Is sustainability about adding new fuel to old fires?

Firenze-Denaro-BotticelliIn attempting to look at whether participatory art can support sustainable social change, it is probably worth exploring different perspectives relating to this question.  So I’ll start by looking at different approaches to sustainability of arts practice.  Future posts will then attempt to define participatory arts and concepts of social change.  But for now it’s all about sustainability…

There are three distinct perspectives about how to sustain systems: make existing structures stronger through a myriad of methods of organisational change; support the development of a limited number of new organisations who will either gently become part of the existing structures or quietly fail; or, like obsolete power stations, demolish the old monolithic structures to make way for a new wave.

The first option is safest.  It’s also a consultant’s dream where endless new changes can be steadily implemented in the hope of encouraging adaptability, mining new philanthropic pockets, securing firm investments, selling like a commercial business and becoming resilient to fickle futures.  It’s about sustaining the system as it currently exists by making the organisations restructure, remodel and rethink their missions. Done well, this can be really positive and new partnerships can arise (although often between other similar organisations.) But it can lead to protectionism, maintaining the status quo and staleness. This approach is a bit like building higher walls, digging a deeper moat and drawing up the gates. It is a siege mentality. Those outside will not survive or will go elsewhere.

Encouraging some new start ups can also be positive. It adds a new little wall around the old wall whilst it is repaired and improved. Trouble is that there can be a tendency to be a bit different from the long-standing organisations but still follow the same models and modes of working as them.  This is partly because there is still a ‘toolkit’ mentality where best is… well… ‘best practice’.  Blueprints, road maps, mentoring, knowledge-sharing, time banking, etc. etc. are all useful for many new (and existing) organisations to collaborate and improve their chances of conserving their positions whilst ‘helping’ new start ups following in their ways – become like them.  The trouble is the old order will support this process safe in the knowledge that they will not (often) be threatened by these little newcomers and will (often) speak on their behalf, maintaining some form of hierarchy.  This is sustainability with a degree of ‘selected openness’ – a managed form of conservation which recognises the need for ‘expanding the stock’ – like planting new forests using tried and tested species.

And these first two perspectives form today’s dominant mode of thought about sustaining the arts in the UK today.  Often supported by central and local government initiatives, Higher Education institutions and especially by new consortia agreements and partnership working between organisations.  It is certainly true that organisational sustainability can be improved by restructuring, sharing resources, joint fundraising, cost-cutting, partnering up, collaboration, increasing philanthropic support, attempting to better measure values, supporting new start ups using old models, etc. etc. but this is sustaining systems that grew up in a different era and have developed into complex organisations that cannot change quickly.  I understand that it is important to have a range of arts providers from individuals to large organisations and to have a mix of new and established organisations and individuals involved in the arts but I see many of today’s attempts to make the arts (and social change) sustainable as inherently unsustainable.  This is because many of those driving ‘change’ want slow, coherent, thoughtful, careful change.  Leaders of many organisations want to maintain hierarchies where artists, audiences, participants, communities – in other words individual people – are at the bottom of a pecking order.  This is natural.  This is how they were created and it worked and still works and should continue to work.  But leaders perhaps need to remember they have a social mission in which they are working for everyone to enjoy art rather than to safeguard institutional wellbeing.

But there needs to be space for new ways of working and this is brings me onto a third way of thinking about sustainability.  This approach is about accepting life cycles.  Old fires will eventually die out.  Adding new fuel to them can keep them going but not indefinitely.  New fires in new places can be worrying – they may spread – they may get out of control!  But I am not suggesting anarchic arson here.  No bonfire of the vanities.  But starting different fires can bring renewal to every part of a system (dare I say ‘ecosystem’).  Indeed, this is how many of today’s established organisations began – as one time radicals who introduced new ways of working.  Obviously, there are many different ways in which new approaches to arts and society can develop and some may be highly threatening and completely unsustainable – further unbridled neoliberalism being a prime example.  This is not what I mean.  I am talking about new ways of working that involve everyone and are for everyone; that do what people want; that might help support and build communities from within.  This is not audience development, this is true participation.  It is a way of being and doing that shares ownership, that listens, that does what people want, that stops doing some things and starts doing other things when people want.  It is a society where art, sport, work, place, play, etc. are all part of social activity.

So perhaps art is most sustainable when it acknowledges life cycles and lets some parts die but supports (and, yes, I mean financially as well as more broadly) new ideas and forms of DIY working, networked non-hierarchies, individual artist initiatives and true participation that can reinvigorate the entire art world.  Perhaps they could share these new structures with old organisations?  Undoubtedly, the new models will (just like their predecessors) the old models, the blueprints, toolkits, et al. of tomorrow.  They will no doubt die at some stage too or reinvent themselves in the wake of other new ways of working we may not even have thought about yet.

