Mike White writes: Utrecht, a city so flat it could be ‘sta-prest’, proved the appropriate setting for a bi-national conference attempting to iron out the wrinkles and nuances of meaning in research methodologies for participation and engagement in the arts. This event on 20-21 June was instigated by Leeds Met University as the culmination of an ESRC-funded seminar series. Opening remarks from our Dutch hosts, LKCA and Universiteit Utrecht, painted a parallel world of state retrenchment in civil funding responsibilities, the substitution of ‘Big Society’ ideals for a community arts infrastructure, and the perverse but pervasive notion that if culture is so dynamic why does it need any public support other than market forces? The UK arts sector has bewailed similar challenges and losses but failed, it seems to me, to ask how and why such a fundamental question has arisen. At least the Dutch are prepared to see the arts sector as partly to blame by becoming an instrument for social relations and creative industries, in which the entrepreneur has replaced the political activist, and this has impacted on the pre-occupation of research with measurement rather than transformation.

I rant, therefore I digress. The first keynote, by America Vera-Zala, failed to strike home, giving a rather rambling account of where community theatre could go wrong and not attaining its promised analysis of cultural democracy. The breakout sessions, however, showed where the themes were spilled, if not spelled, out – though I can only partially assess these based on the rounds I attended. Jan Brouwer of CAL-XL, a national network of community artists and policy makers, explained that the arts sector in the Netherlands is not experienced in demonstrating its utility but nonetheless grasps how art can deal with social change.   A recent workforce development initiative has produced by consensus a field map for arts engagement that clarifies the essential relations of arts in society and is already energising new partnerships and civil projects. I was impressed by the speed and resilience with which the Dutch have re-positioned socially relevant arts and located some new funding streams within the maze of austerity measures. An absence of the cynicism that dogs UK practice may have helped them. This talk was interestingly paired with a presentation from Kerrie Shaeffer and Graham Jeffrey (of Exeter and West Scotland universities) on their AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ study of developments in community arts since Use or Ornament? (1996), the social impact study of the arts by Francois Matarasso. With case studies of four UK arts/media organisations they note how a more politicised approach is emerging despite a chameleonic necessity to adapt to broader funding mixes and the social outcomes sought. They suggested the terms ‘journey’ and ‘impact’ are replacing the dialectic of ‘process and product’, and whilst as researchers they traded complex theoretical positions, in the end they sided with the ‘cut the crap’ observation of one community arts director that “people just want the liberty to demonstrate that joy of doing stuff.”

The second day’s keynote by Andrea Bandelli on ‘scientific citizenship’ chimed with the conference’s inclination towards reflexive practice as a means of moving from a deficit to a dialogue model of engagement. He acknowledged science education to be more closely bound in with the political system than the arts and that “innovation here is a linear process” – which struck me as fine if everyone supports incremental progress, but what about when ‘scientific citizenship’ meets civil unrest on an issue such as fracking? He rhetorically asked what relevance science education, particularly in museums, might have to arts participation, and I muttered “start with arts in health”.

My talk for the conference focussed on the four ‘critical mass’colloquia (see previous blogs) that I and Mary Robson have arranged since 2011 to look at international collaborations in community-based arts in health . What began as an inquiry into opening up research partnerships in an international context has actually developed into an assessment of the common ground in practice across different cultures, policy frameworks and healthcare systems. The conversations have focussed as much on the experiential nature of arts in health as its theoretical constructs. Maintaining a fairly even mix of participants representing research interests and ‘coalface’ practice, along with some injection of entrepreneurial thinking, has resulted in a more grounded theory approach to the work with an appreciation of the inter-disciplinary contribution of medical humanities to understanding the phenomenology of arts in health. I was very pleased to have a counterpart presentation by Sian Aggett, a Wellcome Trust doctoral student, on their Arts in Global Health initiative which has placed indigenous artists in healthcare settings in developing countries. My session also included two presentations on arts and dementia (by freelance curator Susan Potter and Cathy Bailey of Northumbria University), provoking reflection on the challenges for engagement posed by the foremost health issue of our time which impacts at the heart of human relations.

A session on arts engagement with people with learning needs challenged orthodoxies of amateur/professional, quality and value, (highlighting too that ‘value’ is a term that young children struggle to understand), and this for me suggested where frontline debate on participation could head out theoretically, as well as practically (e.g. in arts apprenticeships). A recurring citation throughout the conference was to Bourdieu’s theory of ‘habitus’, particularly in how patterned tendencies lead to perception of value. This helped me see a convergence between community-based arts in health and the ‘future public health’, as presaged in a book of that title by Hanlon, Carlisle and Hannah (2012), that “will include systems and ecological insights, qualitative methods and the wisdom that can come from narratives, dialogue, personal experience and pattern recognition”. This calls for mixed methods research that is both inter-disciplinary and subjectively immersive, because how can inquiry into meaningful and creative engagement be anything other than that?

The panel session at the conference finale asked “is the practice getting too safe?”, giving example of how European Capital of Culture bids have increasingly become about the narrative of the bid with a rhetoric of participation that rarely lives up to the reality. Research, it concluded, is pretty pointless without on-going dialogue with creative practitioners, which is why the delegate composition of this conference was a big plus in enabling such dialogue to happen at what felt like an ‘advanced class’ level – and in an environment too that was congenially on the level. I liked Utrecht – I’m minded to go back there on holiday.


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