Art in Service: Quality - coming to terms with the social in socially engaged art

Art in Service: Quality - coming to terms with the social in socially engaged art

Work described as “in service” to a group of people, requires artists to be able to describe their relationship to that group and ramifications if the work of art fails, suggests guest blogger Maggie Cavallo.

This is a re-blog with the author's kind permission.  It was originally published as part of a conversation entitled rt in Service - a series of texts on socially-engaged art with Big Red & Shiny and Now +.  See the original article here and the others in the series at the bottom of that page.

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Take a look at this excellent course about activating yourself and your communities via creative engagement.  The course brings together three unique thinkers and practitioners: Ruth Ben-Tovim, Lucy Neal and Anne-Marie Culhane.  See below and click the links for more info...


The Art of Invitation – Creative Engagement for Ourselves and Our Communities


Encounters is delighted to be back leading this course Monday, 9 November, 2015 – Friday, 13 November, 2015. Last year a dynamic and inspiring group of participants gathered at the world renowned Schumacher College and we look forward to a similarly creative experience this year.

Are you looking for effective ways to bring groups of people together and maintain their involvement?
Are you trying to encourage people to respond to the social and ecological challenges of our time and become active in the world?
Would you like to explore more creative ways of engaging communities?
Do you want to find out about inspirational ways to reach and include more diverse groups of people?
Do you want to learn about the craft of making things happen?
Would you like to explore how making art together can accelerate change?

Activating participation is an essential craft, and the course leaders looked at a range of approaches to invite people to Join In. Participants on the course learnt by doing and left having developed their own plans, activities and skills for change for their own projects, organisations and communities.

The course facilitator’s work spans creative projects in formal and informal spaces, working with communities, activists, politicians, policy makers, service providers, educators, seeking to develop and create change.

Join us for a week of creative exploration. Each day will include sessions focusing on inspiring case studies, specialist workshops and presentations from contributors. This will be combined with practical group work, celebration, solo reflection time, and 1:1 mentoring to develop your own practice and process.

Participants are encouraged to bring their own project ideas, plans and experiences as material to develop within the course. At the end of the week you will come away with new creative tools for change that can resource you and the projects, communities and organisations that you are involved with and give you the confidence and skills to create new ones.

Ruth Ben-Tovim
Ruth is the Creative Director of Encounters. As a professional artist and consultant, she has used the transformational power of the arts to work with thousands of people over the last 20 years. Encounters specialise in designing and delivering tailor made participatory arts projects in arts, education, community, environmental and regeneration contexts.

With Encounters Ruth has produced and co-produced hundreds of intimate and immediate participatory interventions that inspire creativity, dialogue and exchange between people of all ages and cultures. The organisation works with people to unearth their own imaginative and instinctive power to shift how they see the world and their place within it. Encounters associates co-author evolving artworks with people of all ages and cultures, mapping and collecting stories and other evidence of everyday life which are then retold to a wider community through, exhibitions, public art, performance, publications and uniquely tailor made events.

Anne-Marie Culhane
Anne-Marie initiates, catalyses, designs and delivers creative and environmental arts projects, education, events and happenings and co-devised Encounters’ Patch of Ground strand of work.

Her work includes residencies, commissions, activism, education work and projects across disciplines. It embodies all aspects of project co-ordination, mentoring, advisory and research.

Anne-Marie works with the visual arts, installation, dance/movement, performance, film and words and has exhibited, performed and undertaken residencies in UK, Europe and Asia. I have set up a number of longer term cross-disciplinary projects in the UK. She draw inspiration from the cycles of nature and seasons; permaculture (learning from natural systems); environmental and ecological concerns or questions and listening and responding to people, landscapes and particular sites (urban or rural).

Lucy Neal
Is Author of Playing for Time: Making Art As If The World Mattered, a practical handbook of creative practice to inspire transition to more ecological age which was a collaboration with 60 artists, community activists and writers. Lucy is also a Happiness Associate working on The Happy Museum Project and a core member, initiator of Transition Town Tooting. She co-led C40 Case For Optimism – with Teo Greenstreet and Hilary Jennings. An evolving space for artists responding creatively to global challenges. Lucy is Chair of Phakama and Vice Chair English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Schumacher College brings together leading international thinkers, activists and practitioners, for small-group transformative learning experiences. There is a focus on interactive, participatory and transformative learning for sustainable living.

