‘Where have we come from?’ Community Arts to Contemporary Practice

ArtWorks Platform Seminar Series

Platform 1

‘Where have we come from?’ Community Arts to Contemporary Practice

As part of the first in the Platform series of discussions for ArtWorks

Gerri Moriarty, community artist and arts consultant, and Dr. Alison Jeffers, Lecturer at the University of Manchester, gave this talk on Wednesday 27 February, 2013 at The University of Manchester. This is the text of the presentation by Alison Jeffers (AJ) and Gerri Moriarty (GM).

AJ:    Thank you for coming. This talk emerges from a piece of research that Gerri and I are carrying out. It’s in its very early stages and after an introduction we’ll talk about some of the findings about the artistic and political influences on the community arts movement focusing mostly on the 1970s when it emerged in England.

My colleague James Thompson talks about how research often emanates from an ‘itch’, a moment of incongruence, even annoyance; it’s the moment when you think ’hang on a minute, I’m not sure that’s the case; really? that’s not my experience; that’s not how I’ve found it.’ So it is with this research. When I started to research refugee arts for the In Place of War research project it was under the banner of applied theatre but what I saw, when I started to look at the practice that was taking place, was what I would have called community arts based on my experience of working in community arts for most of the 1980s.

Later I got a job at the University of Manchester as a lecturer in Applied Theatre partly as a result of my experience of working with community groups before my move into education. The discourses and practices of applied theatre were very new to me and my feelings of inadequacy might have been reduced by an understanding that applied theatre took one of its antecedents as the community arts movement: but I looked in vain for that understanding in accounts of the roots of applied theatre.

The final (itchy) straw was when a colleague asked me whether community arts could really be called a movement. To me it was self-evident that there had been a community arts movement but, other than being emphatic about this, there was little evidence that I could point to to prove it. So we come back to the itch, the annoyance, the sense that that’s not how I’ve found it, and this research project started to develop.

GM:  If Alison describes her starting point as an ‘itch’, I think my starting point, as someone who would describe herself as a community artist (amongst other things) was more emotional. I was frustrated, I was angry and I was proud – probably in equal measure. I was frustrated by what I felt the kind of benign amnesia which Alison found in Applied Theatre, but is certainly not unique to it, was leading to – cultural practitioners who knew little or nothing about the story of community arts and who, in consequence, were inclined to describe practice as ‘ground- breaking’ or ‘innovative’ when it was covering very old ground, sometimes rather poorly.  I was made angry by what I regarded by much more malign attempts to dismiss community arts – ‘all about process, no attention to product’,  ‘ second-rate art’, ‘social engineering’; comments that were often made by people with very little direct experience of  a wide range of community arts practice (the first-rate and second-rate exist in all kinds of arts practices, after all) or by people who one might suspect of having an ideological motivation (community arts did not support  the kind of social engineering they preferred). And I was proud – proud of my own contribution to the development of community arts practice in the UK and proud to be associated with many other arts practitioners, social activists and community arts participants, some of whom I hope we will be able to reference through our research and in our writing.

AJ:    It was clear that desk based research was only going to get us so far. Once you have acknowledged that you are looking at a history that has been obscured and under-written you have to find other sources and for us that meant talking to some of the people who had initiated the community arts movement in the 1960s and 1970s. We set up a series of semi-structured interviews in locations to suit the artist which was often their home or current place of work. We selected these artists because they were key players in the setting up and developing of community arts, because they were accessible to us often through Gerri as a trusted gatekeeper, and partly to try and get a sense of geographical spread. This is a list of people we have spoken to so far, their role in the 1970s and a suggestion of what they are doing currently.

