New Labour, new community theatre

jpm15-ruos-9224

Thorney Beginnings, Marvellous Middles and Moorends – a show by Excavate for the Right Up Our Street programme funded by Creative People and Places

The New Labour administration that began in 1997 is seen as a key moment in the relationship between the by then established community arts movement and the wider social sphere with an arts policy that embraced cultural democracy, increased funding, and was highly aware of the wider social importance of the arts. A dedicated policy group was set up to investigate how to achieve this and in its report to the DCMS advised that the Arts Council had a specific institutional role to play in addressing social exclusion: ‘ACE should explicitly recognise that sustaining cultural diversity and using the arts to combat social exclusion and promote community development are among its basic policy aims.’[1] The Next Stage report that was subsequently produced by the Arts Council in May 2000 reflected this recommendation stating the need to ‘develop the potential for relevant forms of theatre to play a role in tackling social exclusion’.[2]

Whilst it is clear that under New Labour this conjunction of the arts and social exclusion became a new imperative in the arts and funding ecosystem, I think it is worth backtracking a little to a moment that is often overlooked in the rush to identify the Blair government with an increasing instrumentalism of the arts. In 1994 the Conservative government of John Major introduced the National Lottery, which explicitly attached financial support to the arts to the idea of ‘good causes’. Suddenly it was possible to get public funding for arts projects through the Awards For all scheme, which was part funded by the Arts Council but administered through the Communities Fund, simply by showing that these projects had some social impact regardless of the quality of the art form.[3]  And many, myself included, rushed to take advantage of this economic largesse, creating all manner of small scale artistic interventions with community groups across the land.

The state had declared its interest in community art. Not in the art of the community art but in its social impact, in its by-product, or tied together in a package that George Yudice calls ‘culture as resource’, with the production of the work being a method for social and economic development. [4]  And the state was willing to pay because they had a list as long as your arm of the things that they needed help with.

This was not what the idea of cultural democracy that had fired the community arts movement was all about. But after years of tough economic times many community arts organisations, with buildings to support and wages to pay, were willing to engage in this new relationship. After eighteen years of Tory rule they were willing to embrace anything that (New) Labour offered them on the assumption that this was a move in some kind of new direction, and presumably a leftward one, however small that might be.

Perhaps this was always a possibility. As Owen Kelly indicated it had always been difficult to pin down any kind of artistic agenda for community arts leaving the definition to one of process and ‘a behavioural or moral position.’[5]  And the moral position was increasingly being viewed as one in which the aim was to bring as many people as possible into the arts tent, and once they were there to ensure that they were given the chance to participate fully.

Community arts found itself in a double bind. Seeking to confront the state by its culturally democratic imperative to give voice to communities who had little power in the face of the political, social and economic apparatus. And yet now being asked to do this on terms other than their own, a position that Owen Kelly had warned of in which community artists were increasingly positioned as a kind of semi creative social worker, a situation that lets ‘one branch of the state send in a group of people to clear up the mess left by another branch of the state’ and worst still wilfully refusing to accept that this was the case.[6]

But could the work that the state was sending its way be assimilated and developed and re-imagined by the community arts movement or would it actually find itself being neutered by this new partnership? Perhaps the fact that even its name began to change might help to offer a clue into who was coming out on top.

‘The phrase ‘community art’ fell out of favour at the beginning of the 1990s, to be replaced by the seemingly-innocuous alternative, ‘participatory arts’ writes Francois Matarasso in his essay ‘All In This Together’: the Depoliticisation of Community Art in Britain 1970-2011’.[7] Matarasso is an interesting voice in this debate, a much quoted voice for the merits of cultural democracy and also for the benefits of participation. In Use or ornament: The social impact of participation in the arts, he asserts that

Art produces social change that can be seen, evaluated and broadly planned;  contributes to social cohesion, benefits environmental renewal and health and injects creativity into organisational planning.[8]

And yet by the time of ‘All In This Together’ he finds himself bemoaning ‘a transition from the politicised and collectivist action of the seventies towards the depoliticised, individual-focused arts programmes supported by public funds today’.[9]

Matarasso, in searching for the move to ‘participation’ suggests that the term ‘community’, being co-opted by the State ‘to rebrand policies such as the ‘community charge’, ‘community policing’, and ‘care in the community’, became ‘treated with suspicion by academics and radicals alike’.[10]  And that with a recent history of political retreat from the ideals of the left the emergence of the new term ‘participatory arts’ was a much needed shot in the arm. But what was this participation that had crept into the lexicon so that community arts companies found themselves using this term as either an alternative or even a defining term over and above that of ‘community’? How – or did – it differ from what had gone on before?

