Inclusion in the Arts of Working Class Communities

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 15 February 2016

Inclusion in the Arts of Working Class Communities report.pdf (1.18 mb)

Executive Summary

The core motivation for the Committee undertaking its inquiry into inclusion in the arts of working class communities is Members’ strong belief in the benefits that participation and inclusion in arts activity can bring to individuals and communities. Such benefits include health and wellbeing, the development of personal and community capacity and skills and a range of other socio-economic benefits. To this end it is important to the Committee that everyone in the community has regular access to the arts and the benefits these provide. This sentiment was echoed by the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín when she briefed the Committee for this inquiry:

“The arts are not a luxury to be enjoyed by an elite few; they should be enjoyed by all who wish to enjoy them regardless of community background, age, gender, disability, race, sexual orientation, political opinion or income level”.

The Committee does not believe that access to the arts and culture should be diluted for working class communities. The arts should be part of the everyday lives of all of those who live here. However, the Committee also acknowledges that people cannot and should not be forced to engage with the arts and culture.

Prior to undertaking this inquiry, the Committee had received briefing on social exclusion in the arts in Northern Ireland. The briefing particularly focused on engagement in areas of high deprivation and made comparisons with other jurisdictions. It also considered the potential benefits of widening engagement with the arts. The research strongly suggested that inclusion in the arts is lower for those in disadvantaged communities. However, the evidence provided to this inquiry suggests that the situation is much more complex. Research tends to focus on ticketed events where data can be more easily gathered and does not deal with more informal, unticketed arts events. The Committee is aware through the evidence it has gathered for this inquiry that working class communities often engage with informal, unticketed arts and culture events, and that members of these communities would not necessarily regard these events as “the arts”; rather they see them as part of their cultural identity. Members are clear that there is a great deal of arts and cultural activity going on in working class communities; however, this inquiry has a greater focus on how working class communities are engaged by arts and cultural venues.

The purpose of this inquiry is to examine the accessibility and outreach activity of arts venues and bodies and how these impact on inclusion in the arts of working class communities. The Committee’s aim was to pinpoint and understand barriers to inclusion in the arts faced by members of working class communities and to seek ways to overcome these. In doing this the Committee also sought out best practice.

A number of respondents to the inquiry questioned the Committee’s use of the term “working class”, indicating that other socio-economic terms or measures might be more appropriate. However, the Committee used this term as it was agreed that it had greater resonance with the communities that Members wanted to hear from and that it was a more common phrase. However, throughout this inquiry report the terms “marginalised”, “disadvantaged”, and “deprived” are also used to describe these communities.

In this report the Committee does not use a specific index to measure deprivation or disadvantage because such indices were not widely referred to in submissions to the inquiry. It will be for those developing an Arts and Culture Strategy to decide specific indices that are most appropriate to gauge deprivation and disadvantage with respect to the aims of the Strategy.

The Committee heard from a wide range of bodies, organisations, and individuals while gathering evidence for this inquiry. These included the key arts venues in Belfast, such as The MAC and the Lyric, the Crescent Arts Centre etc., as well as arts and culture venues from all over Northern Ireland. The Committee also heard from pillars of Northern Ireland’s culture landscape, such as the Ulster Orchestra. A great deal of key evidence was received from individuals, both practitioners and participants in the arts. Executive Departments also contributed, such as OFMDFM, DCAL, DEL, DETI and DHSSPS; as well as key Arm’s Length Bodies such as Libraries NI, National Museums NI, NI Screen etc. The Committee also hosted two very successful discussion events for the inquiry: one at the Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart; and the other at the Lyric Theatre. The Committee is grateful to those who made such a useful contribution to the inquiry at these events.

Through this inquiry the Committee identified a number of broad barriers to working class communities being included in the arts. These are: economic/financial barriers; barriers linked to geography or location; educational barriers; barriers around the availability and structure of funding for the sector; barriers with respect to awareness and information; lack of value placed on the arts; and community, cultural, or psychological barriers. Obviously some of these barriers are beyond the control of the communities the inquiry focuses on; however, there are many barriers that can only be eroded with the active co-operation of the communities and individuals in question.

