MEMORIES AND VAGARIES. the development of social art practices in Scotland from the 60s to the 90s

This article was commissioned by Malcolm Dickson for the book ART WITH PEOPLE of which he was editor. It is an AN Publication, 1995. ISBN 0 907730 23 X.

In the book this chapter is entitled, ‘Another History.’ I have reverted here to my original title.


A Review and Reflection on Some of the Community Art Works and Projects that took place in Scotland from the Late Sixties to the Nineties with Reference to Related Practices and Events in England.

As with so many of today’s practices in culture and the arts the ubiquitous Sixties are invoked as the time when ‘it all began to happen’. Community Art was no exception. Certain shifts in art practice relating to, ‘whom the art was for?’ and ‘where it should be made and displayed?’ took place during that decade which changed received perceptions about visual art as dramatic as any such change in the twentieth century. The democratic urges and idealism of the Sixties moved a number of artists to question their role in society. Individualism, self- expression and ‘art about art’ began to be replaced in their practice by collaboration, social relevance, process and context and the whole panoply of galleries, dealers and the art market was deemed antithetical. Maxims such as, “the artist is not a special kind of person but every person is a special kind of artist”; “the context is half the work”; and later, “everyone an artist,” offered some philosophical base to the changes. There was also a growing concern and respect for the arts of non-western and ethnic minority cultures which questioned the notion of universally accepted standards in art. Some artists moved out of the gallery and into the street using performance, graffiti, mural painting and video. These actions were fuelled by the gut feelings and radical politics of the time that art should actively engage broader constituencies. However, as Su Braden emphasised in her 1976 book, Artists and People, it is simply not enough to move the work out of the gallery and into the street but that the form and content has to change to take account of that move.

Art and Context

A decade earlier the Artist Placement Group, known as APG and founded by John Latham and Barbara Steveni, had already articulated this in the clearest possible terms by claiming that the “the context is half the work.” APG was set up in 1965 to place artists in non-art situations and institutions to make art out of the experience. Graham Stevens, one of the first artists to be placed by APG wrote in 1989, “This might have been called ‘contextualism’ since it is founded on the recognition that an artwork changes fundamentally in where, who with and how it is made.” Artists were placed in situations as diverse as the Department of Health and Social Security, the National Bus Company, Ocean Fleets, the Scottish Office, among many others. The APG procedural model for a placement was, and continues to be, exemplary. Artist and institution were put together for a short initial period with no predictable outcome on either side. This was known as “The Open Brief” out of which came “The Feasibility Study.” It contained the artist’s proposal for the remaining period of the placement but crucially it was the point at which both the artist or the institution could decide not to proceed. This sequence thus opened the way for the possibility of radical and challenging work. It was a new role for artists and the process and the context became key elements in the subsequent practice. Stevens goes on to claim that APG, “………..grew to make major contributions to the thinking and orientation of art movements of the Sixties and Seventies: Environmental, Light Works, Air Art, Conceptual, Participation, Performance, Process Art, Community Art, Art in Architecture, Artists Film and Video, Energy, Phenomenalism and Time-Based Arts.” These are significant claims for APG’s influence, an examination of which remains outwith the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that I do regard APG’s work as a clear starting point in creating some of the precedents for alternative art practice for this period.

Although APG continued to place artists well into the Seventies, the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Gulbenkian Foundation took up APG’s idea of artist placement, diluted the key elements and turned it into the artist-in-residence. The Arts Council appointed, a Placement Officer while APG’s funding was reduced and finally withdrawn. The much-diminished form of artist-in-residence became dominant. This was a major error of judgment by ACGB but, more insidiously, it contained serious elements of suppression, sufficiently documented for John Latham to take the case to the European Court. The case was lost when the Court decided it had no power over the decisions of ACGB. With the sidelining of APG went the opportunity to develop, over a long period of time, the kind of contextual art practice that it had begun to refine.

Some artist-in-residence projects have undoubtedly been excellent; the book about which is waiting to be written. (Although Su Braden’s book was commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation to examine residencies it had funded up to 1976, she felt compelled to include other, non-Gulbenkian residencies) In the main however residencies were more to do with providing the artist with a studio to continue her/his own work with one or two conditions, such as for example, that the studio should be open to the public for a short period each week to see the artist at work. Nothing could be further removed from APG’s aims for the artist and the work. Institutions with their hierarchical and compartmentalised structures were fertile settings for artists to work in. They were able to cut across boundaries bypass red tape and often had the ear of the managing director. This was De Bono’s lateral thinking in action and APG succinctly described the artist in these kinds of settings as “The Incidental Person”. This episode reflects, what begins to look like a consistent pattern of that period; the arts councils of the UK taking over successful artists-run projects and movements and doing them less well at much greater expense. Richard Demarco suffered the same experience in Scotland. It is clear that APG’s work was thwarted and a great opportunity was lost.

