Expert article
Edit 12 April 2022
by Zsuzsanna Kravalik

Engaged art in Europe

Women from North Tilburg engaged in the preparation of The Scene performance with Het Zuidelijk Toneel
"Arts and culture deserve a similar acknowledgement of their relation to sustainable development as sport, as they have been proven to have social impacts" claims the AMASS policy white paper which was discussed by four EU networks who met online within the AMASS (H2020) policy round table conference. The discussion saw a strong contribution from ForwArt project.

What is the role of culture in establishing and enhancing sustainable communities? This was one of the main themes of the AMASS policy roundtable to which ForwArt has been invited to among 3 other Horizon 2020 research projects (CreaTures, Artformation and AMASS). While sport has a special position within UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as an enabler through its promotion of tolerance and its potential to empower women and young people, culture and artistic activities have not been given equal prominence. Authors of the AMASS policy white paper argue that "the arts and culture deserve a similar acknowledgement of their relation to sustainable development, as they have been proven to have social impacts" But for culture to get its deserved position in sustainable development, its impact has to be convincingly demostrated. This is a common interest and goal of the four projects participating in the roundtable discussion.

What is the social impact of art? According to Bourdieu, social impact of art can be interpreted both as positive and negative. The AMASS project based on a widescale research and art based partnership is working on the geographical margins of Europe. Within the project, partners developed an European testbed including 35 arts-based experiments to evaluate the impact of arts-based approaches in addressing marginalisation. They claim that art can be a custodian of community empowerment and enable to build indigenous indentities. However on the other hand, artistic practices can be bound in elitistic offer and be the carrier of social reproduction: reflecting the shape, values and practices of dominant groups at the expense of the marginalised.

Marginalisation - which is the key concept of AMASS - is understood as social, cultural and economic vulnerability and inability to participate in society. ForwArt with its focus on North Tilburg, a disadvantaged neighbourhood added valuable insights to how art and culture can work towards de-marginalisation. Our experiences underlie that art and cultural activities have to be more democratic and has to build on the local experiences of the citizens and should not be alienated from the young, the migrant and women. Art not only has to be accessible but should come from the everyday life and experiences of people and should be also presented by them. ForwArt aims to discover, develop, support and exhibit talent from the fringes of society.

Artistic consumption has been disrupted by the Covid 19 pandemic. Art establishments are all searching for new ways of engagement and this could bring social, cultural, economic and political benefits. This is also the focus of Artsformation, also a Horizon 2020 research project exploring the intersection between arts, society and technology, especially digital transformation. Artsformation has mapped engaged art in Europe, showcasing how artsist are using digital technology and online platforms to engage with audiences and communities, broadening our understanding of art engagement and broaden the policy implications of artistic performances.

Socially engaged and focused on sustainability, this is the project CreaTures. While the thematic focus is different, CreaTures is valuable in its search for concreate and meaningful actions for transformative change. CreaTures has also experimented with shared soft spaces.

ForwArt is special among the research projects financed through Horizon 2020. It enables the city of Tilburg to experiment within a large scale intervention in the life of North Tilburg, to engage with the locals through artistic activities and to transform the whole neighbourhood on the principles of art. ForwArt create a cultural ecosystem to help youth express the intrinsic culture inherent in them. It is also special because of the partnership it is composed of: it is engaging both art groups, dance, theatre, fashion artists but also public services working in the area, vocational school, housing association, youth service, the policy.

There is a need for impact measurement tools to assess outcomes of arts-based interventions.

This is one of the four recommendations of the AMASS white paper. How can the impact of creative and engagement processes be captured in order to influence policy making. This is a common theme for all projects and a very fruitful dialogue has been formed around the issue of evaluation. AMASS partners through their thorough study and assessment of arts-based interventions has concluded that it is a common weakness of many socially engaged art activities: not putting enough emphasis on evaluation. Having an elevated spirit or organising a focus group interview with both participants and audiences will not be convincing enough. Andrea Kárpáti professor of Corvinus University Budapest claimed that participatory action research and other more immersive methodologies should be used in order to grasp full extent of the impact of these art interventions.

CreaTures experiences highlight many important principles to be recognised within evaluation, such as that transformation happen over multiple time frames and organisational levels and across different sectors, thus a broad enough pool for evaluation is required. Besides a rigid evaluation cannot grasp transformative processes, but it should be dynamic and self-aware - recognizing the unexpected outcomes from creative practice and thus should be a creative, visionary process.

The design of ForwArt project makes a shortcut from art interventions towards policy making making them all equal as project partners. Nevertheless we still need to establish evidence that socially engaged art based interventions do work. ForwArt partner Tranzo is leading the evaluation work and estalbishes new, qualitative methodologies to grasps the transformations in the lives of youth in Tilburg. This is how Tranzo explains its role:

Storytelling - both visual and oral/written in the form of self-reflection -will be an important part of monitoring and to capture changes at the individual level. Since it can provide a qualitative, very deep understanding of changes, motivations, struggles on the level of individual among youth who will be involved within art performances.

In what the project partners agreed is that social sustainability needs to be fully integrated with economic and environmental sustainability whereas culture for sustainable development refers to a mediating role in balancing and guiding the three pillars. Arts can offer and accomodate informal, experimental and collaborative arrangements with horizontal and playful logic, which can create the necessary soft spaces which can lead out of institutional deadlocks, situations which traditional policy instruments cannot address.

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