nightbainbridge_192Bolsover Bingo – Excavate – for the First Art programme funded by Creative People and Place and Places

At this current moment a large injection of funding has been made available by ACE through the Creative People and Places scheme to ‘cold spots’, areas of the country where ‘involvement in the arts is significantly below the national average’; a scheme driven by the belief that ‘everyone has the right to experience and be inspired by art and culture, so we want to transform the opportunities open to people in those places’.[11] Many of the organisations that are running the programmes funded by this scheme are community arts organisations, and they have spent huge amounts of time setting up mechanisms to ensure that the local voice drives the work that is made, as can be seen as the first evaluation reports begin to come out of the first phase of this work.[12]

The fact that community arts work is largely produced by organisations that are not necessarily art form specific (although different organisations tend to specialise in certain media) has also impacted on the level of conversation and debate around these issues of participation. Only two of the fourteen organisations that make up the forum of the East Midlands Performing Arts Federation (EMPAF) are companies that would describe themselves through their art form – Excavate and Salamanda Tandem [13]– all of the others comprise staff teams who create projects but do not necessarily deliver them, employing outside and associate artists for this purpose. Therefore the questions that they grapple with are not so much those that may concern the individual artist tasked with developing an artistic intervention in, with and/or alongside a community but rather how they can ensure that what is defined as a community project, and which represents that community, is truly shaped and voiced by that community, rather than being used or hijacked by an outside force (as Sheila Yeger suggested that she wanted to do in the writing of her community play as mentioned here). All of which leads, understandably, to the participants increasing involvement in all aspects of the production process. The community play model of Ann Jellicoe can be seen as a move towards this position, a development from the first stage of community theatre where the interaction appeared to be simply one of companies coming out and performing their work to, and in, communities. And surely, if you are searching for an increasingly democratic culture, then a trajectory of increased participation appears to be in line with the original thinking of the community arts movement. But is this participation a social one, or something else?  Did the increasing move into work with defined social impact agendas alter the very notion and relationship between the participants and the art that they were meant to be making together?

The work of Excavate has nearly always been based in communities defined by geography, where contested issues of how that community is defined are a part of the process. It was a strange experience to find ourselves being asked by Nottinghamshire County Council sometime around 2005 to work with a community of teenage girls to create a piece of work that would help reduce levels of teenage pregnancy (we politely refused the offer, although sadly not with the insight shown by Mark Murphy[14] who suggested in a workshop I attended that if he makes a piece of community based theatre work he wants people to be so caught up and excited by the process that he would rather there were more teenage pregnancies). But Excavate were not alone in having such a conversation. From the late nineties community artists found themselves confronting an ever more defined series of communities to which they were asked to ‘provide’ a service, communities that were nearly always defined by deficit, communities not of difference, but of similarity, at least within the definitions of the community that the artist was (and still is) invited to work with.

Whether this is regarded as art or as social work what is clear is that the relationship between the artist and the participant in such a relationship became one in which the process was meant to lead to some form of personal development which may be monitored for funding purposes. The community artist was offering a service, not only to the commissioning body that is working with them in an effort to alleviate some form of social issue, but also with the participants who were aware that they were involved in this work because of this social issue, and that as a result there could, perhaps should, be some individual benefit to this participation.

Training for the community artist became more about issues of care than about the art form. Government regulations insisted upon levels of disclosure and insurance creating subtle shifts of perception of the role of the artist. The funding requirements that allowed this work to happen, and which kept many community arts companies in the black, needed attendance figures and evaluation sheets which tended to ask participants what they had learnt from the process, if they had met new people, what they had most enjoyed by taking part. All of them questions about their individual relationship to the work at hand and rarely prompting debate of the potential for collective action as something that may evolve from this artistic engagement.

As Shannon Jackson has identified

systemic support for the arts paradoxically can use the arts as a vehicle for training citizens to seek ‘individual solutions to systemic problems’ to recall Ulrich Beck. Such artistic palliatives offer therapeutic rehabilitation, temporary pride, or imaginative escape in once-a-week artist visits that are not reciprocally empowered to re-imagine the political economic landscape of participants.[15]

Process and product, social engagement and artistic output, event and play, context and artwork, were all, in the original aims of the community arts movement, to be tied up in a chaotic but ultimately transformative experiment that the community artist was to traverse hand in hand with the community they worked in and alongside. But now, with what Claire Bishop describes as this ‘ethical turn’; judgement was increasingly confined to ‘the degree to which artists supply a good or bad model of collaboration – and to criticise them for any hint of potential exploitation that fails to ‘fully’ represent their subjects (as if such a thing were possible).’[16] Just as Matarasso was concerned that the trend ‘has been from radicalism to remedialism’[17] so Bishop can see this move leaving art entering ‘a realm of useful, ameliorative and ultimately modest gestures’.[18]

