On Wednesday we met up with Robin Simpson, Chief Executive of Voluntary Arts, one of our partners in this research. Voluntary Arts was founded in the early 1990s to give a collective voice to the hundreds – yes, hundreds – of umbrella organisations for grassroots arts and crafts groups around the UK. We’re talking brass bands, am dram, lace-making, line dancing, pottery, and even coloured pencil enthusiasts! These are groups that quietly get on and do their own thing, with around 10 million people across the UK participating in such activities. Historically, these groups have not been addressed by Arts Council policy, but they form a vibrant part of civil society infrastructure, as this report by the Third Sector Research Centre describes. However, this is not to say they don’t also need support in terms of policy and infrastructure. For example, Arts Council funding probably has an indirect effect on grassroots organisations, in that there may be links between amateur and professional organisations within a particular art form, but this interdependency isn’t clearly evident from the existing research literature. In addition, grassroots groups need local cultural infrastructure such as advice and support as well as affordable and accessible venues for rehearsals, meetings and other activities. These kinds of provision fall under the remit of the local authority, but as Arts Development UK reports, 36% of local authorities in England and Wales (as of August 2014) have no arts officer.
Grassroots arts and cultural participation will be one of the areas that we will be exploring in this research. One of the challenges is to examine inequality of participation. The 2007 report Our Creative Talent looked into levels of voluntary arts participation in the UK (which makes fascinating reading… for me anyway!) and found that approximately only 2% of members of voluntary arts groups in their survey were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. Robin told us about some of the initiatives which Voluntary Arts is carrying out to increase their representation from BAME arts and cultural groups, and I’m planning to read Jasjit Singh’s literature review on the cultural value of South Asian arts as an important recent piece of work in this area.
Absent from research into grassroots arts and crafts participation is any data on class. There were, however, passages in the Our Creative Talent report which screamed ‘middle class’ at me, such as the following:
‘A large number of the organisations that responded to the survey highlighted that their membership was primarily made up of employed or retired people who have a broad range of professional management skills and networking opportunities which they bring to the group. This means that they are generally very good at problem solving within the group and if the management expertise is not available within the membership, someone is likely to have connections which will enable them to access this expertise.’
Social capital with others with professional connections are one of the key assets of the middle classes, and so it seems likely that the kinds of groups represented by Voluntary Arts are formed mainly of a middle-class demographic. There is an interesting theoretical issue here, in that historically white middle-class groups have been very good at institutionalising their tastes, interests and passions. The classic study is Paul DiMaggio’s work on the Boston Brahmins setting up institutions of high culture which preserved their prestige and status (the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra) in the late nineteenth century. As Barlow et al. (1992) point out, institutionalising is a way of storing value over time, between generations. So, it is not surprising that it is the middle classes who have managed to link up with national organisations, and set themselves up with formal structures in this way.
But as I’ve said, this is (informed) speculation; these questions are empirical ones that we can explore on the ground. More broadly, I’m particularly interested in the question of who institutionalises their passions, and how this is capitalised on, so I’m really excited about exploring these ideas further. Next week we’re meeting with Hannah Lambert from What Next? as well as talking to Dr Delyth Edwards from the Understanding Everyday Participation project . And reading, reading, reading, till my eyes go square…