Context

A Brief Literature Review

Understanding the value of the arts by way of other values
 

"funders do not 'subsidise' the arts. It's never a one-sided transaction in which one party gives

for no return; there is always a return, though it may not be immediately obvious or even

accrue to the original benefactor, and they may not expect it to. The return may be in terms

of the artistic experience, or the support of creativity and talent. Or there may be a clear

economic pay-back, the promotion of a company's commercial interests, or an interest in

supporting the life of the community. But there's no subsidy." (Henley, 2016)

 

Hammersmith United Charities is not the only funding body seeking an elucidation of the value of artistic activity for communities in need. Report after report (produced by the Arts Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council among others) continuously identifies guiding language, and does so predominantly by way of naming other values.

Darren Henley, the Chief Executive of the Arts Council, breaks down understanding return on investment into 7 dividends: ‘creativity, learning, feel-good, innovation, place-shaping, enterprise and reputation.’ Artplace America, an organisation that brings together numerous sectors to strengthen community development, recently produced a paper on housing and art by Danya Sherman that organises value in 6 ways, naming art’s capacity in this context to: ‘articulate, nourish, organise, bridge, stabilise and generate.’ (2016)

From numerous categorisations I have compiled a working list of some of these values below and suggest Jackson Pollack's Move It painting as an apt ‘pie chart’ to visualise the way these values overlap, blend and take shape together. 

Click on each button below to learn more about each value

 

Studio Practice
 

"Artists make their own work and engage with neighbors and residents as audience.” (ibid)

This type of practice is the most mainstream, well-traversed territory: going to see a play, a concert, a work of art in a museum, etc. The artist makes whatever he/she wants—the audience comes to view it.

Socially Engaged Practice


"Artists work with neighbors and residents on an artist-led vision in ways that may include research, process, and/or content creation with an intention of social impact outside traditional audience experience.” (ibid)

This is where a lot of participatory art sits. An artist comes in with an idea and the community helps him/her bring it to life. The content is often responsive or provoked by issues in the community.

Civic Practice

"CPCP introduced the term “civic practice” in 2012.  As distinguished from Social Practice, civic practice projects are co-designed with residents and/or community/municipal agencies and involve artists aiming their creative practice/assets at resident self-defined needs.” (ibid)

This practice grows from deep listening in the community first and then the vision for the project develops with all stakeholders and participants.

Understanding a spectrum of arts making processes
 

There is a long-standing competitive nature inscribed in defining art’s purpose. Aristotle who viewed (and criticized the arts) as escapist and pleasure-seeking was one of the early identifiers of 'art for art's sake.' Plato later reframed the purpose of the arts as 'instrumental'--designed to make people and society better. This binary is tired, in my opinion, and doesn’t really serve communities to decide that one in the end is better than the other.  As the recent Arts and Humanities Research Council's report on Cultural Value suggests, we can move past these conventional hierarchies of high vs. low brow, mainstream vs. outsider, and 'art for art's sake' vs. instrumental, and instead acknowledge that there are different kinds of art and different ways of making that serve different moments in time.​ (2016)

It is helpful to understand these different types of practice so that funders, artists and other collaborating stakeholders can consider how best to serve a particular time, people and place.  Michael Rohd, an American theatre practitioner, who runs the Center for Performance and Civic Practice (CPCP), articulates a spectrum with three types of artistic practice. (Rohd, M. 2017)

I find this spectrum useful, not as a way to box in and limit how and what art is made, or to suggest funders support only one type of practice when it comes to community arts initiatives. Rather, I think these definitions contribute helpful signposts as a way to understand who is making what for whom and why. Projects may not and need not always fit neatly into these categories, and may even move between them over the course of one project—but the naming of ‘intentions and processes’ gives shape to common ground.

 

Understanding the arts as activity and as strategy

When we consider the role of the arts, we are often considering what our experiences are with a final product--how a song expresses a particular emotion, how a mural triggers the regeneration process for a crime-ridden area, how the photograph gives light to the hitherto unseen. But artistic disciplines also offer a strategy, a process that can be applied beyond its own field.

 

How might we take an artistic or cultural approach to housing?

How might we take a choreographer’s strategy to neighborhood protection?

How could a painter or a ceramicist or an architect’s process lend insight into community development?

 

The answers could be found by way of engaging with artistic works. For example, doctors are taking art classes to ensure critical observations skills are not lost with the growing use of technology replacing the human eye in many diagnostics. (Sheet, 2016) But, the answers could also be found by way of understanding how an artist’s process could be applied to other processes. 

There is a growing trend to incorporate artists in cross-sector community development work. From housing to health care to city planning, artists are being called in to sit at the table and co-strategise. This tactic finds its roots in the Artist Placement Group (APG) founded in 1966 by Barbara Steveni and her husband John Latham. It “emerged from the idea that artists are a human resource underused by society …[who] would bring completely alternative ways of seeing and thinking to bear on the organisations they were placed in.’ (Tate) This notion is having a come-back (perhaps in response to austerity measures and the failure of singular approaches to solve numerous persistent problems) as many businesses look to the arts for creative thinking.

 

This isn’t to claim, however, that the artist knows best, just that their placement in the fold carries weight worth understanding.  As the cultural critic E.M. Forster wrote towards the end of World War II,  “many things, besides art, matter. It is merely one of the things that matter.” (Forster, 1942: 102). And artists as much as leaders of any sector, need to understand the contexts they are working in. As Grant Kester the American art historian notes, artists must pay attention to their middle positioning between funders and communities, and  “increase their knowledge of the broader political context in which they are operating and tone down their image as starry-eyed idealists" (cited Van Erwen, 2014: 135). 

 

As the charity considers its own strategies for participating in the development of Hammersmith it may question the role of arts activities for vulnerable communities as much as it may want to question how artistic approaches to community development impact their service on the whole—as a staff, as a funding body and as a local leading community organisation.

I will argue later in the findings section that the charity is already taking some artistic approaches and has been since its inception 400 years ago.