Simon Barrow

Transforming lives through the arts: is it possible?

By Simon Barrow
August 9, 2013

What is the relationship between arts in the broadest sense, and change in the broadest sense (social, personal, cultural, political and economic)?

That was the issue in discussion at St John's Church, Edinburgh, when five practitioners led a lively and engaged conversation as part of Just Festival 2013 - which is in itself a major showcase of music, performance, workshops, the visual arts, dialogue, and much more.

The panel began by introducing the work of their own organisations, and then raising themes and issues picked up by the audience (a very participatory one) in ongoing discussion.

Bob Chilcott is a composer and conductor, working mainly with choral music. He was formerly one of the King's Singers. "What has interested me most of all has been working with amateurs and those who aspire to make music part of their lives and improve with it," he said. "That has also been the inspiration of working with Waverley Care."

Waverley Care is Scotland's leading charity providing care and support to people living with HIV and Hepatitis C and to their partners, families and carers.

It has long recognised that music and the arts have a major role to play in raising awareness, understanding and change - which is why it has jointly sponsored this discussion.

Fourth World Art originated with a three-month trip to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, explained Lilian Lee. "Trade rather than just aid can help a country re-build, we realised." There is a showcase of some of the work produce by Haitian artisans in the chapel at St John's Church.

Gavin Crichton of Active Inquiry Theatre Company in Leith is working with skilled non-professionals, using theatre as a catalyst for critical community dialogue. 'Forum theatre' enables the audience to get involved with the production as participants. It enables new ideas to be introduced in situ.

"Impact Arts is a social enterprise," said Jay McAllister, introducing the work of her organisation. It uses music, dance, set design, fashion design, installations and much more. In this way, it engages locally communities in skill and social development through the arts.

'Creative pathways', involving theatre work in Edinburgh, for example, enables people to develop skills and receive tutoring, pastoral support and coaching at the same time. Money is also brought back into the organisation by marketing materials produced through these schemes, and by providing work experience.

Art can help individual change and confidence building, said Gavin Crichton. Hopefully it brings deep social change too, "but I'm not sure about that, I want to think about it and explore it... that's why I'm here," he said, mentioning economic issues for hard pressed communities.

This was a theme picked up in Leith 'forum theatre' work in May, Crichton explained. "It's long term, and action has to be thought of as part of the process, or change doesn't happen."

"Art has changed my life," Lilian Lee affirmed. "It also has tremendous economic value for a country like Haiti... generating some $10 million worth of revenue."

Has Haiti changed? Not nearly as much as it should have, she admitted. "Only half the £5 million pledged through international aid has been spent there... But we work with local artisans. However, they need markets to sell through. [Along with] bigger economic change, art can help change Haiti."

One painting sale can support a family for a week or more. Things are very tough, but "there is great potential" in Haiti, she said.

Bob Chilcott spoke about the significant outreach programmes of music organisations, including his own commission for the BBC Proms last year, involving school children and dealing with the effects of environmental change.

Some 200 primary school children were mentored for between six months and a year by the Bach Choir and the BBC Singers.

"Energy to be in contact with people, that's what it's all about... helping people not to be afraid to say 'I like that' or I don't like that', to take part," said Bob, in response to an audience point about participation.

He had been disappointed, he added, that some people had complained about audience noise during his Proms commission in 2012. This missed the point that a large number of people who had not attended before were involved. A significant number of Muslims were there, which was different from the usual demographic.

Equipping people to make choice is a vital and challenging issue that can be supported through arts engagement, Jay McAllister added.

Discussants pointed out that a narrow concept of perfectionism, including fear of making mistakes, inhibited people.

Our models of theatre and other arts are often inherited from narrow nineteenth century conceptions, Gavin Crichton suggested.

Also, he said, it had to be recognised that choices and opinions were framed by a voracious market economy and its political outworking. The strength of this conditioning is very strong.

Likewise, "inclusivity" is a term that is being spread around so widely, it is difficult to know what it means or what difference it makes.

In Haiti, Lilian Lee observed, the basic issue is survival, and beyond that enablement to move forward and make for the possibility of change.

So do you start with individuals and with people's sense of their own worth, asked an audience member? Is it about "a sense of empowerment"?

Yes and no, was the implicit response. It was also about examining wider social forces.

The extent to which government supported or did not support arts, along with a large degree of public involvement, was a highly significant issue, Bob Chilcott suggested. "As a way of changing a country, that's a darned good start..."

Lilian Lee spoke of two contrasting views of Haitian art: the 'fine artist' who finds it "simple and naive", and the business person who sees it potential in terms of "those who love this art will buy it".

This raised a question of value and arbitration in the field of art, in both elite and vernacular terms.

"A lot of this idea of what is good or not is internalised from a few critics and specialists," said Crichton. I speak of non-professionals making really excellent theatre... It has been said, 'anyone can act, even actors'!"

There is a need for arts to develop the language of different art forms, and also to share it, and to popularise it. 'Culture wars' act as a barrier rather than a bridge, but a lot of bridging is still going on, despite the fact that ghettoisation ('classical music', 'jazz' etc.) continues, too.

Community arts groups have been doing local and social engagement for years, but funding can suddenly go to high arts organisations when they develop an interest in this area.

Finance is a huge issue. "I would say that 70 per cent of my job is making sure we're there next month," commented Jay McAllister of Impact Arts.

"Funding for continuing work is so important... and so difficult" in the current climate, confirmed Bob Chilcott, with pots of money being switched, finance streams beginning and ending, and concerns about 'dependence' looming large.

Change through the arts is a long-term process, but ultimately its about renewing values in practice, said one discussant.

"Getting back to the margins can be difficult because we're all so readily embedded in the system," Gavin Crichton declared, pointing to earlier generations of feminists, socialists and other dissidents whose practice was to question the 'mainstream'.

On arts and stereotypes, Waverley Care is concerned to challenge stigma – including, for example, the tartan AIDS awareness ribbons. "The festival, for us, is hugely important: for example, the role of comedy, a project at the New Town bar, and so on."

Other examples from Impact Arts included an intergenerational Craft Cafe, with a focus on older people, and Fab Hab, a renovation project working with homeless people moving into accommodation.

Dementia awareness, understanding and support has also been furthered through Craft Cafe, Jay McAllister said.

What would be good would be for charities and NGOs (and businesses) to support the development and work of artisans, rather than trying to "have a piece of Haiti" and push "aid packages", Lilian Lee of Fourth World Art stressed.

Gavin Crichton said that challenging stereotypes, stigmas and limiting images was one of the key things that different art forms could do.

Just Festival, also known simply as Just, runs from 2-26 August 2013. It is based at St John's Church (corner of Princes Street and Lothian Road) and some 27 other venues, and combines artistic and performance style events with conversations, talks, films exhibits and other ways of exploring how to live together creatively in a mixed-belief society.

This article is taken from a live blog, with acknowledgement of the fallibilities of that medium!

* For more information on Just Festival, visit http://www.justjust.org and http://justfestivalnews.blogspot.com

* Film at Just Festival: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18746

* Plays tackling the issue of sectarianism: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18764

* Ekklesia is a sponsor of Just Festival. Our news, reporting and comment is aggregated at: www.ekklesia.co.uk/justfestival

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia and a media adviser for the 2013 Just Festival.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.