A Living Proposition

Between 2010 and 2017 we interviewed over 20 artists as part of the research for Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art. Over the next few months the blog will provide an opportunity to hear from some of them and Karen Merkel is our first guest blogger.

Karen Merkel

The world has turned since the 1970s, when I first became involved in Community Arts –community meant neighbourhood and then slowly began to mean ‘of interest’ too; a world where culture used only to mean ‘high arts’, and then began to embrace ‘popular’ and then further moved towards also meaning ideas, behaviour and identity. These shifts weren’t merely semantic, they opened previously closed worlds for the majority in the UK where arts and culture became more accessible (in every sense) and gradually equalities became an accepted norm (not by all), with legislation in place to underpin them. Most significant has been globalisation itself and with it, the digital revolution. Community now has multiple meanings, in many ways symbolising how so much has become connected and so much become atomised along this journey.

The mid 1980s saw members of the Association of Community Artists (ACA, the national community arts network) making active connections with ‘Cultural Organisers’ in the USA who were running the Alliance for Cultural Democracy. This was an important catalyst for our own thinking and we started to pull together A Manifesto for Cultural Democracy: Another Standard. Published by Comedia, we presented it at the national ACA conference in Sheffield in 1986, to mixed reviews! There was much that we had right – its main focus being to argue for access to production and distribution as the principle tenets necessary to achieve the aim of cultural democracy. However, we had all been too long in a state of opposition to years of government that was not interested in the idea of the ‘many voices’ that we were arguing for. This left the Manifesto somewhat short of propositions, and our timing was such that, almost as soon as the book was out, people began to have access to production and distribution anyway – we had become a digital world!

On the work front at Cultural Partnerships in London, we had become exasperated with trying to persuade BBC commissioners that audiences really would be interested to hear about ‘youth culture’ and so on and, when we were successful, of course we weren’t in control. We still wanted to see if we could make Cultural Democracy come to life ….

Chap 1.2 going against the grain

In the mid 1990s, together with one of my comrades from Cultural Partnerships, we sat down with our partners and friends from two large, and often troubled, housing estates in Hackney, north east London, to discuss what could we do together to raise people’s self esteem, particularly younger residents. More than anything, the tenants wanted for them to have the opportunity to share their views and voices, for others to hear and exchange ideas, and for them to learn some real skills.  This was the greatest partnership I ever was involved in and led to us starting a local Radio Station, SoundRadio, one of the first community radio stations to receive a full license from Ofcom to broadcast 24/7.

The most abiding memory I have of our first trial broadcast was how many people came to watch and stayed – and this was radio! They joined the contributors who were going in and out of the makeshift studios in the back of 2 unused Garages on one of the Estates and no-one would go away. Dozens and dozens of local organisations and individuals all wanted to be on air.  Even then, there were far fewer playschemes, adventure playgrounds, summer festivals and all the free community activities and public events that had the wonderful effect of celebrating communities, and raising issues – life had become much more private. We realised quite quickly that people simply missed meeting each other in public spaces. We learned that we weren’t running a radio station; we were running a non-stop community gathering that just happened to have live radio in its midst.

We achieved a great deal in four years. Most importantly, we designed and ran an accredited broadcast standard training course, run as ‘training for real’ for people living in and around the two estates to run all aspects of the broadcasting. We had ex-BBC studio managers and producers delivering the training, whilst we worked to build the programming – which needed to be varied, inclusive, entertaining, and make a big impact. We had a large team of volunteers – mostly producers from the BBC to Kiss FM, looking to make their own work. The local ‘pirates’ came and ran the night-time programming and we had a very big loyal audience, 25,000 regular listeners and a cross section of our target audiences. We called decision makers in and had people queuing up to grill them, City University’s broadcasting postgraduate course was in situ and provided community, local and national news on the hour, every hour. We had voices never usually heard, up and coming stand ups came and did slots (Phil Jupitus, the late and much-loved Linda Smith), musicians (Goldie) worked with young people to produce new sounds – it went on and on.  It was paid for from European Objective 2 funding along with commissions from local and health authorities, and other sponsors. After I had moved on, the station started to produce programming in community languages and went completely digital.

I see this now as a halcyon period. We had strident voices on air, original work – poetry, fiction, music of all kinds, cultural cookery, and taboos aired a-plenty. Mostly, people were simply proud to have their own sounds on air accompanied by loud laughter – proper Hackney style. Most importantly, it was a living proposition – it didn’t try to ‘prevent’ trouble, there was no need – SoundRadio was the action, it was a real example of cultural democracy, community arts for the end of one century and beginning of the next.


