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5 min read - Monday 13th December 2021 

Community Series: Can Art Fix a Community?

By Lois Freeman

Over a series of articles, I will be exploring the civic role of the arts. Can collective creativity cross social barriers, increase pride and ownership of place, and produce a happier, more connected community?

Creative involvement in the community, including coming together to create pieces of art, or to solve problems creatively, can lead to a more positive community self-image. This anchors people to a strong identity, directly increasing their sense of belonging, and their own happiness and wellbeing. Ranging from rewilding grey spaces and transforming neglected buildings to song and dance festivals and community-owned landmarks, The Arts, a sector often underfunded and devalued, may hold the potential to fix a post-pandemic community.

Ownership of place

Tom Borrup’s ‘The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook’ details how communities need ‘appropriate architecture’ that is ‘people-centric’ rather than prioritising transport or security. This means pedestrianised, versatile spaces that encourage interaction - Yinka Ilori’s new adult playground, ‘Playland’, for example.

Even better than prioritising residents, is letting them decide themselves. Collectively planning the use, design, or structure of a building cultivates a feeling of ownership, more likely to result in it being managed and maintained with enthusiasm and respect. It also means that the public’s involvement with their community’s decisions is positively proactive, rather than negatively reactive. Spaces can then become part of the community’s collective identity, steeped in history and memory, with residents as their ‘owners and stewards’.

Image description: Two images of Yinka Ilori’s adult playground ‘PlayLand’, a colourful, immersive exhibition which allows adults to set free their inner-child and play. 

The CAP Arts Centre in Northern Ireland is an organisation offering community-based arts activity, with a focus on inclusion, difference and sustainability.  Its art project ‘Landmarks’, allows community members to design their own landmarks, giving them autonomy over collective expression of importance, which is removed when larger corporations make these decisions. Their work responds to our contemporary moment in which, catalysed by Bristol’s Edward Colston statue, cities are increasingly rejecting monuments which no longer serve them.

Image description: (Left) June 7th, 2020. Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol tear down the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston. (Right) The launch of the ‘Belfast Wheel’ in King William Park (Belfast) in June 2005. Two men stand at an altar announcing its opening. The Belfast Wheel is a bronze map of the city in the shape of a clock.

Youth engagement

Community identity is propelled by all its inhabitants. However, many communities suffer from a lack of youth engagement which leads to age divisions and warring ideologies. Creative pursuits can help develop connections across age barriers by physically bringing together the young and the old. Research by the League of Women Voters indicates that ‘Issues related to children, including mentoring and coaching, and education are those most likely to mobilize the untapped reservoir of volunteers’. Art can be universally enjoyed, making it the perfect medium for community cohesion.

Creative Civic Change is a £4 million national funding programme across 14 different areas of England which tailors creative projects to local priorities. Workshops target disengaged young people and pair them together with local artists to reduce the gap of professionalism and redistribute knowledge and skills, making invaluable contributions to their personal and professional lives. This also offers crucial interaction between community and cultural groups, tackling Borrup’s observation that artists too often isolate their practices into their own ‘artsy’ bubble.

A recent project, ‘The 100-Year Plan’, sees residents of Stoke-on-Trent creatively construct an ecological blueprint for the next century. Young people have chosen to distribute seeds, turn disused buildings into green spaces, and begin a community-wide surge in planting. They have created a ‘Grow it - Cook it - Eat it’ project where residents collaborate with neighbouring communities to create a wider network of produce exchange and a residing culture of food-sharing. The street has become a hub of conversation, as residents exchange stories and share resources. Residents of all ages have built a collective identity based on shared values of environmentalism. The plan offers young people a stake in a future often clouded by the climate emergency and the repercussions of a global pandemic, with a ‘long-term vision for a greener, more biodiverse neighbourhood.’

Image description: Three children get involved in ‘The 100-Year Plan’ Campaign, in which they grow plants for the future.

Participation and Inclusion

For a long time, the arts have felt like an elite space, closed off to those without certain economic or social resources. Reinstating creative ventures in communities can open up this world to everyone, regardless of their background. Borrup’s work highlights the impact of resident participation as opposed to spectatorship, to avoid people watching their community change from the outside-in. The Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organizations, when researching the barriers to change, also identified a crucial need to develop people and skills, so that residents are equipped to teach and lead each other.

Art4Space is a not-for-profit social enterprise which uses the symbolic medium of mosaic to piece together its community. Founded by three artists and teachers, it began in a Kingston school, inviting children to paint murals and create mosaics on the walls of their playground. It has since grown into an invaluable establishment of the London community art scene, targeting schools in areas of disadvantage to improve the creative confidence of an entire generation. They are a female-led powerhouse, offering training for children and adults including creative therapeutic support groups, free courses for unemployed residents, and specialised women’s sewing classes. These tailored classes help minority members of the community establish a space for themselves.

Their centre is a place of retreat, where residents can engage in the cathartic ritual of mosaic, and connect over a shared creative task. Their beautifully colourful designs help to build a more joyful community landscape, aptly described by them as ‘architectural, not throwaway.’

Image description: (First) Members of Art4Space stand next to a bright yellow wall decorated with a mural which bears the word ‘Joy!’. (Second) An Art4Space mural depicting ‘Green St library’, with children reading on a sofa and a library worker carrying books.

Bringing together communities through art can celebrate and curate a shared culture holding creative residents, unique landmarks, and cherished public spaces. Art helps form crucial social connections, which fosters a harmonious, happy and economically successful community.

Gatekeeper Magazine© 2021