Then… Now… location
Gerri Moriarty community artist in Birmingham,Devon and Derbyshire Community artists andfreelance arts consultant My house in Manchester
Liz Mayne The second Community Arts Officer at North West Arts Psychotherapeutic councillor My house in Manchester
Julian Dunn Community artist in Birmingham and Blackburn retired Julian’s house in Manchester
Cilla Baynes Community artist in London and Manchester Community artist in Manchester Community Arts North West, Manchester
Graham Marsden Community Artist in Telford Freelance artist Graham’s house in Bolton
Karen Merkel Community Artist in London Senior Director and manager in arts and media Phone interview
Stephen Lacey Community Artist in Birmingham Senior lecturer in TV and film in Wales Steve’s office in University of Glamorgan
Claire Higney Director of Salisbury Arts, Arts Development Officer, Northampton Freelance advisor on community involvement in arts projects, currently working with  NVA in Scotland Claire’s house
Steve Trow Community artist in Birmingham Freelance arts consultant The Public in Sandwell
Nigel Leach Community artist retired Nigel’s house in Worcester

What has emerged for these interviews has been fascinating and we can only represent a small part of it here. The main points that emerged for me were that

  • All the artists we spoke to were trained in their fields having been to art or drama school or having done degrees in drama, theatre or similar arts subjects
  • Everyone expressed a frustration with the way in which the arts at the time were organised and promoted especially when public money was involved
  • Everyone felt a sense of sadness that the work had not been more thoroughly documented or had been inadequately archived
  • Many pointed to the failure to keep the Association of Community Artists (ACA) running as part of the reason that a national movement was never fully achieved and I’ll come back to this at the end.

What has emerged for me overall is a constant oscillation between the micro and the macro; the interplay between small local gestures and the bigger national picture; the way in which personal relationships impacted on organisations and the work and ultimately on the level of national organisation; the passion with which the subjects of the interviews spoke of the work they were involved in in the 1970s and the ways in which they have carried that passion on into their present work.

This move between the micro and the macro works too in the dialogic nature of the research methodology: Gerri and I are foregrounding the notion of a dialogue between theory and practice, between the voice of the academic and the voice of the practitioner. This suggests a neat two-way dialogue between the approaches we represent. However, the power dynamic behind who gets to say what’s micro and what’s macro is very interesting to observe and I watch with interest my desire to shape this story within an academic frame and the strategies I invent to maintain the macro-ness of the academic voice by creating structures, overarching theories and narrative through lines in an effort to tame or neaten the edges of the micro-ness of the practice.

GM:  Alison and I are experimenting with an approach which we’ve affectionately – and some may feel appropriately called – ‘Where’s Wally?’  Whilst Alison will have a more objective eye, drawing on bodies of theory, contextualising and comparing, my writing will be more subjective and anecdotal What was I doing, what were my networks of colleagues doing at significant points in the narrative of community arts, what factors were influencing our decisions? I would hope this will also allow us to occasionally introducing a slightly less serious note into proceedings! So what you will be hearing to-night, will be some of the early ‘Where’s Wally’ musings. I’m going to focus on a short and intense period of time – 1968-1973 and I’ll be looking at just one small node in the ‘map of community arts’ of the period – the University of Birmingham. But I will be referencing other important elements that made up that map, drawing in part on information we have been gathering in our interviews with other community arts practitioners.

I begin, however, not in Birmingham, but in Paris. It’s 1969. I am 16 years old. I’m a year late for les évènements of May 1968, when student protest and worker strikes had almost brought down de Gaulle’s government and had sent ripples of unrest and re-alignment around the world.  My own revolution, however, is about to begin.

I’m standing in a shabby corridor in the then working class area of Laumières in North Paris, waiting to be assigned a dormitory by the warden, Ahmed. Although I don’t know it, I’m standing on the brink of some of the most formative days of my life. Young people from all nationalities, working for every kind of liberation, have gravitated to this small hostel. There are Algerians, Tunisians, Bretons, Basques, French, Irish – all talking together till 4 or 5 every morning, fuelled by copious amounts of cheap red wine.  We all believe that the world is about to change and that we can somehow play a part in making that change happen. I had been brought up in a society in Northern Ireland that was sectarian, patriarchal, hierarchical and intolerant of difference. For me, 16 years old and extremely naïve, those few summer days in Paris were the beginning of being able to make sense of and to find language for a whole range of felt experiences and first-hand observations of social injustice.

