Passion and Purpose: Community-Based Artists Are Determined

Arlene Goldbard
7 min readJun 5, 2020

All this past week, I’ve been publishing writing by François Matarasso as part of his “virtual residency” on my blog. Yesterday we hosted a Zoom conversation with artists who place their gifts at the service of community. We put our heads together to talk about possible futures, knowing that while prediction is pointless, preparation and dialogue are essential. You can watch the video recording of that conversation here; or listen to the audio here.

The Zoom call was at capacity at 100 (apologies to those who registered but couldn’t fit), and I’d guesstimate that one-third were from the United States. Most of the rest were from Europe. We used what has become a common language — English — for a conversation that revealed significant differences and commonalities. Our societies are traumatized, but in different ways. In the U.S., the fear and pain of the pandemic has exploded first into outrage over public response and then into a much older and very deep reservoir of fear, pain, and anger over the murder and oppression of black people. People are being brought face-to-face with the many forms systemic indifference, neglect, and abuse are taking with respect to both the virus pandemic and the pandemic of structural racism. Both issues are meaningful to our counterparts abroad, but both the support systems for cultural work and the legacy of colonialism are different in different countries.

We all understood that the work we do is needed now more than ever. Artists grounded in community and committed to loving and just practice have such important roles to play under such circumstances: bearing witness to both history and present-day experience; bringing people together in communities of consolation; weaving social fabric; and dreaming the future we want to help bring about. Or as François put it simply, “The work I can do is to create a dynamic in which other people gather and start to do things…That’s a really valuable role, just by saying ‘Let’s do something here,’ and not knowing where that will spin off.”

Despite our differences, what was true for virtually everyone are the conditions François described:

A huge number of people who work in community arts are really struggling now. They’re struggling financially because the work that they had planned had evaporated like water on a hot stove. Mostly they are not able to get the government support where it exists, particularly if they’re young. In the U.K. you can get some government support if you’re a freelancer, based on your last three years’ tax returns, but some people haven’t been working long enough or haven’t earned enough. I worry a lot about who’s going to be left working in this field in six months’ time, and my worry, as ever, is that it is the most vulnerable, the ones who are the most fragile in terms of their career and other aspects of their lives who will not survive.

There are three other things I would say that I am as certain as I can be of what will happen. The first is that we are now traumatized societies. We have had an extraordinary and dreadful shock. A lot of people have have suffered directly, they have lost loved ones in in dreadful circumstances, often not being able to be with them. Other people have lost work, they’ve lost ideas of what their future would be, for instance, a whole cohort of students who thought they were going to university in the autumn. And now they’re wondering, do I want to go to university if I’m going to have remote teaching and the cost of all that? Where is my life? What should I be doing? The shock of discovering how fragile our whole system is both frightening but also salutary because — I’ve written about what Bruno Latour has said about this — it does at least show us that alternatives are possible. You can stop the economic system dramatically without everything falling apart.

Then there’s a second shock wave, which is the financial shock wave. Most of us will come out of this poorer; some much poorer. And our societies will come out of this enormously indebted. It’s not just community artists who who will lose their jobs. It’s florists, cafes, bookshops, small companies, people who’ve spent years building up a viable business employing themselves and others, who are going to go out of business, and that is going to put an enormous pressure on everything. So that affects everyone. The thing that then affects community art, and community artists — people who work in in socially engaged practice — is that in other circumstances these would be things we might feel we can at least help people process and live with and work out their feelings about through the kind of work that we do. The difficulty is our work is always about bringing people together. And we now can’t do that because of social distancing.

The challenges are formidable: supporting the work now and in the longer term; and finding ways to do it without the close, inclusive, ongoing contact that has been characteristic of virtually all community-based arts work. As we opened the conversation to everyone, these key themes dominated.

A split in the conversation about support for community-based arts work is supporting artists versus supporting communities that work with artists. Much that has been written about this recently takes the position that artists should be supported directly, both as a criticism of the seemingly universal tendency to support institutions before people and as an expression of the importance of their work to civil society. But the alternative view, expressed by François and the subject of considerable conversation in the chat box, was to support financial measures that help everyone, not just artists, such as a Basic Income Grant (or UBI, Universal Basic Income); here’s something I wrote about it pre-pandemic. (And here’s an interesting essay by Susan Jones that touches on many ways to look at the funding challenge in a U.K. context, featuring a rich array of useful links.)

“The most important thing,” François said, is that “anybody who wants to support community arts work or community-based cultural practice, it’s very simple: they should trust the people who are doing it. All of the structure that has grown up particularly in the last 20 years about targets and outcomes…is completely inimical to the best of this work….The work really happens and brings benefits when you trust people to make their own judgments.” He added that “the paradox is that the funders largely trust the big institutions. Nobody ever says ‘Well, can we really trust Placido Domingo to sing properly tonight?’ My first law of arts evaluation is the less money you get, the more evaluation you’re required to undertake. And that’s because in the end, they still don’t trust us.”

In these and other ways, the funding elephant lurked in our Zoom room. How can people who may rely on (or at least hope for) grants challenge the inequities of our funding systems. As one participant explained, funders seem to want projects that celebrate diversity in a superficial way but don’t really engage community, especially communities of color. “What real movements are there out there that are willing to question and call out the big funders?” she asked.

This is a hard question. Many people are understandably reluctant to speak out for fear of jeopardizing their own support. It’s easier for people such as François and myself to be critical (e.g., my recent call to U.S. arts funders) because we don’t rely on grants. For those who do, there may be safety in numbers, though. Any one can convene conversations with friends, colleagues, and allies to together discuss needed reforms or alternative approaches, and band together to advocate for them. Looking back in history, I think of groups such as the committees of correspondence of the American Revolution, more or less shadow governments formed to vet, interpret, respond, and plan to counter the actions of the colonizing powers. Or the many local dialogues on democracy organized as fascism rose in the 1930s.

Watch the video or listen to the audio to hear project ideas and examples that could be part of workable community-based arts in this time, from works based on phone conversations to intergenerational dialogues. Obviously, dance and theater present the greatest challenges, but you’ll hear things relevant to all community arts practices.

Here are a few of the links participants offered to inspire and engage us:

Check out the Vermillion Community Mural Project on Facebook. It was conceived as a highly participatory painting project, but has been reconfigured to protect people’s health.

You’ll hear participants talk about using the telephone in creative ways to communicate with and engage folks for whom Zoom isn’t a viable option. One person provided a link to a “telebefriending” service for the visually impaired that might be adapted.

Here’s a group in northeast England that has been funded to distribute packets of art supplies and books to young people.

People Dancing, a U.K.-based organization, is offering an online summer school for dance practitioners.

Here’s a group that counsels forming solidarity syndicates to apply for Arts Council England Emergency funding, surmounting obstacles for individual artists.

Episode Two of the With For About 2020 online conference focuses on institutional racism in the context of a program that asks these questions: “What creative solutions have marginalised people developed to survive before Covid-19? What creative ways of being and organising are being made now in response to Covid-19? How do we embed and share these solutions, ways of being and organising now and into the future?”

In Haslingden, north of Manchester, England, a “A Socially Distanced Window Drawing Project” invites community members to speak to each other through drawing. Here’s the Facebook page.

Victor Wainwright, “Don’t Pass Me By.”

Arlene Goldbard

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about