And perhaps if art was better integrated into community activities, it would be less threatened and more sustainable too?  We must remember that the constant segregation of ‘things we do’ and ‘creative things we do’ is to some extent a modern construct.  Necessary so our systems of government can measure things, fund things, cut funds to things, etc. – yes – but this can lead to unsustainable approaches to making art driven by economics, social outcomes, aesthetics, etc.  This systematisation of art can separate it from society (or certain sections of society) which, whilst good for some, is not good for most people (artists included).

So perhaps sustainability is about realising things become unsustainable eventually and that only perpetual rebirth and renewal can ensure long-term sustainability?  Lots of new little fires to complement the older bigger fires.  Constant regeneration not catastrophic destruction.  This can be exciting.  It is difficult to measure and predict.  But then so is life (really…)

In terms of my bigger question: ‘Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?’  I guess I am suggesting at this point that social change must be sustainable in the sense that it must always seek to keep changing – responding and developing to new challenges life will throw at us – keep renewing itself.  I am also proposing that participatory art, when led by participants and supported by artists and new organic creative structures, can be sustainable as an artistic mode of working because it is specific to the needs and life span of each action.  Perhaps then this way of working can support future social change in positive, time-limited ways so art and creativity again become part of the lives of everyone?  This is the subject of future blogs however and I’ve gone on far too long already…

Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?


Participatory arts or, more precisely, socially engaged arts practice is resurgent. Participation in the arts is, like many times in the past since the Victorian era, being promoted as a panacea for many of the issues facing our communities.  New initiatives such as ArtWorks, Cultural Value Project and Participation & Engagement in the Arts seek a sea change in UK cultural and educational settings.  Research around if and how socially engaged art can ever be truly sustainable at grassroots levels within the communities it seeks to serve is, however, a bit more thin on the ground.

A key value of arts participation is its ability to stimulate creativity within communities developing social capital in so doing.  There are many examples of socially engaging arts projects that, having achieved short-term success, were not sustained.  Clearly, attempts to create social change in communities must focus on both people and places.  As Roberto Bedoya explains so well, participatory art needs to find ways to embed creativity within communities and engage the many disparate elements that define them but UK research in this area is limited and, where existent (like in the recent RSA project in Peterborough), localised.

I believe we need to explore new ways in which participation in art, creativity and place can link to become part of people’s everyday lives, integral to our communities, encouraging long-term social change.  To do this, it may be necessary to completely rethink our current structures for arts provision, to engage people in new ways, to relinquish control, to trust communities more, and a whole lot of other things too.  Sustainability has different meanings and there are many ways to attempt to stimulate sustainable ways of doing things.

This is what I will write about in a series of posts in the coming weeks.  I will ask a number of questions and propose some ways forward.  My immediate thoughts are that participation in the arts may be able to support broader social change in constructive and sustainable ways and that creativity of action and thought may somehow become integral to the futures of people, places and communities.  How this can be developed is uncertain and probably controversial.  We shall see…

Arts Participation and the Health and Wellbeing Agenda

This is a repost of my report for Participation and Engagement in the Artsclick here to see the original post

The under belly of Northern Stage provided an unusual setting for the second seminar of 2013. It’s dimly lit space, reminiscent of a night club, created an intimate and rather relaxed environment for attendees. The event was fully booked with an interesting mix of artists, arts professionals, educators and academics tightly packed in front of the stage to watch the presentations then huddle around the venue in smaller groups for the breakouts. Questions of how participatory art sits with health and wellbeing abound at the moment. How to measure outcomes, how to do it best and how to successfully get commissions are three of the big areas widely being debated around the UK so this seminar seemed a good place to catch up with some of the latest ideas.

First under the limelight was doctoral student Susan Oman with the commandingly entitled The Measurement Imperative. She began with a whistle stop history of the roller coaster relationship between arts and wellbeing agendas from Enlightenment values to Victorian citizenship, welfare state to Thatcher cuts, a New (Labour) Golden Age to our present slash and burn of all things good and state supported. The implication that politics play a key role in driving the growth (and sometimes the demise) of arts and culture as something that may (or may not) make people happier and therefore healthier was clear. In giving a flavour of some of the many attempts to evidence how art and cultural activities are important, make people happy, etc., Susan made it clear of the many pitfalls along this road towards increasingly segmented fields; particularly how this approach ignores arts and culture as part of our ‘lived experience’. The very different example of how Bhutan measures national happiness was refreshing as was Susan’s call to reframe the arts/ wellbeing agenda in a language understood by everyone.