So when a year later, in 1970, I arrived at Birmingham University to study English and Drama, I still knew very little about anything, but I was fired up with a desire to learn, so I could be of use  in the world. I’m going to be focussing what I say this evening on that period at Birmingham University – on some of the influences on students who were there in the early 70s’, students who went on to set up and develop organisations like Telford Community Arts, Jubilee Community Arts and (in my case) Beaford Centre Community Arts in Devon and High Peak Community Arts in Derbyshire.  I want to draw attention to some of the important intellectual and pragmatic influences we were exposed to at that university and how I think these played a part in influencing our early work.

The first of these influences was Clive Barker, the highly regarded author of ‘Theatre Games’ and lecturer in Birmingham University Drama Department.  Although Clive had developed and taught a system of actor training which I would later find useful when working as a community theatre director, I was probably more inspired by his constant reminder to us that the UK had an important radical theatre tradition. He had been involved in Arnold Wesker’s experimental Centre 42 at the Roundhouse and also with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop so his sense of the critical social purpose of the arts, and especially of theatre, was very strong.  In interviews with community artists for this early chapter of the book, several situate themselves within traditions of left wing artistic practice. For example, both Karen Merkel, who worked at Freeform Arts Trust and I reference the influence of the work of Berthold Brecht, Graham Marsden, who worked at Telford Community Arts, began his training with Philip Hedley, who had worked with Joan Littlewood, and talks about the influence of Charlie Parker’s Radio Ballads, Cilla Baynes, a founder member of Community Arts Workshop here in the North West, talks about being inspired by Anna Scher’s theatre work in North London. The point I want to make here is that early community arts practitioners were very conscious of drawing on radical arts history and of using this history both as inspiration and practical source of information. We did not suffer from collective amnesia.

AJ:    Gerri has mentioned two creative initiatives from the period, Arnold  Wesker’s Centre 42 and Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palaces. Neither of these was a community arts initiative but I will use them here as emblematic of two contrasting approaches to art: Centre 42, I suggest, is a good example of the urge to democratise culture, to make ‘good art’ in particular available to all. Littlewood’s Fun Palaces on the other hand could be said to represent cultural democracy where the question is not one of access to culture but one which questions the very notion of culture and asks who makes it and for what ends.

In brief, Wesker is a well-known left wing playwright and was one of the group of playwrights who became collectively labelled as ‘angry young men’. Centre 42 began with the passing of an extraordinary T.U.C. resolution in 1960 calling for an enquiry into the state of the arts. The resolution was number 42 on the agenda, hence Centre 42. In response a number of writers, theatre directors and others involved in the arts said to the Trade Union Movement ‘if you are interested in the arts we will set up an arts organisation of which you can take advantage for your members’. They identified a building, The Roundhouse at Chalk Farm, and Wesker was made the first artistic director. His impulse to make great culture available to the masses might best be summarised in a comment from his blog. “CENTRE 42 was born in 1961 with the aim of finding a popular audience for the arts, NOT an audience for popular art as was its frequently mistaken description.” Centre 42 was described in the New Statesman in 1964 as having an aura of ‘a cultural soup kitchen for the under-privileged, [with] hand-outs of free art for those “unlucky” enough to escape a grammar school education’(Holdsworth, 2011).

As an example of something closer to what we might call ‘cultural democracy’ Littlewood envisaged what she called a university of the streets or a laboratory of pleasure. She was concerned to erode the borders between everyday life and theatre, work and play, observation and participation. The Fun Palace was going to be set in a working class area of East London and the local people would get to define what they did in the space. According to Littlewood art was all about triggering the imagination, free and unstructured and open to all. She talked about giving people a chance to activate their own lives.

‘In London we are going to create a university of the streets…The Fun Arcade will be full of games…the wandering scholars of the future can dispute till dawn…an acting area will afford the therapy of theatre for everyone: men and women from factories, shops and offices will be able to re-enact incidents from their own experience, wake to a critical awareness of reality’ (Littlewood, 1994).

