Community Arts

by Sandy Fitzgerald

We are surrounded by images and representations that are not our own, and these symbols of what can be called the cultural landscape are never arbitrary. If we read the language of culture through art, we shall learn the history of our people and places and, more, create the awareness and the possibility to change the future of cultural development for the better.

German artist  Joseph Beuys (1921–86), recognized as one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, understood the power of culture and art in society. He had a profound influence on practitioners of community arts (along with other luminaries, such as Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire) and has a particular relevance for public art because of his theory of social sculpture. One of the results of this theory was Beuys’s 7000 Oaks project. Begun in 1982, this ambitious public art project became a five-year undertaking in which he and others planted 7,000 trees throughout the city of Kassel in Germany, each with an accompanying basalt stele as a marker. The solid stone form beside the ever-changing tree symbolically represents a basic concept in Beuys’s philosophy – that these two natural and yet oppositional qualities are complementary, coexist harmoniously and reflect symbolically a wide range of themes that Beuys wanted viewers to engage with and reflect on: humankind living in harmony with nature; the artist’s role within the community; culture and civic development. Such ideas about art and its ability to effect change in society chime with community arts theory and practice in this regard.

Beuys had a long association with Ireland and his tree-planting project is continued on the Hill of Uisneach, Co. Westmeath, to this day, an important representation of the partnership of culture, community and ecology.

Public sculpture can be rightly and simply defined as sculpture in a public place, but, as Beuys elegantly showed, the simplicity ends there. If sculpture is about anything, it is context, in both the physical and conceptual sense, and questions to do with the making and placing of a work in the first instance are framed within the complexity of its social, political and historical milieux. Then there is the definition of sculpture itself, which, by the end of the twentieth century, had become a diverse classification that moved far beyond the figurative to encompass issues of cultural representation, identity, collective memory and the communal importance of the civic space in the urban landscape. One forum where such issues were raised, debated and questioned was community arts.

With its origins in the 1960s’ crucible of change, and forged from the post-industrial realities of the 1970s, community arts in Ireland was part of a wider egalitarian struggle, a challenge to traditional cultural hierarchies. Informed by post-World War II politics, a youth counter culture revolution and the peace and equality movements, community arts had spread throughout Britain and Ireland by the early 1980s. In this new wave of cultural democracy, art institutions, such as galleries and opera houses, were seen as oppressive, and traditional public sculpture was often viewed as a symbol of what should be overcome: figures of authority, church and state, imperialists, military leaders. Indeed, the first act by students who occupied Dublin’s National College of Art and Design in 1969 was to smash the replicas of classical sculpture used for drawing classes.

What defines community arts is the struggle for cultural equality and the right of people to participate in the production and distribution of culture in a way that allows for different voices in society to be heard. Bringing this back to public sculpture, the development of community arts was mirrored by an accelerating change in policy by funding bodies and commissioning agents and in new approaches by participating artists. Examining these shifts and their effects over a 30-year history (1970 to 2000), it is possible to see the cultural and social imprint of community arts and how it changed the general attitude to the making of art and its representation and role in society.

The first community arts initiatives in Ireland emerged from the urban centres of Wexford, Waterford, Dublin and Belfast, with groups like Ciotóg (1970), Grapevine (1973), Wexford Arts Centre (1974), North City Centre Community Action Programme (1975) and Neighbourhood Open Workshops (1978), all in the vanguard of this new movement. These organizations and their peers were initiatives from the ground up, driven by demands for greater cultural equality. By the end of the 1970s, community arts had gained considerable momentum; so much so that a representative organization was formed in 1983 called CAFE (Creative Activity For Everyone, later to become CREATE, the national development agency for collaborative arts in social and community contexts). CAFE organized the first Irish community arts conference in 1984 in Dublin, with over thirty organizations participating.

The early 1980s also saw the Arts Council beginning to react to the growth of community arts and, in 1985, it launched the ACE (Arts Community Education) action research programme in an effort to formalize its response. This resulted in the Arts Council adding criteria to its granting decisions which now required outreach, community and educational elements in funding applications.

Although the Arts Council’s formalization of community arts had an effect on different levels of cultural development around the country, what really accelerated change in the sphere of public art was the introduction of the Per Cent for Art Scheme, which first appeared as a funding mechanism under the Office of Public Works in 1978. This scheme was extended to local authorities in 1986 by the Department of the Environment and extended to all public bodies delivering capital projects in 1997. The amount allocated was a sliding scale, depending on the size of the contract, and relatively substantial monies were liberated for public art under this scheme, rising steadily throughout the 1990s, in tandem with the ever-increasing investment in the state’s infrastructure.

