The importance of art participation in our communities
The late 1990s saw a development of social policies and a desire to use art to tackle socio-economic problems in blighted communities by the New Labour government. Alongside this was the beginnings of academic interest in the impacts and value of arts participation in the development of skills, well-being, civic pride and social capital amongst other things. Art for art’s sake is no longer an acceptable argument when competing for increasingly dwindling arts funds. Community engagement and social impacts of art projects are essential.
Art participation projects such as Turner Prize-winning Winter Garden by Assemble in Granby 4 Streets in Toxteth, SAFE Regeneration in Bootle and Metal’s Meanwhile Space in Edge Hill show that with determination, local residents can revitalise perceptions on their local communities and generate positive and sustainable new ones. The harsh socioeconomic issues of these areas can cause residents to lose their connection to their homes, themselves and others. While arts participation projects are limited in solving issues like addiction and unemployment they can help restore pride of self and social trust. These act as solid foundations for forming ‘have a go’ attitudes. Indeed many of the most successful projects such as these are formed and driven by proud local individuals or small groups who want to make a difference to their communities.
Properly planned urban arts participation projects can have huge benefits as long as they fully involve locals and consider their needs, characters, heritage, and identities. Arts organisations and individual artists can bring a level of funding, administration and organisational structure to communities that likely wasn’t present before. They can also raise the profile of the areas they work in and help legitimise community effort to outsiders.
Here are some of the main impacts I’ve witnessed in studying and working with arts participation projects in communities:
> Reanimation of the area and renewed hope for the future.
> Increased social mixing, linking and engagement.
> A renewed sense of place and pride.
> Lots of interested and engaged artists with bright visions of the local future.
> Power of green and plant spaces including therapeutic benefits of gardening.
> The increased business presence and returning businesses.
> Major sustained work initially by hard working determined local individuals.
> People in the community getting involved in activities that they would never have thought of before and meeting people they would never have met before or socialised with.
> Renewed confidence in themselves as individuals.
> Community ownership, involvement and leadership which can be in the form of community land trusts to fight gentrification.
> Creation of art that celebrated the diversity of the community.
> Stimulation of local stories from its past and hopes for the area’s future.
> Inspiring young people to use art as a creative outlet for refreshing ideas about their local area.
> And of course, creating cool art!
Social capital is about connections, networks and social interaction. It is fundamentally built on trust and reciprocity. Proponents of social capital argue that greater social bonding and connection leads to a healthier society and therefore a healthier economy and not the vice versa: that a healthy economy leads to a healthy society. Cities are not united places but are broken up into smaller communities with their own histories and identities. These should be recognised and respected however many people rarely visit or effectively communicate with these other city slices. This effects trust, social connections and therefore business. Art participation projects can help build these bonds to last beyond the scope of the projects in time and in geography, spreading trust to other urban areas.
The social hubs provided by many arts projects provide a warm and welcoming nest for social interaction and idea development. They are often friendly, inclusive and non-judgemental. They are spaces where people can feel comfortable being themselves and learn at their own pace. Through this, they can gain new skills with more confidence and weave this in with refreshed perceptions of themselves and each other. Through the acquisition of new skills and confidence, they can move into other social circles to enrich social capital. Engagement can be greatly improved with talks and activities across the generations of residents too. Young people may never have seen their area’s heyday but older generations have. Art participation activities can bring these generations closer together.