This pull between the democratisation of culture and what became known as cultural democracy had a great deal of traction in the early days of community arts. It’s fair to say, I think, that the majority of artists that we spoke to had, and continue to have, a firm belief in cultural democracy even if not always the political rhetoric that often accompanied it. However, community artist Owen Kelly who worked in London was very scathing about the liberal tendencies that he saw in a lot of community arts which might not live up to his expectations of cultural democracy. In 1984 he wrote Community, Art and the State in which he said ‘the history of community arts is the history of a movement of naïve, but energetic activism which, bereft of analysis, drifted into the arms of those groups it set out to oppose’. Community arts had become addicted to funding, he argued, and would do anything to get the next fix. I’ll come back to this in more detail in a moment.

Just to say here that for Kelly the problem with the democratisation of culture is that it involved a small group of people setting up a kind of cultural canon to which everyone should aspire and through which everyone can gain pleasure and knowledge. Kelly calls this ‘secondary knowledge’ however and suggests that consuming the culture of other people (especially a small culturally elite) can never take the place of active participation in the making of culture. Many in the community arts movement believed in the act of putting the means of cultural production into the hands of those who did not normally have access to them. If that sounds Marxist that’s because it was: for many community arts was a revolutionary movement which believed in the emancipation of working people. The only community arts company that Kelly was prepared to back publically in his book was Telford Community Arts run by Graham Woodruff and Cathy Mackerras which brings us back to Wally…!!!

GM:  The second key influence in my development as a community arts practitioner was Graham Woodruff and indeed, I worked, for a very short period of time, at Telford Community Arts. When I met Graham, he was Head of the Drama Department at Birmingham University and was in the process of giving up that well paid sinecure to set up a small, radical arts organisation in a New Town, Telford. I had never heard of ‘community arts’; in my final under-graduate year, Graham set up an optional course to enable students to study this emergent practice and I was immediately hooked.

Graham was a stimulating, provocative, demanding and challenging thinker. A deceptively simple essay question ‘Community Arts: Celebration or Confrontation?’ forced us to interrogate all our youthful assumptions – Graham denies this story by the way, but my memory is that he went out of the way to praise my earnest response to this essay question and then awarded me a B-.  But Kathy Mackerras (another Birmingham University student) and Graham were not just thinking, were not just talking, they were taking direct cultural action. I learned a great deal about the very practical challenges of setting up a new organisation – from how to get your local council on your side to lobbying the Arts Council and the Regional Arts Association – from being a tiny fly on the wall as they set up Telford Community Arts. Graham also taught me what I was not. I learned a huge amount from his Marxist analysis, but I could not be as dogmatic, as hard-line as he could often be. At least, that was how I understood it then – it was only many years later that I began to understand that my interest in community lay in how people with different, sometimes clashing shades of opinion, could work together to create art collectively and take meaningful action collectively; for me, disenfranchisement was not just about class. Less kind observers might say I was exactly the kind of the clueless liberal wimp Owen Kelly was talking about.

Wherever individuals and organisations positioned themselves politically, however, it is true that most – I don’t want to say all in case you might be able to provide an exception (it would be really interesting if you could!) – community arts workers saw themselves as on and of the left. This greatly influenced who we chose to work with or who chose to work with us in those early years. Steve Lacey and Steve Trow, who founded Jubilee Community Arts, talk of work with Tenants’ Associations on campaigns against poor housing conditions. Clare Higney recalls that the first banner she ever made was for the People’s March for Jobs, in Barnstaple in North Devon. I was working with local residents on demanding and then developing a community centre on a council estate that had been built with no communal facilities.

Graham Marsden illustrates the improvisatory nature of a lot of early work thus:

