The initial ArtWorks Paul Hamlyn Foundation special initiative finished with A Call to Action to work collectively to strengthen practice in participatory settings.

This month ArtWorks Alliance Consultant Director Kathryn Deane has been out and about doing just that…

The best bit about my job at ArtWorks Alliance is meeting the movers and shakers who are key to the strategic development of participatory arts. Alliance members are top of the list, of course. But this month I’ve also been to Preston, London, Leicester, Worcester and elsewhere to listen to others and to share important issues for participatory arts.

In London, a theatre above a pub saw a season of plays from Synergy, whose theatre in prisons work is groundbreaking. Synergy is part of a infrastructure group called Sharing the Stage with a remit to widen participation especially among vulnerable and underserved communities. Before the play, I listened to the group’s evaluator describing the rewards and difficulties of developing this kind of group, much of it a direct parallel to our experiences in ArtWorks Alliance.

To Leicester to share the work of the East Midlands Participatory Arts Forum. The region is rich in community arts organisations, many with venerable histories, and it was great to witness how well the forum’s light-touch approach to their meetings suited the tradition of participatory arts. And yes, the topics are familiar: how can community arts diversify income streams? how can the hot topic of digital participation lead to real creativity? how can we develop really meaningful metrics for participatory work? And how can the messages of local particpatory arts be heard nationally?

Income diversification is particularly tricky in a market where the beneficiaries are largely different from the payers – but useful work has been done in this area. For truly creative digital work look no further than many participatory arts organisations. For a national voice, EMPAF (and other such regional organisations) need look no further than ArtWorks Alliance. And for metrics? Cue my other two meetings.

Academics, researchers, infrastructure organisations, local participatory organisations, and others – we all met in Preston, as part of the Cultural Value Project to consider questions of impact particularly to smaller organisations, such as making current research and the existing evidence base more widely accessible to them (see the Scoping project). By the end of a hardworking day one thing was clear: there’s no danger of uniformity in the participatory arts world! Bringing together disparate views and allowing them all air-time is another key challenge for ArtWorks Alliance.

And finally on the theme of value: how do we know participatory arts works? Researchers I talk to are highly concerned with this sort of question; the answers of course being highly dependent on what you mean by ‘know’, ‘participatory arts’, and ‘works’. So before my researcher colleague at Worcester can address the methodological challenges we talked about, we have to sort out the definitional difficulties.

Some things never change.