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Looking into Outreach


Outreach; social justice; community engagement

This article presents examples of arts outreach activity at a large arts university. It questions much current arts outreach activity, and the ways in which models of outreach and collaboration may foreclose on a more symbiotic relationship with communities. Such models continue to position projects involving incursions into marginalised community groups as a response to widening participation policy rather than as core university business. Thus, outreach work and its practitioners carry, to a greater or lesser degree, the conscience of the university, enabling its commitment to social justice to be addressed by a part of the institution rather than the whole. 

Questioned too is how a commonly held perception of outreach and the practices and structures it supports, hinders a flow into the university of the knowledge which is located in communities. Through the examples of projects presented, the article will offer suggestions as to the necessary core conditions to which outreach should adhere if it is to address the dilemma of outreach without inreach. 

The place of outreach within Higher Arts Education (HAE) is an under-scrutinised area despite the fact that many UK universities have long embarked on outreach projects as part of their widening participation programmes. Some international research has explored the value systems within many HEIs that place community engagement and ‘traditional research’ on unequal footing (Berman, 2007; Driscoll and Lynton, 1999) and studies have also investigated partnerships between universities and community organisations (Wilson, et al., 2007; Gutierrez & Yohn, 2005; Cox, 2000; Holland, 1997). The character of these relationships is, however, contentious, with some suspicion surrounding the institution’s role:  

"Many institutions, better able to see the advantages of being seen to give up power rather than actually giving up power, have thus seized on participation as a very effective tool of legitimation". (Webster & Buglass, 2005, p.20)

At the same time, the debate on the social role and agency of art established in part by cultural and social theorists such as Adorno (1970) and Bourdieu (1993) sees ongoing deliberation (Carey, 2006; Sontag, 2003; Wolff, 1995; 1993). Active discussions question how both community arts and ‘high’ art practices impact art’s social positioning (Cork, 1979; Willats, 2000), whether art should act within society or from its margins (Becker, 1994), and the meaning of ‘community’. Becker argues the need to define ‘what community is, which communities artists should relate to, and who constitutes the community we generally call the art world’ (Becker, 1994, p. xvii). 

Kester (1995, p.6) is also concerned with how ‘community’ is defined within socially engaged art practices, calling for artists’ consideration of the complexity of their relationship to the communities they work with, noting that ‘too often community artists imagine that they can transcend the very real differences that exist between themselves and a given community by a well-meaning rhetoric of aesthetic "empowerment."’ The inevitable tension between the art establishment, including Higher Arts Education, and communities, demands constant attention as the political climate shifts and policy changes impact on funding, ethos and practice. With a newly installed government, for example, it is judicious that we be vigilant of what compromises are encapsulated in the ‘co’ of ‘coalition’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘co-operation’.

Questions probing the nature of the relationships between higher arts and communities, in which outreach work, socially engaged practices and collaborative projects are implicated, also require asking and deliberation. It is the contention of this short article that such tensions and questions should be explored through practice and by practitioners  (1), and that such practices and debate should be part of the core business of the institution, and not restricted to Widening Participation activity.

Whilst many practitioners in HAE are skilfully integrating collaborative, socially engaged practices into the curriculum, and thus encouraging their students to take a broader and more critical perspective of their role as emerging artists, there remains a division in much practice between this work and the work of centrally planned, WP focussed ‘outreach’ with its suite of projects and partnerships. This in itself is not a weakness, unless it serves to reinforce an asymmetric relationship. This relationship is between what is deemed ‘high art’ (and certain collaborative practices ushered into the curriculum certainly enjoy this cachet) and ‘outreach’ struggling with a tired image of practitioners parachuted into communities and their centres, often still in an uncritical spirit of ‘aesthetic evangelism’ (Kester, 1995). Here, the intent to ‘do-good’ is potentially problematic, with the artist or institution appropriating the community for his or her agendas.

Put simply, it is possible to work in an artistic and educative practice which engages with a broader community without necessarily acknowledging the politics of this practice. And it is equally possible to work in a more politically charged widening participation outreach vein without addressing the nature of that artistic and cultural production, contributing to community arts projects appearing too artistically amateurish to be sanctioned by ‘high’ art institutions, thus feeding their cultural marginalization. Both, it seems would be enhanced by more critical dialogue. At the same time, teacher education and professional development still routinely address socially engaged practice with its student teachers as falling into one of the two camps, most comfortably, that of Widening Participation, and therefore omits to engage with the broader question of the institution’s responsibility to social justice. Camps, of any kind, allow the burden of conscience and the toil of critical thinking to be comfortably allocated elsewhere. More dialogue as a whole institution, regarding the difficult work of social engagement and its relationship with social justice, is called for.

The University of the Arts London (UAL) has a wide portfolio of exciting outreach projects with a rich and diverse partnership network. It also has a contingent of artist educators who work directly with students on live projects which seek to engage and collaborate with communities and individuals outside the institution. In 2008, Insight on OutReach was launched, a project to engage practitioners in researching their outreach practice. The details of this work are available in a full report ( This small initiative set out to address some of the issues outlined in the context above. In 2010, Thou Art was launched by UAL, funded mainly by the Arts Council, but also with significant support from the university’s department for Widening Participation ( The basic premises of each project are outlined below. It is these premises rather than the detail of the projects, which are being foregrounded as essential starting points for critical outreach.