I think one of the best pieces of work that I did was pure opportunism. In the late 1970s the Queen was coming to visit Telford to open the next instalment of Telford town centre and Graham came back from a meeting with the trades council one night because we were always desperate to align ourselves with the trades council and stuff and he said, I’ve managed to get some people, we want to do a protest at the Queen’s visit can you do something?  So there were a few people – some die hard trade unionists who always preferred having meetings to actually doing something, but we got them in and some, it was a couple of women off the estate I thought maybe what we could do is, is flash cards. On one side of the flashcards, where we all made up a picture and we would have these flashcards on one of the approach roads to the town centre. And as she came past the flashcard on one side said welcome to Telford, that was it, and it was all in purple sort of regal purple, beautifully lettered and with a red and white and blue border and as she came past it turned over to (A picture of a) dole queue, ….where unemployment is 1in5. The really great thing was that we sent out a press release and ITN picked up on it. (The producer) phoned me and she said, we’d like to film this demonstration you’re going to be doing, can you be there at 8 o clock in the morning?  The Queen’s arriving at half past 10.  I’ve got to film it at 8 o’clock and then we’ve got to pack all the equipment and be in the town centre you see.  So I had to get everybody to agree – and that’s another thing – getting all those people to operate the flashcards and everyone saying, I can’t do that Graham I’ve got to do this and got to do that.  So I got all the people and I’m thinking will they turn up will they turn up?  So we were all on the hillside it was really cold and we’d all rehearsed.  The police were at the bottom.  We were the only people there because everybody else was in the town centre quarter of a mile away.  And then the film crew arrived and they filmed it all and they disappeared and we waited for another hour or two then the Queen came past and she did actually turn in that direction ‘cos some people called her, oi, your Majesty, and we turned the flashcards over so we thought, great well that’s that.  So that dinnertime, race in, turn on the TV and it must have been a slack news day because they covered the Queen’s visit and it showed all of this and I thought oh they’re not going to do it.  It goes all the way through and then the closing shots were of the flashcards – they just closed on that, so it finished with this image on this item. Then it was on the 6 o’clock news and on the news at 10.  And I rang up ITN and I said, can you give me the figures for those 3 news slots on that day. There were 1.5 million saw it on the lunchtime news, a further 5 million (saw it in the evening).


An important question for us then could be expressed very simply – ‘Whose Side Are You On?’   I’d argue that this is a question that has much relevance now as it had then.

Before Alison takes us back to the macro level, to consider some other important political influences, I want to mention a third – and rather different – influence on community arts practice in these early years.  This was the influence of outdoor children’s play. Whilst I was at Birmingham University, I worked as a part-time adventure playground leader in the working class, culturally diverse area of Balsall Heath – this arguably taught me more of what I would need to survive the next five years than anything I learned at university. I went on to work on adventure playgrounds for Telford Community Arts – with such notable success that an anxious parent turned up to one of our whackier events to ask me if her child was really going to the Moon on Friday, because if so, he would need to have a packed lunch. My fellow student, Chrissie Poulter had worked with Inter-Action Leeds (an off-shoot of the parent company founded by Ed Berman) and brought her knowledge of using games and theatre as a starting point for creative adventures for children and their parents to Jubilee Community Arts. In her interview with us, Cilla Baynes of Community Arts North West gives a description of a ‘concept’ project delivered by Free Form in areas across the UK, one of which was Toxteth in Liverpool – the Hollywood film project.

We’d turn up in a street and we’d all be characters in making a film.  You know, continuity girl, JJ the director, the actresses, and we’d have a fantastic set, and all the kids would come round and watch it with their parents.  And we’d all be speaking in American accents and we’d start shooting the film and then along comes a telegram, saying that the rest of the actors and the sets and the costumes had been held up in Istanbul. So the director does a complete paddy….what the hell are we going to do?!  Oh my god I can’t finish this film!  We got no actors and of course, guess what happens?  We’ll help you mister!  We’ll help you mister!  We’ll help! And then, you quickly get them into groups, and then over a week, you’re living locally and you’re devising how the film develops, so you use the starting point of what they’ve seen, then everybody invents their own film, and then they make their own costumes, they design and make their own costumes, they design and make their own sets.  They use all the local locations, indoors, outdoors, and you shoot it all in a week.  And the difficulty, ‘cos I remember, ‘cos people really believed we were from Hollywood!’


I hasten to add that Cilla does explain in her interview that over the course of the project people came to understand value in the fiction of the initial premise.

