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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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.

'Three Years/Three Years' by Anthony Schrag...

This is a reblog of a post by participatory artist Anthony Schrag that's incredibly important to our notions of defining our field(s) of practice(s) not as 'a community of one voice' but an alliance of multiple voices. Many of us share Anthony's frustrations about professionalisation and attempts to impose a false hegemony on socially engaged/ participatory arts...

Serendipity or coincidence meant that the three years of my PhD coincided with the three years of the Artworks Pathfinder projects, and, being in Scotland, I have attended all three Scottish conferences. I grew with them and, like youthful playmates who find themselves staring into a unknown future abyss together, I find myself at a personal and professional juncture, similar, perhaps to the state of the Artworks project finds itself now. As I am now also in the stages of wrapping up my research into notions of participation, I too feel the looming ‘what next?’ question sidle up to me at vulnerable moments.

Even though I occupy a position external to Artworks Scotland, over the past three years I felt very welcomed into the discourse it espoused, and that sense of inclusivity has been gratefully accepted. Over time, I’ve also noticed my own shift from a novice outsider with high hopes, to an invited angry provocateur, to a jaded dissenter, hopelessly clinging on to notions that things will change. I now find myself wondering how the Artworks project has influenced me and I have influenced it, and how my future will be different once I finish my research: will that future have been altered because of Artworks? What do I do with my own inquiry into participation, now that formal structure of support is ending? Do the questions that we asked just fade away? How can it have meaning? And, as the conference drew to close yesterday and we were left ruminating on a professional ‘what next?’ I had my own thoughts about the day – and the future.

Cynics and Sing-a-longs: The choice to include mostly theatre/music folks in the presentations is probably an apt representation of the populations involved in ‘participatory works.’ However, more numbers do not necessarily equal a unified whole: such is the problem with ‘democracy’ – the loudest and largest get to speak for the lesser few. This does not bode well for a ‘community of practice’. David Camlin’s Dialogical Sing-a-long went down a storm for some, but for myself and an embarrassed few (mostly visual artists, it must be said) we sat cringing at our tables, rolling our eyes at such ‘kumbaya’ tactics. Its funny to consider now, but it reveals a deeper dissonance that has still yet been unpicked: the difference in intentions and methodologies that do not link us. Yes, we are, as Susanne Burns suggested in her closing speech, all linked by matters of ‘collaboration’ but the focus on our similarities at the cost of our differences is highly problematic. It would be equivalent to reducing doctors down to ‘those interested in hygiene’, or physicists to ‘those that use mathematics’. That we are linked purely by ‘collaboration’ is possibly too simplistic. Yes, we do all collaborate, its true: but things also draw us apart, and it is this difference – this ‘how are we unlike each other’ that never seems to be given enough attention. This becomes problematic if we’re being presented as a unified whole of ‘participatory practitioners’.

Internals and Externals: Too often in these sorts of conferences, we rely on those we know and the conversation becomes a bit incestuously deformed. Should the conference co-ordinator also be speaking about her research? I personally think not: it warps the findings to be quite limited. Often, we stay in this narrow band because it is easiest when planning, but if indeed the project is about the breadth of participation, I wonder to what extent the research is skewed because we have invited the right kind of people to attend. That ‘right’ kind of people aligns with ‘open-space’ seminars, but the issue with those is that it becomes justification for a narrow focus; for not doing the hard work of getting the wrong sort of people involved. What of those artists who could not attend because they couldn’t afford the entry fee; those participants who had to go to work; those dissenters who had awful experiences with participatory artists; those gallery administration staff who had to stay and open the buildings? The grist and meat of participation comes in the minutia of projects, and the same is true for research: what have we missed by not seeking out other voices? Are we patting ourselves on the back while ignoring those outside the room?

Language and Voice: I am amazed, after 3 years, that we are still no where nearer to defining what we mean by ‘participation’. 60% of me thinks this is a good thing. I would hate to reduce the diversity of practice into narrow headings and definitions. The other 40% gets filled with a vibratory rage that we use a single word to talk about many very, very different things, with very different intentions and desired outcomes. Is it correct to elide applied participatory works that hope to change and benefit communities with the transgressive, abusive-like works of Santiago Sierra, for example? If I believe it is ethically problematic to assume that participatory projects should ‘help’ other people, should I be thrown-together who feels their work should have an ameliorative impact? Education and participation are still confounded, despite meaning – and intending – very different things; No distinction is made on those that undertake ‘participation’ as paid work to supplement their practice, and those whose entire artistic career is participatory; there remains no challenge to the professionalisation of an industry vs the call for artists to be professional.

This latter, perhaps is the biggest hurdle for me: is there a difference between a professional participatory artist and a professional artist? Creative Scotland has released a report that grew from the Artworks project titled: Developing a Foundation for Quality Guidance for arts organisations and artists in Scotland working in participatory settings. Does, I wonder, Painting have a Foundation for Quality Guidance? Or Sculpture? Or Video art? In what ways are we hemming ourselves in with this professionalisation? In conferences, this lack of a specific definition is perhaps quite useful, because we can be dialogic about meanings: we can argue and unravel what we mean and discover our differences. We can speak to each other. The problem is comes when these conferences lead to reports: reports that are not able to unravel this diversity of meaning and intention because their purpose is to distill meaning down into bite-sized mouthfuls. These reports – especially because the practice is so new and many do not know much about it – are often then are taken as fact: the research is taken as the be-all-and-end-all of information into participatory settings. They will, no doubt, be implemented as policy.

