On Thursday I attended a seminar called 'The Art of Participation' at Tullie House, organised in partnership with Prism Arts. It was a really interesting and thought provoking day and it was great to meet people from quite a diverse range of organisations but all with an interest in how the arts can help people.
The key note speaker was Toby Lowe from Helix Arts and he provided an excellent theoretical framework for the day, looking at how participatory arts benefit people and how we should/could be evidencing this to potential funders.
Lowe suggests that the main unique benefit the arts have in terms of improving people's well-being is their ability to empower people to tell their own story. Therefore, when we evaluate how the arts benefit people we should look to people's stories (and their abilities to tell their own stories) rather than relying on statistics and 'hard' evidence. The difficulty of proving the worth of arts projects through traditional 'tick-box' and statistic based data is well documented and discussed so a more productive argument is perhaps how do we get people to look at these stories and how do we get funders to realise the worth of these stories?
An interesting point that Lowe raised was that people who are socially excluded, for whatever reason, often have their stories told for them. We all experience the world as our own story and are heard through our stories, so we should be the ones who have authorship of these stories. Participatory arts can give people the means not only to tell their own story but to change it as they wish. This happens partly though the confidence that can be built, giving people the courage to make the changes they want to improve their lives and change their story. Being heard not only benefits the individual but also society as it means no-one is forgotten and so excluded, meaning a fairer more equal society.
One of the discussion groups I attended was run by Dave Chapple and for me two very interesting things came out of this group. The first was the importance of being part of the group; Dave described himself as always a group member first-possibly with more responsibility in the group than other group members but always a group member. I think this is really important, sometimes it can be easy to let one's ego take over but the whole point of participatory arts is to get people involved. If people are simply following your every direction they are not really involved, participants should be choosing the direction in which to go and making choices supported by the artist.
The second interesting thing was that although Dave is a writer and was speaking about writing I found that a lot of what he was saying about the benefits of the processes he uses could easily be applied to the visual arts as well (and probably any other art form.) For example, that everyone could do it and everyone had their own voice (or style, whatever you want to call it.) I think that as with most things it is a case of finding the right medium for each person; for some people it will be writing, for others drawing and for others music. The important thing is finding the key that helps each individual unlock their story and gives them the means to tell it for themselves.
In the afternoon I attended a workshop on 'timeslips' which is a way of creating stories as a group from an image. It was a lot of fun and I could see how this would be a very beneficial activity for a range of people. It is an easy process to engage with, there are no rights or wrongs and people can participate as much or as little as they wish.
Overall, I found the day useful and informative. It re-affirmed my belief that people should be at the heart of all projects and I was comforted to know that there are so many other people out there who agree and that together we can start to change how participatory arts are evaluated and consequently valued.