For more information about Schumacher College and to book visit the Schumacher College website.

Project Flyer

Validation beyond the gallery

When I became Executive Director of Axisweb in April 2015, I was acutely aware of a sea change within the cultural landscape. I am certainly not unique in this respect: Alistair Hudson (Director of MIMA) notes art and culture are under scrutiny as never before and the use value of art has slipped away from ordinary society. At the same time however, we see artists working with people and spaces, in collaborative, dynamic and interactive ways. Artists operating outside the gallery have come to play an essential role in society, yet these activities appear misunderstood, poorly profiled and simply not valued at the level of practice supported and promoted by the gallery sector.

At Axisweb we decided it was a good time to ask some questions. With the aim of better understanding the experiences of individuals working beyond the gallery, we commissioned a new piece of research with a focus on how validation and visibility are (or aren’t) being gained.

Written by Dr Amanda Ravetz and Dr Lucy Wright of Manchester School of Art, the research is a response to our questions and through a series of semi-structured interviews captures the opinions and experiences of producers, commissioners and artists all operating outside of galleries.

The report substantiates feelings that many artists will be familiar with: exclusion, rejection, misrepresentation [galleries use the wrong language], sidelining and being unrecognised, all for producing ‘the wrong kind of work’. These are issues which have been aired many times, however we are determined that this research will be a catalyst for change.

We have established working groups made up of artists, producers and commissioners to drive this process. These groups will develop collaborative mechanisms to tackle the issues raised in the research and consider and implement ways to improve advocacy and profiling work beyond the gallery.  If you are interested in becoming part of this process, please get in touch.

By continuing our partnership with MMU and expanding this membership, we will explore and test new models focusing on use value, metrics and social signs that help champion, profile and evaluate artists and art beyond the gallery. Ultimately, we aim to connect and engage with a broader public to reinforce the value of art and artists within society.

An online presence for the campaign planned in the coming months will include opportunities for engagement, however in the meantime if you have any ideas or feedback you want to share please do get in touch (

Mark Smith, July 2015

Click on the publication to view the report, click 'Expand' to enlarge.

What is social practice? A short poem about one transitional definition by Stephen Pritchard

There's lots of discussion about how to define our field of practice.  I'm not sure we can or even should?  I'm very interested in the notion of transitional art practice.  I was a bit unsure at first.  I think I had problems fully comprehending the word when I was first introduced to it by Ruth Ben-Tovim.  She was clear.  I blocked it.  I was all about "socially engaged".  Perhaps I still am?  Reading Playing for Time by Lucy Neal has made me rethink my practice and my research alot.  Transitional art links back to my first encounters with the work of Suzi Gablik.  Lucy's book and Ruth's passionate application of transitional art practice are beginning to reconnect me to Suzi's ideas about reenchantment.  Perhaps I'm experiencing something of a transition?

This poem was a quick response to Cara Courage's call for practitioners to describe social practice.  I re-read it as a transitional piece with key elements of transitional art vocabulary missing.  I think I'm a little cold.  Unempathic.  More work to be done.  Would love to hear your thoughts and criticisms.  Perhaps you would like to share your own interpretations?


What is social practice?

Little creative acts of not knowing.

Political, sometimes radically activist, acts.

Potential spaces. Safe places where dangerous new realities might grow. Grassroots. Social justice. Collective. Autonomous. Communal.

Deeply suspicious of instrumentalism and state. Outside of institutions. Around and across margins.

A practice in which art as concept is everywhere. 

Unspoken, like innumerable tiny little secrets shared in moments outside the false strictures of coordinated civic time. 


Always uncertain… 

Messes of thread. 

 Stephen Pritchard.


We are really pleased that Theresa Easton has joined our network as a member.  Theresa does amazing work as chair of Artists' Union England - a union who welcome members who are socially engaged artists.

When Theresa joined us, she wrote a short statement about socially engaged art practice.  She is happy that we share it here:

I think our field of practice should have equal status with all art practices. I think arts organisations, public bodies and commercial businesses that appear to incorporate social engagement into their commission, project, residency etc need to fully understand the area of work and not use is as a token gesture and pay lip service to the fundamentals of the practice.
We couldn't agree more.  Tokenism in our field is dangerous and misleading.

We welcome any comments, thoughts, responses.


