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Many organisations seek to put community at the heart of their work. But Maddy Mills asks why is it important and what does it actually look like for day-to-day business?

Entelechy Arts Awayday
Entelechy Arts Awayday 2021

Ranjit Atwal

We all own Entelechy Arts, it’s not just one person. It’s a group thing, a team. It’s like we’re one big family. We can all take part.” Rosaline Muirhead, Entelechy Arts trustee.

During the interview for my job at Entelechy Arts, I asked why the role was changing from Artistic Director to simply Director. The clear response: “We want the artistic vision and decision making to be distributed across the organisation, held by everyone”. 

This was no doubt an inclusive and innovative company with the potential to challenge the way participatory art happens. So I’m now on a journey to explore how we can reorganise to shift from cultural participation to what we’re calling cultural ownership. 

Cultural participation has always been vital: no-one knows better what a local community needs than the people who live and spend time there. Cultural ownership takes this a step further, paying greater attention to finding practical ways of giving communities power and a voice at the core of the organisation. 

The door is always open

At Entelechy Arts we are a community of artists and change makers, unified by the same mission: to ensure everyone has the opportunity to be creative and contribute to their local creative community, regardless of barriers. Our programmes are created by and for the communities we work with - isolated older people, those living with disabilities, and those living in care home environments.

Entelechy Arts has always described itself as ‘participatory arts’, but I saw something much deeper. Communities owned the programmes in a way I’d rarely seen. People have been with us for decades and their families get involved. Members and artists come to our office to chat with staff, helping shape our thinking. 

There is loyalty, creativity, generosity and reciprocity in abundance. The door is always open. Those who collaborate with us are called ‘members’ rather than participants. The term ‘participant’ didn’t do justice to the relationships I saw, that I wanted to encourage. And, moreover, embedding communities in our work aligns with ACE’s Let’s Create strategy to encourage the sector to open up. 

The cultural engagement journey

A journey of cultural engagement has three stages: Audience – Participant - Member. There’s a wealth of research and innovation around the first two, but much still to explore on Members. It’s an exciting journey and we’re not alone; other creative organisations are thinking like this. We need to work together to find ways to distribute creative power to our communities.

But while it’s all very well to talk about distributed leadership and a company owned artistic role, what does it mean in practice? In particular for Entelechy Arts which co-creates with more than 25 artists and 60 community members? 

An example was when members of our Creative Ageing and Ambient Jam programmes joined the board, staff, artists and volunteers for this year’s away day. Together we wrote, improvised, played and temporarily shed our job titles to discuss key priorities for the future. 

In talking of distributed leadership, I don’t mean restructuring the business or looking at the role of governance – though of course there’s a valid conversation to be had there – but exploring the emergence of a more fluid and less bureaucratic operating model. A sort of John Lewis model for the arts which could reward our members for their time and commitment. 

But if we distribute artistic authority to community members, how do we recognise professionals for their ideas and artistic expertise? We must not devalue the skill, talent and expertise required to be a practicing artist and leader.

What else can we do?

We could rotate our artistic leadership. How would it be if our members were to curate a season and develop their own creative practice? Perhaps our programmes and artistic priorities should be democratically selected. Contact Theatre in Manchester has been working this way for many years, ensuring young people are at the core of their company – including on the board – contributing to artistic decision-making. 

Members also sit on interview panels and represent the company on industry panels. And we have overhauled our communications, so there is more clarity in the way we refer to members, celebrating their relationship to and authority within the company. We strive to ensure their valuable contribution to our programmes is properly recognised.

We would like to see a deeper understanding of this work reflected in the way funders and policy makers require us to evaluate our programmes. The evaluation reports we complete capture data about workforce, audiences, volunteers and participation, but the category for members is missing. Many funders are receptive to the idea.

More questions than answers

I am mindful that there has to be space for new people to join and not see us as a clique or ‘it’s not for me’. We must take people on the engagement journey - audience, participant, member - inviting them to join at different ‘points of entry’. The Culture Club in the Midlands Arts Centre has experience of this with some of its community members making the transition from participants to curators and artists. 

With bold re-imagining such as this, there is always a risk of misaligned expectations. To create meaningful cultural ownership, we need to set boundaries around what having a stake means and ensure robust and safe frameworks are in place to value and respect people’s contributions. Not only should there be clear policies and procedures in place, but there has to be particular clarity around expectations

There are more questions than answers at present, but that’s because it’s an important and exciting journey. As a sector, I want us to share ideas and work with funders and policy makers to support this embedded way of working with communities, in the evolution of participatory arts. 

Maddy Mills is Director of Entelechy Arts.

 @EntelechyArts | @maddyrosemills 

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