Through these shifts in the approach to public art and the ensuing rise in funding, another major change took place with regard to the work itself, as the emphasis moved away from the artist studio commission to more engagement in the community. This innovation was certainly influenced by the policy advocated by community arts activists and practitioners, which valued the process of creativity in equal measure to the artistic outcome. This allowed for participatory projects to be funded, and the potential lasting individual or community benefit was the legacy of exploring creative expression, rather than a physical piece of sculpture. This also recognized the necessity for access to and participation in the arts, something that was denied to a large percentage of the Irish population, particularly in their formative educational years.

The Per Cent for Art Scheme and other initiatives, such as Department of Labour FÁS schemes, resulted in an explosion of public art between 1980 and 2000, including art workshops of every kind, local history projects and environmental works. While this gave rise to many interesting and notable achievements, it also suffered because of a lack of coordination between the various funding agencies regarding policy and aims and a lack of clarity about community participation, particularly with regard to public art. Equally, the control of and decision-making concerning public art remained with the commissioning agents, mostly local authorities. This tended to lead to a ‘top down’ approach. Communities and communities of interest were the context in which projects were designed and formulated, but these very communities were often excluded from the decision-making process.

From a community arts perspective, public art also means public ownership, and the failure to bridge the gap between involving people in a consultation/ participation process and the method by which decisions are made is something with which communities in Ireland have become very familiar at all levels of community development. Community arts activists argue that before a project can be truly called community art, it is not just participation that has to be considered, but, crucially, where the decisions are made. If the advocacy policies avowed by community arts activists during those years were implemented fully, then the approach adopted by most funders and commissioning agents would have been the reverse, namely: the project was originated and supported by a community, be that a community of interest or a geographical community, the commissioning of the project was managed by the community through a democratic process, the decisions as to the budget, programme, theme, selection, artist and presentation were made by the community, state agencies and artists provided the expertise and resources necessary for communities to realize their vision, but key decisions were made by the local community.

Obviously this brings up wider issues of local democracy and community development – issues that were the stimulus for community arts in the first place – yet the disparate nature of the funding streams meant a very mixed and fragmented set of results with regard to the objectives and the quality of public art. But some projects were cognizant of the community participatory and decision-making processes through the awareness of excellent facilitating artists and the committed management of some community groups, cultural groups and statutory agencies.

Moving on to the work itself: traditional sculpture is a physical artefact that is a permanent fixture in a specific location. This has usually been a piece of statuary or a monument that could be clearly identified as representing a personage or event of note. Dublin’s Wellington Testimonial [474] and the O’Connell Monument [2] are prime examples. However, as the twentieth century progressed, public sculpture began to take on a wider meaning, and works reflected changes that were taking place in society and how some artists and cultural activists were both responding to and leading conceptual thinking. Since the 1980s, and not least because community arts have had such an influence, the focus has shifted substantially from producing artefacts to process-based, temporary and time-based work. The most interesting development from the community arts perspective is the processed-based work, whereby people can engage with a theme or issue and participate in a creative process. In many instances projects that drew together a collection of interests were funded through public art schemes. Those taking part worked in a creative way with artists or arts professionals to explore a topic. Every project had a different raison d’être but the structure and aims were usually similar in the Republic because of the advent of funding through the Per Cent for Art Scheme and the appointment by county councils of regional arts officers to manage these projects. In Northern Ireland similar changes occurred through a policy of local arts initiatives introduced by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and local authorities. These initiatives resulted in an exponential growth in activity and in much public art north and south of the border. At the same time as this work was undertaken, the legitimacy of the process-based projects was often questioned, in comparison to an artist commission piece, which community arts practitioners would argue is an unwillingness to move beyond the tradition.

In the same way as a traditional work, statue or monument represents a legacy, so too can a powerful creative experience. The impact of a creative process can leave a lasting mark on a community or civic landscape, just as strong or defined as a physical presence. This can be seen clearly in the oral tradition of Ireland and how something as transient as a story or a song can be as affecting and long-lasting for a community as any stone monolith.

The following works of public sculpture and the processes that gave rise to their completion are primary examples of the varied approaches to community art: Home (2000, Lower Buckingham Street, Dublin), the work of Leo Higgins, chosen in competition with Brian Connolly, Annette Hennessy, Michael Quane, Jackie McKenna and Louise Walsh (qqv) [385], is a memorial to those who died from heroin in Dublin’s north inner city. Designed in conjunction with the relatives of those individuals, it depicts a flame of hope behind an open door. The project was initiated by community representatives and facilitated by the Fire Station Artists’ Studios. An artistic advisory panel was set up to support the artistic side of the work, while ICON (Inner City Organisations Network) sup- ported the relatives and facilitated the relationships between them and the artists. Following a long period of collaboration with the community, a short list of five artists exhibited maquettes in the Fire Station Artists’ Studios in July 1999. The winning piece, Home, was selected by the relatives and was erected at the junction of Lower Buckingham Street and Seán MacDermott Street, Dublin.