Firstly, the nature of outreach and the nature of the university mean that practitioners working in such projects are 1) isolated from each other, 2) buffered from broader political questions and 3) unlikely to engage in research. The fractional employment of many practitioners leads to less of an engagement with professional development or teacher education. The first two aims of the first project, therefore, were capacity building amongst this group of practitioners through enabling an opportunity to engage in supported critical research, and forging a dialogic network where broader questions could be discussed, with the involvement of other arts practitioners across the university who held different perspectives on outreach and socially engaged art. Both aims were achieved, but restricted by the extent of funding and the usual logistical issues of practitioners engaging with, and attending, anything which further overburdens heavy workloads. But engagement was also limited by an almost ossified division between practitioners engaged in outreach work and those working in ‘socially engaged art’. One of the outcomes of Insight on OutReach was a heightened awareness of the importance of addressing this division, and a call for a deconstruction of what the nature of that difference actually is. This has spurred a further programme of open debates engaging with a broader base of arts practitioners, researchers, community arts and gallery professionals as part of the Pedagogic Research Network programme of the university.

Secondly, the nature of much outreach and socially engaged practice is such that the work is potentially impoverished by its lack of a two-way knowledge flow. What is meant by this is that the socially engaged artist, the Widening Participation practitioner, the project manager, whosoever, invariably engages with the community or its representatives from a position of power, resource and ‘knowledge’. Collaborative and empathic as our approach and practice may be, there is still, more often than not, a sense of the knowledge being located with the practitioner from the High Arts Education institution, which, through privilege ‘sanctions’ this knowledge. The imaginary or actual flow of knowledge is akin to the flow of resources – we provide to ‘them’. Instead, it is argued, the point of WP and outreach practice is  ‘about challenging the academy to allow active participation from a wide range of communities and individuals who will help to redefine the parameters of Higher Education itself’ (Stuart, 2000, p.33).

Indeed far less visible or articulated in HE and HAE are examples of how we are learning from the communities and participants with which we work. With this question in mind, Thou Art took as its first premise, that knowledge about mental illness and its interface with art (the overall theme of the project) is located within the community of artists with mental illness. Not rocket science. Thou Art uses first person narrative (Hornstein, 2009) and harnesses the transformative potential of participatory video work (Parr, 2007).  The project explores the intersections of art practice, mental illness, recovery, and barriers to professional practice and art education, collaborating with mental health service users who are also artists, from proposal stage onwards. While ‘user-led’ projects are not uncommon within mental health and community settings, and social science productively tussles with the talk and the walk of community based research (Stoecker, 2009), such projects and debate are somewhat less integrated into Higher Arts Education. While this project is currently ongoing, the knowledge shared about the experience of mental illness and artistic practice so far, is clearly valuable as contributing to broadening the knowledge we, as arts education practitioners and researchers within HE currently hold regarding mentally ill students, arts curriculum, and vitally, the barriers to access into HAE which still exist for members of the community experiencing mental ill health.

Each of these two projects has its own flaws, limitations and blind spots – but each has two particular strengths. The premises above (capacity building, developing critical dialogue, attending to the knowledge flow) are their bedrock starting points and are re-addressed as the projects proceed and mature. Also, they admit, at the outset, to the inevitable messiness of any project that aims to unsettle a commonly established modus operandi. To this end, what Keats (Keats, cited in Bion,1970, p.125)  referred to as ‘negative capability’ is held in mind. This deliberate non-clamouring after certainties and answers enables a messiness and speculation to be. Such capability is important in leadership (Simpson and French, 2006) yet current management styles preclude this. Such ‘not knowing’, more tolerated and indeed valued in artistic practice than in either management or education, might lead to more creative thinking around the outreach efforts of HAE institutions. These may then act as inspiring models for HE more broadly, and provide an unsettling of previously little-questioned positions that underpin the issues.

(1)    Practitioners include front line staff such as tutors and lecturers, learning support professionals, project workers and technicians.

Special thanks for collaboration on Thou Art go to: Helen Shearn, Southwark Arts Development Manager, Community Link Centre, South London & Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust

The discussion raised in this article is based on a more detailed paper: Sagan, O., Candela, E., Frimodig, B. (2010) Insight on Outreach: Towards a critical practice, International Journal of Education through Art (in press)

Dr. Olivia Sagan is Senior Research Fellow (Pedagogy) at the University of the Arts London and Head of MSc PDP at University College London. Her Phd won the 2009 Director’s prize for Best Doctoral Research at the Institute of Education, University of London, and was a longitudinal study of mentally ill adults’ community learning. A firm believer in the need for 1st person narratives to counter-balance ‘culturally sanctioned stories’, Olivia makes extensive use of biographic narrative in her research, and uses a psychosocial approach to understanding the quandaries of learning and creativity.

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