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Should arts organisations have a civic role?

As Project Director for the Inquiry I’ve been privileged to take part in lots of different discussions around the country about the civic role of arts organisations. For me the most interesting part of the discussion is when we ask ourselves: do arts organisations have a civic role at all? This gets to the heart of what we believe the arts are about.
Posted by Sam Cairns

The research for the Inquiry has developed five different areas where the literature and sector experts see a civic role for arts organisations. These can be seen as a definition or a mapping of the territory. If you take our survey (details at the end) you can see the five statements and comment on them.

While everyone is clear that not all arts organisations will have roles in every area, and some may only operate in one, some colleagues have questioned if arts organisations should have civic roles at all. And of course this is before we even begin to discuss if individual artists have a civic role.

Arguments for a civic role range from the nature of arts organisations; as charities or in receipt of pubic money they have to be for public benefit, to the nature of our responsibility as individuals to our society as citizens and how this impacts on our work.

The arguments for arts organisations not having a civic role that have been put forward include that art is not in service to society and that it doesn’t exist to fulfil a set purpose. While I agree art does not need to have a purpose, I think it always has an impact, often positive. The art gallery selling work on Cork Street may not set out to have a civic role but it animates a neighbourhood and provides an economic boost.

In conversations the idea of civic role frequently is discussed in the context of artistic freedom and an unease that a civic role might in some way limit artistic freedom. In the abstract I find it hard to see how this could happen. Whenever an artwork is considered controversial it is generally the case that the discussion it provokes needs to happen. That the issues it reveals or highlights need addressing; for example gender inequality, LGBT concerns or refugees and migration. Our International Reference Group noted that in conflict zones the art that is produced is almost exclusively political in content. Surely this is a very important civic role?

David Jubb from Battersea Arts Centre who is on our advisory panel put it this way:

“It’s entirely possible for art with a social purpose and intention to sit right alongside art which has not purpose other than to be art. They should not threaten each other’s existence. Both are important. And usually within the practice of a single artist.”

From abstract definition to everyday practice

What we do need to be clearer about is what happens when the idea of a civic role moves from the abstract definition into our everyday practice. If part of your civic role is supporting young people to reach their potential in your community, what type of work sits with you and what is the preserve of partners? Does it include careers advice? Understanding their rights and responsibilities as citizens? Passing an arts GCSE or learning how to deal with customers? With the partnerships and relationships that are needed to deliver work, what is our civic responsibility and role?

The purpose of Phase One of the Inquiry was to unearth these questions and have these conversations, to have time and space to think about our own practice and what civic role means to it. I think we need to keep talking about this and each reach our own conclusions. As a sector we need to develop some collective answers.

If you haven’t already contributed to the Inquiry please do. There is an online survey that is testing some ideas about civic role which is open until the 14 November. You can also send us your thoughts by the 14th November, attend our event on the 8th December (invites will be going out soon) or feedback on our draft report we are publishing on the 8th December ahead of the final report in the new year.

Image: Tottenham UpLIFTers in a LIFT workshop. Photo: Jalaikon

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