385. Leo Higgins, Home, 2000, gilded bronze, limestone, Buckingham Street, Dublin. Photo © Sadhbh Burt Fitzgerald.

The Linesman (2000, City Quay, Dublin) by Dony MacManus is a modest but quietly dramatic work on City Quay. It is the result of a consultation and decision-making process that was truly local. Defined by the geographical community of City Quay, a working group representing all interested parties was set up and a brief was compiled, led by the local community and facilitated by the City Arts Centre. An open call went out from this working group for artists to respond to the brief. The work- ing group drew up a short list from the submissions and an exhibition of the selected work, in maquette and presentation form, was held, affording the local community an opportunity to vote for its preferred choice. The Linesman was the most popular piece and represents all the dock workers who have lived and toiled on the Liffey docks.

It must also be recognized that some important and inspiring work has emerged from other processes where the community role may not be so clear-cut but where the relationships and methodologies are sensitive to the local community and the relevant issues. For instance, in Northern Ireland the complex nature of the society creates an environment where the relation- ship between project managers and project participants can be difficult and fraught with problems. But public art projects have emerged that engaged with community concerns, allowing for this space to be inhabited, if even for a short time, by non-military and non-sectarian voices. This was important work that deserves recognition, examples of which are as follows:

Suitcases in the Foyle (1988/89, Derry) by Marie Barrett (produced in collaboration with members of the Sitework team) [386]. The work focused on emigration from the north- west of Ireland where there were high levels of unemployment. The project engaged with two local youth training schemes: the Derry Youth and Community Workshop, which served young people from the Catholic community, and the Maydown Training Centre, which served young people from the Protestant community. At the time, many young people from both sides of the religious divide were emigrating. They cited economic austerity, political conflict and sectarianism as factors in their decision to leave.

386. Marie Barrett in collaboration with Sitework team, Suitcases in the Foyle, 1988–89, Derry. Courtesy of the artist.

The project took the form of fourteen suitcases moored on the River Foyle. Printed on the suitcases were the names of young people who had recently emigrated. The sculptural form of the suitcases and their naming were realized in a series of collaborative workshops between the young people and members of the local community. During the event, the suitcases floated on the river beside the railway station. The latter was for many emigrants the first place of departure for England and, in earlier times, the river was the route by which people left to sail to the United States and Canada.

On the other side of the border, Gulliver (1988, Galway), created by Macnas [387], the Galway community-based theatre and arts company, was a moving statue of a different kind, which brought people on to the streets in their thousands to celebrate one of the great mythological characters of Irish literature. Macnas, in collaboration with hundreds of local people, made and displayed Swift’s Gullliver as a 35-feet mobile sculpture. Although a Galway event, the work had an unexpected sighting on Dollymount Strand in Dublin. Macnas was an inspiration for many community groups, which followed its innovative approach to public art.

387. Macnas (community-based theatre & arts company), Gulliver, 1988.

The Green (1998) by Alan Counihan, in collaboration with architect John O’Brien and the residents of St Catherine’s Grange Housing Estate, Waterford [388], represents the combining of many public art elements and shows what can be achieved through committed partnership. Almost all the residents on the estate had a creative involvement in designing, making and installing The Green, a sculpturally crafted park at the centre of the community. It comprises ‘meandering hand-built walls, evocative of cliffs and boats, interspersed with several carved stone elements. It seems a playful space created with the local children very much in mind.’ That the children of the estate were involved in making the piece ensures that it will live in the generational memory.

388. Alan Counihan (with architect John O’Brien and the residents of St. Catherine’s Grange Housing Estate, Waterford), The Green, St. Catherine’s Grange, Waterford, Photo © Amanda Brady.

Beuys’s tree and stone standing side by side is an apt symbol of community and public art. The community is ever-growing and changing, an organic, tree-like transformation that is always coming up against the standing stones of state structures and commercial concerns. Art can have a role to play in mediating between these oppositional qualities and can engage with and represent the community’s organic transition into the future, with the aim of true cultural development. This is the fundamental difference between art in the community and community arts.

SELECTED READING Ciaran Benson (ed.), Art and the Ordinary

The ACE Report, Dublin, 1989; Sandy Fitzgerald (ed.), An Outburst of Frankness: Community Arts in Ireland – A Reader, Dublin, 2004; Ruairi Ó Cuiv, Art and the City: Review of the Cork City Council Per Cent for Art Scheme, Cork, 2006.

The Royal Irish Academy has kindly granted permission to Sculpture Dublin to reproduce a number of texts from Sculpture 1600-2000, Volume 3 in the Royal Irish Academy’s 5-volume publication Art and Architecture of Ireland (Yale, 2014). The book, edited by Paula Murphy, comprises introductory essays, biographies and thematic essays.