Water liberally: A care guide for self-cultivating culture

by Catherine Mugonyi

I’m looking at a monthly utility bill for a creative workshop space. I'm trying to think of ways to pay it: people can’t afford increased session fees, we can’t really cut down on anything as we operate on a shoestring.  In less than a year, the bill for our small voluntary arts organisation has increased elevenfold. I have a day of work ahead, then I have to come home to this. I’m tired.

I try to focus on why I’m doing this, what’s all this effort (and stress) for?

It’s for that thing that gives you comfort, offers respite from an endless to-do list and a pile of overdue bills. From caring responsibilities or crap bosses. It’s the thing that you can’t wait to tell others about or keep to yourself to enjoy and savour, like a magpie hoarding its shiny treasure. You may think I’m talking about holidays or food, but no, I’m thinking about amateur creativity and those estimated 63,000 voluntary groups whose deep care allows so many people to spark connections with others and fall in love with their creativity.

As someone who has leant on creativity at times of personal challenge and has previously felt excluded from traditional heritage and cultural venues, setting up and organising voluntary arts activities has always been something close to my heart. Joining with others in conversation, warmth, equity and just taking ownership of space is not only comforting but powerful.

The benefits of creativity are well documented; the BBC Arts Great British Creativity Test suggested that being creative can help people avoid stress, free up mind space, improve self-development and build self-esteem. So it follows that you would expect these groups, who do so much for community wellbeing and inclusion, to be a key focus for funding and development support, strengthened by policy and enabled by capacity-building resources.

Despite their flexibility and responsiveness to current social need, it seems that these groups lack true influence at a more strategic level in the sector. Individual infrastructure organisations such as Creative Lives and 64 Million Artists work tirelessly to advocate on behalf of everyday creativity, but while these groups continue to influence the ‘fashionable’, more socially-engaged rhetoric of current policy, they fail to benefit from their own cultural capital. By adopting the language of voluntary and community arts groups, current policy encourages their exploitation by funders and funded institutions in an environment that claims to support their work - especially the work of those who operate in marginalised communities.

One example is the Creative People outcome of Arts Council England’s Let’s Create strategy, which states that “Everyone can be creative, and each of us has the potential to develop our creativity further. Taking part in creative acts… delights and fulfils us, and helps us to think, experiment, and better understand the world.”

Over the last decade, ACE has invested millions of pounds into Creative People and Places (CPP), setting up engagement organisations that target parts of the country where involvement in creativity and culture is significantly below the national average. We’re well into year three of Let’s Create and in the second decade of CPP, so why does the voluntary arts landscape still seem so precarious and bleak?

Weeds are wild plants in the wrong place”

Just the other day, I was pottering in my backyard, desperately trying to tidy everything up for summer. I spent hours wrangling with a clump of stinging nettles, uprooting dandelions and meticulously scraping away the trailing branches of a sprawling bramble. As the thorns ruined yet another pair of gardening gloves, it struck me that maybe my ‘tidying’ was just not necessary. These plants tackle pollution, lock carbon away under the ground and provide a feast for pollinators. Perhaps I was the one getting in the way?

In our cultural garden, the voluntary arts often play the part of the weeds: popping up in the cracks of wider provision, operating with little resource or training, constantly having their artistic quality questioned, inhabiting spaces overlooked by others and seen as an annoyance by the professionals who would like things ‘just so’. However, they’re also abundant, determined, wildly resilient, and relied upon by many for not only creative, but also social and therapeutic benefits.

It seems clear that we have a problem valuing the kind of activity that voluntary groups specialise in. It’s messy and unstructured, it’s difficult to quantify the impact and often exists beyond the control of the funding and policy systems within our wider cultural sector. Could it be that we’re afraid that - despite the lack of funding and support - they might just be getting it right? Are they doing better work for communities than those with greater access to resources?

Voluntary arts groups are, like many in wider society, struggling with increased running costs. 74% of respondents of the Big Conversation survey 2022 reported that they’d experienced increased costs - materials, equipment, venue hire, utilities and insurance. Simultaneously, half (49%) of groups are actively helping their community with Cost of Living difficulties. These groups have often adapted to run independently, requiring shoestring budgets. However, small amounts of funding and support can make a huge difference for their continuation, especially in these times of financial scarcity.

“For many years personal creativity has not been valued. Self-cultivating culture was not recognised by national cultural policy and the dominant art infrastructure; and the neglect we see now is not an accident,” says David Bryan in his introduction to Common Ground - Rewilding The Garden “Our over-reliance on the dominant institutions neither leads to a rebalancing or a departure from the usual suspects that are already enriched.”

It’s understandable that larger organisations may feel threatened by the ‘soft’ (difficult to measure) achievements of voluntary groups, especially when their work fits so snugly alongside the Let’s Create principles. It’s as though the voluntary arts sector ‘got there first’, and to an extent, they did.

Appropriating the grassroots

It’s understandable why the language and principles of grassroots and socially engaged voluntary arts are attractive to a cultural sector facing continued funding cuts and a pressing obligation to prove its worth in a wider social, economic and political context. After years of government cuts, there is a finite amount of public money, with a variety of sectors competing for limited investment.

