The Right to Make Art


We’re really pleased to post this short film, ‘The Right to Make Art’   – thanks very much to Annie Woodson, the film-maker, who has made sense of our complex brief to her and edited  hours of footage of the workshop day we held in July at Manchester University.

Join the conversation!

The film raises some interesting questions –   has community arts become institutionalised ( and some would say de-politicised?) Do some arts organisations and artists see their ‘participatory’ work as a tedious necessity in gaining funding?   What do you see as the purpose of your work?

Separate cultural spaces, shared cultural spaces: a personal note

One element that really stands out for me in the film is the mix of participants taking part and enjoying the opportunity to work together.  I think one of the adverse effects of current funding regimes is that fragmentation gets exacerbated, not addressed. So artists end up working with ‘elders’ or ‘youth’ , with ‘people with mental health issues’ or  ‘ refugees and asylum seekers’. I understand the importance of specialist knowledge and expertise. I also understand that those who are already privileged and empowered can easily colonise any cultural space, to the detriment of those who are less pushy!   However, I’m currently interested in how to make space for people to have conversations and share experiences with others whose life experience is different from theirs – if you have an interest in this, please get in touch through the blog, particularly if you work in Greater Manchester

ArtsChain: the new ‘first Tuesday of the month’ experience!

Some of the post-graduate students who helped out at the July event said in our final discussion that it had made them feel quite sad; in spite of the fact that practitioners who had started work in the 70s’ and 80s’ pointed out that there had been lots of disagreements over practice and strategies, they thought that were was a strong sense of people feeling like they belonged to a movement, shared a common cause and could bounce ideas off each other. In contrast, they often felt quite isolated and fragmented.

So on the first Tuesday of every month, a group of us (older and younger practitioners) have organised ArtsChain, an informal networking event for artists and arts organisers who see themselves as social engaged, community arts workers or participatory arts workers. It happens at Nexus Arts Café in the Northern Quarter in Manchester between 4 and 6 and it’s an opportunity to chat, let each other know about opportunities and upcoming activities and learn from each other.  People drop in for the whole two hours or for 15 minutes to say hello and come when they can – many people work free-lance and so can’t come every month. We have chosen not to apply for funding for it and just contribute what we can in terms of time and expertise to help make it work. So you do have to buy your own coffee or tea – Nexus has a great selection on offer.

It is an experiment and we’re committed to organising it until April to see how it goes – so far we’re really enjoying it. If you work in the Greater Manchester area – or are visiting on the first Tuesday of the month, why not come along? You’d be very welcome. Dates so far agreed for 2016 are January 5th, February 2nd and March 1st.

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Participation and community plays

Part of the reason for setting up this blog was to post about academic research to an audience who might not otherwise read it – academic books are expensive and articles are often only accessible to those in academic institutions (though this is now changing – but that’s a story for another day!) This blog is based on a chapter of a book provisionally called Participation and Performance, edited by Helen Nicholson and Anna Harpin (due to be published in 2016). It’s about participation and community plays and I chose to focus on the Shankill community play Crimea Square which was performed in Belfast in 2013.

What’s interesting about this is the way that it links into questions about authorship that emerged at the event which Gerri has described in our most recent blog – Unwrapping Hidden History – in July of this year. My goal in writing the chapter was to suggest that participation alone is no guarantor of the redistribution of authority that might lead to positive social change. The project threw up questions about who has the authority to write a community’s stories, levels of expertise needed to craft those into a dramatic narrative, and who can authorise the telling of a community’s stories in a public arena.

The Playwrights

Authorship and authorisation
Community plays are usually authored by a professional playwright, two of the most famous historical examples being The Poor Man’s Friend by Howard Barker in Bridport (1981) and Entertaining Strangers by David Edgar in Colchester (1985). But Crimea Square was written by four community members who worked in close collaboration with writer and community artist Jo Egan. After seeing the play and talking to the writers of Crimea Square I started to see them as ‘experts by experience’, an idea developed in mental health settings where self-help groups become, what Tesheen Noorani calls, ‘crucibles for learning’. The writers were already ‘experts’ in their own local histories. Writing the play allowed them to examine that history in a critical way and to share that complex history with a local audience.