Community Art

It is interesting to note that Graham Stevens uses the term ‘community art’ in his article of 1989 since the term has been one of the most contentious issues at the very core of the social concerns of these changing art practices. Despite attempts to dispense with it, it remains the term with the most common currency, taken up now in the USA. In July ’94 The Guardian carried an article on Richard Hoggart which states, “He was tolerant of the claims made for ‘community art’.” New terms have been coined like, ‘developmental art,’ which reflect the uncertainty which pervaded this area of art practice from the outset. It is the term, community art, which makes the art establishment fulminate about condescension and the lowering of standards. Yet it was the arch enemy of both APG and community art, Sir Roy Shaw, Secretary General of ACGB, who, in his Annual Report for the year 1976/77, defined community art at its simplest as, “the activity of artists in various art forms, working in a particular community and involving the participation of members of that community.” Shaw nevertheless saw the activity as a means of eventually drawing the general population into an appreciation and enjoyment of the ‘great tradition,’ in other words the democratisation of the received and established culture. Shaw was taken to task on this issue by Owen Kelly writing in the magazine Arts Express in 1985. Under the title, “In Search of Cultural Democracy,” Kelly writes, “To be in favour of cultural democracy then is not, as Roy Shaw seems to fear, to be opposed to opera, or ballet, or any other of the ‘great arts’, for they are creative acts as honourable as any other. It is merely to be implacably opposed to the present structure of grant aid and sponsorship which privileges them on an ‘a priori’ basis against countless other forms of human creativity which are marginalised or disregarded.” He goes on, “for our concern is not with producing ‘the right art’ but rather with producing the right conditions within which communities can have their own creative voices recognised and given sufficient space to flourish.” Hoggart was, like Shaw, all for widening access to the arts but was less keen on their deconstruction.

Art and local community action

Cultural democracy however was already being put into action despite the prevailing opposition to it. At the time that APG was being set up, a cultural revolution of a different sort had already begun in a setting far removed from the rarefied climate of the London art scene. On the Craigmillar housing estate in Edinburgh a Festival Society was formed. Mary Bowie, along with the legendary Helen Crummy, organised the first Craigmillar Festival of Music, Art and Drama. Craigmillar is an inter-wars housing estate which, even as early as 1934, was already being described as “ugly factory blocks” and “an abortion”. It quickly became a disaster lacking social, educational and employment opportunities and breeding poverty and notoriety. With 25,000 inhabitants in the Sixties it was one of Edinburgh’s running sores and typical of so many similar estates throughout the UK. In 1968 it led the city in attempted suicides, juvenile delinquency, children in care, overcrowding and tuberculosis. What happened in Craigmillar was unique in the field of local community cultural action since the Festival was founded and controlled by local people and continues to be so today. The founders wanted the arts to play a major role in the life of their community and, since Edinburgh’s world famous International Festival rarely, if ever, touched them, they decided to have one of their own. The annual Festival became the focus for the Festival Society and was centred on a piece of political theatre conceived and written by local people. It was performed by a cast of local and professional actors. The Festival Society used the arts to become a political force, in time exerting some control over planning, building, social and cultural development of the estate. In 1975 it won �750,000, paid over five years, from the EC to strengthen and broaden its activities and, at its high point, was responsible for organising and running 57 social and cultural neighbourhood projects. Over the years the Festival Society created many opportunities for the arts to flourish selecting and employing artists, founding an arts centre and setting up Community Art Teams. In 1978 it produced a major report with 400 recommendations on how to improve life on the estate. The title of the report, The Gentle Giant, was named after the land sculpture of Gulliver conceived by Jimmy Boyle while still a prisoner in Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow. A team of local people under the direction of the artist Ken Wolverton and local carpenter John Locke undertook the construction. It was dedicated and ‘unveiled’ by Billy Connolly in 1976. A comprehensive environmental improvement project was carried out which included murals and play sculptures. With a certain cocky, native flair the Community Art Team, under the direction of Rosie Gibson, invited New York artist Pedro Silva, well known for his Gaudiesque benches around General Grant’s Tomb on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, to design and build with local people a mosaic sculpture 60′ long and 20′ high. Its location was, strategically, on the line of a proposed road development which was opposed by the people of the area. Professional artists, in all art forms, were employed to work alongside local people but crucially on terms laid down by the Festival Society. This reversal of normal practice is all the more significant since it predates the surge of professional artists into housing estates and neighbourhoods to direct community art from the top. It also predates Augusta Boal; Brazilian founder of the Paris based Theatre of the Oppressed, who famously stated, ‘never to go into a community until that community has articulated its need for you.’