Appropriating their principles and creative ideas draws on the social and cultural capital of voluntary groups embedded in the communities they serve. To do this without directly investing in the communities that have developed this practice is exploitative and performative, showing little regard for the work (often carried out by marginalised people) that has fed into creating these processes.

There are parallels in Eleonora Belfiore’s observations on the artist/funder relationship in her paper Who cares? At what price? The hidden costs of socially engaged arts labour and the moral failure of cultural policy. The voluntary arts sector is mined for attractive-sounding policy points, but left to struggle for a limited pool of capacity-building and funding opportunities, competing against more resource-rich institutions.

“Funders are able to essentially neglect meaningful care (both during and after completion of the project) for the groups involved in the arts activities because artists are willing – due to their beliefs and a strong ethical and political drive in their practice – to carry out those duties without pay, specialist training or support,” Belfiore points out. “[This] amounts to exploitative practice, due to the obvious imbalance of power between funders and the artists whose livelihoods depend on project-based employment and continued support from funding agencies.”

In this way voluntary arts activity is essentially propping up the funding potential, relevance, ‘respectability’ and programmes of funded organisations and institutions. They build their resource and profile from the activity of people who “...have the determination and resourcefulness to instigate and organise creative activity and involve others – finding a way to make things happen, often despite limited funding…These people are vital and give communities hope, confidence and a collective sense of can do.” (from Common Ground - Rewilding the Garden)

Beyond that of local communities, where is the recognition and appreciation for the grassroots work? Where is the sense of balance and justice?

This is a call to action.

Transformation primarily has to lie with funders, institutions and larger organisations. There needs to be systemic cultural change within these bodies. They cannot only fulfil the Creative Case or environmental sustainability obligations placed on them by funders such as the Arts Council. They cannot just support socially engaged projects, artists and exhibitions without making changes in their own organisational culture. Without deep cultural change, these actions are superficial and disingenuous.

Funders, funded organisations and institutions are under increased scrutiny and that is a great opportunity for instigating change. Recognising privilege and doing something about it will be uncomfortable. It will mean facing difficult admissions of being the beneficiaries of unpaid labour and the role that the organisation has played in upholding exploitative systems. But this is not a time to get defensive.

A more authentic commitment to grassroots and socially-engaged activity needs to come with greater financial investment and a willingness to devolve power. Their actions and conversations, the sacrifices they are willing or unwilling to make have very real, very tangible consequences.

The first step is a strategic commitment to systemic change. This starts with what seems like obvious actions such as fair pay for artists, community organisations and staff. More diverse, representative boards and senior staff. Parity in decision-making, including true co-production with communities and voluntary groups, rather than projects where power remains with the institution due to their sheer size and economic advantage. Not expecting voluntary organisations to subsidise their activity by providing community engagement, sharing contacts or providing meeting space on an unpaid basis.

So how do we realistically ensure that these groups get the support they need to continue their valuable work? Their principles are already appearing in current strategy, but they’re being co-opted by institutions who are funded but not necessarily best placed to deliver the relevant outcomes. 

Look for those already doing the work. Who is out there on the ground making things happen? How can they be supported (beyond advice) to fulfil their objectives?

One CPP exploring this devolution of resources is The Leap, with their Creative Place Partners pilot programme. Its asset-based community development approach saw it award £25,000 to existing organisations to develop their own arts and culture programmes. This requires an element of trust that voluntary organisations know their communities - that they have an intimate understanding of what’s needed and wanted. It’s just a starting point.

At this point, it’s also important to highlight the hours of unpaid labour required to complete funding applications. Having personally regularly experienced completing a full day’s work, then staying up beyond midnight to wade through application processes, this is a real barrier. Access to funding is a competition - we're pitted against organisations with staff who are paid to complete applications. They have access to statistics, accountants, consultants, essentially a head start. Who has the better chance of success? We’re given the chance to apply, but it often feels like we're being set up to fail - or at least limited to short-term project grants rather than useful, capacity-building development funding which feels like the ‘private members club’ of larger organisations.

Voluntary arts groups need to be able to access resources so that strategies that claim to centre communities are enacted effectively at all levels within the sector. We need to be able to fulfil our work without the demoralisation of constantly scraping by, and without fear of exploitation and burnout. We may have previously turned them into rich compost from which creativity has grown, but now we must refuse the scraps from the table. 

Catherine Mugonyi headshotCatherine Mugonyi is Director and founder of Aunty Social, a voluntary arts organisation that provides accessible, participatory arts activities on Lancashire’s Fylde Coast with a particular focus on socially engaged work in gentle spaces. A long-time resident of Blackpool, Catherine specialises in organising and coproducing projects that strengthen and empower marginalised communities through social justice, local history and the arts.

Catherine is a trustee of Creative Lives and a member of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, North Committee; making funding decisions, advising on priorities and providing local perspective to the Board.

Clore Fellowship Provocation Piece

This article was Catherine’s Provocation Piece from her recently completed Clore Fellowship, Catherine took part as a Transform Fellow supported by Arts Council England. The piece will also form part of a collection of work written by Global Ethnic Majority members of Clore 18 on the theme of collective refusal.