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Defining civic role in the UK and US

To kick start the current Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations, King’s College London was commissioned to a take a thorough look at all the relevant published literature. It took them in all sorts of disciplinary directions: through geography, economics, sociology, arts practice and many others. They also looked at studies from all over the world. This blog post focusses on one particular aspect of the review: the striking contrasts between the civic roles played by arts organisations in the USA and those based in the UK.
Posted by Dr James Doeser

Defining civic role

A real challenge at the heart of this work is defining precisely what is meant by ‘civic role’. It brings to mind politics, community, rights and responsibilities. The arts can be used to provoke, to catalyse, to enable and inhibit the way that people engage with the world around them. After reviewing the relevant literature we have taken the civic role of arts organisations to mean: The ways in which arts organisations animate, enhance and enable processes by which people exercise their rights and responsibilities as members of communities. These play out in very different ways in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The Unites States approach

We found that the bulk of activity (and resulting literature) undertaken to support and understand the civic role of the arts seems to have occurred in the United States. There may be a few reasons for this. Firstly, there is not the long-standing infrastructure or tradition of public funding support for the arts in the US as exists in the UK and in continental Europe. Secondly, the febrile social history of the US during the 20th century has seen the arts used as a conspicuous tool for empowerment and self-expression in social movements in the service of civil rights and urban renewal.

Barriers and opportunities

The review sought to identify some of the barriers and opportunities for arts organisations seeking to become more civically engaged. As expected, there are a suite of barriers associated with a lack of resources. However, some of the barriers were cultural, and play out differently in the US and the UK. We identified barriers such as a reticence with the arts to be leaders and be confident about the arts’ contribution, a disconnect between artists and communities regarding what art is and what art does, and finally the ways that the arts can be hampered by its association with privilege. Conversely, we found at least two clear opportunities identified in the literature: work with young people has the possibility to shape the future for the better; and digital technology creates new ways for the arts to fulfil their civic role.

Learning from the US

There are two concurrent trends which are likely to place an ever-increasing emphasis on arts organisations to develop their ‘civic role’. These are the continuation of cuts to public services under the premise of austerity and the ongoing push from policymakers and the public for greater measurable benefits from investment in the arts. Cutbacks to social programmes stateside since the financial crash, and the necessity of arts organisations to step up and take a lead in communities that don’t have much existing civic infrastructure, can provide salutary lessons for arts organisations in the UK. By looking across the pond, this Inquiry can hopefully do more to highlight the strengths of the US arts scene, while ensuring any UK initiatives are given every chance to succeed.

James Doeser and Viktoria Vona are the authors of The civic role of arts organisations: A literature review for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Read the Literature Review.

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