So what happened to the art? There is no doubt that community arts and community theatre, through their ongoing instrumentalisation, had found that the social impact of the work began to drive the methodology. And this work takes time: ‘What people often see is the tip of the iceberg. For every youth performance that people watch, what they don’t see is the hours of meetings that have gone on before this to make small but important changes to youth service provision to see that happening’.[19] The engagement with the specifically social, as a part of the work of community arts organisations had become increasingly time consuming, moving attention further and further away from the art that was being made. Discussions and debate about the actual work seemed to vanish. Which seemed to brush a rather problematic issue under the table. Because aesthetic quality, as any community artist is aware, ‘forms the most fraught core’ of many debates around the work. [20]

There are many reasons why questions of what is and what is not high quality have been troubling for the community arts movement. From whose standpoint are these judgements being made? If arts organisations begin to strive for artistic ‘quality’ then will they merely begin to mimic dominant forms of culture? And if it is the process of making the work that is seen as being what truly defines the ethos then does it really matter if the finished product is aesthetically efficacious? As the move from ‘community’ to ‘participation’ progressed; the social work that the arts was being asked to do escalated; the evaluation required of this work to prove impact expanded;  the individual’s experience as a ‘recipient’ of an artistic intervention became more important; so the actual debate about what was being made as art began to recede out of view.

But does this matter? If the work that is being made is for and with a very specific community, do we need to be so caught up in the debate about the quality of the artistic work? Maybe struggling with issues of participative democracy rather than artistic quality were the questions that needed to be untangled to allow community art and community theatre to thrive? But what of quality? Does it have to be the case that increased participation and a more democratic form of making work means that the work is less artistically potent?

It is certainly the case, as Bishop argues, that most community arts has ‘no secondary audience: it has no discursive framing nor an elaborated culture of reception to facilitate comparison and analysis with similar projects, because community art is not produced with such a critical audience in mind’.[21]  Except of course the audience with and for whom the work is made. Su Braden makes the point that this audience is one that may be ‘the last in line to respond to artistic innovations’ and that this therefore has the potential to lead to an artistic conservatism.[22]  Playing on Adorno’s question of ‘what do the people want?’ (as Bishop will go on to do) Braden realises the inherent irony of a question which whilst appearing democratic is offering nothing new. For it is only through the production process of making work that new means of expression can arrive. But for this to happen I would suggest that there needs to be a genuine exchange between artists and community in which, as in any exchange, both sets of voices are given equal weight.

[1] John Hughson and David Inglis, ‘”Creative Industries” and the Arts in Britain: Towards a “Third Way” in Cultural Policy?’, Cultural Policy 7/3 (2001) pp. 457 – 478 (p. 464).

[2] Hughson and Inglis, p. 462.

[3] DCMS, Lottery Grants Information [n.d] http://www.lottery.culture.gov.uk/Information.aspx  [accessed 26th March 2016].

[4] Louise Owen, ‘The Witness and the Replay’ in Performance and Community: Commentary and Case Studies ed. by Caoimhe McAvinchey (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) pp 155-187 (p. 169).

[5] Kelly, Owen, Community, Art and The State (London, Comedia, 1984 2001), p. 14.

[6] Kelly, p. 188.

[7] Francois Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”: The Depoliticisation of Community Art in Britain, 1970 – 2011 , in Community Arts Power: Essays from ICAF 2011 ed. by Eugene van Erven (Rotterdam, Rotterdams Wijktheater, 2013) pp.214 – 239 (p. 215).

[8] Francois Matarasso, Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts (Stroud: Commedia, 1997).

[9] Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”’ p. 216.

[10] Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”’ p. 225.

[11] http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/creative-people-and-places-fund

[12] Such as the Final Evaluation report for Right Up Our Street, written by Dr Leila Jancovich, Leeds Beckett University (as yet unpublished).

[13] http://www.salamanda-tandem.org/

[14] http://www.markmurphy.info/

[15] Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, (Oxon: Routledge, 2007) p. 27.

[16] Bishop, Claire, Artificial Hells Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorshop (London, Verso, 2012), p. 23.

[17] Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”’ p. 216.

[18] Bishop, p. 23.

[19] Interview with Kevin Ryan, Chief Executive Officer of Charnwood Arts, 22 March 2016.

[20] Bishop, p. 190.

[21] Bishop, p. 190.

[22] Braden, Su, Artists and People (London, Routledge, 1978), p. 72.

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