Art, Participation and Higher Education at Interface Symposium

Janet Hetherington writes about her experience at the Interface Symposium.

What questions should we be asking ourselves as Participatory Artists?

I was fortunate to attend a panel discussion as part of an Interface Symposium exploring the relationship between Art, Participation and Higher Education hosted by the University of Sunderland on 7 September, 2016.

InterfaceTalking about our experiences in the CCU of developing a range of educational opportunities for participatory and community artists – ranging from our MA in Community and Participatory Arts to bespoke training materials such as The Residency Toolkit – I began to consider what we need to be thinking about in terms of how we support people working in Community and Participatory Arts in the future.

We heard about some amazing projects today. I heard about the fantastic work emerging from the multi partnership First World War Asunder Project to the amazing work of the Grand Gesture Dance Collective. I was inspired by the work of Artists and Performers including Lynne Killeen and No Limits Theatre and I was rather envious of the clever MOOC (Massive online open course) introducing the masses to participatory arts!

Conversations were rich and varied. Why are 72% of participatory artists women? How can arts institutions support artists’ professional development? How do you build a career in participatory arts? How can you develop work which is ongoing and allows you to form relationships? Does the lack of childcare drive women into working in the sector?

All important questions and ones which, alas, I don’t have all the answers on. Rather more importantly, I began to realise something far more important and that is what a friendly and welcoming world the participatory arts sector can be – and surely we should be celebrating and discussing this a bit more often. I only knew a few faces in the room and yet I was welcomed, I shared common experiences with people, I laughed at the frustrations and delights associated with working on participatory arts projects, I shared and gained valuable contacts, information and contacts to help develop my work. I hope I made a few friends.

In a sector where many of us work on a freelance, part time basis (and I include those of us working in education in this) it is easy to feel isolated and to lose faith in the values underpinning the participatory arts movement. However, how many other industries operate like the participatory arts world and despite having no professional or personal connections can create the energy, contacts and support, as was offered at the symposium today.

As a creative industry, the participatory arts sector should be shouting from the rooftops about this – we are a friendly profession. The projects today demonstrated that we work in amazing places, with fantastic communities and achieve some great stuff – and maybe if we shouted a bit more loudly about our achievements our workforce might diversify and we might enjoy work a bit more!