Craigmillar served as a model for another ‘notorious’ housing estate in Scotland, Easterhouse in Glasgow, to set up its own Festival Society. As with Craigmillar, it was run and controlled locally and gained enormous success with its theatre productions, winning a Fringe Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 1981. It commissioned six artists to work with local people to design and execute a 200′ long wall mosaic. As the work progressed on this prodigious task the mosaic became, of necessity, more the work of the artists. It contains decorative as well as highly political imagery and is known as the Easterhouse Mosaic. When I was visiting Chicago in 1984 I was asked by some artists if I had seen the Easterhouse Mosaic and did I have slides of it? Easterhouse to many people in Scotland meant crime, vandalism and poverty while in Chicago they had only heard of its art.

The artist in town planning and urban design

My own concern for the importance of the context in art making developed from working in Nigeria between 1963-67. In teaching and directing painted murals and mud wall reliefs I resisted the temptation to introduce European influences and insisted that images and forms be drawn from local experience and tradition. This may seem an obvious position to take now but at the very same time sculpture students at the nearest university were being taught to make Marino Marini look-alikes. On my return to Scotland in 1967 I wrote to towns suggesting they might employ me as an artist. Serendipity played a part and in September 1968 I became an employee of Glenrothes (pop. 35000) in Fife. I joined the planning section of the Dept. of Architecture and Planning and set up my studio in the Direct Labour yards amongst the joiners, bricklayers and other maintenance trades. I also joined UCAAT, the construction workers union. My intentions were to try to demystify the artist and to emphasise the notion of the artist as artisan and as part of the workforce building the town. My job description was, “to contribute as an artist to the development of the external environment of the town” and to this end I contributed to planning decisions and joined the design teams preparing ideas for housing, commercial, industrial, landscape and engineering developments integrating art works at all levels. Though it was not part of the brief, I added to these the concept of the artist as enabler and animateur so that local people could also contribute to the development of the town.

The early new towns were built on green field sites and what few buildings existed within the designated area were often demolished in the name of progress. This policy of ‘tabula rasa’ destroyed most physical links with the past. Furthermore, as people were moved to these towns from the cities, extended family structures were broken up and social and cultural dislocation ensued. The citizens of the new towns needed ways in which they could assert their identity on their town and to this end, in 1969, I began to go into primary schools and to get whole classes to make individual ceramic tiles in modeled relief which each child signed on the front. When fired, the children cemented them on to walls adjacent to their local play areas. In some small way each child was making a permanent visual contribution to its own place. In 1971 the BBC art programme Scope, broadcast a film about my work in Glenrothes. In it the producer and presenter W. Gordon Smith commented, “……encouraging them to put something of themselves into the very fabric of their new town is one of the most imaginative, successful and heartwarming things that this programme has ever seen.” I worked with groups of secondary school pupils to design and execute painted murals. In one instance a class, described as ‘unteachable’, having painted a mural, returned to their school, “engaged in the art classes as never before” and began to organise their own murals within the school. In another instance a school group created designs for a cast concrete relief as part of the building of a new pedestrian underpass. I received many invitations to speak to groups and clubs in the town which I readily accepted as a way of promoting the role that art could play in the built environment of the town. Out of these discussions came projects in which adults participated in mural painting and other collaborative work.

At the same time some of the earliest street theatre in Scotland was being performed in Glenrothes. Frances Harding adapted and produced live performances of Punch and Judy all over the town. Lindsay Kemp played Punch and herself Judy. Local people played the other characters and the music was an original score locally written and played. So successful were these performances that other productions were performed in a similar format including a repeat of Punch and Judy, again with Lindsay Kemp, two years later.

Being a member of the planning department meant that I could contribute at the inception of developments and a clause was inserted in all planning briefs going to the design teams which stated, “The artist is to be consulted at every stage of development.” An important precedent had been established. When asked to come up with a colour scheme for the repainting of the front doors of council houses in one neighbourhood (whole streets were usually painted in one or two colours), I decided that the tenants should choose their own colours. Though this was an action without precedent, I visited every house armed with a colour chart and invited the tenants to decide the colour of their own front door. This was often met with disbelief. After some convincing lively discussions ensued and choices were made of favourite colours or how a colour related to curtains and hallways. In my studio I worked on the drawings of the street elevations indicating the colours of each front door and presented it as my colour scheme to the architect in charge of the project. Any indication that these colours had been chosen by the tenants would have meant cancellation. The doors were duly painted.

