Making a Difference

By Kenn Taylor

I’ve been working on arts and heritage projects with communities for nearly 15 years. In that time, I have seen community engagement shift from being, literally in an early role, down the corridor from everything else, to something that even the largest and most prestigious cultural institutions are trying to adapt their practices to include.

My interest in this field comes from having a working class background and getting tentatively involved in the arts sector; feeling that, as much as it was stimulating and great, how much of a disconnect there was between where I had come from and the world I was now entering. Working in community engagement seemed like an interesting way of bridging that gap.

Spring Bank Art. Photo Sergej Komkov

It was clear that much of the wider cultural sector regarded us as ‘nice to have’ or, ‘necessary for funding’. Something that should not have the same recognition, space or budget as ‘real culture’. This was immensely frustrating when, at the coalface, it was easy to see how important and powerful such work could be at all levels.

Community engagement can mean many different things, so first of all it’s important to step back and ask, why do you want to do it? Being clear in this is key in deciding what approach to take. Do you want to diversify or perhaps increase audiences? Are you trying to understand audiences better? Do you want to work with people in the development of a new project? Make your programming more representative of your local area or wider society? Are you involving people in a more radical rethinking about what your organisation is and does? These things can intersect and crossover, but also all have distinctions.

Portraits Untold by Tanya Raabe-Webber. Photo Jerome Whittingham

If you want to engage a community of whatever form, you have to ask, what’s in it for them? Community engagement purely because you feel you have to for political or financial reasons or because it’s currently fashionable may work for a while. However, if there’s nothing underpinning such engagement, if it doesn’t, to a greater or lesser extent, influence and change how you do things, it’s a route to failure in the long term.

Doing community engagement well can be hard work. So, why do it? Simply, the publicly funded cultural sector can no longer have any complacency about the broad communities it is intended to serve and still exist. This doesn’t mean every bit of culture will be coproduced in future, but it does mean more change. That many people, often the most disadvantaged, still feel alienated from the sector remains a huge issue. Furthermore, in a multimedia world, people are far less willing to be passive consumers of culture and want to ‘participate’ in many different ways. Many do still just want to see that exhibition/play/performance. However considering the many ways people might want to otherwise interact with the art and culture that is being made and those involved in making it, is vital for the future of organisations.

Making It Home As We Go Along by Julia Vogl. Photo Hannah Holden

When I began to realise in the last few years, that participation, community engagement, the various other intersecting types of work and terminologies we use, had become à la mode, initially it felt positive. That this sort of work was finally being recognised. However, as people and organisations who’d never given it a passing thought started diving into it and shouting from the rooftops about how good they were at it, concerns emerged. For example, of the risks of organisations doing it with little experience and alienating the very people they’re trying to engage. Or of heavily funded traditional institutions adoptingthe ideas of smaller focused organisations and crowding them out from funding rather than trying to work in partnership. That more organisations are doing this kind of work though, does acknowledge the power of community engagement. However more still needs to be done.

Mad Pride Hull discussion. Photo Jerome Whittingham

Community engagement on the side is on the way out. This does not mean that specific and targeted programmes led by experienced practitioners can all be replaced by vague statements about how ‘community is considered in all things’. It does mean that such engagement though should impact right across what a cultural organisation does, from the toilets to the marketing. Crucially, the sector also has to make sure that the artists and other workers it employs are more representative of the diversity of British society: they will know best how to engage and indeed challenge communities that they themselves come from.

When I started in this field, I wanted to learn how to do community engagement as best as possible and perfect it. What I found out instead was that, as soon as you think you’ve answered it, you find another question to ask, another parameter to consider, another level of depth to go to.  Criticality and theory is, quite rightly, catching up and taking the world of participation and engagement ever more seriously, but there still is, I think, no perfect model. Just different ways of doing things well in the context that you do them in. Though there is a world of good practice to take inspiration from. But tread carefully and slowly as this so often leads to better results. The more successful you do something in engagement, the main thing you’re likely to learn is how to do it better again next time. And for me really, that’s where the joy in it is. Working with people and trying to do it well around art and culture to make a difference in a very imperfect world.

This piece appeared in the September 2019 edition of JAM, the Journal for Arts Marketing. Issue 73: Community Engagement.