Susan Ashmore argues that, in the rush to engage with public agendas, we must be wary of losing what distinguishes the arts from other participatory activities.
I have been reading with interest Peter Hewitts recent Smith Institute lecture (which can be downloaded from Arts Council Englands website at www.artscouncil.org.uk). In it he proclaims how the arts need to be recognised both for the inherent personal value they deliver for citizens and for their contribution to other public agendas. How true! But how long have we, in the arts sector, been saying this?
The participatory arts have historically featured heavily in the public-sector agenda. The arts have been embraced by primary care trusts and recognised as an effective tool in improving the health of our nation. There has been a growing movement of arts work in hospitals and day surgeries for as long as I can remember. The Youth Justice Board has formed a strategic partnership with the Arts Council, and so on.
We know the values of workforce development through the arts, and of rehabilitation through the arts. I am invited to see many great programmes from gamalan in prisons, to new writing by offenders and ex-offenders. Some organisations in the sector are even set up and co-ordinated by people who have experienced the criminal justice system. My fear is that we will be driven to mainstream the arts to the point that they lose their uniqueness, flair and ability to stretch and expand ones mind.
Hewitt talks about how great arts experiences can be difficult to describe but you certainly know it when you come across one. This is an important element of many great forms: they can be difficult to capture, to pin down, to consolidate, but what comes from them is a profound sense of well-being, of uniqueness and joy.
However, let us not think of them as the easy option& Having facilitated performance workshops, Ive witnessed the difficulty people have in letting go and being free with their bodies and their minds. The arts should be challenging. The arts take people from their comfort zone to another place, a place where challenges are met whilst also, at times, fear of losing face can prevail. By mainstreaming this we will lose the very essence and freshness of a new person coming into our environment and challenging us and offering us a different perspective. It is important that we work alongside staff in prisons and the wider community to encourage their support of our work, but it is especially important that we dont dumb down.
During a recent meeting with a former Home Secretary, I impressed on him the benefits and diversity of the arts work that takes place in prisons and communities. Partly as a result of this, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) has adopted a draft strategy for the arts. This is exciting for many of the organisations that are working in the field. But what does it mean? Increased funding? Recognition and support? Or will it simply be a way of appeasing the organisations that carry out the work, making them feel little bit better about themselves?
Hewitt says that just as water is essential to survival. Culture is essential to living. I would add that culture is a basic human right and everyone should be able to access it whatever their location, status or mindset. I would challenge the Home Office to take forward the arts whilst maintaining a dialogue with the arts sector to ensure it retains its uniqueness.