In 1974 APG set up a meeting in Glenrothes for the General Managers of the Scottish new towns to promote the idea of artist placements. Barbara Steveni addressed the meeting and was intrigued by the way my activities in Glenrothes mirrored, in some ways, the aims of APG. Though no APG placements resulted in the new towns it was already in contact with the Scottish Office � the arm of the government in Scotland. I was invited to join Latham and Steveni at the meeting in the Scottish Office, to discuss their proposals for a placement there. Due in no small way to the open-mindedness and support of Derek Lyddon and Jim Ford, two of the most senior civil servants at the Scottish Office, John Latham spent six months carrying out one of the most productive of the APG placements, works from which continue to evolve today.

Other developments in Scotland

Broader based forms of community art were beginning to evolve in other parts of Scotland particularly with Edinburgh’s Children’s Theatre Workshop. Under the directorship of Reg Bolton and then Neil Cameron it ran community art projects throughout the city and beyond. It engaged Ken Wolverton to carry out art projects which included murals and sculptures. In 1977 he stormed a citadel of the Edinburgh fine art establishment by taking over the Fruitmarket Gallery to run a community art event “Organised Accident Is Art.” It lasted a week and artists from all over the UK attended running projects, which attracted huge numbers of people to the gallery and to participate in the work. This was a one off and nothing like has happened since. Artist Chrissie Orr joined Wolverton. Together they formed a duo, called KWACO and moved to the island of Arran to form Arran Community Arts that ran for five years.

In 1975 the Scottish Arts Council, in conjunction with Tom McGrath, founder and Director of the Glasgow contemporary arts venue the Third Eye Centre, commissioned four large gable end murals in Glasgow. Only in one of these did the artist, Ian McColl, encourage local participation. One of the murals, painted by John Byrne in Partick, attracted graffiti which initially exasperated the artist. Byrne painted it out only to return to find a new inscription which read, “The artists work is all in vain, Tiny Partick strike again.” Three of the buildings were due to be demolished which indicated a lack of commitment to the murals. Nevertheless it stimulated other large gable end mural paintings some of which involved the participation of local people. In the main they were solely the work of the artists and more related to environmental improvement. This became one of the main motivations for mural painting in the UK. Notable exceptions to this included the Greenwich Mural Workshop of Carol Kenna and Stephen Lobb, Brian Barnes of Battersea and, of course, the political murals in Northern Ireland. Unlike the muralists in the USA at the time, who were absorbed with the politics of ethnicity, class and poverty, UK murals tended to be apolitical and more to do with brightening up run down areas. In 1978 a group of artists, including John Kraska and Tommy Lydon, living in the Garnethill area of Glasgow, executed a number of murals and one major mosaic in collaboration with local residents. In the same year Hugh Graham was employed as an ‘outreach artist’ by Strathclyde Regional Council and committed himself to ten years of productive work with the community in the housing estates of Priesthill and Nitshill. In 1980 Liz Kemp, having written her degree dissertation on the issues of public and community art, took up the post of Assistant Curator at the city museum in Dundee and immediately used her position to inaugurate art projects as part of the environmental improvements of the Blackness area of the town.

Where was all this art activity going and what did the future hold? In 1977 artists began to lobby the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) for some formal recognition of their practice and some directed and specific financial support for its development throughout Scotland. The SAC response was lukewarm and it must be some form of indictment that the situation remains the same today. In the ‘Charter for the Arts in Scotland’ (1993) it states, “they (community artists) argued strongly that real artistic excellence and innovation can be achieved ….. that the best of community art be recognised as a significant art in its own right and drawn closer to the traditional SAC remit.” And later, “Organisationally there is a notable lack of coordination in the Scottish community arts scene … the SAC funds community arts quite extensively but in a piecemeal manner. But it seems that there could be a place … for a forum or working group which could bring together all the strands of involvement in this complex form of art activity, identify and recognise outstandingly good practice, work to raise the profile of community arts generally and increase awareness of its contribution to the cultural scene.” In the SAC Annual Report for ’92/’93 there is only one reference to ‘community based arts’ and that is to be found in the report of the Combined Arts Officer under whose remit it is funded. It seems to indicate a continuing reluctance to have to deal with community art at all whereas, as the national arts funding body, the SAC should be giving a lead and be seen to be proactive.