The writers were bringing their expertise as local historians and bartering this with the team of theatre professionals for their expertise in writing and staging a play. The sense of ownership and pride for the writers – confirming their expert knowledge of their own history and their authority over their own stories – was palpable in my discussions with the writers. What Jo and her team did was to show how, in dramatizing these stories, they might be able to show some underlying complexities. Through this process all those involved came to understand that their history was more fragmented than they might have imagined.

For example, they discovered an Irish-speaking Catholic policeman who had lived on the Shankill (a traditionally Protestant area) in the early 20th century. They showed him refusing to sign the Covenant, a document which was mainly signed by northern Protestants to protest against the imposition of Home Rule by Ireland in 1912. But they showed that this wasn’t because he was a Catholic, it was because he thought his service to the community as a policeman was a big enough statement about his sense of belonging. They were also able to point out the gender discrimination in the highly patriarchal society of the time because women weren’t permitted to sign the Covenant and had to make do with a declaration. In this conversation they showed this, as well as how women were at the forefront of protests against unfair working conditions in the local tobacco factory – all in 3 exchanges of dialogue!

EVANGELINE: When you sign your name’ll be on the Covenant for the rest of time – for all to see.
BIG JIM: It won’t Miss Evangeline know all. The women signs the declaration. Only men signs the Covenant. Don’t be leading your mother into wild ways. Next thing she’ll be out in strike like them lunatics in Gallagher’s.
EVANGELINE: Oh aye, so they’re lunatics because they want paid properly and better working conditions!!

Stories can become fixed over time and if these stories can be used to divide people and reinforce a sense of difference that can’t be helpful in a place that is coming out of a protracted sectarian conflict. In the process of becoming ‘experts’ or authorities in their own histories, and in being able to perform that expertise to a wider community through the play, the writers developed personal confidence in their own skills. In the process of writing they were also meeting and working closely with playwrights and actors and this increased their confidence in getting involved in cultural opportunities from which their community often feels excluded

One of the writers summed up the cultural impact of being involved in the play:

This whole community feels that the Lyric [theatre] isn’t for them. They get the idea that it will be full of Catholics and nationalists and middle class people – and that’s fact, that’s the way it is. I still think that but now it wouldn’t stop me from being involved in it. I have the confidence to go now.

Some of the writers and actors have been involved in setting up a small theatre company called The Heel ‘n’ Ankle (rhyming slang for the Shankill) to create and perform their own work and they have now produced five plays. One of the writers is now volunteering with the Linen Hall Library, digitising their collection, some participants have written a four minute film on mental health while one is working on a novel.

Although community plays are often thought of as conservative forms of theatre in academic literature this project showed that, in the right time and location, they can be very powerful. The project picked up on a growing interest in local history in Northern Ireland and the play could have simply reinforced a restricted sectarian history of the Shankill. Instead Crimea Square seemed to encourage the writers to appreciate the ways in which identities are multiple and layered and to present those complex identities to a wider audience through the play.

Thank you to John Dougan for his permission to use these photographs.

Cast singing lesson

blog about the play

review of the play


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Making Change Happen

Comments from workshop participants

Well, I had a brilliant (if exhausting!) day on July 9th, at the University of Manchester.

I once told my mother that I wanted to change the world. With typical common sense, she pointed out that there was an awful lot of it to change. My answer was that there were thousands and thousands of people, all over the world, who wanted to do the same.

So it was inspiring to spend a day in the company of 10 artists who have made and are making change happen and listening to their collective passion, intelligence and wisdom. It was inspiring to be joined for the day by 35 workshop participants from across Greater Manchester and 5 University of Manchester students who took risks, experimented, produced work, talked, laughed and shared experiences with each other. And it was great to be able to document the day well– with the help of film-makers and a visual artist. We’ll be sharing much more about what happened and what we learned in the weeks and months to come.

I wanted to share my (preliminary) sense of what the artists thought and felt their work was about, based on interviews I carried out with them during the day. They talked about:

  • Co-authorship and collaboration
  • Fighting against injustice and inequality
  • Building community and supporting different kinds of communities
  • Encouraging individual creativity and expression, linked to wellbeing
  • Opening up wide-ranging conversations that can lead to collective action

Comments from workshop participants

Some practitioners might say their work addresses all of these themes and some might say their work is more closely aligned to one or two of them than to others.  The artists also talked about making beautiful art, making thought-provoking art, making challenging art, making art that has contemporary relevance, making art that has the power to move people.

