Open Space

We are all participants now - so what is the future for presentational arts?

September 2018

Why Open Space?

Our project on Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts (UACA) is over half way through and at this point we had planned to host a one day conference, telling people about our interim findings and hearing from other researchers working in similar areas.

However, as our fieldwork in four UK cities has progressed, we’ve become aware of many recurring themes that are troubling arts organisations, audiences, and therefore us as researchers – so we decided to do something a little different.

We reflected on how the cultural policy climate has changed radically over the past few years. Projects such as Creative People and Places, 64 Million Artists, and Fun Palaces have placed participatory arts at the foreground of practice. These initiatives have been celebrated by some as examples of a more democratic approach to arts management and funding.

Since arts audiences are often comprised of the wealthiest, highly-education and least ethnically diverse of the UK population, recognising the everyday creativity that takes place in the lives of much of the rest of the population, and supporting participatory arts, community arts, and grassroots arts, could offer a means of addressing this inequality.

We then considered the many questions that emerge from this new state of the arts:

  • How should the professional, presentational arts sector respond to these developments? Should they adapt or die? Or is there a place for both to co-exist and what could that art eco-system look like?

  • What are the responsibilities of researchers and practitioners working in presentational and participatory arts to ensure an effective and sustainable future?

  • Who should be making these decisions: what effects does the location of power and funding have on the lives of those who don’t engage with state-funded arts?

  • Are amateur/professional, audience/performer, presentational/participatory still meaningful dualities?

  • What is our role (whoever ‘we’ are) and how can we fulfil it responsibly and to best effect?

We decided to explore these questions through an Open Space event, in order to provide a forum for researchers and practitioners to confront these challenges together.

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What is Open Space?

SPARC - Open Space principles transcribed by hand in black and blue

This striking poster was provided by Beka Haigh, who joined us for the day to take visual minutes and capture our discussions (@beka_haytch)

This question was best answered by an experienced facilitator, and so we enlisted Jane Shields from Sheffield Creative Guild to lead our session (@plainjaneshield). Jane guided our group of around twenty researchers, arts marketers, arts practitioners and audience members through the principles of Open Space:

  1. Whoever comes are the right people

  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have

  3. Whenever it starts is the right time

  4. When it is over, it is over

The event began with some time for individual thought, then paired discussion, to identify the key questions that we collectively wanted to discuss.

We then moved to table discussions of the themes, always following the law of two feet (which would make so many kinds of meetings better): “If you find yourself in a situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, move somewhere where you can.”

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Our themes and questions

Sketch of meeting members sat in a horseshoe shape

The Open Space began with all participants writing questions and topics that they were bringing to the session, which were then grouped into themes, and voted on by the addition of coloured stickers to the topics that the group wanted to discuss.

We arrived at five key themes:

  • Power hierarchies: who decides what art is being made?

  • What is participation?: do presentational arts also involve participation; do we know when we’re participating?

  • Quality and dilution: what does the move towards participation mean for artists, composers and makers?

  • Diversity and access: are audiences getting what they want?

  • Arts education: why is this so often left out of the discussion; what is its role in the making of future artists and audiences?

Our report aims to reflect some of the discussion in each of those areas, using Beka’s visual minutes to illustrate the connections between ideas. We present these as themes for further debate, rather than as resolutions to any of these huge challenges: the ideas will form a context for our ongoing research, and we intend to return to them at the conference that will mark the end of our project in 2019.

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The discussions

Power hierarchies

Debate in this topic centred on impetus and ownership in the arts: who decides what art is made and who it is for?

Often these answers are driven by funding: increased participation and education activity is one example of how the work of arts organisations has changed in recent years, initially in response to external forces, though subsequently becoming a strong part of their profile in many cases.

Some concern was expressed that the impact of participatory and outreach projects is often assessed purely by audience numbers, not by the quality of the experience for those who were involved, or the longer-term effect on the organisation and its audiences.

Who legitimises what takes place in outreach and participation projects? And indeed, what is performed in venues and displayed in galleries?

When funding decisions are made, some arts activity is supported and some is lost: is there sufficient oversight of the effect this is having on the cultural landscape of a city, a region, or the country? Whose job is it to have that oversight?

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What is participation?

Our opening provocation had included the statement ‘We’re all participants now’, in reference to the increasing prominence of projects designed to encourage and recognise ‘grassroots’ arts engagement (e.g. Creative People and Places, 64 Million Artists, and Fun Palaces).

Participation meant different things to different people at the Open Space: some were experienced creators or attenders of immersive theatre, some worked in education, many made art, music, dance and theatre as a central part of their own lives.

There was a strong acknowledgement though that not everyone wants to be a participant, that participation can be exposing, and that there’s a place for being ‘just’ an audience member (which could in itself be seen as a variety of participation).