There are two points that I’d like to make about the influence of working in this way. One is that it took us right to the heart of something that really mattered to local people – to parents, to grandparents, to older young people as well as children – and did so in ways that encouraged all kinds of members of the community to contribute their own skills and resources to the creative mix. When we helped build  the first adventure playground in North Devon on the Frankmarsh/Gorwell estate, some-one from the estate worked on the design, fathers came to help us find materials and  build the structures, grand-mothers supplied tea and sandwiches, parents helped with costumes and props for large-scale theatrical adventures.  We brought our expertise to the work, but so did many members of the local community.

The second point, which I think comes through really clearly in Cilla’s interview, is that working in the context of children’s play gave us a superb context in which to experiment, to play as artists as much as to encourage imaginative play in others. As Cilla says, later in her interview, after she reflects on community artists’ early interest in using different kinds of media and in mixing media from photography to circus, from film to music theatre ‘there was always a strong artistic enquiry within that practice’.

AJ:    I’m going to briefly outline how the Community Arts Movement organised itself as a way to illustrate how the shifting political influences shaped and altered the work. It’s necessary to move slightly outside the self-imposed timeframe of the 1970s to do this but it’s important to do so because all of our respondents lamented the demise of the Association of Community Artists or ACA because of the corresponding loss of a national identity. This organisation was set up in London in the early 1970s by Bruce Birchill, Maggie Pinhorn and Martin Goodrich and aimed to provide a national platform for community artists. It functioned as a ‘powerful lobby group/trades union and an invaluable forum for the exchange of ideas and practice’ according to Sally Morgan who was involved at the time. There were tensions between different groups within the ACA at different times, like that between the ruralists and the urbanists, but the most significant was probably that between the so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ left. It’s difficult to get a clear picture of what exactly happened, but in 1980 the ACA, which was solely for community artists, was disbanded and replaced by the AfCA, the Association for Community Arts. Unlike the national scope of the ACA the AfCA was organised regionally and was also open to those with an interest in community arts rather than just to the artists themselves. At the same time the Shelton Trust emerged which aimed to retain the national organising structure and they produced a magazine called Another Standard. This ended rather messily at a notorious conference in Sheffield where 1986: Culture and Democracy was launched.

The authors defined culture as ‘not something which happens on the fringes of capitalist economics. Its manipulation is key to capitalism’s continued growth, and hence its continued existence. Culture, therefore, cannot be a peripheral concern to political activists whether socialist or not.’ (1986: Culture and Democracy). This hard-hitting document split opinion with many finding its political approach too left wing and difficult to work with. Attempts at national organisation disappeared and many have said that this was a turning point for the movement. There isn’t time here to trace all the political trajectories so I’ll briefly summarise 3 main intellectual and political influences based on our research.

Ivan Illich who wrote Tools for Conviviality and Tools for Production in 1973 discussed the notion of ‘radical monopolies’ something taken up by Owen Kelly in his implicit critique of the growing professionalization of community arts. In this conceptualisation, community arts becomes a benign wing of the welfare state, one of the caring services, and a means by which the ideology of consumption within the capitalist system was enforced. Explaining the notion of conviviality Illich said ‘I choose the term conviviality to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment…I believe that in any society as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members’ (Illich, 1973).

Paulo Friere, first published in English in 1970, is a quiet influence on community arts which we know about through Graham Woodruff’s reading list to his students in the 1970s. I mention his work here because we rarely hear about Friere without him being attached to Boal’s work on theatre of the oppressed but Friere’s work pre-dates Boal’s influence by some years, at least in the UK. Friere’s belief in what he called the banking model of education was, and continues to be, influential. In the banking concept of education, ‘knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider know nothing’ (Friere, 1970).