We are an open network of members spanning artists, arts organisations, writers, academics.  We have 23 members to date.

Anyone can join us free by clicking here.

We are:

Amy Hirst
Bridget McKenzie
Cara Courage
Carol Parker
Gabriela Silva
Genevieve Rudd
Hannah Marsden
Hayley Roberts
Jack Newsinger
Jean McEwan
Kate Pahl
Kerry Lanigan
Liz Postlethwaite
Lucy Neal
Lydia Catterall
Mark Smith (AxisWeb)
Pauline Taylor
Ruth Ben Tovim
Sian Rees
Stephen Pritchard
Susan Jones
Theresa Easton
Tracy Shaw (Loca Creatives)

'Another great week in the Wur Bradford market stall' by Jean McEwan

This is a reblog of Jean's latest post from her own Wur Bradford project page.

Jean is a founding member of our Socially Engaged and Participatory Arts Network.

Her current socially engaged work in Kirkgate Market, Bradford seeks to explore how we can make our city better through imagination and collective action.  The project is ongoing.  The results heart-warmingly intimate.

This is her post...

kids drawing
connies face drawing faces 1
It’s been half term so I had lots of young visitors this week. Conchetta, Jessica, Rhadha, Dantrell, Harvey and Mohammed were among the kids who came in to get creative and kept me and other visitors entertained. Connie Jess and Rhadha all have parents who run stalls in the market, and they took me over to introduce me to them.
dantrell's booklet
Dantrell was over visiting from Leeds, and he came into make some stuff while his mum was getting her hair done in one of the hairdressers in the market. He made this book and he also made some headphones from cardboard for a costume for his school assembly.
Ann Marie came by again this week with her husband Martin to bring some of her paintings and drawings to put up in the space, including these pieces
annmare collage
ann marie painting 1
Ann Marie explained the personal significance of the symbols in the above painting, and how they relate to her disability and health. She was kind enough to type this out for me later and send them to me so I could share them here and print them out to put in the space.  She says
“The symbols stand for : Highheel – feminism the love of heels I but cant wear them , the difficulty getting round. Stripes – Zebra logo for hypermobility syndromes and EDS (see link Purple sky – brain fog and fatigue, spoons- fatigue theory known as the spoon theory : and the footprints are about my feeling that i want people to understand to metaphorically walk with me rather than ahead and in a way walk with me instead of away as friends have in the past.”
The lovely market staff (thank you Kevin and Jimmy! ) are organising the making of a special ramp so Ann Marie can get proper access to the space in her wheelchair (there’s a 5 inch step) so next week she can come in and get more involved.
banner making
banner making 2
banner painting 3
Matthew came down on Tuesday to help make some banners for the Anti Austerity Rally which happened on Wednesday in Centenary Square – and he also stayed around to make this instant book about the Bradford Bulls
mathews book
A couple more people from a local Women’s Refuge stopped by to say hi and check out what’s going on – they are going to tell the service users about the space and see if any of them wants to come down. Hope so!
bens collaged book stuartcollageand ben
Ben had found out about the stall via Twitter and popped in a couple of time this week. He wrote some contributions to the affirmations area and also made a collaged instant book. He told me and Stuart, who was visiting at the same time, about some of the music he likes, and we chatted about allsorts.
margaret and tatin flower
Margaret was born and brought up in Bradford, but moved to Lancashire some years ago. She was back for a visit for the day and was having a look round the market. She came in to chat and tell us some stories about Bradford as it used to be, and made me this lovely ‘tatting’ flower from wool she had in her bag. Thank you Margaret!
tatin flower with bradford map 1
One of my favourite moments from this week was when Kyra, a young visitor who popped in with her two sisters Nieve and Kya, did this impromptu paper plate portrait of Ivan, who had popped in to visit. He is rightly chuffed to bits with it.
Portrait of Ivan by Kyra
Portrait of Ivan by Kyra
Food donations box for Bradford Metropolitan foodbank. They need all the help they can get, so please bring a donation if you can
Food donations box for Bradford Metropolitan foodbank. They need all the help they can get, so please bring a donation if you can
David popped in again on Thursday before he started work. We got talking about the Foodbank donations box and how a lot of people were struggling to get by on low wages and benefits. He told me about the Bradford Credit Union and how he’s found it really good being a member, helping to pay bills and save on a budget. He’s going to bring some leaflets in if he can next week
What a great week it has been – thank you to everyone who has come down to make stuff and come in to talk. Looking forward to the next one!
back wall with artwork

Marriage, Death and Tea.

