Our Team has changed its name from Walsall Council Community Arts Team, reflecting our belief that the term no longer defined all that we do...
We have grown to become a development team of 11 staff based in Walsall Council who all have roots as experienced community arts practitioners. Our role is to be a catalyst in finding the opportunities where the arts and creativity can have a role in making positive change. We identify partners, funders, art workers and participants to make a project happen, and project manage to ensure that the project keeps to track; that it has the desired outcomes; maximises the potential for the project and celebrates the process and the product. All projects are unique. No art forms are promoted as such, art forms are identified to suit the needs of a project or from proposals submitted for projects.
As Walsall Community Arts Team we always had to qualify our particular definition of Community Arts, which was 'using participatory arts and creative processes as a tool for change'. This interpretation of community arts was developed in the early days of the team over 15 years ago. Then the work was neighbourhood based - over the years the work has taken us to very different territories and we have asked ourselves over and over again: are we still being true to our team's original values and how do we explain what we do?
In the early days of the development of community arts as a movement, activism and experimentation was at the core. It involved community plays, community printing projects, banner making and local festivals. For local communities this work went some way towards promoting pride and cohesion: it was local led and a voice for local people. It gave a creative outlet for the activism of the time and firmly established the foundation that everyone has a right to, and can, dance/draw/act/write/play and promote the power of the collective expression.
In the '80s and '90s we looked for recognition from the established arts world, tired of being treated as the poor cousins in the arts. In turn the Arts Council eventually went through fundamental changes, firstly embracing business and science, later education and has most recently has championed Arts and Health.
For Walsall Community Arts Team the work focussed on inclusion and local democracy: prioritising work with local people who had no access to the arts and whose voice was least heard; encouraging activism via raising local issues; practising making decisions and finding local solutions; bringing in professional arts workers to widen horizons and expectations, and share skills to aid collective art work.
Meanwhile there has quietly been a slowly emerging 'professionalisation' of the arts worker role. There are now specific degree courses in community arts and Criminal Records Bureau checks are mandatory to work with children or vulnerable adults. So a freelance artist and arts companies must be more structured and professionally organised and the work has diversified beyond recognition.
We need new definitions...
This is an attempt at a quick but by no means comprehensive list of the types of work that could come under the banner of community arts.
This first list is what had traditionally been used to identify participatory arts in the community:
clubs, societies, academies, adult ed classes, social dance
voluntary sector agencies and dance and theatre companies
Arts in the community:
bringing arts opportunities to local communities; this may involve arts form development e.g. projects developing and increasing dance opportunities
Artists working in the community:
artist led projects where the artist uses the inspiration and contribution from the local community for their work. Also Artists Residencies
in a variety of community settings
Bringing arts to the community:
especially the classics - ballet and Shakespeare to the estates
arts and performers involving local people in public spaces
This second list is our newer terminology for the work we undertake in Walsall, embracing creativity (in the community) for change, and using the arts as a tool:
Arts and community cohesion:
safety and crime reduction, intergenerational work, cultural awareness and anti racist work
Arts into training and education:
to help with basic skills, IT skills and personal development, to help with early years and parenting work
Consultation using the arts:
using the arts as a method of consultation instead of clip board surveys. The results will be more in depth and give real stories that help organisations see the need for change
Arts into health:
public health campaigns, health settings, health and social issues for schools in the Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) curriculum
Arts and Regeneration/Local involvement in Public Art:
planning for real, local people having a say on the design and physical regeneration of their locality including but not exclusively art features
Arts and disability:
a movement proud of its tag that helps to give voice - a world away from craft-based occupational activity or 'music and movement' of the day care centres.
The Team's work has become more issue led, more specific, innovative and more risky. The risk is two fold; one in making sure the arts can be an effective tool, and two in encouraging the commissioners to take the risk to use a new, more innovative, application for their work.
In turn developers and practitioners need to be clearer about the work they are doing, embrace the new possibilities for the work, adjust their aims for outcomes and most importantly develop creative ways of evaluating the work to prove its worth.
We still think we promote pride and community cohesion - all our projects are planned with the participants, thereby giving a voice to the participants involved in how a project develops and the final outcome. As for activism, we hope that being involved in one of our projects empowers people, inspires lifelong learning, and gives them the confidence to tackle other issues in life. Through the expansion of the work we have come into contact with thousands more local people, most of whom will have had their first go at an art skill thereby increasing the 'I can' culture.
Have we left behind community led neighbourhood work? We hope not, but are finding it harder to fund as the development of this work is labour intensive. For survival and growth our team has needed to look for new local and regional funders for the arts, and we have found our role to be brokers between the funded organisations with clearly-defined targets, the communities they seek to engage, and the arts workers with the skills to deliver creative solutions.
Outside the arts world the word is spreading, with creativity and innovation being embraced more and more to help with an inclusive approach to change, for example;
- Local authorities putting 'arts at the heart', seeing the role the creative processes have to play in delivering the local council agenda
- Institutions adopting the same basic principles of our work for organisational change.
Our Team's name change from Walsall Community Arts Team to Walsall Creative Development Team reflects the fact that 'community arts' no longer describes the range of work we undertake, and is a more generic title that we hope suggests a more open application for the creative approach.
We will still have to qualify our new definition with examples of work that we do, but as the work matures, develops and mainstreams across the country the terminology will hopefully become more established.
Community arts as a term is not redundant but has grown up and needs a range of qualifying definitions. It certainly does not describe the range of new applications for creativity and the arts we are using in Walsall.
Deb Slade is Walsall Council Creative Development Team Manager and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org