Adrian Sinclair, from the AWA Advocacy Action Group, takes up the What next? question following last month’s blog from Gerri Moriarty of ArtsChain, to explore how we can organise and advocate for participatory arts.

 

In her blog last month Gerri Moriarty talked about the work done by ArtsChain in campaigning on behalf of the Participatory Arts sector. You can see the initial Open Letter to Nicolas Serota at www.artschain.co.uk, the support and range of responses it elicited. Now you can find out what happened when ArtsChain met the Arts Council via an animation (not quite When Harry met Sally but we are nothing if not creative in our desire to communicate better!).

I’ve been part of the ArtsChain initiative (which has been a really positive experience) as well as being involved in the new-ish Artworks Alliance Advocacy Action Group. All good but…

…what next?

ArtsChain have done a great job in taking this on and have had a positive response from Arts Council England. But how to turn that empathetic response ie Yes, we know what you mean… into something that actually makes a difference?

From their research and conversations with the sector, ArtsChain made three clear proposals to Arts Council England.

  • That ACE recognise Participatory Arts as a distinct sector with its own skills, competencies and needs

 

  • That there is a radical £15 million funding programme targeted at the communities and individuals who have been worst affected by Covid-19 and are also likely to suffer most in the economic crisis

 

  • That ACE identify ring-fenced resources dedicated to developing a Participatory Arts workforce and leadership that is skilled, supported, and diverse

 

I think they are all simple clear asks and, let’s not forget, this is in the context of the Arts Council’s own 10-year Let’s Create Strategy.

which, even though it completely fails to mention Participatory Arts by name, is all about Creative People, Cultural Communities and a Creative and Cultural Country. Indeed it states that, through the Let’s Create strategy, the Arts Council will “recognise and champion the creative activities and cultural experiences of every person in every town, village and city in this country, and ensure that… we support more people to express and develop their creativity…”

If that is not a rallying cry that our work and their ambitions align, then I don’t know what is?

But how come then that, in the 79-page report, the term Participatory Arts doesn’t feature at all (and neither Community Arts nor the Arts Council’s current preferred term Social Arts)? And does that matter?

Maybe there is a bigger question to answer first …are we a sector at all?

In the recent Alliance online Gathering it was pointed out that we are all so different (different artforms, rural/urban, freelance/organisation etc etc) and maybe that makes it difficult to advocate as a sector. Indeed, with recent membership changes, the Alliance will include everything from young freelancers who dedicate part of their working lives to participatory practice, to small rural organisations who have participation as their modus operandi, to larger urban arts organisations who may have a department who has participation at their core.

But is that not the same as every sector, in every industry from manufacturing to education? There are times when it is right to celebrate that difference and maybe organise separately and there are times when we need to focus on what we have in common and act as an alliance.

I’ve often thought that Artworks Alliance has done a great job of allowing a range of different people and organisations to come together. As an alliance it can be something loose enough not to have rules of membership but to allow people to self-define a desire to be part of it. And part of what? Something with a mission simply to achieve better participatory arts.

But maybe that isn’t quite enough. And I am not talking about endless discussions about what is participatory/community arts (although I do think Francois Matarasso did a good enough job of defining the difference in A Restless Art) and we can point to the rich 60 years of history to help us define what we are talking about thanks to the work documenting that history by people like Francois, and Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty in Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art: The British Community Arts Movement.

In Wales, ArtWorks Cymru partners are working on a Manifesto for Participatory Arts. Maybe we do need something to convince ourselves that, to quote the late Jo Cox MP from her maiden parliamentary speech (admittedly completely out of context!) “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again… is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

Maybe it isn’t so complicated either. Looking back at that Let’s Create quote, would it help if we were able to state that:

“The Participatory Arts sector recognises and champions the creative activities and cultural experiences of every person in every town, village and city in this country, and aims to ensure that… it supports more people to express and develop their creativity…” 

Maybe…

Anyway, back to my question: What Next?

Well, ArtsChain have made their offer, but have also indicated that they can’t carry on doing this without help. As Gerri explains “We really do need other organisations and groupings to carry on the lobbying work, in their own ways. What we did over the summer was exceptional, I think, but we haven’t got the resources (financial or human) to sustain things at that level.”

Meanwhile the latest missive from Nicholas Serota to ArtsChain includes the following:

“…your concerns and proposals chime well with the ideas that we are developing for inclusion in the Delivery Plan for ‘Let’s Create’. We aim to publish early in 2021, but no doubt you will continue the conversation … in the meantime as your experience and ideas can help us shape an even more effective route map for a future that must address some difficult challenges.”

So, that’s where we are at the moment. The door may be a little ajar but it could close unless we do something and the opportunity is, to a certain extent, time-limited.

One of the suggestions from the Advocacy Action Group at Artworks Alliance was that we might be able to organise some lobbying at a regional level in England whilst recognising the differing circumstances in the other nations of the UK and plan advocacy accordingly. Participatory Arts Yorkshire, for example, have already met with the regional ACE Director who had himself identified that Let’s Create was a great opportunity for the participatory arts sector.

Has anyone else been having those kinds of discussions at a regional level already?

Does anyone have the energy to do it at this challenging time or is the door ajar at a time when it is really difficult to look forward and push it open?

Answers on a postcard (oh wouldn’t that be nice!).

Any other thoughts or if you would just be interested in getting involved with the Advocacy Action Group at Artworks Alliance then feel free to contact adrian@headstogether.org

Artwork by  Cara Looij