"Come in for a coffee, then you can tell me all about your art. What's your medium?"

It took me a matter of hours to remember having a game plan was ridiculous. Of course it's natural to want to feel prepared, especially when someone has chosen to invest their time and cash in you, but, really, I should have known better. The people I meet, place I'm in and things that crop up are always at the centre of any work I make and it's not possible to pre-empt or prescribe that. I also know I can't visit a place just once if I'm to make real work there. I should have stopped the formulating, shoved some socks in a bag and just got myself here. 

I'm 120 miles from home in Peterborough; the city where 'picking, packing and plucking' make the world go round. As the fastest growing UK city, Peterborough's historically central, agricultural industry is moving away in geography but not importance. I've never met so many people involved in working farms, co-operative food growing initiatives or groups advocating sustainable living. I've also seen a lot of people tucking in to crisps for breakfast, but you've got to maintain the balance somehow.  

I've had two hosts in Peterborough: The Urban Engine Room and Sue's place. The Urban Engine Room is a very new space, built in the back garden of someone who saw a gap and didn't wait for someone else to fill it. Day to day, his children revise, watch films and hang out in there, but once a month or so it plays host to an artist. Sue was advertising her spare room, a twenty minute walk away, on Air BnB. I'd never been to Peterborough before and genuinely had no preconceptions of how it would be; everything about the week has been a surprise. 

My work involves delicately unpicking a place, situation or topic. Often this leads into an event, but the people, conversations and skills that are uncovered and engaged are more important. I can see the process come together in a really physical way. It's as intricate as lace: A thread out of place, or a click in the pattern, and it's noticeable. Sometimes the key is to iron out the kinks, at other times it's embracing the inconsistencies and framing them in a way that helps them be viewed differently. 

Once I had remembered to not worry about making 'things', I got on with saying 'Yes' to everything. Tea, coffee, beer, biscuits, curry, soup, sandwiches: A theme to the invitations emerged. In lots of ways, hospitality and food are synonymous, aren't they? Cooking and eating happens differently in every household, and depending on where in the world you are, but we all do it. It's a basic offer of care from a host and the ultimate window in for a guest. In that sense, I've been offered numerous windows into Peterborough. 

A private gig in a musician's back garden.
Chats with artists commissioned to reconsider 'Harvest'.
A meeting with Peterborough's first ever high profile squatters.
Sharing theory, ethos and practice with a seasoned community developer.
An introduction to a co-operatively run green space, growing and teaching about plants and food.
Conversations with a disabled dancer about labels, funds and motivations.
Learning about and hand-picking a kilo of salad leaves in the middle of endless flat ground.
Having my feet washed in the local church.
Bending over maps and hearing about what was.
Noting every detail of recipes by my new favourite Lithuanian sandwich-maker.
Sharing a soda and lime with the performer who serenaded David Cameron with a ukulele.
A tour of Lincoln Road.
Cooking local ingredients to feed new friends.
Mapping in my first studio space.

I left Peterborough with an offer to go back in September. And again next year. And maybe even the year after that. No parachuting in: A sustained investment. For the many people who told me Peterborough is nothing special, this was a surprise. 

I'd recommend a residency to anyone. Really: They should be a compulsory part of working in any any profession. Stepping out of your everyday is SO valuable. I came to know a new place through the people who live there; not tourist information. I had room to reflect on Leeds, where I live and work most of the time. I had space to map my thoughts in a way that really surprised me. I was freely given access to books, references and contexts that were new and exciting. I'm assured I was also able to reciprocate the incredible hospitality I received, open up conversation and kick off the imagining of other possibilities for Peterborough. 

And, as my host just said in a text, "it's all just the start".  

To carry on the conversation and see lots of photos from my residency, find me on on social media: 

Twitter: @LydiaCatterall
Instagram: lydiacatterall

People Make Theatre: The role of the arts in the new politics

Great blog post by Jonathan Petherbridge that we just needed to share with our followers!

Jonathan issues a challenge to Arts Council England and arts institutions: Think about how art can be a process, an experience - not a product to be consumed.

We hope this reblog of Jonathan's post will stimulate further debate and, more importantly action - self-organising.  The time is NOW!