It was clear from the evidence that the Committee received that there is no shortage of arts and cultural activity going on here and that it is often best practice. It is also clearly dispersed right across Northern Ireland, both in urban and in rural areas. However, the evidence also showed the Committee that there is a need for a co-ordinated and over-arching approach to the arts and culture. This must come in the form of an Executive Strategy that is supported and resourced by all the relevant departments and ALBs. The Committee believes that the arts and culture can and should be part of the work carried out by government on a daily basis, both centrally and locally. That is why the creation of an Executive Arts and Culture Strategy is the key recommendation of this inquiry and why the majority of the other recommendations are based on the development of such a strategy.

Part of the purpose of this inquiry was to compare the situation in both rural and urban working class communities. It is apparent that, while there are complex sets of barriers to inclusion in the arts for both, rural working class communities face particular difficulties and that is why the Committee believes that rural-proofing of any approach to providing greater opportunities for inclusion in the arts and cultural activities. In the same vein, the Committee is conscious that those with special needs and/or disabilities faced particular challenges in accessing and engaging with the arts, but this is much more acute for those living in rural working class communities. Again, this is an issue that must be addressed when strategies around participation in the arts and cultural activities are been developed; and this should include partnership with local councils.

The Committee has long been of the view that it would be advantageous if publicly owned art could be brought back into the communities from which it originated. The Committee is also aware that there is a great deal of publicly owned art that is never accessible to view. The evidence received for this inquiry showed the Committee that there is a need for art to be brought to people and to be available in places that they access on a daily basis, such as schools or libraries, or other public buildings or spaces. Members understand that there are a great number of logistical and other issues around doing this; however, it is important that these are overcome this kind of initiative would provide access to art without the transport costs and unfamiliarity of going to a gallery, museum, or other arts venue to see it.

The inquiry showed the Committee that partnership is necessary to ensure that access to and participation in the arts and culture is widened out as much as possible. This will mean partnerships between the Executive Departments, partnerships between government and the arts and culture sectors, partnerships between arts and cultural venues and local communities and partnerships between central and local government and the communities that they serve; and also a better understanding better arts and business must be facilitated to allow funding and expertise to flow. Opportunities for community organisations to partner up around funding applications and sharing funding also need to be established.

Partnership must also be the basis for funding the arts and culture. When funding is being considered it must last for periods that are appropriate to the creation of enduring relationships in communities and lasting project legacy. All these partnerships must be based on clearly understood aims and objectives and expected outcomes. It is only through this carefully considered framework and through taking a strategic approach that disadvantaged communities will be presented with greater opportunities with respect to tarts and cultural activity. Disadvantaged communities must have a strong voice in deciding how they will be best served. 

Evidence from the arts and cultural venues and bodies in particular illustrated the need to have professional arts practitioners going into communities to engage directly with groups and individuals. This inquiry has shown that such activity is key in showing disadvantaged communities what the arts and culture can offer them. However, the Committee has also learned that such activity is both labour and resource intensive and must be funded over a reasonable period to allow it to be embedded and for worthwhile legacy to be achieved. Exposure to this activity from an early age is also key and the Committee is clear that children and young people must have regular planned access to the arts and cultural experiences. Access at an early age is more likely to allow an interest to develop and is also more likely to provide mitigation against family or community antipathy or apathy towards the arts.

The Committee also heard that it is important that after interesting young people in the arts that they are provided with recognisable pathways to access careers in the sectors. This is an issue that the Committee considered during a previous inquiry into maximising the potential of the creative industries here. This will require proper investment and incorporation into the education curriculum at all key stages.

The inquiry highlights the need to greater information. This means better data-gathering on who is attending what kinds of arts and cultural activities and events so that a strategic approach can be taken to encouraging greater participation and engagement, particularly for hard-to-reach communities. Additionally, the inquiry showed the need for better and more information on what is available in terms of the arts and culture. Evidence suggests that this kind of information is more likely to be accessed by working class communities if it is available electronically or through social media. This is also likely to be an effective way to recruit volunteers for the arts and culture from working class communities. This inquiry has shown that volunteering is a useful way to build confidence and capability in both individuals and communities. It is therefore essential that encouraging volunteering is part of any strategic approach to widening access to, participation in, and engagement with, the arts and culture. The Committee sees the natural extension of this as the encouragement of these volunteers to seek positions on the boards of arts organisations. The Committee appreciates that this will require a great deal of support; however, it is the best way to ensure that arts organisations and venues take on board the views and needs of disadvantaged communities.

From undertaking this inquiry the Committee has realised that there are no simple answers to ensuring that there is greater social inclusion in the arts. However, Members offer this report as a strategic way forward to achieve the aim of greater inclusivity.

Read the full Report

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