How different it was in England and Wales. “In 1975, following the recommendations of a working party under the chairmanship of Prof. Harold Baldry and pressure from community artists, a Community Arts Committee was set up on a two year experimental basis to give advice on community arts funding and to act as a focus for the development of community arts activity.” The two-year experiment was evaluated by a group which was chaired by the Vice Chairman of ACGB. The main conclusion of the report was that “the objectives and practice of community arts were consistent with the Council’s chartered duties.” The Depute Secretary General stated in the preface to the report “that the Council, after due consideration, unequivocally confirmed that community arts came within the scope of its function…” The report concluded that “the responsibility for the funding and assessment of community arts should ultimately rest with the bodies as nearly based to the community as possible.” and recommended that “assessment and funding of the activity should be devolved, with appropriate resources, to the Regional Arts Associations.” ACGB continued to fund groups and artists with national roles while the Regional Arts Associations proceeded to appoint Community Arts Officers and set up committees for community arts.

In Scotland the SAC took evasive action by commissioning, in 1978, a report on community arts activity in the country. This was carried out by Hugh Graham and Liz Kemp supported by a steering group which comprised Kirsty Adams, Neil Cameron, Rosie Gibson, Steve Lacey and Bob Palmer. The steering group made a submission to the SAC for funding to set up a resource service for community arts in Scotland. This was turned down by the SAC and it continued only to fund occasional projects.

The high point of the period, and in some respects its swansong, was The Gathering, a national conference on community arts, hosted by the Easterhouse Festival Society in 1980, which attracted 400 participants. Helen Crummy records in her book, Let The People Sing, that it was an arts conference with a difference in that, instead of presenting a paper on the art of their communities, the participants displayed and demonstrated the work going on in their areas. In the immediate years following many of the most committed artists in the field moved on or away from Scotland. The efforts to survive had become too great and the future did not hold out much hope for better things. I myself had moved to Dartington in Devon to teach on a course, Art and Social Contexts, and had been invited to The Gathering to lead one of the discussion groups. I came away from Easterhouse that day with a strong sense that active people in communities and city housing estates were going to continue to demand that the arts be an integral part of their lives.

Evidence for this was not hard to find. In the Cranhill area of Easterhouse itself, members of the local Community Council, who had been involved in the Festival Society, approached their local housing officer about setting up of some kind of arts facility. This effort got under way in 1979 and after much lobbying of the SAC it began under the direction of Alastair MacCallum in 1981. The Cranhill Arts Project, based on photography and silkscreen printing, became one of the most successful in the country. This was due to the ten years of imaginative and energetic leadership of MacCallum, the consistent support of Lindsay Gordon of the SAC Visual Art department and the wholehearted commitment and participation of the local community.

Clare Higney, with extensive practice and administration of community arts in England and a member of the ACGB Combined Arts Panel, returned to Scotland in 1985 with the express intention of setting up a community art activity. She founded the highly successful Needleworks project which produced, among many other things, the twelve massive and much acclaimed banners, Keeping Glasgow In Stitches. It was commissioned for Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture in1990, and involved hundreds of participants. In her submission to the Charter for the Arts Higney offers her view of community arts in Scotland in 1992. She makes a cogent examination of how in Scotland it had “developed by default and not design” as opposed to England where clear policies and structures were set up. She went on “In Scotland separate and separated practice has led to an uneven development of geography, impact, experience and provision.” She argues that this has been both a strength and a weakness and that left to its own devices Scotland has produced some of the most acknowledged and respected community art practice in the UK. It had begun in Scotland by communities demanding it as part of community development strategies, by artists committing themselves to it and by local authorities resourcing it. The SAC however continued to respond to these initiatives, as Higney states, “on an individual basis and has never treated community art as a networked or franchisable practice with collective principles, needs and opportunities it could service and develop.”

Community art has survived in Scotland despite the problems and lack of formal recognition. It can throw up exemplary practice and occasionally singular manifestos such as Senses Alive, a community strategy for the arts in Drumchapel, Glasgow. Questions have to be asked about where it is going and how can it be better supported and developed? Evidence from the USA suggests that more and more artists have adopted socially based collaborative art practices which are given serious attention by writers and critics who are able to evaluate process, collaboration and context. There is an urgent need for this new breed of art critic in this country. Examples of good practice often go unrecorded. There is a woeful tendency to ignore the value of good documentation and publication whereas exhibitions always come with catalogues. The SAC could play an important role in this and, if it were to respond seriously to the recommendations on community arts in its very own Charter for the Arts, then at last this strand of art practices would be given the recognition it deserves. We would begin to see the development of the radical art practices, which involve greater numbers and broader swathes of the population that community art has long promised and occasionally delivered.

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