Would you describe your practice differently?   Or have you perhaps seen or taken part in a powerful piece of work that addressed something else which should be ‘in the mix’?    Help us build the picture.

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Is community arts practice still relevant?

On Thursday, July 9th, 2015, we’ll be exploring this question in an intriguing way. With the help of a small grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, we’ve created an event which brings together community artists who began working in the area in the Seventies and early Eighties with artists who began working in the area much more recently. We’ll be exploring what is still common to their practice, what has changed and what can we all learn from each other.

10 brilliant artists have agreed to collaborate together on the event. We’ve paired up artists from drama, textile, print and photography, making and film and video backgrounds and they are currently learning about each other’s practice, discussing the opportunities and challenges they faced then and face now, and designing a workshop together. Organisations working in Greater Manchester are helping us out by inviting participants to the event to get involved in the workshops; we’ve told them it’s a bit of an experiment and we’re really grateful that they’ve agreed to give it a go.

During the event, Gerri will be interviewing the artists about what it’s been like working with each other (when they’re not running their workshop!), film-maker Annie Woodson will be documenting the event for a short film and visual artist Paul Gent will be documenting it too. It’s being held at Manchester University and post-graduate students have volunteered to help us out as well.

In the evening, Alison Jeffers will chair a round table discussion, inviting artists to reflect on broader questions about similarities and difference and about the place of ‘community arts’ in contemporary practice.

We will be posting more about the event in coming weeks and uploading the film and the visual art work when this is ready. It’s also part of our research for the book we’re writing about community arts (we’ve now got a contract with a publisher for this).

Meanwhile, how would you answer our question – do you think community arts practice is still relevant?

Di and Gerri on beach

Professional Development in the Seventies: Gerri on the beach in North Devon practising her juggling skills with Diana Murray, Beaford Centre Community Project. Her dress sense has since improved. Photographer: Philip Trick

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It was thirty years ago…

It was thirty years ago…

Cartwheel's 30th Anniversary

Cartwheel’s 30th Anniversary

In November 2014 Cartwheel Arts in Rochdale celebrated thirty years of its existence as a community arts organisation. Cartwheel Community Arts (as it was then) was set up in 1984 through a collaborative partnership between Councillors and officers in Rochdale Council and Liz Mayne the Community Arts Officer at North West Arts. For many years Cartwheel operated from the basement of the Arts and Libraries building in central Rochdale, moving to Hamer County Primary School (where M6 Theatre in Education were also based) and later moving to Heywood which is part of the borough of Rochdale. The association of the borough was important and at the event Rick invited me to sketch out the close connection between the different parts of Rochdale and the name Cartwheel: C stood for Castleton, R for Rochdale, W for Wardle and (upsidedown) for Middleton and Milnrow, H was for Heywood and L for Littleborough.

At the event Rick Walker, who now runs Cartwheel, introduced me as one of the original workers along with Dave Chadwick who couldn’t make the event. Gerri Moriarty, Cilla Baynes and Mick Smith were all there because they had played an important part in getting the company off the ground – Gerri as a free-lance community artist and Mick and Cilla as arts workers and mentors from Community Arts Workshop (now Community Arts North West).

Alongside Cartwheel, PRESCAP in Preston, The Wholeworks in Crewe, Action Factory in Blackburn, High Peak Community Arts in New Mills, Lancaster Community Arts all worked throughout the 1980s on a huge range of community arts projects using many art forms and working with all kinds of groups. Along with Community Arts Workshop there was a sense of being art of a network and arts workers would often gather to share ideas and develop good practice.

In the 1980s we did a lot of work with children and young people focusing on creative play, often working on performances that involved dance, drama and poetry with vivid sets and costumes. Much of the work was classed as ‘celebratory’ and involved processions, fireshows, gigantic puppets and other outdoor events. The work that Cartwheel is currently involved in focuses a great deal on creative writing and publication. They also do a lot of work around health and wellbeing. I was especially pleased to see that the festival work continues and they work closely with Darnhill Festival association on their events. In 2010 I interviewed Rick to see what some of the differences might be between the work we did then and what Cartwheel does now. This was written up into an academic article called `The Rough Edges: community, art and history’ for Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance 15: 1, February 2010 (p. 29-37). In the interview I asked Rick what might characterise Cartwheel’s work now and he responded

Principally festivals and stories I would say. It’s about stories and how you render the story, whether it’s performed or written, or whether there’s a thread that runs under or through your festival. There’s always a narrative and we’re constantly asking people to imagine stories or to tell us their stories; our role is, I suppose, to interpret their stories and bring them to life as a publication or performance.