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The Dissenters

The rhetoric of dissent

During our research we were really struck by Clare Higney’s metaphor in her report on the links between community arts and the trade union movement, when she described the community artist as the awkward person ‘standing on the mat in front of the automatic doors – insisting that the door [keeps] opening’ (Higney 1985). Coincidentally, I’d just read comedian and activist Mark Thomas’ book where he describes dissent as ‘a rebuttal of the thin end of the wedge’ and ‘a simple way of saying, No, I do not accept this’ (Thomas 2015). I was also drawn to the writing of Robert L. Ivie who was writing about the difficulties of dissenting in the face of what seemed like monolithic public opinion following the attacks on the US in 2001, now known as 9/11. He described dissent as ‘a mainstay – not a luxury, a nuisance, or a malfunction of democratic governance’ and suggested that ‘without dissent, there is no democratic polity of adversaries and thus no politics, only forced unity and unmitigated enmity’ (Ivie 2005). Having carried out our research, considered the contributions of the other writers in the book, and spoken to a wide variety of people involved in the Community Arts Movement of the 1970s and early 1980s, we concluded that community artists are best thought of as dissenters.

Chap 12.2 Dissent

Dissent or Revolution? Illustration for the book by Jennifer Williams

Tactics of dissent – doing what you can with what you have

According to French philosopher De Creteau[i] strategy is available to those with power, while tactics are smaller scale actions carried out by those with less power against the strategies of those who are stronger than them. When we were reading the literature on community arts from the 1970s it appeared that American community activist Saul Alinsky had been influential in the development of community arts in the 1970s (Badder 1983). Alinsky writes that ‘tactics means doing what you can with what you have. Tactics are those consciously deliberate acts by which humans live with each other and deal with the world around them’ (Alinsky 1989). We thought of two examples of tactical approaches from our research – both using every-day, low-tech flashcards! The first one was described by Gerri in her previous blog where she described marching on the arts council with cards that demanded that they ‘fund the dandelions’. The second example of the tactics of dissent was told to us by Graham Marsden who worked at Telford Community Arts, described in this extract from the book.

‘Hearing that the Queen was visiting Telford in the early 1980s, Graham worked with a group of local women to make a composite image of placards that said ‘God Save the Queen’ on one side ‘all regal purple, beautifully lettered with a red, white and blue border’ which they held up as the queen’s car approached. As the car went past, they turned the cards to show the slogan ‘God Help Telford’s 1 in 5 jobless’. Both of these dissenting acts used rhetorical tactics to make their point: the ubiquity of an everyday weed juxtaposed with the decadent individualistic rose to draw attention to inherent unfairness of imbalanced support for different sorts of art; a piece of political opportunism designed to send a message, not just to the queen but to the media who the participants hoped would pick up on the story – which they did. The demonstration and final placard image being used to close coverage of the royal visit, and being shown on all three ITN news bulletins that day, with a combined viewing figure of 18 million.’

Critic Raymond Williams, who was a popular writer at that time (still is too – and quite right!), described the dissenter as a figure ‘who, though he cannot reverse the trends, keeps an alternative vision alive’ (Williams 1961). This seems a great way to look at the work that community artists carried out then and an equally valuable way to see the work of contemporary community artists, arts activists, socially engaged artists (add any other suitable terminology) today.

See the link below for details of the book.




Alinsky, Saul, D. 1989. Rules for Radicals (Vintage Books: New York).

Badder, Alan. 1983. “Alinsky Tactics.” In Friends and Allies. The report. Salisbury, April 22-4, 1983, 6. London: The Shelton Trust.

Higney, Clare. 1985. Not a Bed of Roses. Arts Development Officer in the Trade Union Movement (The Gulbenkian Foundation: London).

Ivie, Robert, L. 2005. ‘Democratic Dissent and the Trick of Rhetorical Technique’, Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies, 5: 276-93.

Thomas, Mark. 2015. 100 Acts of Minor Dissent (September Books).

Williams, Raymond. 1961. The Long Revolution (Pelican: London).


[i] Come on…I’m an academic – there has to be a French philosopher!