People Make Theatre: The role of the arts in the new politics

The role of the arts in the new politics

It's the day after the full election result. Saturday. The radio and papers are full of bemused reflection - how did the opinion polls get it so wrong, where has liberalism gone, what direction should the Labour Party now take, whither proportional representation ? Friends, family and colleagues are slowly emerging from shocked despair and bracing themselves for five more years.
But what's to do ?

Partly inspired by Stella Duffy's listing of her practical response and partly provoked by the fallout from Participation on Trial, I am wondering if the electoral outcome actually offers a challenge to the arts sector.

My fear is that the result of the election showed middle England's default position. People might flirt with Lib Dems but when the chips are down the tick goes to Conservatives - or possibly UKIP. I am trying to put myself in the position of a young first time voter not living in London or one of the cities like Leicester or Bristol that shunned the Tories. The serious conversations going on around this young me are about jobs and mortgages. My parents and teachers talk about interest rates and eradicating the national debt. I turn on the TV and any debate is framed almost entirely in the language of numbers and the context of money. In my area schools are becoming academies and seem to reinforce this default thinking. In the state schools too, arts subjects are becoming marginalised. And in the current climate my mates sort of think this is rational. Arts aren't going to get you a job - well not a proper job.

Is this the dominant thinking that young people are growing up receiving and believing ? Is it therefore becoming normal - even cool - to vote for a party that puts the individual before the society ? The shareholder before the customer. The self before others.

I think we should assume that these are now the default values of middle England. Beyond London apart from a few northern outposts and a scattering of island-cities surrounded by a sea of blue voters, for the majority the dominant values are the values of the market.

So what's to do ?

A coherent political response is going to take some time to formulate and I fear it's going to get worse before it gets better. But while we're waiting for the party wheels to grind I think the arts, especially participatory arts, can offer a surprisingly different way of looking at things.

Arts activities offer young (and old) people a space where things are valued differently. In the best cases they offer a space where we value ourselves and each other differently. Countless arts projects involve people in playing, making, writing and performing, and these operate through a different set of values. Most encourage co-operation, accessibility, listening, respect. Many build work from individual personal narratives, but artfully amplify these with the contributions of many. A recent piece at the Young Vic was woven from the testimonies of female carers over several months*. I was fortunate to catch one of the performances given by a cast of about 30 female carers. The sense of solidarity was tangible. The exploration and celebration of an abstract concept ('care') had the audience doing that smiling/glowing thing. And the dancing was fantastic. The values on show, and I suspect throughout the process offered an alternative argument of what is important in life, and - and this is key - that argument was registered emotionally and physically.

In many instances art is increasingly regarded as a commodity rather than a means of self and/or group expression. Even in participatory arts there seems to be a greater emphasis on the product rather than the process and I am seeing a growing tendency to think about the market and the wrapping of the goods for sale, right from the off ? Sometimes our responses themselves are monetised - if a viewer or participant values art for what it does to their mood or mind, spirit or soul, then that response may well appear on the billboard or in the funding bid for the next endeavour.

I think many of us are falling into this money and numbers game - it's not surprising. The number one coffee break conversation at any conference is going to be funding. The number one piece of work will be a spreadsheet. The first demand from a funder will be outputs - or outcomes measured numerically. And artists continue to talk about how they are paid (or aren't paid) - publicly.

But we must hold our nerve. The default political position described above leaves a vacuum. I like to think (and this may be very old fashioned) that people require other things. Friendship, connection, love, humour - soft and squidgy sort of spiritual things that make it worth getting up in the morning. Things that some link to the concept of Wellbeing. The arts - especially participatory arts - offers space where people can experience this - other places do too, faith groups and sports clubs, the WI and the allotment. But participatory arts spaces have less of an agenda and are more explicit about stating the rules of engagement - the ethos. Skilled facilitators - be they a conductor or youth theatre leader will mediate a space where teamwork is all, they will foster and monitor a atmosphere of connection and creativity. And the dancing will be fantastic (and it will include seated dancing too).

While society sorts out how it wants to be represented politically, I think it is important that the arts offers opportunities for people to meet and work positively together. Non-religious, non-institutional, open and accessible spaces where an alternative set of values can be experienced. I challenge the Arts sector - the Arts Council and the 'institutions' to consider how they can present art not as a product, but as a process, to be experienced - not consumed.