In many ways that conversation formed part of the beginnings of the research that we are now doing on community arts in the 1970s and early 1980s. You can see more about Cartwheel’s work on their website

Here’s a link to a case study on Cartwheel by the Cultural Commissioning Programme (ACE + NCVO) which has just been circulated today.

Watch this space for developments about the community arts research.

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Social Archiving: a legacy of community arts?

One of the reasons for starting this blog was to make our research into community arts more accessible. Academic research isn’t always the most transparent medium; sometimes the style of writing can be really obscure or just dull; sometimes too academic books are just plain expensive. So what we’re trying to do here is to reflect what we’re finding in a clear style of writing that’s (virtually) free! The project I’m discussing here will be included as a chapter in a book called Ethics and Evidence in Theatre History and Historiography and it’ll be published by Palgrave Macmillan early in 2015. I think it’ll be a really interesting and useful book but I guess it might not be the first place you’d look for ideas about the legacy of the community arts movement! So here it is in a condensed form.

It’s found its way into this book because I was researching and writing about the process of ‘social archiving’. The idea of social archiving emerged from discussions between the Mount Vernon Community Development Forum (MVCDF), a voluntary group of local people living on Mount Vernon (a predominantly loyalist Belfast housing estate), community arts workers Gerri Moriarty and Jo Egan and William Mitchell, a researcher and practitioner in restorative justice. The social archiving project was a response to the political and social possibilities opened up since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the official cessation of conflict in Northern Ireland. Mount Vernon has its share of social problems including unemployment, poverty and all the problems that beset many inner city housing developments. It is also recovering from 30 years of violent conflict, having been seen as a place where the loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force was very active.

The social archiving project emerged from two arts-based community consultation projects on Mount Vernon: a participatory consultation exercise called the Big Weekend in 2006 and ‘Cinderella does Community Consultation’, a community pantomime in 2007. The first event involved creative writing and photography workshops, a tea dance, video vox pops, outdoor art installations and a sports quiz, all designed to involve local people who might not have participated in more traditional community consultation processes. The community pantomime used a performance of the well-known story to ask important questions about the future of the estate in a light-hearted and accessible way.  Within theatre scholarship these activities are often associated with applied theatre but in practice would more accurately be described as community arts.

The ideas I was trying to explore with this project were about memory because this process was asking participants to remember certain times from their past, to share those memories in a public space and to create a kind of collective memory through the creation of a social archive. But while my colleagues in theatre history were talking about the kind of archives that you can walk into and lift down boxes of documents from a shelf the sort of archive that was being developed here was much less tangible; it didn’t exists as thing so much as a set of stories and ideas. This made me think of the idea of recollection, is in recalling or remembering something, and re-collection, as in gathering and reassembling depleted resources and energies, exploring the significance of memory following the violence of a protracted conflict. This made me think that the archive as a thing or a place is less important in this instance than the activity of creating it.

It also made me think about the idea of cultural memory: how might all those individual memories come together or coalesce into a group or cultural memory? How are those memories used to create and perpetuate stories that can sustain a community? What happens when some of those stories start to become unhelpful and maybe even hold people back? For community development worker Billy Hutchinson, and the team of community arts workers, the key was to help people to understand why they had behaved in the way that they did during the conflict. When we were talking about the social archiving workshops Billy told me in an interview:

“Whatever we do is about change and people need to understand that change and what it is […] for instance, the stuff that we’ve been doing with what we would call the ex-combatants is that anything they do, they must do it for a reason, and they must understand why they’re doing it. As well as understanding why they’re doing it presently, they also need to understand why they did it in the past. And we need to archive that in some way. I don’t want people taking murals down for the sake of taking them down […] the point is it needs to be interpreted […] it’s about change. And the whole point of having these discussions at public meetings was not to get people to talk about the mural but to give people the opportunity to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. And if the mural was talked about, fine.”

