What happened to community art?

Words: Siavash Minoukadeh


In 1973, Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery unveiled the exhibition Towards a Common Language. In it, blank ‘works’ were installed above boxes of art materials with visitors asked to make the art themselves. Once finished, they could take their work or leave it on display. Despite being such a stark departure from the Walker’s usual grand exhibitions, the public were far from put off, and the exhibition received 3,475 visitors in the week that it was open.

Towards a Common Language was the first of a number of participatory exhibitions organized by the Black-E, a community art organisation operating out of a repurposed church close to Liverpool’s historic Black and Chinese communities. Its output was incredibly broad: a performance of an avant-garde piece by John Cage could be followed straight after by mothers’ bingo. What united all these activities was the Black-E’s belief that contemporary art should be accessible for everyone to make and consume. 

The Black-E was by no means the only organisation with this popular, democratising view. Similar projects had sprung up across the country by 1970. Though each project worked differently, they were united by a desire to, as a 1974 Arts Council report put it, make their communities ‘more aware of their situation and their own creative powers’. Street art and murals had been bringing art outside the gallery for decades, but community art wasn’t about showing art locally: it aimed to get communities involved in the production. Popular access to art – both its consumption and creation – was the movement’s goal.

42 years later, Liverpool saw another socially-engaged art project. The architecture collective Assemble had won the 2015 Turner Prize for their work with the local community redeveloping the Granby Four Streets in Toxteth, an area long associated with deprivation and crime. A project like this winning the most prestigious prize in British art suggested that community art was continuing to flourish into the 2010s.

Assemble, however, were not quite the democratising force they seemed. Predominantly Cambridge-educated and working from London, they were hardly locals. Indifferent to being labelled ‘artists’, they made no effort to credit the Toxteth locals as fellow artists either. The project was more an example of a community being used as a medium for art, rather than making art itself. Clever outsiders working with locals was not what community art had been about: the whole point had been to remove the distinction between ‘artists’ and ‘locals’. So why did a project much less radical than the community art of the past receive so much praise? 

The heyday of community art came when supporting art was entrenched as a duty of the state. A white paper in 1965 by Arts Minister Jennie Lee had called for the state, through the Arts Council, to bring artistic consumption and production into everyday life. Community art fit nicely into Lee’s plan, and so it thrived. Though the Arts Council was unprepared to handle the rapid proliferation of community art groups and struggled to define the movement or where it lay in the wider art world, it did have plenty of funds to give out, the most important factor in keeping community art going.

All that changed with Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979. Her view of ‘a get-up-and-go, instead of a sit-back-and-wait-for-it Britain’ began with a £1m cut to arts funding in her first year, and more followed: the new establishment felt that needing funding from the state simply meant you weren’t working hard enough. The material impact of the cuts was enormous, but the Thatcher years also damaged community art in a more deep-rooted way. 

With Thatcherism, art became a product, its value defined by how much money it could make – or according to Richard Luce, Thatcher’s arts minister, ‘whether we can attract customers’. By the 1990s, art’s most powerful players were mega-collectors and dealers like Charles Saatchi and White Cube’s Jay Jopling, Thatcher’s marketing man and the son of her minister for agriculture respectively. They hoovered up works, and with the media attention they drew and their large galleries open to the public, their influence ballooned. With some collectors even owning more gallery space than the gargantuan Tate Modern, public galleries struggled to compete. 1997 saw the Royal Academy’s Sensation show, made up entirely of works owned by Saatchi. The direction of the entire art world was now dictated by the market. 

For community artists, this went against the core of their practice. While the market seeks out individual artists to sell as brands, community art’s collaborative, inclusive nature rejects the importance of a single author. And then there’s the fact that community art literally cannot be sold in the same way as a painting or sculpture. With its inability to play nice with the market, community art was overlooked by the art world. Even today, there are just a handful of texts on the movement and even fewer critical art historical ones.

Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 appeared to signal a return to the glory days of the late 1960s, but while Blair made some improvements, he never subscribed to Lee’s belief in the right of popular access to art. His flagship policy of introducing free admission to galleries and museums was important but lacked the systemic critique of the 1960s and 70s. For community artists, these institutions were not just exclusionary because of their admission fees, but because of a wider culture that was unwelcoming to all but a quiet elite. Blair made no serious attempt to overhaul popular access to art – he simply made it cheaper for people to feel excluded and disempowered in institutions. 

There were some promising signs with end to the freeze on increased arts funding in 1998, but Blair was equally happy to reintroduce it in 2005. The money that did get to local organisations wasn’t simply given out, but determined by how a project would contribute to the government’s plans for ‘regeneration’. A 2009 report made the case for increased support for participatory art in policy terms, praising its ability to ‘address government priorities and provide cost-effective responses to what are sometimes seen as intractable social problems’. Art was not valuable in its own right, but as just another policy lever to be used in ‘problem’ areas alongside the likes of stop-and-search and ASBOs.

Thatcher had stripped funding for community art, Blair had used it for government aims – David Cameron’s coalition found a way to do both. Speaking in Liverpool, of all places, Cameron announced the Big Society, a loose set of buzzwords and scattered policies intended to bring about a local popular revolution. A government paper describes how the Big Society would ‘give communities more powers’ and ‘encourage people to take an active role in their communities’, which means nothing without any funding to enable them to do so. Cameron’s programme of austerity cut every part of the public sector and looked to volunteers to make up the difference. How he expected people in the midst of a recession to find time to volunteer at their community centre was never made clear, and the charities he wanted to step up faced a £1bn cut in grants.

With disposable income and free time, the middle classes had plenty of time for art, but in poorer areas more reliant on subsidised projects, art withered. What remained was not community-driven, but run at the whim of external creatives parachuted into an area. 

That brings us to Assemble. The glowing praise they received for doing something that 45 years ago would have seemed unremarkable in the face of far more inclusive projects demonstrates how community art has been watered down over the decades. Each government has had different strategies, but what the arts policies of the last 40 years have in common is their view of art as a luxury – something available to those who can afford it, or made available for those it can help socially. Jennie Lee’s view of art as a right guaranteed by the state left government with her, and sadly, community art will struggle to ever return without it.

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Siavash Minoukadeh is a freelance writer on culture and identity. Follow him on Twitter.