Senior Research Fellow Mike White was next to tread the boards with What Makes for Human Flourishing? which included some great examples of err, five years of interdisciplinary research. Mike’s contended that by (almost) vanquishing ‘social ills’ we had created much more insidious injustices. Participation is, he said, essential to health; non-participation in society meanwhile makes us ill. Taking part in arts activities as good was a given here but could art treat people or help them better understand their lives? The examples of successful schools projects gave a bright sense of hope (tempered in my mind by the still to be reconciled loss of coherent state arts funding) that made a clear case for arts as a means to help children (and people of all ages) navigate their lives. Mike’s ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ were the fairly tactile yet simultaneously commanding: ‘Connect’; ‘Keep active’; ‘Notice’; ‘Keep learning’; and ‘Give’. His three areas to support the much overlooked need to sustain participatory initiatives were the rather more esoteric: ‘Resonance’; ‘Aesthetic Agency’; and ‘Communal Will’. His call for more research is undoubtedly necessary, especially if it is of the subtly nuanced kind that speaks to everyone. Perhaps though not Mike’s suggested ‘social tonic’ – ‘Resilience’…

Jan Thompson was the last of the three wellbeing espousing wordsmiths to take the stand. Recently appointed as Public Health Specialist for Northumberland County Council, Jan delivered an upbeat Participation for Wellbeing. Her call to develop (another) new model focused on the need to evidence outcomes and on the ubiquitous ‘resilience’. We were whisked through more measures than you can shake a ruler at including Mike’s ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’, Maslow’s hierarchy, a massive list of ‘inclusion criteria’, social prescribing, wellbeing scales, toolkits and a hub diagram. Jan’s enthusiasm for participation and the power of the arts to change everyone’s lives was undeniable.

There was an interlude and an Act II but I’ll leave that to your imaginations…

Suffice to say that I came as a believer and a disbeliever and left a slightly different kind of believer and disbeliever. Things in my mind shifted a little. My head hurt and my heart glowed for several days afterwards. That’s good! More of the same please…

Why we’re bringing our old-new curiosity shop to Blyth

dot to dot active arts’ popup participatory art project old-new curiosity shop will soon open in Blyth, Northumberland – this is why…

This is a copy of my guest post on the Empty Shops Network blog (9th May 2013) – Click here to see the original post

thCAS182R1The town of Blyth has a long proud history built around its port and

its shipbuilding, coal mining and fishing industries. It has been in decline since the 1960s and by the 1980s most of the industrial might had vanished, leaving the town to attempt regeneration. The port is still critical to the local economy but the smoke belching power station has been replaced by state of the art wind farm manufacturing and transport links have never recovered since the closure of the train line to the town. This is a story typical for much of the North East of England. A tale we local artists have all lived through or heard about at school. But, whilst areas in Newcastle and Gateshead have been widely cited as exemplars for regional regeneration and much of this based around art and culture, places like Blyth have not been so fortunate. A recent public confession by the leader of Northumberland County Council and Blyth resident that the town was ‘a dump’ where he wouldn’t shop were the last thing this beleaguered place needed. Yes there are many empty shops but Blyth is the largest town in Northumberland with an amazing heritage and many exceptionally committed and proud local people.

Enough information; but I feel it’s always important to contextualise. What about arts and culture? Blyth (and the rest of the surrounding area) has very low levels of engagement in arts and culture, without a permanent cinema or art gallery. Because of this disengagement with arts and cultural under-investment, the area has been awarded several million pounds of funding from Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places initiative. This is undoubtedly good for the area. Early signs are that the consortium will invest most of this money in engaging new audiences. The town doesn’t need an ‘Angel of Blyth’ or a white cube gallery space. It needs real people expressing their past experiences as well as future hopes and fears creatively in real places where everyone can visit. Where better than the town’s main streets where local people (excepting the Council Leader) still do most/ some of their shopping?

We at dot to dot active arts believe in community engagement and creative place-making through participation in contemporary arts projects; activities beyond audience engagement and outreach work that activate local people’s narratives and things and places that matter to create strong new works of art by the community. We know our role. We are facilitators: people who help other people explore their creativity. We never lead. The projects and art created in our sessions are not ours. They belong to the communities we work in. We also know that people who do not normally visit art galleries or other cultural venues are much more likely to wonder what has filled the window of that empty shop; ask why strangely familiar yet slightly disconnected sounds are filtering from that once shuttered doorway; and who are those people acting strangely in the marketplace and dancing down the beach in the pouring rain? Residents may recognise some of the objects in the shop window; know some of the stories and voices drifting in and out of earshot; see their friends in costumed faces. This is what we want to help the people of Blyth explore.

We know that art will not change Blyth on its own. It must be part of a plan. Not a Mary Portas plan or a government plan. A real plan by the people for the people where creativity and participation sit alongside economic, environmental and other community needs. We hope we can help. We hope our project will be fun. We aren’t sure how we can help the local community sustain similar popup shops in future. But we will try and we will engage real people in real settings, always seeking to help the community find what it needs or might need. This is what old-new curiosity shop is about.