Community Arts in Northern Ireland

A distinct part of arts and wider community development

Community arts have been a distinct part of arts and wider community development in Northern Ireland for the past 25 years.

It is now an established sector with a number of component parts, including individual artists working in a community context and community arts provider groups such as WheelWorks, Neighbourhood Open Workshops, Belfast Community Circus School and the Nerve Centre. Key organisations include the umbrella and networking organisation, the Community Arts Forum, and Dublin based CREATE (formerly CAFE).

Community arts is the expression of original artwork created and produced by people linked through neighbourhood or community interest. Energy is particularly focused on areas of social disadvantage and on traditionally marginalized groups within society, such as minority ethnic groups or gay and lesbian groups.

Indeed, community arts create access to the arts for thousands of people every year, and it allows thousands more to create original art. Essentially, community arts gives people the voice to express themselves, as individuals and as part of a community, through a diverse range of art forms such as circus, drama, mosaic, murals and creative writing.

The community arts’ ethos in Northern Ireland is:

Access: Everyone has the right to participate in the creative process, to speak, to be listened to and ask questions.

Participation: Everyone has the right to be actively involved in the creative process.

Authorship: Everyone has the right to contribute to the creative process.

Ownership: What we have recorded through our active participation belongs to us collectively.

This statement and way of working has been placed within the context of Article 27 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in the scientific advancement and its benefits.'

Everybody has a creative side which people have the right to explore. The ethos purports that the arts is not and should not be inherently exclusive. Implicit within community arts is a ‘have a go’ approach, encouraging and supporting thousands of participants to develop creative and artistic pieces which can have a hugely positive impact on the individual and wider community environments. According to Jenny Harris from the Alban Empire in England:

‘The mainstream cultural policy indicates that it’s only some people’s stories that are worth telling—that most people’s role is to buy a ticket and listen quietly and community arts is the antithesis of that. It’s to work with communities and neighbours to help people find their own stories and make them strong.'

Examples of community involvement in the arts can include murals in housing estate, a ceramics piece on the wall of a local community centre, and a film depicting the life of the area in an honest and empathetic way. Crucially, not only does the physical art product remain in a community, but a skills legacy is left as well. Empowerment and the passing on of skills are key elements of community arts. The benefits of participation in a community arts project include rural and urban regeneration, socio-economic regeneration, capacity building, contribution to peace building and, on an individual level, improved self-confidence and life opportunities.

Research carried out in 1998 by English based consultants Comedia came up with astounding results as regards the impact of community arts on individuals and communities. 74% of respondents reported feeling happier since becoming involved in a community arts project, and 93% of respondents reported feeling more confident about what they could do. In addition, many people who participate in community arts also have access to a range of educational and training opportunities. Many mainstream institutions, including the two main universities in Northern Ireland, now run recognised community arts courses, offering participants qualifications and a quality learning experience.

The Community Arts Forum is the umbrella and networking organisation for the community arts sector in Northern Ireland. Formed in 1993, CAF aims to develop the sector through a programme of training, information, publications, advice, advocacy, networking and development. CAF is based in the Cathedral Quarter area of Belfast.

The community arts sector in Northern Ireland is now buzzing. More and more community organisations are using arts activities to help achieve their overall aims. In addition, community arts are finally being recognised as a distinct way of working within the wider community. Many thousands of people across the region attend live arts events as a result of participation in community arts projects by mainstream venues such as Belfast’s Waterfront Hall and Derry’s Millennium Forum.

CAF is currently working with partners, the City Arts Centre and CREATE, to develop an all-Ireland community arts reader, which will chart community arts across the island, looking at the areas of ethics, practice, history, resourcing and education and training. For those interested in the area of community arts, this will prove to be an invaluable resource.

Further Reading
Vital Signs: Mapping Community Arts in Belfast (1998) by François Matarasso.

© Community Arts Forum 2004