Arts outreach programmes: self-development or social instruction?

On 7 November, I took part in a symposium about cultural mediation in Basel, organised by Pro Helvetia with Migros. It marked the end of a four year programme supporting the development of outreach programmes in Swiss cultural institutions. The lively day was oversubscribed and included valuable contributions from Lois Hetland (on arts education research), Janna Graham (on the Serpentine Gallery’s education programmes) and Christoph Deeg, (on new media and outreach) among others. My contribution is below; it can also be downloaded here as a PDF.

Update 7.12.12: The whole Symposium documentation is now online here, including videos and downloads of all the contributions.


In 1989, I was working as a community artist in Leicester. That year, the city hosted the Special Olympics, an international sporting festival for people with learning disabilities. The organisation I then ran, East Midlands Shape, proposed to put on a parallel arts programme during the week of the games, with visual art workshops, an exhibition of prints and sculpture and a programme of lunchtime performances, all by people with learning disabilities. We secured some funds for this from the Department of Health, on condition that we submit a full evaluation of the work. It was the first time I had been required to do something of the kind. The fact that it was for a government department that did not normally finance art made it all the more important to get it right.

That evaluation report was undoubtedly naïve, but its conclusion still strikes me as valid. By talking to disabled people who had taken part in the programme, artists they had worked with and social workers, I was able to show that participants had gained a lot from the experience. They had tried new things, learned skills and developed confidence, all of which were key objectives of the day care centres they attended. But I concluded that these results were directly associated with the fact that they were not the purpose of our programme. We offered participants open, arts-led experiences that did not try to engineer a specific impact or outcome, other than creating a good exhibition or performance. And it was because of that freedom that the disabled participants had been able to grow through those experiences, in ways that suited them and met their own needs.

As far as I know, this report had precisely zero effect on anything. The suggestion that the positive results of participating in arts programmes were linked to those programmes not being designed to achieve them was certainly too paradoxical for the Department of Health. Perhaps because I learned this idea from direct experience of community arts practice, it has always seemed quite straightforward. And perhaps because it seemed straightforward I have, over the years and in subsequent research, failed to see that others do not always understand—or accept—the idea that art is most enriching when it was least controlled.

Today, this seems a key failing in some of my past work, including Use or Ornament?, which was published eight years after that evaluation of the Special Olympics arts programme. That, and other studies I undertook up to 2004, reported a range of positive results that people could gain from participating in arts activities, both individually and as groups. I did not anticipate, because as a community artist it had never occurred to me to work in such a way, that anybody would set out to create those results.

This research has sometimes been criticised for failing to establish a sufficiently strong causal connection between the activity and the positive experiences people described to me, a weakness recognised in the original report (which also recognised the limitations of scientific concepts and methods in understanding human experience, especially in the arts). But others made a far less reliable causal connection, in the opposite direction, by suggesting that, if these desirable effects were associated with participation in the arts, they could be reliably brought about by appropriately planned projects. I don’t think this conclusion could justifiably be drawn from my work, but I did not then understand how much politicians and planners—Plato’s students in so many ways—struggle to distinguish between what is important and what can be controlled. I did not understand their tendency to see culture as a source of social instruction rather than a space for self-development, as I saw it in my work as a community artist.

And this is the key idea that still dogs these debates. People experience all sorts of effects from participating or even simply seeing art. Many are positive, some are negative and others, perhaps the most important and interesting, cannot be boxed into such simple Manichean alternatives. Art, like education, is very important to human development. But because something is important, it does not follow that it can be commanded. In fact, the effects of art can be neither controlled nor guaranteed, certainly not at an individual level. And further, the attempt to control or guarantee specific effects is, as I learned during the Special Olympics work, quite an effective way of ensuring that what is intended will not happen.

To see why, it may help to step back a little and look at art itself and and how people engage with it. Art is a unique and vital aspect of human flourishing. All societies produce it, often in conditions of poverty or hardship. On the most basic evolutionary analysis, it is evidently necessary to human beings. Why? Because it allows them to engage with the key question that troubles them: the meaning of their own existence. It does so by enabling them to create and express values in forms that go beyond the rationalism that is enabled by language. Art is another system of communication made by human beings through which they can express their beliefs, hopes, fears, ideals, fantasies and much more, in ways that can be understood by others but, if necessary, denied, even to oneself.