Raymond Williams’ writing on culture can be traced back in part to Gramsci whose development of Marxist thinking was so clearly marked by a belief that culture was not just a reflection of underlying economic relations. Gramsci opened up the possibilities of discussing relationships beyond a rigid class basis in terms of race, gender, sexuality, environmentalism etc. Gramsci’s emphasis on culture allowed two things to happen: firstly culture could be seen as an arena where dominant and subordinate cultures could meet and secondly he opened up other areas for cultural analysis beyond the sphere of class essentialisms.  Gramsci saw that certain types of art ‘which [had] been specified as an art [that] are “not art” or “not really art”’ were not taken seriously, certainly a phrase that will still be recognised by many working in participatory arts today. Gramsci also understood that cultural change can be gradual: ‘Changes in ways of thinking, in beliefs, in opinions do not occur through rapid, simultaneous and generalised “explosions”…the “explosion” of political passions…is confused with cultural transformations which are slow and gradual. Whereas passion is impulsive, culture is the product of a complex process of elaboration.’

In particular Gramscian thinking was associated with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies which takes us back to the University of Birmingham where it was based. Hall worked with colleagues, like Jefferson on projects concerning race and policing and with Hebdige who wrote about youth sub-cultures. The influence of the Centre on subsequent thinking around issues of culture and power cannot be underestimated. But we are gradating into the 1980s now and the years of Thatcherism which Hall was so involved in analysing so I’m going to pass back to Gerri for the final section.

GM:  Alison has mentioned one final source of influence from those years at Birmingham University that I would like to reference, perhaps because it is the influence that currently is most in my thoughts. Like one of our interviewees, Stephen Lacey, who became a post-graduate at the university’s Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies, I think now I should have paid far more attention to what Stuart Hall had to say.

On the one hand, Stuart Hall has been as under-stated about the role of cultural studies in achieving social change as I would be about the achievements of community arts.

He has said

Against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God’s        name is the point of cultural studies?…At that point, I think         anybody who is into cultural studies seriously as an intellectual     practice, must feel, on their pulse, its ephemerality, its         insubstantiality, how little it registers, how little we’ve been able to      change anything or get anybody to do anything. If you don’t feel   that as one tension in the work that you are doing, theory has let you off the hook.

Ephemerality, insubstantiality, how little it registers, how little we’ve been able to change anything or get anybody to do anything. On a bad day, this is how life as a community artist can feel.

On the other hand, Stuart Hall has been clear about the importance of culture as a ‘critical site of social action and intervention, where power relations are both established and potentially unsettled.’ He asks fundamental questions of all cultural activists, whether community artists or academics, artists working in participatory settings or leaders of cultural organisations, progressive funders or bloggers.  Does our work unsettle unequal power relations or does it confirm and support the status quo? How can, how does our work help marginal or sub-ordinate groups secure, or win, however temporarily, cultural space from the dominant group?  These are questions I believe should occupy us as much in the 21st century as they did in the middle decade of the 20th.

Alison Jeffers

Gerri Moriarty

6th April 2013

The ‘Trouble-makers in Training’ illustration is by Jennifer Williams an artist who founded the Centre for Creative Communities (1978 -2008). Jennifer is a member of the International Futures Forum and works as an artist making books, illustrations and photographs. She most recently illustrated Three Horizons, the Patterning of Hope, published in September 2013 by Triarchy Press.

All quotations from the interviews are used with the permission of the original speakers. We would be grateful if anyone wanting to quote any part of this document asked for permission which can be requested at Alison.jeffers@manchester.ac.uk


Another Standard, 1986: Culture and Democracy. The Manifesto, Comedia

Forgacs, S. (ed.)1999 The Antonio Gramsci Reader, Lawrence and Wishart

Friere, P. 1996 [1970] Pedagogy of the oppressed, Penguin Books

Holdsworth, N. 2010 Joan Littlewood’s Theatre, Routledge

Illich, I. 2009 [1973] Tools for conviviality, Marion Boyars

Jones, S. 2006 Antonio Gramsci, Routledge

Kelly, O. 1984 Community, Art and the State, Comedia

Littlewood, J. 2003 Joan’s Book, Methuen

Morley, D. and and Kuan-Hsing Chen, 1996 Stuart Hall, Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, Routledge

Williams, R. 1981 Culture, Fontana Paperbacks

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About alison jeffers

I am an academic working in theatre and performance.
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4 Responses to ‘Where have we come from?’ Community Arts to Contemporary Practice

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  2. Pingback: Martin Goodrich and Free Form Arts Trust – csdartjournal

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