Developing artists for a co-created future

As the sector rethinks its relationship with the communities it serves, professional training will need to strengthen connections between the making of art, the artists and their community-based co-creators. Nick Ponsillo and Helena Gaunt propose a radical shift to a more holistic approach for developing creative practice.

In 2017 an article in ArtsProfessional argued that the sector placed little artistic value on artists collaborating in community-based projects and that a radical shift in artist training and development was long overdue. The issue hasn’t gone away.

Contemporary challenges are once again highlighting the fundamental value of the arts for humans, individually and collectively. Deep fractures and baffling complexity across societies are being crystallized through the Covid-19 pandemic and the growth of movements such as Black Lives Matter. The outpouring of streamed performances and participatory projects demonstrate both the profound need for this type of work and the challenges it poses for business models in the arts professions. The depth and pace of change means that professional training has to rethink its part in the ecology and the contribution it can make to the arts in societies.

Current issues

For well over a decade the demand for a broad range of creative activity that involves people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities has been growing. More recently, mainstream recognition that the arts can make an even greater contribution to our lives has started to emerge in parallel with the need to find different ways in which to tackle societal issues. 

Consequently, skilled and experienced community-based artists are in high demand. Their route into the profession tends to be more by chance than design and their experience gained through trial and error. Beyond this relatively small group of specialist artists, options for organisations wanting to provide rigorous responses to growing demand remain limited and fulfilling this demand is a challenge. 

Increasing numbers of students participate in community-based placements within their studies. For many these placements can be transformative, yet, with limited opportunity to further their professional development in this area, the future workforce is being let down. The limited diversity of these artists is also a huge concern, especially considering the people engaging in community-based projects are themselves increasingly representative of our diverse communities and culture.

Community focus

Arts Council England’s new ten-year strategy, ‘Let’s Create’, places great emphasis on creativity, cultural democracy and access, signalling a considerable change in the ways that artists and organisations will be expected to collaborate with the communities in which they operate. Artistic practice will need to reflect this more democratic approach.  

For example, following the landmark APPG report ‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’, ACE’s new strategy recognises that the arts make a positive impact on health and wellbeing. For stronger relationships between culture, health and social care to be nurtured there will need to be a large, suitably trained and accredited workforce to enable the widespread roll-out of arts in health initiatives. 

Aesop and Canterbury Christ Church University have begun to address training, bringing together “…those working in the health or arts sectors to develop the values and beliefs, knowledge, skills and competencies relevant to the provision and growth of successful arts in health programmes.” However, this focuses on just one area in what is likely to be an artist’s portfolio career. A widespread shift to holistic artist training will need to take place in further and higher education, and beyond, if the ‘Let’s Create’ vision is to be realised.

Inclusive training

The Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama is addressing the burning contemporary question of what it means to become a properly inclusive organisation and fulfil the role of National Conservatoire of Wales. For the College a large part of the answer lies in its training – both who gets to train (in itself a huge issue) and what that training should look like.

Building on the College’s existing strengths and close industry connections, curricula are being reshaped to ensure they stimulate, provoke and enable students to engage more fully in society. Programmes will encourage students to respond creatively, collaboratively, morally and politically, thereby find their unique path into the creative professions and shaping them for the future. 

Specialist postgraduate pathways are being developed for those who want to focus their attention on participatory settings. Working with industry partners these pathways are being restructured to create in-depth professional apprenticeships to develop the workforce for community-based projects.

Taking action, catalysing change

Embracing a paradigm shift in professional artist training is not to throw out traditional values, especially the notion of deep craft, the honing of practical skills in consort with imagination. To lose sight of Hippocrates’ ‘ars longa, vita brevis’ is to lose everything. But there has to be a renaissance in the ways that professional training connects the triangle of the art form, the artists and their community-based co-creators. 

It’s time to catalyse radical conversations and start producing a blueprint for change. This has been a topic of debate over recent years but the renaissance that will take students and professionals through experience to the heart of the imaginative, moral and practical nexus of being an artist in society, for society, and even of society – must begin in 2020.

Prof. Helena Gaunt is Principal, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama and Nick Ponsillo is Director of the Philip Barker Centre for Creative Learning at the University of Chester.

Whose culture is it anyway?!?, an online Open Space event on 11th September hosted by the Philip Barker Centre, alongside their partners, will bring together artists, senior HE and culture leaders and community members to start creating a blueprint for change.

Article first published in ArtsProfessional

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