Do we need to develop institutions to work with communities? Can’t artists work directly with and within communities? A response to #CommunityArts conference at The Black-E

Dotto, Courtesy of The Black-E.

I asked the two questions in my title as an immediate response to a panel entitled ‘What kind of organisation do we need to develop to work with communities…?’  The problem seemed obvious; becoming increasingly apparent as the Community Arts?  Learning from the Legacy of Artists’ Social Initiatives conference (part of Liverpool Biennial’s programming) progressed.  Those ‘learning’ from artists should be organisations – who presumably had recently learned or were still learning the importance of working with people outside of our narrow arts world.  This is, for me, a deeply problematic and unsettling narrative.  Questions of appropriation sprang to mind.

Reflecting back, it was clear from the offset when (co-convenor) Sally Tallant said she preferred to ‘challenge institutions from the inside’ – a now rather hackneyed phrase within the arts.  Fellow co-convenor Andrea Phillips presented a much more oppositional stance.  She quickly highlighted the inherent ‘contradictions’ linked to the ‘institutionalisation of participation and engagement’ which could lead to the ‘banalisation of community’.  She pointed to Community Arts’ deeply ‘political investment’ which had been dampened within a ‘misrecognition of intent’ and the Blairite shift from notions of ‘exclusion to inclusion’.

The founders of The Black-E and conference hosts, Bill and Wendy Harpe, presented a brief overview of their incredible archive of almost 50 years of community arts interventions and participatory exhibitions.  Their commitment and passion was infectious.  ‘Participation used to have one meaning – now we have 101’, said Bill.  He later revealed that The Black-E were facing Arts Council cuts of 35% - the highest level of any NPO organisation in Liverpool.  He was, as always, upbeat in his determination to keep going.  For me, cuts to The Black-E with its long history of working as part of communities, represents an insidious and conscious decision by Arts Council England to replace great community art by artists and smaller organisations with glass bastions such as Home and The Factory (and many others around the country).

Frances Rifkin followed a fast-paced Jason Bowman with a more pointedly political reflection upon the field of practice.  ‘We saw our work as political, transformative – not as do-gooders,’ she explained.  She regretted the point in time when ‘the exclusive notion of excellence began to creep in’.  She talked about battles, the importance of trade unionism and marginalisation.  Issues I feel are all implicated within the creeping professionalisation and institutionalisation of our field.  ‘The use of volunteers is one way of not funding artists,’ she added before going on to say that it was ‘disgraceful there were no opportunities for young artists’ today.  Frances revealed she was optimistic about a shift within the arts because, and I echo her thoughts, big arts organisations and funders such as Arts Council England are vulnerable after suffering from round after round of austerity.

Later Sophie Hope declared that Community Art could be seen as a form of ‘oppositional practice’ that rejected the marketisation and professionalisation endemic within the field today.  Later still, Nato Thompson whistled through several of Creative Time’s ‘commissions’.  His narrative was interesting.  ‘We do public art,’ he said.  He was immediately followed by Anna Colin of Open School East.  She described the school as collective and self-organising with ‘a structure that’s quite light – self-reflexive and self-critical’.  Yet, I was left wondering about the intentions of the founders: The Barbican Centre and CREATE London…

There was a perceivable heightening of tensions when Tate’s Director of Learning, Anna Cutler, began by asking the audience, ‘Who would define your practice as educational or learning?’  Not many hands went up.  She seemed ruffled.  ‘I would like to see things changed,’ she said rather unconvincingly.  She attempted and failed to describe ‘socially engaged practice’ as a ‘sliding scale’ in which she said she ‘liked to think I’m in the middle’.  Safe and sound!  Except, for me, Tate do not do socially engaged art – they do outreach and education programmes and participation.  Oh, and let’s not forget their dodgy sponsors!!  (#BPMustGo!)  ‘As long as you’re transparent with participants, its ok,’ and, ‘It’s all about changing the processes, otherwise you’re just moaning from the outside,’ and ‘We’re an institution…  change takes a long time,’ she added.  Tensions rose further.  Then, after several more references to change from Anna, I asked my question.  The room ignited.

The rest of the day was notable for Sonia Boyce’s beautifully moving work, for some sort of democratic intervention that demanded more time for open comments (which were a little disjointed but really welcome) and a great summing up by Andrea Phillips.  I listened intently to the various perspectives on Granby Four Streets but still felt somehow uncomfortable with the project and its potential to become an unwitting (perhaps even knowing) agent for gentrification.  I remembered Andrea Phillips conclusion to Art and Housing: The Private Connection (2012):

The artist is a self-builder.  The rich man is a self-builder.  The yachts at Venice, with their open invitations for cocktails to socially engaged artists, facilitate the perfect and paradoxical nexus of new “social” housing.  The poor can only stand and stare.

My lasting memories of this exceptionally interesting and revealing conference revolve around the notion of oppositions.  Community Arts was an oppositional movement.  Socially engaged art is based on the premise of anti-institutionalism, amongst other things.  Institutions seem to feel that they can, given enough time and, undoubtedly lots of money, change to take on the role of community artist.  This move will come at the expense of the local, independent, autonomous interventions of many individual artists, collectives and smaller artist-led organisations working within communities.  Community Arts is about trust and togetherness.  Are large arts organisations really best placed to replace people (artists) who are driven to work in this way?  Can they?

We must indeed learn from the legacy of Community Arts and STORM THE CITADELS as Owen Kelly suggested back in 1984!