Where’s the work for artists working in participatory settings?

Pauline Tambling, Creative & Cultural Skills, asks… how do we use practice knowledge to create new financial models for sustainable work?

As CEO of a sector skills council, I routinely quote our labour market statistics at conferences. The creative sector continues to grow and to contribute more to the UK’s GDP than ever before. ‘But why then,’ someone asked at a recent seminar hosted by Metal in Peterborough, ‘if the sector’s doing so well, am I finding it so difficult to stay in work as a participatory artist?’ Good question!

There is a host of reasons why it feels tough for people who have made a decent living in the past pioneering arts practice in schools, hospitals, pupil referral units, health or care settings. Arts sector cuts tend to hit freelancers and individuals disproportionately. Across the public sector, ‘intermediary bodies’ are out of fashion and artists have relied on agencies to broker projects with non-arts bodies. For all the evidence of its value and impact, one could hardly say that this work was securely embedded in the minds of arts funders, let alone potential non-arts commissioners. Most activity has been project funded and individually negotiated with sympathetic partners in other sectors – and is easily cut in hard times.

We are operating in a radically different model now. Arts funding is unlikely to improve and the public sector is also facing heavy cuts. Some practitioners are responding by working for less, but no one wins if artists can’t make a living wage. At Creative & Cultural Skills we campaign to ensure all workers – including interns – are paid at least national minimum wage.

The growth area in our sector is often technology related or associated with big live events and performance. It’s also with those artists and activists who are able to ‘make the work’ by finding their own new ‘customers’ to replace grant funding.

We’ve recently been working with Skills for Care, the workforce development body for adult social care, a sector where there are frightening staffing gaps because of demographic changes. There are opportunities for artists with participatory expertise to work on a major scale in care contexts, but we’ll need to build routes into the care sector systematically from entry level upwards. I’ve been really impressed by practitioners who have put time into ensuring excellent practice, growing ‘communities of practice’ and quality frameworks. The problem, unlike in other sectors, is not the quality of work – it’s the need to ‘scale it up’.

In Purfleet, where our Backstage Centre is located, the local council wants to build high-level craft skills into housing developments to create thousands of new homes. It is challenging to know how to do this. The local children’s services department is enthusiastically embracing a ‘cultural entitlement’ model for all schools in Thurrock, at a time when the education sector is downgrading arts education. To do so they are proposing a funding model that requires schools to contribute to costs over a number of years.

These are just two examples of new opportunities. The challenge is: how do we take the knowledge of practice developed through programmes like ArtWorks and create some new financial models and partnerships whereby we can embed this work and make it sustainable?

Pauline Tambling
CEO Creative & Cultural Skills



  1. Much work in third and public sector is now project-led and funded ie short-term. This is a particular problem when trying to create any kind of sustainable model. This does not just apply to arts projects. We get funding to run a series of workshops, say, with older people in residential care. We all have a fabulous creative experience with a celebratory exhibition to conclude. We walk away.

    Rhiana Laws

    Pauline, I have been asking myself that very question over and over again recently! Having delivered 6 very successful dance projects for young men and women in 3 Scottish prisons where the outcomes for all involved were hugely positive I am now finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the wave of work that initially flooded my way because funds appear to be running out.

    The learning was clear: dance projects bring many benefits, both temporary and long-lasting to participants. I have shared my learning with professional peers, built partnerships and continue to evaluate and develop my practice. But the reality is that whilst dance in prison has a proven worth – the prisons want it, the participants want it, I am available to deliver it – the funds made available to ‘pilot’ these projects is swiftly running out and I am not currently aware of any alternative sources of money being made available to allow the work to continue. So who is able to pay for it?

    I have been giving this situation a great deal of thought of late and the truth is, I don’t know. I have a model that works, a useful expertise, a ‘product’ that is desired, proven and tested. I have worked in partnership with a large educational establishment who have funded my work and still support (in ethos) what I do, but their funds have now run dry. In this instance, if the prisons can’t afford what I offer, and the educational partners have no resources left, and money from funding bodies is coming to the end of its cycle, are new financial models even possible? At some point someone somewhere is going to have to provide some money to pay the artists or arts organisations operating within criminal justice/care/mental health etc to continue.

    I do have a lot to learn about the development of business models (this I am new to, but willing to learn) so the optimist in me say yes, there must be a way forward because as Helen points out in the comment preceeding mine, at present we all deliver great projects with great conclusions, only to walk away at the end, which can be hugely damaging for the participants and is disheartening for the artists; as well as being a rather scary way to earn a living financially. But what this new model could possibly look like with an absence of hard cash….I don’t know.

    If anyone does have any thoughts on how we can move forwards, please do share them! In the meantime, we must continue to hunt for funds and remind as many influencial people as possible what an incredible and lasting difference the arts can instigate within our nation of people. Best of luck and best of wishes to all involved….

  3. Pauline – you’re right of course. Growing markets, making markets is the way forward for participatory artists who want to make a living as well as changing people’s lives. Community music is a good case in point: some very able community musicians over the years have created work in places and contexts where no-one realised they need that work: one is now a “non-grant funded profitable social enterprise.”

    On the one hand, the job should be easy: researchers are queuing up to tell everyone how great arts and wellbeing is; national music policy tells us that disadvantaged children must not on that account be culturally disenfranchised.

