This is a little part of a draft section of my PhD thesis. It examines Creative People and Places, particularly, their People, Place, Power: Increasing Arts Engagement conference, suggesting empowerment may not be all it’s cracked up to be, especially when ‘delivered’ by state-sanctioned, instrumentalising arts organisations and artists – the foot soldiers of state social art provision…
There are many institutions and artists working in communities today that, often under the subtle (or direct) influence of state cultural policy directives, seek to use art as a means of ‘empowering’ (usually disadvantaged and disenfranchised) communities. One only has to look at Creative People and Places’ 2016 conference. The title alone is both enlightening and unsettling: People, Place, Power: Increasing arts engagement (Creative People and Places, 2016). Its stated aim was to offer ‘an opportunity for Creative People and Places projects to share learning from their different approaches, and for other researchers and practitioners to share perspectives on arts engagement and related issues of participation, community decision making and sense of place (ibid.). Its intended audience was: ‘People involved with Creative People and Places projects’; ‘Cultural organisations interested in broadening engagement and new approaches to decision making’; ‘Artists interested in socially engaged practice’; and ‘Academics working on related topics around engagement in the arts’ (ibid.). Empowerment is mentioned four times in Arts Council England’s 2016 call for existing Creative People and Places projects to apply for ongoing funding for the period 2017-2020 (Arts Council England, 2016). The document outlines the programme’s aims and outcomes:
Evidence demonstrates that some communities are engaging very little with the arts. This may be through lack of opportunities to attend and participate or because of barriers like socioeconomic factors, physical accessibility, or a limited offer. We believe that everyone has the right to access the arts and we want to transform the opportunities open to people in these places … Our vision for Creative People and Places is to support the public in shaping local arts provision and, in so doing, to increase attendance and participation in excellent art, and existing Creative People and Places consortia are working to a 10-year vision to achieve this (ibid., p. 4, my italics).
The initiative’s central aims include: empowering local communities; an ‘aspiration for excellence’ (in terms of art and process); the creation of ‘an environment where the arts and cultural sector can experiment with new approaches to engaging communities’; demonstrating ‘the power of the arts to enrich the lives of individuals and make positive changes in communities’; and encouraging ‘partnerships across the subsidised, amateur and commercial sectors’ as well as collaborations with museums, libraries and digital platforms (ibid., pp. 4-5). Of course, these aspirations mirror those of Arts Council England in general and those of the state. It is clear that the programme is primarily focused on top-down instrumentalism and excellence with a nod towards potentially co-opting elements of what could be described as culture’s dark matter – ‘amateurs’ – alongside ‘subsidised’ and ‘corporate’ sectors within this state-initiated programme. Of course, the artistic outputs and ‘processes of engagement’ must be ‘excellent’. Indeed, a new report was unveiled during the conference which explores excellence and quality by examining examples from a number of Creative People and Places projects. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss it in detail here although perhaps the title is illuminating enough: ‘What it does to you’: Excellence in Creative People and Places – Thematic Research (Consilium Research and Consultancy, and Mark Robinson, 2016).
It is also interesting to note that an attendee of People, Place, Power – a director of an art organisation based in Manchester – blogged afterwards: ‘Mainly we discussed a problem called Excellence’ (Fenton, 2016). Fenton was mostly positive in his reflections but found it problematic that there seemed to be a ‘lack of self-awareness (expressed, anyway) about the lack of those community voices at the event’ and that, whilst ‘they were often cited, quoted, often represented in absentia’, community members were not there to ‘talk … on their own terms’ (ibid.). He also noted a ‘lack of visible diversity in the teams and associated research partners delivering on the programmes’ and that this fact ‘mainly went unchecked’ (ibid.). A focus on artistic excellence and segregated audience/ participant demographics are, unfortunately, very common factors at events like this as well as across UK arts and culture in general. Yet, these positions clearly jar with the aims of Creative People and Places and with those of their 2016 conference. Perhaps, then, they reveal a common problem within (state-serving) arts projects and artists which Grant Kester described as stemming from the belief that ‘the very real differences that exist between themselves and a given community can be transcended by a well meaning [sic] rhetoric of aesthetic “empowerment”’ (1995). Perhaps the communities deemed to be in need of empowering by Creative People and Places (and many other similar projects) are actually being defined as ‘individuals marked as culturally, economically, or socially different’ (ibid.) from the arts organisations, their funders and the artists employed to deliver their intended outcomes. If so, this would reinforce superiority and difference, effectively ‘othering’ the very people who are the projects’ intended ‘beneficiaries’; disempowering them in so doing.
 The creative practices Sholette categorises as dark matter orbit around the margins of this monopolistic Art World, always fighting the influence of what could be described as ‘cultural gravity’ (the institutions) which exerts an ever-changing, ever-powerful pull towards its centrality – its controlled public sphere. For more about Sholette’s concept of dark matter, see, for example: http://www.gregorysholette.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/05_darkmattertwo1.pdf
 To read the full ‘What it does to you’: Excellence in Creative People and Places report (2016), see: http://www.creativepeopleplaces.org.uk/sites/default/files/What%20it%20Does%20to%20You%20-%20Excellence%20in%20CPP_0.pdf.