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Community Arts Illustrated

In at the deep end

An important feature of Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art (http://bloomsbury.com/uk/culture-democracy-and-the-right-to-make-art-9781474258357/) is the wonderful set of illustrations created for the book by Jennifer Williams, founder of the Centre for Creative Communities. The final chapter describes how Jennifer worked on these, paying close attention to the metaphors and other turns of speech used by the artists who were interviewed for this book to describe the early days of the Community Arts Movement. Alison Jeffers writes ‘The images that she has produced create a sense of familiarity, partly because they are based on phrases that readers might recognize. However, in illustrating them the metaphor behind them is revealed which generates a slightly jarring quality, asking the reader to reconsider the apparently familiar. Jennifer’s method of populating everyday recognizable backgrounds with slightly disquieting little human figures is a tactic which invites readers to shift their perspective by stopping to think about how to interpret these common phrases in relation to the ideas explored throughout the book’. ‘In at the Deep End’(above) reflects the sense that many artists had that they were experimenting with new ways of working and making different kinds of connections with communities, with varying degrees of success!

‘Funding the Dandelions’ (below) refers to an image from the Seventies which Gerri Moriarty describes as ‘coordinated by Martin Goodrich of Free Form Arts Trust, who drilled a number of Association for Community Arts members and supporters in a Chinese Placard demonstration on the pavement opposite 105 Piccadilly Gardens, the offices of ACGB (the then Arts Council of Great Britain)Each of us carried an individual placard, which fitted together to make a huge image; on one side, there was a profusion of golden dandelions surrounding a single rose, dripping poison and covered in thorns (a reference to limiting public funding to a small number of ‘centres of artistic excellence’). On the other side a slogan read ‘Never Mind the Roses, Fund the Dandelions’.

Fund the Dandelions

Watch out for next month’s blog, when Alison Jeffers will discuss one of the key conclusions of our research into the early days of the Community Arts Movement.

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Good News for 2017



Happy New Year!  And we can start it off with some good news!

‘Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art’, a book about the British Community Arts Movement, co-edited by Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty has now been completed. We expect it to be published, by Bloomsbury Methuen, in the summer of 2017.  it will first be available in hard back and as an e-book and eventually in paperback.

Over the next year, we hope to be able to give you a flavour of what the book contains. We’d love to hear from you if you are holding events, exhibitions or conferences that are linked to the history of community arts – for example, Junction Arts have just been celebrating 40 years of delivering fantastic arts work in the rural areas of East Midlands and are creating an archive for their work. Or you may be planning new projects or programmes for 2017 which you think have a strong connection to the kinds of politics and principles that were important to community artists.

Many of us think that it is more important than ever to argue for and work for cultural, social, and economic change. Let us know what you are planning; it would be great to make some new friends and allies in 2017!

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Live Well:Make Art

A group of health professionals, arts activists, academics and cultural producers in Greater Manchester have been discussing links between arts and health and whether connections between the two can be explored though the idea of social movements. Alan Higgins, the Director of Public Health in Oldham, recently reflected on the second meeting of this group in a blog for the RSA. Community artists and organisations have been prominently involved in what we hope will become this growing social movement and we thought readers would be interested to know more. Alan writes –

Live well: make art

At the core of this work is the conviction that people actively engaging in arts activity will benefit from it personally, will link with others in their community and be more capable of initiating change on their own terms.

Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the NHS has said: “social movements have the power to tap into the fabric of the country in way that the NHS might never be able to do”. It was no surprise that references to social movements also appeared in discussions on Greater Manchester Devolution. Greater Manchester Devolution

By July 2015, “Nurturing a Social Movement for Change” was one of the five major transformational programmes in the GM public health programme.
(GM Public Health Agreement.) We fretted over the right verb for that title. Social movements have to come from communities, they are self-sustaining, unpredictable and not something that we commission or seek to control. However nurturing suggests we have the ability to set the environment to generate and support social movements.

My association with community arts as a volunteer and a commissioner stretches about 30 years. In approaching health as a social movement, the community arts world offered a different way of thinking. No matter how enlightened a public health practitioner I like to think I am, my approach has been shaped by years of training and working in large public sector institutions. For work on health and social movements to be different input is needed from people who do not think like me or the people I usually talk to.

The first workshop was in November 2015. We invited artists and producers, academics, administrators and health professionals. We wanted to ask ‘What excites you about these ideas?’ and ‘If it went really well, what would it look like?’

The room was full of energy and enthusiastic about the contribution that the arts can play in stimulating change. Among other things we were in agreement that

• Arts can be a catalyst to stimulate outrage
• Arts can engage people in ways that are not accessible through other means and have the brass neck to speak of emotions and their importance to health, wellbeing and life – fall in love again, take joy in people, sing a song, be mindful in a gallery
• Arts can help with defining the right to public space and the right to health.

