Conversations is a new series focusing on the interaction between artists and social environments.  It builds on an earlier blog by the Special Interest Group ‘Cultural Literacy and Social Futures’, linked to an Arts Council funded project on behalf of Clifton Park Museum, Rotherham entitled ‘Revealed Roots, Concealed Connections’:

The blog described how, in August 2021, British government’s policy on the function of museums had changed over the previous decade. Rather than viewing such institutions as essentially publicly funded with the objective of preserving archives of historic interest to be viewed by an indeterminate, metrically monitored visitor base, The National Museum Directors’ Council (NMDC) acknowledged the diverse character, size and relative national importance of the institutions for which they were responsible. Apart from promoting virtual access which would enable greater flexibility in the way artefacts were made available to a wider public, the NMDC’s 2021 report ‘Museums Matter’ stressed regional museums’ civic role as physical hubs. 

According to the report, museums were to become social centres which reflected the everyday lives of people in local neighbourhoods. They would reinforce their identity as active citizens by increasing their sense of belonging to mutually imagined spaces. They would cause people to think more deeply about the meaning of their daily existence in a way which would not simply increase their stock of knowledge but be self-fulfilling to people in practical terms as members of a wider community. In short, the 2021 NMDC report was urging museums to develop levels of cultural literacy amongst groups of different types and in so doing to promote shared understanding.

The NMDC report went on to say that smaller, municipally based, regional museums should be less dependent on public resources. Arts Council funds were being cut back. Museums should be more autonomous in their operations. They should involve the public more directly in exhibition design and curation. They should be more open, less static and inward looking, more demonstrative of the present as a dynamic reflection of the past through more creative, more activity-led access to their archives. Their physical spaces should be more readily accessible for hands-on activities which brought people together as memorable expressions of their day to day preoccupations. This policy initiative has since been vigorously followed through. As the Museums Association on behalf of The Esmé Foundation now puts it 

Overwhelmingly, our research has revealed a desire for a fundamental shift away from thinking of museology as strictly linked to place, space and assets, towards an emphasis on how these elements create meaningful and sustained interactions with people and communities.

Against a background of economic stringency, serious effort has since been made by The Museums Association and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to address a number of core questions. These questions have arisen in the wake of the pioneering work of François Matarasso[1] and the game-changing Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) report compiled in 2016 by Geoffrey Crossick and Patryzja Kaszynska[2]. How should local institutions go about enabling local people to realise creative potential they didn’t know they had to the benefit of the community as a whole? How should improvements in the quality of their life experience be satisfactorily assessed? Where does museums’ responsibility for promoting social change begin and end? What are the financial implications for smaller municipal institutions, borough councils and their related centres of learning if they are to meet the challenges just outlined? What should be the role of university-led research in making sense of the interrelationship between economic planning, demographics and the civic value of culture at the individual and collective levels? An inevitable tension continues to exist between economic priorities and civic well-being, one in which local government departments, developers and party political interests are pitted against each other at the expense of projects which are part of integrated, collaborative, and above all sustainable strategies. 

At the time of writing, the UK Department of State responsible for the funding of museums and galleries: The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) strongly emphasises technological development as a key element in the growth of the so-called ‘creative industries’

Interactive gaming and instantly communicable mediatised performance have become inexpensive, ready-made, creative vehicles in which individuals have control over their cultural output alongside existing archives. Museums, Galleries and other local cultural spaces represent accessible venues in which such outputs can be physically rehearsed and displayed as collaborative events. However, they demand technically trained personnel, appropriate equipment and new forms of curation if such products are to be supported to best advantage. While many might argue that they detract from the personal and social enrichment afforded by real life experience, the obvious compromise is to seek a creative combination between the two.

Stakeholders at every level are aware of the complexities and financial constraints involved. ‘Co-participation’ and ‘Engagement’ have become watchwords of policy initiatives governing funding by national agencies in the UK such as DCMS, the national Arts Councils, and UKRI, charitable organisations such as The Esmé Fairbairn CollectionThe Rowntree Foundation, and larger grant-awarding agencies such as The Leverhulme Trust.  Under the aegis of the recently established Centre for Cultural Value (CCV), guidelines have been posted which spell out in detail what makes for effective practice-led research carried out by universities in collaboration with local agencies:

At the level of national media, much is made of popular spectacle: choral singing, ballroom dancing and cookery competitions, gardening, and craft repair. Such immediately recognised manifestations of popular culture are complemented by fragmented on-line, mostly privately initiated networks funded by subscription which focus on reading, writing, music-making, drawing, photography, drama, dance, rambling and so on. Festive ‘events’ attract crowds. On the other hand, institutionally embedded, externally funded projects reach out to local communities on a more ambitious yet more focused and less expensive scale. Associations such as the Centre for Cultural Value, the National Council for Cultural and Academic Exchange, Cultural Literacy Everywhere and Liminal Space offer platforms featuring case studies for what is now a burgeoning field.

Notwithstanding these trends in academic and cultural policy, the incorporation of professional artists into local cultural projects continues to encounter serious obstacles.  Much space is given to top-down cultural agendas which have attracted global media as opposed to practical deas which emanate from local people themselves.  For the latter to have lasting leverage, it is normally necessary for artists working on commission to collaborate with members of the public. Their mission is typically to translate existing aspects of daily life into artefacts which literally take on iconic status and become part of the social and economic fabric. In this environment, ‘art’ is more than a pastime which fosters a sense of well-being. It is a catalyst where social practice itself becomes a work of art, one in which artists are themselves socially engaged and are given a key role as cultural coordinators by local political institutions. 

The purpose of this series of ‘conversations’ is to give voice to the experience of artists who have taken the initiative to co-ordinate collaborative work of the kind just described. The environments in which they have operated in the recent past are different, as are the types of activities which have emerged as potentially iconic. The nature of the collaboration differs too, as do the institutions with which the artists work. The main issues, however, are endemic: sustainability of impact, access to funding, internal political priorities, functionality of space, legitimacy of roles and relevance. It is to be hoped that the artists’ commentaries will shed further light on the potential dynamics and long-term outcomes of practice-led research.

Robert Crawshaw      

[1] François Matarasso A Restless Art (London: Gulbenkian Foundation, 2019) 

[2] Geoffrey Crossick & Patryzja Kaszynska Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture (London: AHRC, 2016)

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