Presentational art – meaning a performance done for an audience – has within it many elements of participation, such as the choir that rehearses for many months before the moment of presentation in that season’s concert.

Professionals are not referred to as ‘participating’, so is there a patronising element in the term? Participation could be a feeling as much as an action; belonging and feeling part of something.

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Quality and dilution

Participatory and presentational arts are often talked about separately, but we debated the effect of one upon the other.

Quality was identified as being at the heart of all good arts experience: a poor performance is not redeemed by being participatory, and audiences should still be able to have high expectations of artists, and vice versa.

Concern was expressed that the urge for everyone to be involved in the arts could lead to a dilution of quality: what does it mean for professional composers, for example, if everything needs to be accessible, readily understood and/or played by non-professionals?

Looked at in this light, an emphasis on accessibility could be seen as a threat to the challenging nature of much contemporary art and the virtuosity of elite performers, and therefore to the pleasure in high quality professional arts sought by many audience members.

We talked about the way that professional performers’ roles have changed: being a high level player is no longer sufficient, and there is an expectation of being an animateur, an educator and a communicator also – all very different skills. Conversely, there are problems when makers and performers are expected to give their time for free, with potential here for volunteerism to undermine the professional arts world by devaluing skills that have taken years to acquire.

Understanding the relationships between access and challenge, opportunity and elitism, needs to inform ideas of quality in the arts.

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Diversity and access

Access, inclusion and diversity are key words in current arts debate, as organisations respond to the charge that too much public funding goes into arts that are consumed by only a small and privileged section of the population.

This topic therefore permeated all of our discussions, but we also dared to ask the question, ‘does every arts event need to be inclusive?’: in other words, should diversity be more about the cultural ecology of a whole city or region, rather than a requirement made of every organisation?

Where organisations take action to bring the arts to communities who are typically absent from their audiences, what are the risks, including the effects of withdrawal at the end of the project?

And if people don’t want particular art forms (e.g. younger people and classical music), is that necessarily a problem to be tackled, or should finding a receptive audience for their work be a sufficient aim for an arts organisation?

Economic barriers to arts attendance cut across many kinds of diversity, and there was an eagerness to see these removed so that having new experiences of the arts was not inhibited by practicalities and finances. This was one of the many times that technology entered our discussions, as a potential route into the arts for a wider or currently less engaged group. Relating back to the questions of legitimisation and power, there were acknowledged problems in the arts sector making decisions for its audiences: are we doing enough to ask them what they want?

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Arts education

The place of the arts in education is often left out of the debate on cultural value: the importance of arts engagement and participation for adults’ well-being, citizenship and creativity is strongly argued, but not so strongly as to gain the arts a secure place in the school curriculum.

This has been the case for decades, but seems to be worsening, and the thriving extra-curricular life of schools that used to compensate for limited class time on the arts is also under threat from increased pressure on teachers and resources.

As technology in the arts changes rapidly, we thought about what skills are essential for young people to acquire for their future arts engagement: flexibility and ability to acquire new knowledge seemed more important than a ‘canonical’ understanding of past arts practices, but will create generation gaps between teachers and students, artists and young audiences.

Crucial to the place of the arts in education is political support and funding, both agreed to be sadly lacking at present. We talked about our responsibility to change this situation, rather than merely complaining about it: how do we make a case for arts education to someone who might not have had a positive school music, dance or drama experience themselves?

This problem will become all the more urgent as more people leave school with an impoverished arts education and then take up positions of influence themselves, whether as teachers, politicians, parents or future arts audiences.

Talking to unbelievers emerged as another underlying theme of the day: how do artists, existing audiences and researchers share their passion and articulate the value of the arts to people who have yet to be convinced?

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Summary and next steps

We ended our Open Space with more questions than we began, and by the time the law of two feet took us through the heavy rain of Storm Bronagh to the nearest pub, we still had much to talk about.

For our research on Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts (UACA), the day helped to enrich the debates that have surrounded the project, highlighting the ways in which diversity, education, participation and relevance need to be key themes in our analysis of the over 100 audience interviews we have now completed.

We aim to pay close attention to how the arts ecology works in each of the cities where we are carrying out our research – Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and London – and whether the idea of providing access and opportunity across a number of organisations and art forms is sufficient to ensure that all potential audiences get the arts that they want and need.

We will consider the questions of quality and dilution that were raised in the Open Space, looking for examples of how organisations and audiences are supporting high levels of professionalism in the arts, and where they are seeking something more participatory and democratic – and most importantly, how those two aims can coexist.

The next stage in our research was the launch of a national online survey of audience attitudes to the arts. The survey asked audience members of all kinds what they love about the venues and events they attend, and what draws them to or puts them off events that might have a ‘contemporary’ flavour.

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