The mural (pictured below) that Billy was talking about sits on a hill on the edge of the estate, clearly visible from the main road below. Although not all discussions focused on the mural during the workshops its presence loomed large because it is a huge symbol of the way many people felt after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998: anxious, fearful for the future and uncertain about what it might bring. The social archiving workshops run by the community artists were a way to help the participants to come to a collective understanding of what they had been through, to discuss some of those fears and anxieties, and to work out together the best way forward. After the workshops some of the participants agreed to be interviewed on camera and these were edited to create a video called ‘Mount Vernon: more than just a mural’. This has been used to illustrate the process of social archiving and to present the voices, views and ideas of residents beyond Mount Vernon in a broader political and social dialogue.


So, apart from the involvement of Gerri Moriarty, co-author of this blog, how does this project relate to the community arts movement of the 1970s and 1980s? Well, many of the techniques developed at that time, and refined since, were used in the public workshops: techniques designed to connect the individual to the community; techniques to harness group energies and ideas; techniques to articulate ideas from the group in a creative way that can be shared beyond the moment and beyond that group of people. The urge to ‘speak truth onto power’, to create change, to use the arts to make a difference all underpin this way of working.

As an academic I’m also required to critique these ideas too but that might have to wait for another day! Please comment and give us any feedback. We value your thoughts and ideas.

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Room for risk?


In April of this year, Gerri Moriarty facilitated an ArtsLab for postgraduate students from Goldsmiths, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. This was organised by the Barbican as part of its Artworks: London programme funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation ( She writes ‘This was a fantastic opportunity to work collaboratively and intensively over a period of four days, with artists committed to working with communities, in the early stages of their careers. It was a privilege for me to learn more about the issues and questions that concerned them and the kinds of work they were hoping to undertake.

During the course of our time together, the students talked about how little time they felt they had on their MA course to develop their own practice (as opposed to considering theory or learning more about the practice of already-established artists and organisations.) And this made me reflect on the freedom I had had in the early years of my work as a community artist in North Devon, in the early Seventies.

My remit was broad and vague – to work with people living on the Frankmarsh/Gorwell estate in Barnstaple, with the arts. Nobody told me how to do it, as nobody knew, least of all me. I could try anything and I did. We built an adventure playground with parents and other local residents and ran wild outdoor drama-based activities in the summer holidays (an Ur-version of site specific and immersive practice!) An ex-member of Ballet Rambert taught dance and movement classes for adults, we ran creative writing workshops and published booklets, we had a dark-room, silk-screen printing facilities and an Albion printing press. On lovely summer evenings we thought nothing of piling the young people’s drama group into our van and driving down to the beach to play drama games. No-one asked us if we were meeting Arts Council England’s strategic goals, whether we had carried out adequate risk assessments or even very much about who was actually participating in our programmes.

I made a lot of mistakes. I remember standing in the car park of the Community Centre we had worked with residents to found, moving the bingo machine for the umpteenth time and thinking ‘ I’ll stay a bit more focussed on the art in my next job’. But the learning from all of this was rich – I remember taking the live wires from the drama group to see a performance by the mime artist, Nola Rae and watching her charm this rowdy non-theatre going section of her audience into joyful silence and I remember learning how much people’s lives could change as a result of discovering their own creative voice.

Looking back, I can see now that I was lucky to have the incredible luxury of a few years to experiment as I began my professional work. I had time to develop my confidence and experience, to takes risks and to fail, sometimes spectacularly, sometimes producing work that was just not quite good enough. I don’t want to romanticise about that period; we had very limited resources, we over-stretched ourselves constantly, our passion was sometimes out-of-kilter with our mastery of technique.   But what we did have was space to learn and to explore.

The question I am left with is how easy is it, in 2014, for those engaged in community and participatory arts to take risks – risks with methodology, with form, with content, with collaborations? Are there places were this can happen and if so, how are they configured? Do you think this is an issue?  Do you know of good examples of programmes or spaces that support practice development and if so, what are the key factors that help them to work well?  Have you developed your own personal or organisational strategies to make room for risk?  Or do you feel so constrained by having to meet multiple targets, address innumerable funding agendas and juggle projects to make ends meet that you struggle to find time for exploration?  Alison and I would love to hear from you about this, so please get in touch!’


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