A second workshop followed as the number of interested people grew. Live Well:Make Art was the theme. Discussion focused on values and principles, using collective intelligence to create a vision and model for acting together. People volunteered to create three projects to test and develop our understanding of what arts based social movements for health, change and being active in your community might mean.

Mapping arts and health activity in Greater Manchester

Mapping arts and health activity in Greater Manchester

A selection of Tweets with the #Livewellmakeart captures the mood of the day:
• Walking up Oxford Road with a headful of ideas and a belly full of fire
• It is a very brave thing to do bringing people together to find the common goals, brilliant.
• What a most excellent and inspiring afternoon and dialogue

Analysis of social movements suggests that this work will experience conflicting motivations and high probability of fragmentation – it will be unpredictable, there may be conflict and it might fall apart.

We recognise the uncertainty of what we are doing but take assurance from knowing that changing systems is not quick or easy. This may or may not inspire social movements as we hope but there is something worth reaching for and creative possibilities in the attempt to reach it.

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Fighting Talk -the story of the Craigmillar Film Society

There are days when even the most enthusiastic arts activist can feel uninspired. If you’re having one of those days – even if you’re not having one of those days – I’d recommend spending 15 minutes watching this great film by Plum Films https://vimeo.com/52005912.  ‘Arts the Catalyst: The Craigmillar Story’  tells the story of the Craigmillar Festival Society (1962 – 2002).  Craigmillar is a large estate in Edinburgh whose residents demonstrated just what can happen when creativity is released in a community. The film won the Saltire Award for best documentary at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Andrew Crummy, son of Helen Crummy, who was one of the people at the centre of the development of the Festival Society, is writing a chapter for our book ‘Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art’.

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The art of hospitality

Over the last year Alison has been working on a research project with three refugee organisations in Bristol – Bristol Hospitality Network, Dignity of Asylum Seekers and Barton Hill Walled Garden. Alison, Emily Cuming from the University of Leeds and Naomi Millner from the University of Bristol made up the academic team. The project was funded through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities scheme which means that academics work in partnership with community groups to co-produce ‘new knowledge’. For us this has meant working with the staff, volunteers and participants of these organisations on a series of arts-based workshops to explore ideas about hospitality – What is it? How does it differ between cultures and from place to place? What does it mean to offer hospitality and to receive it? What is the relationship between hosts and guests? Is hospitality always positive? What power relationships might be found in hospitable encounters?

With Gerri’s help co-facilitating the initial stage of the project we planned five Table Workshops which involved working with artists Rhiannon White, Oday Alkhalidi and Deborah Aguirre Jones. Rhiannon and Oday ran two drama workshops and Deborah focused on visual art and making temporary objects and environments. These workshops culminated in a Feast weekend away in the beautiful seaside town of Coombe Martin in Devon. Here we discussed what we’d done and planned how to share this work. We’ve made a booklet and a film and these were launched at a public event in Bristol in January when we also displayed the beautiful pots that participants had made with artist Lou Gilbert Scott.

We thought you’d like to see the film and if you would like a copy of the booklet do let us know. Emily, Naomi and I will be talking about the work at conferences this year and we will also write an academic article.



Literature and Resources list This is a link to books, films, projects and other resources that we gathered during the project. We see this as an on-going resource for anyone who is interested in working through the arts with refugees and asylum seekers.

This project has made me think about how we frame knowledge and the things we find out. One of the discoveries of our research into the community arts movement of the 1970s was a certain mistrust of academic work. It was a pragmatic movement on the whole with little time for theories – these just seemed to slow things down and produce a sense of inertia when there was so much to be done. It wasn’t that community artists didn’t think deeply about their work and what they were trying to do – quite the opposite: just reading old copies of the community arts magazine Another Standard published by the Shelton Trust soon shows that. But there’s no doubt that academic research works at a different pace and sometimes different ways of knowing do bash up against each other, helpfully or not. It would be very easy to criticise schemes like Connected Communities for appearing to suddenly wake up to a way of working that community artists have carried out for many years. But that would be unhelpful because it ignores the potential of research with community groups to create the possibility of discovering new things and new ways of working, and for academic research to speak far beyond its usual boundaries.

What do you think?

We hope you enjoy the film and, as ever, would love to hear your comments.

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