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An ArtsProfessional article in partnership with Creative People and Places banner

What makes socially engaged and participatory arts projects successful? Elizabeth Lynch and Miriam Nelken talked to artists, commissioners and participants to find out.

Portrait – people and places of the First Art area by David Severn and Kajal Nisha Patel
Portrait – people and places of the First Art area by David Severn and Kajal Nisha Patel

© Ralph Barklam

Over the last year we’ve been talking to many people and organisations involved in the Creative People and Places (CPP) programme about the most important factors influencing the success of socially engaged and participatory arts projects.

Below are some questions, answers and themes that emerged from our conversations, with quotes from artists, participants and the CPP team. These are useful thinking points for anyone involved in commissioning artists or in creating work with communities.

What do commissioners look for in artists?

CPP teams and participants place a high value on the quality of the artistic idea, the artist’s level of ambition and their curiosity and interest in learning from the place and its people. An artist’s willingness to exchange skills with participants is seen as a vital part of a commission’s legacy. Artists who are open and flexible are most likely to make resonant and relevant work. This is especially the case in longer-term projects where an artist might have to change track with their approach or plans.

CPP team: “To not come with a particular plan, or to come with an ability to let that go. A lack of ego really. That is when people truly respond and something actually quite magical happens.”

What do artists look for in commissioners?

Artists talked to us about the sense of freedom they had when working on CPP projects because the over-arching purpose was often the participation itself, rather than a particular instrumental agenda.

Artists like working with ‘fuller partners’ that invest in the process as well as the outcome. They also appreciate the benefits of an action research approach, the opportunity for reflection and the support of high-quality methodologies around participation and evaluation. This has given some artists working with CPP a strong framework to stretch and expand their approaches.

Artist: “At the end of the day they want and need a show that will then tour, but I felt like they were really invested in my process and how I was developing as an artist – and that’s amazing to have. A lot of companies just commission you and that is all that is important at the end of the day, but I never felt like that. Their project is growing, they have an eye on research and are continually reflecting on how it can impact their future work. And that openness to learning is really valuable.”

Artists like working with ‘fuller partners’ that invest in the process as well as the outcome

However, artists did flag the need for more attention to be paid to clarifying the roles of ‘commissioner’ and ‘artist’ and the relationships and responsibilities of each when drawing up contracts, as well as placing a financial value in budgets on the time that it takes to build relationships.

Artist: “We’d like to see depth and clarity around contracts, then building in legacies for the artwork and the continuing engagement. When drafting the commission, thinking properly about how long it should be… more realistically about how long it takes to build up relationships.”

Community commissioning panels

Many CPP projects commission artists to create new work through community panels. The artists describe it as charging them with a greater sense of responsibility to the projects.

Artist: “Normally as an artist you have to do a good show, but you don’t have that emotional social engagement where I felt quite rightly I had to prove myself to the local people who had chosen me.”

Members of community panels look for ambitious proposals that respond to the unique characteristics of their area and have the potential to leave a positive legacy. They quickly dismiss generic proposals that could be produced anywhere.

Community participant: “The best projects are the ones curated, designed and involving local people rather than things imported here that then disappear and leave no impact.”

Participants also talk powerfully about place, people and heritage and about how their input into the commissioning process can help ensure artist commissions shift frozen narratives about what heritage can mean.

Community participant: “The input we as a community had on the project was very important. We changed the original heritage focus to that of a forward-facing project. I think this decision alone changed massively the whole shape and understanding the artist had of the original idea.”

Good hosting

Many artists told us about the importance of being hosted by communities during their commissions and describe both positive and negative experiences of this. They define good hosting as being the responsibility of commissioners.

It should involve personal introductions, brokering of relationships, signposting to locations, finding ‘hubs of energy’, funded research and development periods, help with becoming visible within the community, framing to explain why the artist is there, sharing meals, providing spaces to make and rehearse in, and, in some cases, providing accommodation while they are in residence.

Talent development

We found that developing artists goes hand in hand with CPP’s mission of attracting new audiences and engaging more people in creative activity. It was also important to building a sustainable model for the future. Alongside specific skills-based professional development and training, much informal support is given. This includes signposting, mentoring and brokering partnerships within and between venues, artists, organisations and community groups.

CPP team: “Artists often come to CPP to learn how to work with non-arts organisations. We ask community groups to come in and support or scaffold around the artists.”

Choice of artists and diversity

CPP teams were frank with us about not always giving enough consideration to diversity when commissioning artists. Funders and partners require the reporting of diversity statistics about participants and audiences but not about commissioned artists. This can contribute to a lack of attention on which artists are – and are not – receiving commissions.

The commitment to investing in and developing local artists, or conversely the desire to commission artists with established reputations, can sometimes create a tension with the aspiration to represent England’s cultural diversity. CPP teams and artists identified strategies they could implement to address equality in commissioning artists, that are outlined in the report (see details below).

What about the art?

Finally, artists feel that not enough critical attention is given to the art itself, as compared to the process of its creation, and not enough attempt is made to archive or promote the value of the artwork beyond the end of the project.

Artist: “If there isn’t a place where you can get a sense of the actual artwork that’s come out of it, it’s hard to see what it is… It’s about shifting the understanding that there are artists and participants [co-creating].”

Issues around archiving and critical attention are connected to questions about where this practice sits in relation to the mainstream, its status and funding, and the provision of artists’ training and professional development.

How can we ensure that this important area of artistic practice, and the work created with communities, continues to flourish through education, advocacy, critical review and stable funding?

Elizabeth Lynch and Miriam Nelken are creative consultants, researchers and producers.

Read the full report on this research From Small Shifts to Profound Changes.

This article, written and contributed by Creative People and Places, is part of a series exploring ways in which we can all embed inclusive engagement practices in our work.

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Photo of Miriam Nelken