Exploring practice

On Tuesday 17 March 2015 the Outside In team organised one of 100 conversations celebrating and exploring the practice of artists who work in participatory settings. This was part of Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Special Initiative Programme – Connecting the Conversation – set up to build on strengthening support for artists. The Initiative has been going for four years and these lively discussions are to be used to shape the next phase of the programme. In this post, Outside In Manager Jennifer Gilbert looks back at the morning’s events.


We decided to bring together a network of people that the project works with in London to include artists, experts by experience and organisations. Those present were:

  • Bobby Baker – Artistic Director of Daily Life Ltd
  • Emma Cahill – Administrator of Daily Life Ltd
  • Beth Elliott – Director of Bethlem Gallery
  • Terence Wilde – Artist involved with Bethlem Gallery
  • Phil Baird – Artist involved with Bethlem Gallery
  • Sheryll Catto – Co Director of Action Space
  • Thompson Hall – Artist involved with Action Space
  • Molly Bretton – Access Officer at Royal Academy of Arts
  • Carlo Keshishian – Artist and Outside In Ambassador
  • John Jennings – Artist and Outside In Ambassador
  • Sara Dziadik – Programme Coordinator for Artists and Exhibitions at Shape Arts

connecting the conv

Beforehand we had asked each person attending for their definition of participatory arts and we spent an enjoyable morning discussing these, as well as the issues we face, questions around best practice, and how to find one definition to describe participatory arts – all whilst drinking coffee and eating pastries!

What became apparent over the course of the morning is that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. However, some organisations brought up the requirements of their funders, and how this often means that the true core of participatory arts and meeting the needs of the artists is sometimes put on the backburner.

We all spoke of the quality of the process often being more important that the final product. And as Carlo Keshishian put it: “Thinking about longevity and impact – if the process is successful, then whoever who was involved will want to come back and stay involved with it. The value of the process remains with those that are there at the time – you often don’t need anything more. That is the most important thing.” Phil Baird added: “If you had an exhibition, in any space or gallery, then that is a long term benefit for the artist – it’s on the artist’s CV too. It gives you a sense of place and a sense of belonging.”

We discussed how to document this ‘middle part’ that happens – as more often than not, the final product or exhibition is where the quality is assessed. For artists, the process is often what stays with them and as the larger organisations, we need to find a way to showcase this ‘middle part’ to both funders but also to arts audiences and the general public. This will be a focus for Outside In moving forward and in our recent exhibition Intuitive Vision: Shifting the Margins in Brighton we shared sketchbooks and working drawings so that audiences could start to understand the journey people have taken to reach their final product.

Sally Ward's sketchbook in 'Intuitive Visions: Shifting the Margins', photograph (c) Andy Hood

Sally Ward’s sketchbook in ‘Intuitive Visions: Shifting the Margins’, Photograph (c) Andy Hood

The other side of this is trying to show the longevity of the impact of the process. Emma Cahill said of Daily Life Ltd.’s recent work: “With the Expert View, we have been doing evaluation forms, to try and capture ‘something’, to measure the impact on our audiences. However, we don’t know what conversations they will have when they get home, or in few weeks’ time, and whether the impact of being involved has affected them long term.” This again could be followed up with conversations and interviews in three months and then in six months’ time, if the artists and those involved agree to it. With Outside In, when we work with museums and galleries, we initially speak about the legacy of the project and how they will continue to work with the artists and organisations in their area during the exhibition and afterwards too.

Phil put it very well when he said: “What we all value the most is not necessarily what the funders value the most. So we have to do both the soft and hard outcomes of the project.”

A vital question for us is how to make funders see the importance of the process, without necessarily having an outcome or finished product. If an artist comes along to an event, workshop or exhibition and doesn’t necessarily take part, they often still benefit a lot from it – how do we show the importance of this?

Workshop at University of Chichester, Photograph (c) Andy Hood

Workshop at University of Chichester, Photograph (c) Andy Hood

How people participate can vary – it is not the same for everyone. Participatory arts is about taking part, whatever that role may be and whatever the extent of that involvement. Emma said: “If they just want to sit on the side and observe, that is still a legitimate experience in a participatory arts setting. People need to be allowed to negotiate their own terms of reference and in this case, this is to negotiate their participation.”

We spoke about the exchange of power in participatory settings and everyone learning from one another. Emma said, “It is an exchange – from an artist coming in to lead and make something, to an exchange of power and an exchange of knowledge as well.” Beth Elliott added: “Sometimes it can be beautifully participative where you begin with an idea, and people taking part in it help to shape what it then becomes and then the process and the outcome too. It is quite nice to let go of that ownership as it moves and changes.”

We feel that participatory arts are about collaboration, with everybody and their involvement being valued equally. Sheryll Catto talked about the element of everyone working together towards a shared goal, with everyone being creative both verbally, physically and mentally. Art can be used for people to communicate in a variety of ways and this is hugely important. With images being used so often now, Sheryll and Bobby Baker both spoke of participatory arts being vital in the evolution of brains, humanity and society as a whole.

Paul Bellingham's work in 'Intuitive Visions: Shifting the Margins,' Photograph (c) Andy Hood

Paul Bellingham’s work in ‘Intuitive Visions: Shifting the Margins,’ Photograph (c) Andy Hood

One thing we spoke quite a lot about is what we all class as participatory arts and exactly what kinds of workshops fall under participatory arts. This conversation came about from the original definitions and whether a leader or facilitator needed to be present in the sessions and how the workshops were shaped and allowed to develop. Differing views came out here, which resulted in an interesting discussion which we will continue to assess as we move forward with this.

Finally, towards the end of the session John Jennings said a wonderful thing: “In a sense artists are like cats … we wander off, do our own thing, and then get back together again in whatever form chosen.”

Post it notes were present throughout and here is a snapshot of what people were writing:

    • Showing interest outside of yourself in what someone else has done
    • Releasing ego > everyone is equal
    • Dangers of short products
    • Participatory arts = a celebration of creativity
    • Taking part being accessible = importance of ownership
    • Image making now challenging the word dominated culture
    • Art is about communication and community and curiosity
    • Willingness to be reactive!!
    • Value of participatory arts? How is it viewed by other forms of art practice?
    • Arts is communication so participation in it needs to be inclusive and supportive of a variety of ‘languages’ or engagement

The definition that Outside In started about participatory arts before the discussion was:

Participatory art describes a form of accessible art making that has participation at its heart, where the process is as equally important as the output. Work produced under this umbrella is the result of collaboration, co-ownership and co-authorship.


Our definition now, which is still a work in progress:

Participatory art describes a form of accessible art making that has participation and empowerment at its heart, where: the process is often more important to the artist than the output; the level of creative involvement is up to the artist and is valued equally; and longevity and impact to the artist are key values to follow through. Work produced under this umbrella is the result of collaboration, co-ownership and co-authorship.


To find out more about what happened on the day, you can view our Storify of the event, where we have gathered all of the Tweets relating to the conversation. Please click here to read the Storify.

Watch this space for further discussions, definitions and ideas. We are keen to hear about your thoughts on participatory arts and how you would define it, so please leave a comment below if you would like to join the conversation.

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