Artworks - evolving participatory arts in the UK - some initial reflections

motiroti is a small part of ArtWorks, an initiative funded by the Paul Hamyln Foundation. Artworks aims to step change the quality of, and regard for, participatory arts activity across the UK. We're a delivery partner for 'Shift', the London-based consortium led by the Barbican and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Shift's other delivery partners include some great organisations forwarding this area, including A New Direction, Spitalfields Music and Hi8us South.

Earlier this week we were invited to take part in a 2 day gathering of the 'Pathfinders' - the entire UK consortia - who have completed their first year of mapping and research, and who are now talking to each other about how to progress this work over the next two years. As participation and social engagement are central to motiroti's programme, it was a fascinating and important space for us to connect with. There's a huge breadth breadth and depth of knowledge across the Pathfinders a lot of new data coming to the surface, and connections being made. 

Though a lot of further work remains. At the close of the two days, our Executive Director Tim Jones began by saying that, like a lot of other people present, he'd been attracted to work in participatory arts because he wanted to play a small part in (quote unquote) "making the world a better place". Key to that attraction is the potential that the participatory arts have to be realised responsively - taking as much account as possible of the context and interests and needs of specific participating individuals in the way the arts engagement experience is delivered. But in the UK we can still be perplexingly self-evasive when we discuss 'the participant' as the centre around which the art and its facilitation is designed. We fret about funder agendas, perhaps we're cynical about the limitations of traditional funding ecologies for this week - and we can also be hypersensitive to, and perhaps prioritise, the expresseded needs of the practitioners who may deliver this work. 
 
Of course, culture (in the widest sense, the way that we understand it in motiroti) continues to change at lightning speed. The public increasingly expects that the experiences they will have will be responsive; that they can curate content on their own terms; and that they can author content back into what they interact with. It's salutary to reflect upon how much of this expectation has been fuelled by new technology, rather than the development and expansion of any kind of cultural democracy. 
 
At motiroti we're increasingly exploring how we can work with artists and with those who finance our program to develop participant-centred forms of project design and delivery. The Potluck explores new forms of 'community artist' training "from the community end" (which is a key research question for Shift that we hope to contribute to). The Potluck food gatherings, which the artists we work with facilitate, aim to give these artists a hotline to a diverse and deep reservoir of community voices. We charge these artists to go swimming: to take that as their inspiration and to see how that might affect and involve their creative practice In ways that might, perhaps, be different. Perhaps, more comprehensible and, perhaps, inclusive to a radically expanded set of people. 
 
In doing so, we sense there is positive advantage in exploring ways of working that connect artists working in participatory settings with other practitioners who operate under a different descriptor, but in practical terms may be a breath away. Social entrepreneurs. Community gardeners. Digital activists. There's a lot of action in these adjoining spaces which the arts would do well to take heed of and connect to. The image above shows the Potluck's process of aggregating skills rather than job titles across a large group of Potlucking artists in Chicago. In this case it illuminates that the ability to speak Spanish is a crucially advantageous skill for creative engagement in that city. How does the formalised community art industry place value on such an ability?
 
This feels like an approach that requires sensitivity, and may be controversial. "I'm an artist, not a mere deliverer of instrumental social benefits". But isn't the greatest potential found if we work out how to deliver great, fully artistic experiences with user-centred thinking at the heart of their imagination? Isn't effective arts making about being as mindful as possible about how the artistic content is experienced as well as produced? And shouldn't this be true more than anywhere else in the participatory arts? 
 
We're looking forward to keeping pace with Artworks over the next two years. There's scope for the network to take a dynamic leadership role in changing peoples perception of this area of artistic work. We need to be both more supportive, and more frank, with artists working in participatory settings, about the changing landscape, how to sustain their work, and about the public's changing understanding of what arts and culture mean to them. Hopefully, as a baseline, Artworks can achieve a nationwide recognition of the importance of this work that can be translated into artist opportunities that are matured - with greater socially transformative potential. With greater confident in, and flexibility of language, so that the work can be translated to impact across a greater range of people.  And - particularly for organisations like ours - ways we can support 'community artists' to achieve insights into how they can diversify the range of ways they can deploy their skills in creative engagement. We know careers in this field will be hard to sustain over coming years: artists need to take ownership of the movement alongside the cultural administrators, and be confident in conveying, translating and re-describing their work, both in word and deed.