And this when the ‘what next?’ becomes frightening. Because, if I do not fit into the categories of the assumed notion of participation, do I cease to exist as a participatory artist? What if I have a different notion of quality then the framework of the report? Am I then a bad participatory practitioner? If the written documents are not clear about this lack of a cohesive and shared notion of quality; of the diversity of practice; of differing ethical frameworks; of the multiplicity of intentions; of the plethora of desires we all have in ‘working with people’ then they are bound to exclude. If we are indeed trying to come together in a “community of one voice” how can we build it into a continuum that really can accommodate the gamut of practices?

For my part, I think this must come in a recognition – in written language – that the practice is not fixable into one thing: I know this is often said, but it is not expressed nor truly communicated. It is not explicitly shown in the conferences and reports that it is a practice which incorporates those that wish to help and those that wish to transgress; those who desire a political imperative and those that want to entertain; those that want to align themselves to social work and those that find such a proposition patronising and ethically problematic; those that merely undertake participatory projects as it supplements their non-collaborative practice, and those whose very ethos is a co-authorial approach. We cannot be lazy and hope that these differences are implicit and understood. They are not. This is evidenced by the very discussions we are still having – after 3 years – about what it all means to work with people. If we, as a community of one voice, cannot collectively agree on this continuum of practice, how can we ever assume others will understand?

Submit your new or existing blog posts, essays, etc. for publication on our blog

We're asking anyone who would like to share their thoughts new or old about socially engaged, ecologically engaged, participatory or activist arts with us so we can, in turn, (re)publish them here to stimulate open debate.

The posts can be about your practice, thoughts about the field, politics of our practice, academic research... anything you feel is relevant!

Please email us docs or links at and we'll publish quickly...

Look forward to hearing from you!


We've now got just over 500 followers on twitter and are actively campaigning for recognition of our field of practice with Arts Council England.

We really need your comments, ideas, links, feedback to help develop this conversation.

So, we're now asking people interested in supporting or actively developing the network to sign up for free to become a member.


The sign up page is hosted on dot to dot active arts website.

Meeting Arts Council England about recognising our socially engaged/ ecologically engaged/ transitionary practice

We met with Arts Council England on Tuesday 16th December to discuss recognition of our work as a unique form of artistic practice.  Alison Clark-Jenkins, Director for ACE North and for Combined Arts, kindly agreed to meet us along with some of her working group looking at 'participatory' practice.  Stephen Pritchard attended the meeting in person, whilst Bridget McKenzie and Lucy Neal took part via video conference from ACE London and Ruth Ben-Tovim took part via Skype.  We were very positively received.  This blog post is an overview for our supporters and followers about the key points raised.

We talked about the broad scope of our practice and our various approches.  We explained that the field shared a focus on people, process, ethics, social justice, sometimes politics, place, communities, ecological concerns, etc.  We pointed out that we felt largely ignored and misunderstood by many within UK arts institutions.  We also pointed out that our practice was often suspicious of arts institutions and state intervention but that we frequently worked in interdisciplinary ways.  We explained that we tended towards independence and that our work was often self-organised.  ACE discussed our practice in terms of initiatives such as Creative People and Places and Paul Hamlyn Foundation's ArtWorks.  We pointed out that they, along with outreach and arts education, were focused on audience development, continued professional development and participation.  We explained that 'engaged arts' was always issue-based.  We also noted that these initiatives were not artist-led.  We were keen to also explain that our field of practice must be conceived of as an art form as valid as any other and that our work aimed at high experiential as well as high aesthetic values whilst aiming to address issues of social justice.

There were areas that ACE wanted to explore further and better understand.  They asked us if we would be willing to participate with them to develop these areas and to continue to seek to better define our field of practice.  The aim remains to recognise our work as a unique art form.  We will all play a part in this ongoing dialogue with Arts Council England but it was agreed that Ruth Ben-Tovim and Stephen Pritchard would be the initial points of contact with ACE.

We suggested that ACE might initially look at Culture Shift and their interesting 'Gablik test' as a starting point for understanding our practice.  We also recommended various US groups such as Creative Time, A Blade of Grass, Open Engagement, etc.

We have agreed to meet again in January and will soon be arranging this with ACE.  When we know the date, we will be contacting everyone to ask for comments and ideas about how to progress our discussions and call for recognition.

This is a very brief overview of what was a very positive meeting with Arts Council England.  We welcome any comments and ideas!

Warm festive wishes and more soon...


A new space for socially engaged and participatory artists, collectives and organisations.  A commons.  Everyone welcome.

A place where socially engaged and participatory art can be discussed as a group with the primary aims of being supportive of each other, sharing experiences and opportunities, and developing our practices together.

We share a wish for our practice to be recognised as an unique, interdisciplinary and process-based art form.

Beyond this, we often work in different ways and accept that we will not always agree on everything…