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The Many Faces of Participation

The following is a summary of key learnings and resources from a virtual session held as part of the ArtsEngage Learning Community in mid-November, 2020. The focus of this session was Participation.

In the ArtsEngage Learning Community, we are working together to change our ways of thinking and open our minds to new ways of working. So we started our session on participation with this quote from French Marxist theorist, philosopher, filmmaker and founding member of the Situationist International, Guy Debord:

It’s not new forms of art that are needed, but new forms of revolutionary everyday life. —Guy Debord

We then invited the participants to gather in small breakout rooms and share insights about the participants in their community-engaged projects. Together, participants reflected on:

  • Who is participating and in which capacity
  • How are you inviting them? 
  • What do people give and get?
  • Who is making decisions
  • What’s the balance between contributing, participating, celebrating, enjoying?

After this reflection, we watched this video about the 2020 Rome Charter. This initiative, founded upon Article 27 of the Declaration of Human Rights, aims to promote the right to participate in cultural life as a condition for a better society:

The 2020 Rome Charter

This video prompted an open conversation about participation – what is participation? Who is given the option to participate and in what ways? And what specific challenges are the Learning Community experiencing  as they plan their community-engaged projects?

To frame this conversation, we also brought forward a quote that we used in our very first session with the Learning Community:

True community partnerships require a new kind of dialogue, beginning with the assets both partners bring to the birth of new relevance, not just the assets that an arts organization offers to hopefully grateful recipients” – Eric Booth

Below are a few key highlights from the ensuing conversation:

Everyone is living their own reality right now. We may assume that we’re all the same and experiencing the same - but we’re not!

The question of relevance was raised several times. In trying to create relevant programs, are we entering into dialogue with our communities (and if so, with who?)? Do we really know what is relevant to different people?

Participating is an act, you have to give up your time and agency, even just to check something out.

Participation takes many forms, but each form requires time and intent. Inviting a community members to attend a performance requires time and energy on their part, and not everyone will perceive this as worth their time. So how do we reach people who do not already view culture as valuable in their lives?

One suggestion “casual arts” – placing experiences in people’s way (e.g. in a park, outside of a workplace, in a hockey rink), so that they have an opportunity to discover it, rather than having to make a conscious decision to enter an arts space that may not feel welcoming to them. We want to normalize the art experience, to make it “just a thing that happens” in community.

Some people feel like they grow out of art, as adults they have to buckle down.

We also discussed many participants’ experience of working with children – in many cases, parents seem to value culture for their children, but not for themselves. Why does our society make us feel like we need to grow out of art? How can we change that narrative and create safe spaces for vulnerability?

Do you know where your art is coming from?

Just like we say “know where your food comes from” to highlight the value of farmers to cities and communities, do people know where their art is coming from? When people turn on the radio for example, are they aware of how and by whom the art they’re listening to is created? This is another area where we need to change the narrative - to remind people that they do experience art & culture every day, to invite them to be aware and appreciative of this. 

Participation is a relationship. To engage and find relevance, we need to listen and respond.

Everything we do is based on relationships with individuals and the community - even people who are not “engaged in the arts” are in relation, as community members. We have a relationship with them whether they come through the doors or not. In any relationship, there is resistance, play, dialogue, listening, humbling. If we’re in relation, we can also challenge and offer.

This dialogue includes knowing who your community champions are, bringing art to where the people are, and looking at community assets (for example, inviting people to express in their own way). It also means making space for marginalized voices and conversations, providing opportunities for co-creation and collaborative leadership, and examining the different ways in which people are invited to participate in your work.

Want to learn more? We've created a handy two-pager with further participation resources, and even suggested a few based on how much time you have!

Explore Further Resources


Community Engagement Resources from Doug Borwick

Doug Borwick is a US-based artist, arts administrator, and leading advocate for community engagement in the arts.

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