this, having watched the careers of several senior community musicians go down the pan once funding dried up. We’ve built a better mousetrap, and people are not beating a path to our door.

We’ve got a supply, perhaps an over-supply, of participatory artists, but we haven’t got a big enough or stable enough demand for their services. Some might find the idea of framing the art of participatory arts in such transactional terms distasteful. Others might point out that classical, Keynesian economics of supply and demand isn’t up to the job of analysing the complex relationships and multiple agendas of all those involved in what’s ultimately a transaction between an artist and someone hiring their services. That’s probably true, but I think it’s a useful jumping-off point.

So, classical economics says that as demand decreases prices (ie practitioner fees) would also decrease (that seems to be happening). Then the supply of practitioners would decrease, as they chose more lucrative jobs (thus rebalancing supply with demand). But there are indications that suggest that the supply of practitioners is increasing.

What’s going on? Were practitioners overpaid in the past and reduction in fees a necessary rebalancing? Is supply completely inelastic? (ie, practitioners can’t get other jobs?) Are training establishments being economical with the truth about employment (yes, to at least some extent: see Pauline Tambling as above)? Are practitioners entirely altruistic, and don’t care what thy get paid (again, yes to some extent)? Or is the demand side distorted by cross-subsidy, either within themselves (practitioner in the evening, City banker by day) or within the family unit (one partner the artist, the other university vice chancellor)?

None of these issues is sustainable. Most of them add unnecessary complication to the underlying transaction between artist and hirer. All of them distort the market. If Sky, or Amazon, or Easy Jet can create markets for products no-one thought they needed, how much more of a legitimate right do we have to expand the market for the public good that is participatory arts. Yet of the 22,000 care homes in the UK, the 22,000 primary schools – to take just two examples – only a small percentage regularly engage with participatory artists.

We need a plan to grow the market for participatory arts substantially – a hundred-fold, perhaps a thousand-fold. We need to know how to ‘take the work to scale’ (Tambling again). And we’re going to develop one. A study day in September is to look at the issues raised in this blog (along with others) and propose plans for what ArtWorks Alliance should do to grow the market for participatory arts.

If you have specific knowledge, understanding or experience of growing (or attempting to grow) the market for participatory arts and would like to contribute to the study day, get in touch with me right away at kathryn.deane@btinternet.com.