For the past three years, I’ve been researching a book about community art and participatory art, with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. When I started the project, I thought it would be straightforward, as this has been my life since 1981, when I got a job as an apprentice community arts worker (also thanks to CGF). Actually, it’s been hugely challenging, making me rethink my ideas and assumptions more than once as I’ve learned about a rapidly changing field. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? I see the work, and my own place within it, very differently today.
I’ve talked to scores of people working in community art—some with decades of experience, others just starting on their careers. It’s exciting to see it evolve with new places, cultures, situations and technology. It’s an over-used word in the arts, but I have been truly inspired by the radical, creative, courageous people I’ve met in Southern and Eastern Europe, North Africa and further afield. Their work is making a real difference in times of hardship and insecurity. It is defending space for human rights and democratic values when they are under attack.
Some of that work has been documented on the project website. You can read about pioneers like Welfare State and Amber Collective, current practice in the UK and impressive new work from Spain, Croatia and Finland. There are articles about some of the ideas I’m grappling with – such as the difference between community art and participatory art (there is one and it matters), between teaching and learning, and between amateurs and professionals. There are posts about history, projects I worked on, and cultural democracy. In fact there are almost 120 posts up already, so there’s plenty to explore.
Later this month, I will begin publishing a series of 15 long case studies prepared during this research. Most of the projects are current, and most are from the UK and Portugal, where the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is most active, though there are some from France, Poland and Italy too. They’re all projects I admire, for one reason or another, but they also raise important questions about participatory art today. They’ll be published at fortnightly intervals, and I hope they’ll build up to give a rich picture of some excellent work. If you want to be notified when there’s a new case study, just click on the follow button on the left.
The book will be published in the autumn. Like the case studies, it will appear in English and Portuguese editions. It will include many more examples, but it focuses mainly on the ideas that make community art an important—if still underestimated—development in late 20th century art. I want to make a case for the philosophical seriousness of a practice that has roots as deep as those of fine art, and explain why the questions about quality it has always faced are critical to cultural democracy. But the book isn’t intended to answer all the questions. On the contrary, it’s because I can’t answer them that this project has been so difficult and so rewarding. It’s because still I change my mind about why I think that community art has been the most rewarding place to work for all these years.
I called the project ‘a restless art’ because the tensions and ambiguities of a form that is never only one thing give it creative energy. In an uncertain world, where communities and people are increasingly having to find their own solutions, the resources of community art are more important than ever.
The support of independent foundations is very necessary, especially in countries where public funds cannot always be relied on. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has made an invaluable contribution to this field since the 1960s: its help is still greatly needed.
- The photo on this page is from Cardboard Citizens’ latest production ‘Cathy‘, an extraordinary play that updates Ken Loach’s BBC film, ‘Cathy Come Home’50 years after it was broadcast. It is currently showing at the Soho Theatre in London, and then on tour across the UK until 5 May. It might be the best thing you’ll see this year. You can watch the trailer here.