Arts organisations working with communities conjure hope and the possibilities of change. They ignite in the heart of civil society the power of the arts to reimagine the world and shape a better future – one rooted in equity, sustainability, creativity and opportunity for all.
At the Foundation, we have called this superpower – and responsibility – the ‘civic role’ of arts organisations. Through our Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations and the Programme that followed, we have championed the need for arts organisations in receipt of public funding to demonstrate the value they bring to their communities, across the UK and internationally.
In the seven years since we launched the Inquiry, so much has changed in the external context, much of it turmoil and disruption. Yet we have seen repeatedly how arts organisations have responded with energy and agility, reimagining ways of operating, rallying for those most vulnerable in their communities, creating solutions and connecting people, inspiring joy and hope through arts and culture despite the challenges.
The Foundation’s support for this programme has totalled £3.4 million over the period, seeking to influence change at policy and practice, leadership and network levels. Initiatives such as the Co-creating Change Network, the Creative Civic Change programme and the Award for Civic Arts Organisations have spotlighted and supported the growing movement of organisations embracing a civic role, with often transformational impact in the communities they serve.
The new learning report by the programme’s evaluator, Mark Robinson, gives an overview of the work supported by the Foundation in recent years. It shows the civic arts movement is building, but there is much still to do. It also highlights areas for consideration in the next phase, which must respond to the shifts and demands of the sector and society now.
The Civic Role programme aimed to influence systemic change and grow the movement of civic arts organisations in the UK and beyond. Its impact was analysed through five lenses – here are the key findings from the report:
- Influence on arts practice, policy and funding – the programme has been part of a rising tide of interest in the civic and social roles of arts activities. The language of the civic role is now well-established. However, the learning report notes that this language can be easy to co-opt.
- Sharing practice – knowledge exchange has been at the core of the programme. This has led to new cohorts, skills-building and new tools to build resilience during crisis. Practice should be shared more widely across sectors in order to expand connections and to find holistic solutions to problems.
- A growing movement – most arts organisations consider themselves to have a ‘civic mission’. The 649 applicants to our Award demonstrate a consistency of impact, audiences, partners and methods, suggesting a civic arts movement across many, if not all, art forms and regions of the UK.
- Benefits to local communities – communities have benefited from this work. The most frequently reported outcomes were better connections between individuals and groups, the confidence to act creatively, improved wellbeing, skills and creativity. Other common benefits to local people included tackling isolation and new opportunities for individuals to progress as creative practitioners and leadership development.
- Indicators of sustained change – the ‘civic’ is increasingly embedded in how arts organisations develop activity. UK arts policy in recent years features strong civic dimensions – some examples are Arts Council England’s Let’s Create strategy and the government’s Cultural Investment Fund. However, the report highlighted reduced local authority funding and financial pressures that require better and consistent ways of evaluating civic impact to justify support.
At a recent gathering with Civic Role partners and stakeholders, we reflected on the five areas of consideration for the future highlighted in Mark Robinson’s report and the questions to guide us going forward:
- Equity – a shift of emphasis from inclusion and diversity to ‘equity’ means considering not just ‘who’ or ‘which places’ but ‘how’ and on ‘what basis’. How are the lived experiences of people recognised and valued within the creative process? How are people involved in creative decision making?
- Co-creation – language and frameworks to critically appraise co-creation are not yet fully developed. What does good co-creation look like, what is it trying to achieve, and how best in practice do you do it?
- Generational shifts – how is the sector evolving to a new mix of generations, frameworks and passions?
- Climate justice – climate justice is ‘civic’ because climate change impacts people and communities, with those who have the least, affected the most. This is a key element of the broader civic arts agenda and is at the core of our strategy, with our twin focus on Equity and Sustainability.
- Partnerships in place – the most resilient arts organisations are those with the strongest networks and partnerships. We need to extend and grow partnerships beyond the usual suspects and find new supporters, peers, partners and co-creators.
As the Foundation begins a new phase under the twin priorities of Equity and Sustainability, we remain committed to developing and growing the work that this programme set in motion. With an international team based in Lisbon and London, and connections across Europe, our Access to Culture programme will continue to support arts organisations in the UK, Portugal and beyond to work in and with communities. We will partner with key cultural institutions at national level to grow and embed this work; strengthen knowledge exchange and networks; and, in partnership with others, advocate for a European agenda on the civic role of the arts.Learning report Access to Culture programme