    On the other hand, it’s a tougher gig. I met a musician the other day who reports being able to do some brilliant work in a care home, courtesy of the home’s arts champion. Marvellous – but that’s one home out of 20,000, one care home staffer who gets it intuitively. As to the rest, I smell our old friends “patchy and fragmented.” Staffers who don’t know the value of the work, and so won’t commission it. Worse, those who do know its value – and wouldn’t let my acquaintance get away with “not knowing much” about dementia, not really understanding what professional development they needed.

    This won’t do. There’s work, and money, to be had in the care homes’ sector – but only if we’re grown up about how we approach it. What’s needed is a new way of working in the participatory arts that operates at several levels at once. First, the infrastructure bodies supporting artists (my colleagues in ArtWorks Navigator) need to work together with sector-specific organisations – those representing health and wellbeing, and (another big market) criminal justice – researchers, academics and others in a new alliance that will create collective impact of a scale large enough to match the momentum of the care sector.

    Then, that alliance needs to work in two ways simultaneously. One with employers’ groups (Skills for Care, of course, high on the list) both to find out their needs and learn their language, and to prosecute our case. The other also double-pronged: to learn from artists what works and encourage some serious high-level practice-sharing (we must not indulge in wheel-reinvention any more, it’s inefficient, unhelpful to our participants, and marks us out as unserious); and to encourage artists of the need to adopt some universal tools of quality: a code of practice, a CPD credit system. Yes, such tools will need to be universal – 20,000 different versions just won’t do . No, that doesn’t mean an artist’s work will be standardised, any more than any other human interaction in a care home can be standardised. Absolutely the prize is worth having. Highly-skilled artists helping many of our most vulnerable elders make real meaning out of this phase of their lives – that’s collective impact for you.

    Kathryn Deane

  4. Thanks for the comments. I have been thinking recently that perhaps the very fact that arts sector funding has been available for this work has been part of the problem! As in schools we ‘give’ so many excellent projects to schools and so they don’t engage with the funding challenges. It’s stopped us thinking about a better way to fund this work.

    Kathryn, I’ve been thinking about our Skills for Care conversations: there’s an urgent need for more people to work in the care sector but how can we design solutions that work both for artists and care commissioners? I heard a piece on the R4 Today programme last week about the excellent Bow GP practice with Dr Sam Everington who has implemented the ‘prescribing of arts activity’ in place of prescribing drugs.

    First we have to recognise that the funding is going to get even tougher and then we’ll need to get together and draw up a new (ie not grant funded) financial model that is more universal rather than one-off projects. I wonder if the challenges facing the care, health and education sectors could be hiding some opportunities?

  5. Yes indeed, Pauline, we give away too much, and a business model based on funding can be emasculating, restrictive, leading to an entitlement mentality and a poverty outlook. Schools – not being (mostly) businesses themselves – are maybe not the best place to break out of that treadmill. But care homes are ripe for a new business model, one based on a commercial transaction. Hey Mr Care Home, you want something that looks good in your brochure? Participatory arts. How much do you value writing up far fewer serious incident reports? That’s what the participatory artist will charge you, then.

    Very happy to call it social enterprise, or charitable trading, or even straightforward business. The basics are as marketing manager Tony Brown describes in Whatever Happened to Community Music? Tony says he is looking for a simple explanation of what community music is, who can expect to benefit from participating, what benefits they can expect, and why commissioners should believe what we tell them. So far, so first-year marketing course.

    Trouble is, Tony doesn’t find this in community music – which inhibits the understanding of the value of community music, and limits the potential of the market. Hence my universal, double-bifurcated approach above. Leading, listening, promoting, selling – this is how to design solutions that work both for artists and care commissioners.

    PS. What’s all this got to do with quality (the key driver for ArtWorks)? It’s fundamental: artist of poor quality = poor experience by participants = benefits promised unrealised = care home won’t book again.


  6. No point trying to find a business model for poor quality work! This practice is only worth promoting if it’s good. Luckily because it’s been hard to fund and because a lot of the practitioners know one another through initiatives like ArtWorks, there hasn’t been much evidence of bad work. But if we take things to scale we’ll need ways to judge, validate or accredit.

  7. Very interesting discussion. We at dot to dot active arts may have found a way. We are a large membership community interest company of 70 freelance socially engaged artists and arts workers. We find work ourselves and work together as dot to dot active arts to develop our own funded projects and secure commissions from local government, the NHS and other arts organisations (including NPO organisations). We have increased our turnover by 200% in our second year of working together. We always pay our artists (us) well; we pay our trainee artists (us) – who always are part of our projects – well; we employ people local to each project and pay them well; we employ young apprentices and pay them a living wage – not an apprentices minimum wage; and we make surpluses from all our commissions. Peer development is critical to our practice. We are self-organising and self-supporting – independent.

    Many of our members have given their support to your work; we take part in your discussions; and I presented our work at your Pilots to Practice conference. There are ways to collectively in response to extremely challenging times. Like, many others, our position remains precarious, but, by being greater than the sum of our parts yet reflexive and fleet-of-feet, we hope to offer the potential for mutual development.

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ArtWorks: Developing practice in participatory settings was originally developed by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. In 2015 the Foundation awarded funding to the ArtWorks Alliance to take this work forward.

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