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How can participatory art give rise to community empowerment?

In response to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development, writer and educator Chrissie Tiller examines how arts and culture go hand-in-hand with resident-led action.

Reading through David Boyle’s fascinating essay and tracing the rich list of influential community-led events and publications logged on the timeline, I am immediately struck by the ways in which my own life, as a working class woman engaged with the arts, education, culture, participation and activism, continually interconnects with and is influenced by these same moments.

The origins of cultural democracy

Finding myself, completely unexpectedly, and scarily, writing a PhD, based on my own practice and publications, I have been re-visiting many of these same social, political and economic struggles and ‘hard-won victories’. From the immediate post-war period, dominated by its shared ethos of social reform, which enabled me to have access to the NHS, welfare state, free libraries, museums and galleries and higher education to our present world of rising social, economic and environmental inequalities. Having been committed through much of that life to cultural democracy and ensuring everyone would have access to, and the ability to participate in the making and enjoyment of art, I was delighted to see many of the very same writers that influenced my own thinking, from Paulo Freire to Saul Alinsky to Robert Putman are already present on the timeline.

Many of the most impactful moments in art and culture emerged from grassroots activity.

In many ways the history of arts and participation has followed, mirrored and sometimes even led the history of community development. As Raymond Williams noted in 1958 in ‘Culture is Ordinary’[1], each is inseparable and impossible without the other. And yet, as David Boyle notes of community development, little has been written about the history of the community and participatory arts movement, from what is often seen as its beginnings in Roosevelt’s 1939 New Deal in the US to the encouragingly more inclusive vision of present day Arts Council of England ‘Let’s Create’ policies. Interestingly, while Boyle rejects the New Deal in terms of a starting point for community development, the Federal Art Programme’s commitment to ‘giving everyone the possibility to make art a vital part of their lives’ created more opportunities for co-creation and for women and black artists than always exist in our own times.

Who is art for?

Like community development the path of travel in terms of who gets to participate in the making of art in particular has not always been smooth or necessarily forward moving. The opening declaration of Arts Council in 1946, for example, firmly re-instated the line between ‘amateur’ or ‘community’ and ‘professional,’ arts whose blurring had been so successful during the war years, and declared its intention to become an opportunity for ‘common man’ to feel, one with…a community finer, more gifted, more splendid…than he can be by himself’[2].

Notting Hill Carnival emerged from grassroots alliances between artists and a community determined to challenge poverty, bad housing and racism.

Despite interventions to shift a sense that art was something produced by the elite to educate the working class having happened at a state level over the years, including first Minister for the Arts, Jenny Lee’s introduction of Community Arts centres across the country in 1969, many of the most impactful moments emerged from grassroots activity and were often linked to political and social activism.

At the height of the movement in the 1960s and ‘70s most of the artists engaged in community arts practice were active in grassroots initiatives such as the women’s movement, tenants’ associations and rights and the anti-war movement and learning from the writings and thinking of the community development movement about effecting social change. Welfare State International, which embedded itself in its community in Burnley, being one of the most influential and innovative organisation in terms of its practice. At much the same time, the Notting Hill Carnival emerged from grassroots alliances between artists and a community determined to challenge poverty, bad housing and racism, while events such as the 1976-78 Rock against Racism concerts brought together musicians, artists together with communities to find creative ways to challenge the same issues over a decade later.

Explore a history of community development

The ongoing role of creativity in community life

Although the term ‘community arts’ became somewhat ‘unfashionable’ in the 1980s, at the same time as Thatcher decided ‘society’ no longer existed as a concept, artists and communities committed to social change have continued to find ways to work together.  Sometimes this has meant adapting the ‘terms of engagement’ by referring to the work as more participatory arts practice, placing arts and cultural institutions reaching out to their communities more centrally. At others it has been through finding connections across sectors, and recognising the importance of more collaborative and collective ways of working. One recent example of which is currently to be seen in Local Trust’s Creative Civic Change programme, where more top down models are being challenged by putting communities in the lead and artists are being encouraged to embed themselves within these communities and work with them to find creative and innovative solutions to complex, and often difficult, social issues.

Community development and collaborative arts are about listening, being present and taking action collectively.

Which brings me back full circle to the timeline and my PhD. What I have learned over the past year of thinking about where my own experience sits on the path to greater cultural democracy is that, as Freire and Myles Horton explain, ‘We make the Road by Walking’ and that it is impossible to walk that road separately. Community development and community/participatory/collaborative arts are about listening, about being present and about taking action collectively in the struggle against injustice and oppression. What is often missing, sadly, is that sense of our shared narratives and histories, and with that the possibility of drawing on them to inform our thinking about how we might want to live in the future. This is why I this timeline seems so important. As bell hooks, one of the many women involved in these movements, reminds us, building ‘community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do’[3] Part of that vigilance is to ensure we honour its history.


[1] Raymond Williams Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy Socialism. Verso 1989.

[2] JM Keynes Art and the State The Listener August 1946.

[3] bell hooks “Building Community: A Pedagogy of Hope Routledge 2003.

We asked Chrissie: if you could add or expand on three key cultural moments to our timeline of community development, what would they be?

  • Touring theatre, Welfare State: Originally set up in 1968 to produce large-scale touring theatre, Welfare State were invited by the Mid-Pennine Arts Association to take up residence in Burnley and began the community-based celebratory arts they are renowned for globally as well as UK wide. Since 1982 they have been embedded in the community in Ulverston, Cumbria.
  • Notting Hill Carnival: Notting Hill Carnival, now Europe’s biggest street festival and already featured in David’s timeline, was established in the wake of protests against racism and poor housing. The idea of a Carnival emerged from a meeting set up by Claudia Jones to look at ways in which the community might come together to fight to improve local conditions, while also creating an opportunity to celebrate and share Caribbean cultural traditions.
  • Rock against Racism: Rock against Racism was originally a one-off response to increased support for the far-right National Front and disturbingly racist statements being made by musicians such as Eric Clapton. The original concert in East London became an annual event in multi-racial communities across the country including Leeds and Manchester, and in 1978 over 100,000 people marched from Trafalgar Square to Hackney to take part in an open-air concert led by the Clash.

This blog is part of a series responding to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development. Explore more brilliant insights here.

About the author
Chrissie Tiller

Chrissie Tiller is a writer, thinker, practitioner and educator, with an extensive history of working through collaborative and social art practice, in the UK and beyond.