Dr Sue Kay reflects on the impact of cultural networks from research and personal resonances. She explores how their value lies not only in what they do, but also in how they do it – and how for the Alliance, process can be congruent with the principles and practices of participatory arts.


Today is the twelfth day of renewed lockdown here in France. Whenever I leave the house, I must have a permit with me, detailing the reason why I am going out (daily exercise, visiting a sick relative, food shopping, work necessarily conducted away from home) and I cannot meet indoors with anyone I do not live with. Cafes and bars are closed and everything has become small and quiet, despite the unseasonably good weather. Much of my work is on pause; I am acutely aware of the dire situation for artists and arts organisations back home; and I can feel the anxiety rising. To be writing about networks and networking when the walls are closing in seems plain weird.

Yet it is no exaggeration to say, that networks and networking have brought me here, giving me both the courage and the means – as a committed European – to take the risk and relocate. After thirty five years in the UK cultural sector, I now work as an educator, trainer, facilitator and coach with cultural operators in Central and Eastern Europe, Nordic Baltic countries, and the Southern Mediterranean (North Africa and the Middle East). And the seeds of that were planted in 1997, when, as a lecturer in cultural management at (the former) Dartington College of Arts, a colleague suggested a trip to the annual conference of ENCATC (the European network of cultural management and policy) in Bilbao, Spain.

That gathering – the first of many over the years – brought me into contact with people I would never otherwise have met. The connections made then and since have enabled me to ‘earn, learn, trade and travel’ (McCarthy, Miller and Skidmore, 2004) in ways I could never have predicted or indeed imagined. More than that, they have led to challenges, opportunities, collaborations and friendships that have been cumulatively life changing. And I am far from alone. Just yesterday, a Bulgarian friend and colleague reminded me that seven years ago we were working together in Crimea, only months before the Russian government’s illegal annexation of the Black Sea Peninsula and Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution. Below an image of the two of us – at the end of a three day workshop with inspirational cultural managers from the region – she posted: ”2013: looks like a photo from another life when we used to travel, meet [colleagues] globally, laugh face-to-face and have a glass of wine in a restaurant…It was….splendid!!” How the world has changed since then, with those changes accelerating at frightening speed over the past few months.

And now I sit here wondering…what is it about our experience of cultural networks that can be so formative and how does the activity of networking actually work? What is it about ArtsWork Alliance that makes it an effective network? What are the implications, now, of drastically reduced mobility, the sudden curtailing of face-to- face contact, and the irrevocable movement of so much networking online?

Clearly there is something about cultural networks. The last 25 years has seen an explosion of them. Today the number in Europe totals over three hundred, covering a multitude of art forms, disciplines, organisations, countries and professions and spanning a wide range of activities ranging from information exchange, education, management and mobility of artists, to research, joint projects, new forms of creation and international cooperation. With their origins in the 1970s, as Mary Ann De Vlieg has documented (2011), these ‘non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, horizontal frameworks’ have subsequently met with the paradox of formalisation in return for funding, an exponential growth in opportunities to exchange and collaborate outside those provided by formal networks, the connective, all pervasive power of new technology, the advent of the ‘network society’ (Castells, 2004), and a growing awareness of the environmental damage caused by travel to network gatherings in real time and space. Not surprisingly, flexibility and constant learning have long been guiding principles:

There is no ideologically pure, ‘model’ of cultural network. All true networks are in a continuous process of change and adaptation…They [cultural networks] make constant readjustments to their working methods as the world in which they operate throws up new challenges and conflicts (Staines,1996 as quoted in Davies, 2016).

For many of us the appeal of cultural networks is that they are:

…common ‘spaces’ where diverse ideas can be aired, leading to mutual challenging and (ideally) a range of transformations (Davies, 2016).

In this way, not only are networks perceived as vehicles for collaboration and change, they also offer a structure, ethos and methodology for addressing shared issues, which challenges that of more conventional hierarchical or bureaucratic organisations. Their value lies not only in what they do, but also in how they do it.

