Participation In Creative Arts Drives Value-Led Social Change

Warming in the sun before the ArtsWork Alliance meeting

Today I visited Bristol to attend the ArtWorks Alliance forum meeting. Taking place at the Acta Centre a short walk from the city centre, the meeting was a chance for members of the forum to share expertise and insight into the role and purpose of participatory creative practice across the whole of the UK.

I attended on behalf of the Community Media Association, as we are members and get to input into the development of the network, and share ideas about how to better support community-led creative practices.

The ArtWorks alliance is a network of arts and creative practitioners who come from across the UK, who have a strong interest in the power of participatory creative engagement that is led by the belief that we gain as individuals from participating in creative activities, both on a personal level and on a community level.

We discussed a wide range of issues focussed on how we are able to support leadership and evaluation in participation-led activities and organisations. The shared experience of many of the contributors to the forum reported that accounting for participation-based creative practices is difficult when funders and qualification-bodies are seeking to constantly measure output and outcomes.

It was great to be able to sit and discuss how participation-based and community driven creative activities have been developed in so many different ways, from glass-blowing to music performance, from theatre and performance practice to radio drama. What was recognised was that the strength of the participation-arts movement comes from its diversity and variability of practice.

With so many different forms of art and creative practice to explore and engage people with, it was heart-warming to spend time with a group of people who get the idea of participation and are geared-up to finding ways to make participatory arts more accessible, to find more sustainable funding for them, and to gain recognition for the difference that creative arts make to people’s lives.

Without making predictions, and given that this was my first meeting, I was struck that the ArtWorks alliance represents a change in thinking and culture for arts engagement approaches in the UK. Funding organisations are starting to realise that an incessant focus on outcomes and measurable impact is restricting the creative capacity that many arts organisations have to deliver significant social change.

In order to justify funding arts organisations, have to turn themselves into data management bodies that spend more of their time chasing the impact report, rather than delivering the services and activities that is their mission.

Accountability is vital when it comes to justifying how public money is spent, but what we recognised today was that there needs to be better ways to do this when it comes to smaller arts groups who want to maintain direct and intimate contact with the people who volunteer and use their services.

The similarities with the work that many community media organisations face was clear. The experiences of developing traditional language music festival are very similar to that of running a community radio station or setting up a community newspaper. Where does the money come from? What is the best way to engage volunteers? How can the impact of the activities be gathered and used as evidence that is meaningful and true to the nature of the project?

The Artworks Alliance Knowledge Bank is well worth looking as for resource that can be adapted to suit the needs of community media groups, as they are wide-ranging in the type of creative work that might be undertaken, and look to identify different types of evaluation frameworks that can help with funding bids and reporting, such as shared decision making and participatory creative practices.

It was Caroline Mitchell’s suggestion that the CMA joins the ArtWorks Alliance, and it was Lucinda Guy who put in place the initial links and discussions. Now that I have attended my first meeting I can’t recommend highly enough how important this network is and hope that we can collaborate closely on developing a complimentary mission that supports both creative arts practice and community media.

There should be no divide in our minds that arts are in some way separate from the role of media and broadcasting. It’s essential that we promote both, and find ways to share and integrate our practices so that we give people more opportunities to become more rounded and complete, and thereby contribute to the life of our communities in a more engaging, positive and creative manner.

The next meeting of the ArtWorks alliance takes place at the beginning of April in Cardiff. I’ve said I’ll help by recording a Decentered Media podcast. So watch this space for more discussion about the value of participation and creative practices – whether its arts of media – it’s a rich topic of discussion and we should all be finding ways to be more creative because that’s the way that we find out who we are.