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Culture Wars: Fringe benefits in Belfast?

In the fringe and community arts sector, we have known for years that there were vast numbers of people untouched and unmoved by mainstream arts. We argued for art, free and uncensored, that could offer fresh insights into real human experience. We wanted theatres and galleries to open up, to do work that was meaningful and relevant to us.

At long last we are seeing our values of access, relevance and participation turning up in policy documents and winning the government stamp of approval. But I fear the prospect of an unfettered, grassroots renaissance of the arts is unlikely. And as somebody who spends an increasing amount of time writing funding applications, I am often appalled at some of the targets artists are now expected to meet.

For example, a talented photographer recently spent six months working with children in Belfast's traveller community, taking them through the processes of photography, development and selection, and finally putting together a successful exhibition. The children clearly benefited and the exhibition is testimony to this, freely expressing, in an intimate and seemingly artless way, the contradictions of their way of life.

Travellers epitomise those people on the margins now deemed worthy of support, so there is no shortage of funding. But an arts project involving the travelling community might be expected to meet up to 12 targets, including: raising self-esteem; promoting better understanding between the traveller and settled communities; opening up opportunities in training and employment; addressing environmental, social and health problems; and discovering solutions through creative collaboration between artist and community.

Often it seems the most creative and imaginative work of an arts project is the funding application itself, and we write them with a degree of healthy cynicism. We know that the acute social and economic problems facing Belfast's travelling community will never be addressed by a £6000 community arts grant. And by talking up the social benefits of arts projects, are we not colluding with politicians looking for cheap solutions to expensive, possibly intractable problems?

Worse still, I believe that we are losing sight of the real value of art, becoming fixated on 'targeting social need' in an atmosphere where funders make increasingly limiting and coercive demands. What happens to originality, free expression and the quest for new insights when arts projects are driven by government-approved social targets, such as raising self-esteem or creating training opportunities? What you get are plays like the most recent production of Belfast's Dubblejoint Theatre Company: a bad play that looks like a funding application hitting all of its targets, but which offers little else.

I value access and participation in the arts because I value art. Art is valuable, not because it is always great, but because it illuminates human experience and expresses human aspirations. To the slogan 'arts for art's sake', let me add this: 'community arts for community arts' sake.'

Pauline Hadaway is development officer at the Community Arts Forum, Belfast

Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999



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