Not that that is without its challenges. There is an inevitable tension and fragility to a network as a ‘holding’ structure. Too little organisation and the network could become diffuse; too much, and the life and the important element of chance could get squeezed out. Too small or too narrow in focus and membership, and the lack of diversity could lead to exclusion and groupthink; too big and communications might become blocked and the integration of new members more challenging. A paucity of resourcing, and good ideas might fall by the wayside; a more generous pot and bureaucracy creeps in, with an increased burden of responsibility transferred away from the membership and towards the centre.

Woven through this delicate and complex balancing act, however, is the fundamental point that networks, as communication structures, enable networking: ‘the process of making connections’ (Davies, 2016).

The very first scientific study of ‘how networking works’ in the cultural field was commissioned by IETM (the international network for contemporary performing arts) at the end of the nineties. All these years later, it still captures, for me, the powerful effects of actually doing it: the plethora of individual and working group/sub-network pathways, intersecting and interacting to constitute the whole; the freedom to communicate autonomously on an equal, horizontal footing with others regardless of status or position; encounters with different value systems which force questions about one’s own; identifying – often in serendipitous ways – new opportunities for collaboration and cooperation and novel ways of developing professionally; the fizz of face-to-face meetings, subsequently sustained by ongoing circulation of information and continuous exchange; the feeling that – with others who are sufficiently similar and different – it is possible make a real difference.

In that same report, the network meeting or gathering – the main medium for face-to- face connection – was likened to a ‘medieval market square’:

…where rare and exotic goods could be found alongside the common, all of which was destined for perusal by travellers, jugglers, artisans and soldiers alike. Transactions among individuals dealt not only with goods to be sold or purchased; the square was not a supermarket. It was a meeting point, a point of discovery of new streets, new cities, strange customs. It was a place to be married, to hear about the unicorn and learn from others’ gestures. Items were bought and items were sold, of course. But above all, the squares were the place for participation in civil life (Dal Pozzollo and Bachella, 2001).

However fanciful and indeed questionable that analogy may seem now, it vividly captures the power of a network as a porous space which provides ‘a context in which ideas, exchanges, collaborations and opportunities emerge’ (De Vlieg, in Dal Pozzollo and Bacchella, 2001).

All of above is apparent in the mission, values and working practice of ArtsWorks Alliance:

‘We’re a network, not an organisation. We get together at (Virtual) Forums to discuss and action what needs doing to make a difference in participatory arts.’

And the benefits for members?

  • ‘Opportunities to meet, talk, share and learn and have your ideas validated by people who know what you’re talking about is rare. So we’re in’
  • ‘I can network with people I’d otherwise not get to meet’
  • ‘I get to be a serious influencer’
  • ‘We’re the go-to place’ [‘where participatory arts is at’]
  • ‘I get to make progress on the really difficult issues’
  • ‘I’m more efficient in my work’
  • ‘The more the better’ [i.e. ‘more members, more stuff happening’]

Aside from the strength and clarity of all this, however, there are two things – as an interested observer – I find particularly striking: first, the seeming ease/relative speed  with which ArtsWork Alliance took form as a network among its (now) membership; and second, the facility with which the network has moved its Forum activities online in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have no scientific basis for what I’m about to suggest, but this is a blog and not a research paper, so please bear with me while I riff on a couple of ideas.

Way back in 2012, I had the opportunity to reflect on the research conducted during the first year of the original Paul Hamlyn Foundation ArtWorks special initiative (Kay, 2012). One of the observations was that while a high degree of importance was attached to artform knowledge, skill and professionalism in the field, artists also felt they needed and exercised a broad range of interpersonal and participant-orientated skills and attributes:

The ability to communicate with others, trust people, and be flexible… (Sellers, 2012b).

Skills such as flexibility, communication skills, and teaching/tutoring skills… Personal attributes such as empathy, a desire to work with the community, and confidence are also seen as important… [as is] knowledge of the participants/communities that are involved, and experience of working in participatory settings (Sellers, 2012c).

Artists responded that [they]…needed to develop excellent interpersonal skills…[including] the ability to communicate with others…to manage a room, to put people at ease. Participatory artists also need to build trust in order to create a safe environment…[in which] participants could creatively explore and ‘play’ (Sellers, 2012a)

It is interesting to me now that all the above would sit quite happily and appropriately in a good practice guide to effective networking.