All human beings have a relationship with art. Some ministries of culture and art institutions do not recognise because they are committed to a particular idea of art and aesthetics that emerged during and after the European Enlightenment. That idea, not coincidentally, is also one that sits easily with the idea that government’s task is to instruct or control people. But it is only one, culturally specific idea of art. If we step beyond our own narrow view for a moment, looking for example at the Tanzanian kanga, we can see that art is used everywhere in the way I have just described. Unless we appeal to a superhuman authority, we cannot defend any cultural ideal as universal. That is not an descent into relativism: some things are definitely better than others. But we must always be prepared to explain why we believe what we like and admire is better than what we do not.

The development of outreach programmes—the wide range of activities by which publicly funded cultural institutions seek to reach new audiences—is an important aspect of post-war European cultural policy. It is usually described within a concept of democratisation, in which cultural services are designated a public good, like education and health services that the state should provide to its citizens. The good reason for cultural institutions to extend access to their offer is the belief that the art they care for or create is an enriching human experience, which is true. The less admirable reasons are to secure greater political legitimacy for activities used mainly by a small and privileged part of a society or to promote unquestioned acceptance of elite forms and values. In other words, to use art as a form of state-controlled social instruction.

Whether these justifications for outreach programmes bear much relation to the experiences participants actually get from them is another question. The people who are—in the violent metaphor often used by cultural institutions—‘targeted’ by such initiatives are autonomous human beings, actively engaged in forming their own sense, taste, values, ideas and judgements. They are not passive blanks onto which cultural agents can stamp their impressions. Each of us responds to an artistic experience differently. Our character, past experience, present feelings, education, social position, age—these and many other things that make each of us unique, determine how we respond to experience.

Art offers powerful, complex experiences whose effects we cannot fully understand even in ourselves, still less in other people. Crucially, those experiences are particular to ourselves. An artist creates a work of art. A spectator, reader, listener or participant recreates it through the filter of their own selves in the auditorium of their own mind. But what the spectator, reader, listener or participant recreates is not what was in the artist’s mind, only something new that is enabled by the work of art. That is why no two people have ever read the same book. That is why people can have such violently different reactions to a film , a play or a concert. That is why people can have a fine musical sensibility and manage a concentration camp.

This is a fundamental problem to politicians who like to believe that their policies and spending decisions are based on reason and evidence. Seeing, as they increasingly do, that art has an important place in people’s lives and that it can also lead to positive changes, they have turned to evaluation both to reassure them about something they do not really understand and to give them more power over how it is used. They have used scientific method as the most politically legitimate knowledge system, but without asking how appropriate it is to understanding arts practice and experience. In fact, since people’s experience of art are essentially individual, it is all but impossible to meet the first criteria of scientific method, namely that experiments should be replicable and lead to the same results,  in assessing arts programmes.

Where does this leave us? First, and most simply, it seems evident to me that cultural institutions financed through public taxation have an underlying responsibility to ensure the widest possible access to their work by those who pay for it. That seems straightforward enough: in the terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right freely to participate in the culture of the community and to enjoy the arts. On that level, no further justification of outreach programmes should be required.

But, of course, governments and institutions are entitled to seek the greatest value from their spending and art outreach programmes do produce a wide range of mostly desirable effects. Those effects can, in broad terms and in individual people, be identified and observed. But they cannot be reliably planned or engineered because people’s experience of art is internal and self-determined. Art is an almost unbreakable area of personal autonomy, which is one reason it has been such a strong refuge for people living under totalitarian regimes. Its best effects on us are associated with that autonomy. They arise when and because we invest our own imaginative energy into an engagement with art, whether as creators or recreators. Art is a route to self-development and agency. Those who attempt to use it as a means of social instruction will generally be disappointed by the results, not because they do not exist but because they are not those they intended.

Finally, and because of these first two points, the use of arts evaluation either to prove its value to dominant political cultures or to control arts policy and management so as to achieve simplistic social outcomes, are both destined to fail. Very little about art can be proved, and nothing of what is most important about it. Very little about art can be controlled, and again nothing of what is most important. Instead, we should be using evaluation to improve practice by understanding better how people engage with the arts. In pursuit of that understanding, I believe that methods of inquiry and knowledge creation that are drawn from the humanities will often be more helpful than those drawn from natural science or management theory, especially if these are used simplistically.

And instead of trying to use the arts for social instruction, which is like trying to pot a snooker ball with a rope, government should accept that enabling self-development is a more effective, more democratic and more just principle of cultural policy.