In addition, I remember the notion that

…what artists say they want and get from their [participatory arts] work: enjoyment, inspiration, new skills and knowledge through participation and reflection, the energy that develops within a group, a sense of empowerment, increased self-confidence, shared ownership, a safe place to develop and exercise skills, make mistakes and give and get feedback…resonate[s] with the benefits participants say they derive from [participatory arts]. The traffic is evidently two way between practitioner and participant: these are artists who like to receive as they give. And these same artists are clear that they want to build these relationships with each other too (Kay, 2012).

So the first idea is this. Could it be that ArtsWorks Alliance members, through their practice, are already particularly well ‘primed’ for effective networking, such that the creation of the network itself was a culturally logical next step, no big deal…just another example of process being congruent with the principles and practices of participatory arts?

In similar vein (and this is the second idea), could it be that the transition from networking ‘in person’ to Zoom Forums has been considerably eased by the fact that ‘digital participation’ has been a key activity/enquiry strand for ArtWorks since July 2018 (with John Whall from AWA member QUAD as digital participation champion and The Digital Participation Expedition undertaken in partnership with EMPAF)? Is it too fanciful to wonder if the ‘magic moment’ experienced by network members at the October 2020 Zoom Forum is just as valid an example of ‘participation digital’ as other good practice initiatives highlighted through the Digital Participation Expedition? Congruence again – and the same pattern emerges when considering the ArtWorks Quality in Action and Fellowship initiatives. It’s good to receive as you give: what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander.

My point here is not to paint an idealised and uncritical picture of ArtsWork Alliance as a cultural network; rather it is to suggest that the dialogical nature of participatory arts is a critical factor in the success of the network and that the dialogical nature of the network (still in early days) has the potential, considerably, to strengthen participatory arts, both in substance and profile. A bit like a Mobius Strip…

And the implications of all this, now?

2020 is still not over, and yet in a short few months we have experienced world-changing and paradigm shifting events, not least through the Coronavirus pandemic. Francois Matarasso sees the situation in cultural terms (2020)

Whatever world will emerge from this catastrophic health crisis, it will be one traumatised by grief and fear. It will be poorer and preoccupied by the effort of recovery and reconstruction. It might seem, after all, that this is not a time to talk about culture. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The pandemic was created by culture, from the sale of wildlife in Chinese food markets to the frequency of international travel for business and pleasure. It was experienced culturally, as people lost the pleasures of café and football match, but turned to books and films, internet conversations and singing to each other from their balconies. And the recovery will equally be defined by culture – by the science applied to understanding and overcoming the disease, by the stories that help people make sense of their experience, by the imagined futures that frighten them or give them hope…

And after sounding a warning about continuing inequalities between the Global North and the Global South which – if unchecked – can only impede any meaningful recovery, he continues:

Culture cannot be a solution to these immense problems, but it is a territory where solutions can be found, where trauma can be acknowledged and healed, and where new ways of living will be imagined.

In facing outwards from a position of strength-through-congruence, ArtWorks Alliance, through its members in the participatory arts sector, has a crucial role to play in supporting communities to do just that.


Castells, M. (2004). ‘Afterword: Why networks matter’ in McCarthy, H., Miller, P. and Skidmore, P. (eds) Network Logic. London: Demos

Dal Pozzollo, L. and Bacchella, U. (2001) How networking works. Informal European Theatre Meeting, Fondazione Fitzcarraldo, Arts Council of Finland

Davies, I. (2016) Cultural networking in Europe, today and tomorrow: A reader. Cultural Action Europe

De Vlieg, M. A. (2011) ‘Time for a new cultural deal?’ in Cvjeticanin, B. (ed) Networks: The evolving aspects of culture in the 21st century. Culturelink Network/Institute for International Relations, Zagreb, Croatia

Matarasso, F. (2020) Reflection Papers on Culture and Development. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, SDC

Sellers, E. (February 2012a), Artist case study report. ArtWorks Cymru

Sellers, E. (February 2012b) Artist Consultation Report. ArtWorks Cymru

Sellers, E. (February 2012c) Artist on-line survey report. ArtWorks Cymru

Staines, J. (1996) Working groups: Network Solutions for Cultural Cooperation in Europe. Culture Action Europe