'The Australian Art Curator Blog' - How to start a Community Art Project: a step-by-step guide

We’ve never been so uniquely positioned to get people initiated into the arts. From online visual resources, such as Instagram, to good old fashioned word of mouth, we can reach more people than ever to get them involved in fantastic community art projects.

But let’s say you have an exciting new arts initiative, aimed at engaging community - is it as easy as simply putting out a few sponsored posts, and letting the ‘community’ roll on through the door, brushes in hand? Probably not.

According to the Australia Council for the Arts, a community arts project is one that is a “collaboration between professional artists and communities to create art”.

So, the first step for any good collaboration in a community art project is to identify who those ‘communities’ are, and (*the golden question*) why do you actually want to engage them? If all you’ve got is ‘to activate the space’ then please return to your nice, clean whiteboard and start again. Community art projects should always work to benefit the community and leave it better than how it was found.

Rita Lucas (centre), a subject from 'The Art of Ageing', sees her photograph in story at Parliament House. She is joined by Minister for Ageing Tanya Davis (left) and photographer Julie Slavin (right).

Rita Lucas (centre), a subject from 'The Art of Ageing', sees her photograph in story at Parliament House. She is joined by Minister for Ageing Tanya Davis (left) and photographer Julie Slavin (right).

But how does it work in real life? I was recently involved in a large-scale, public exhibition that was commissioned by a state government agency. They wanted a photographer who could capture images of NSW’s ‘ageing population’ and record their stories - both of which we would then put in a travelling exhibition for all to see.

Very exciting - but also challenging!

First - who was the community? The community was NSW wide, but with a particular focus on older generations (over fifty years) and an emphasis on inclusivity.

And why did we want to engage them? To show to the public ‘the unique and diverse ways in which older people contribute to, and enhance communities’. To change the narrative from ageing as a negative stereotype to ageing as universal and exciting process, by highlighting of inspirational stories of ageing.

So we had our community. The next step was to shape a project that would spark their imagination. Because let’s face it - no one wants to be involved in a project where the end is clearly pre-planned with no chance of spontaneity.

We engaged five photographers; telling them to go into the real world, find real stories and interact with real people. We had the brief that subjects had to be over fifty - but who and what the photographers would discover would be completely up to chance.

In this way, the photographers were directly in contact with the community; learning about their concerns (such as not wanting to retire, wanting to remain active) as they were taking the images.

Arthur Stanley 77.jpg

Image of Arthur who will "retire when they cut his legs off" courtesy of NSW Family and Community Services / Photographer: Kerri Ambler

For the final exhibition the images chosen were those best suiting the community’s concerns - the 77-year old who said that he’ll only ‘“retire when they cut my legs off”’, or the 58-year old who fights to raise ‘awareness of depression and suicide prevention’.

You can see all the images from ‘The Art of Ageing’ 2018 here.

The result? An art project that helps and engages with the community by moving away from ageing stereotypes.

If you’re thinking this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is! But don’t be overwhelmed. There are so many communities you could reach, with so many tools - it's about starting (and finishing) with the right approach for the right reasons, and staying true to that community's concerns and project goals. Here’s how:

1. Who are the community, and why do you want to engage them?

Perhaps, like the UK’s Streetwise Opera, you want to engage the homeless community through theatre (who theatre director Alan Lyddiard speaks about here), in order to help participants make positive changes in their lives. Before you do anything, work out a clear goal and demographics of the community you want to reach. Cater for diversity, but with strong idea of how you can speak to that community.

Video courtesy of Streetwise Opera

2. Choose a project that plays on the imagination of your chosen community

What does you chosen community care about? What are their concerns? One Sydney-based workshop, ‘Welcome Studio’, has identified that their target community - people from refugee backgrounds - want to build connections with the new Australian community they find themselves in. So, ‘Welcome Studio’ have helped people of refugee backgrounds teach art workshops. In this way, they can share their culture and build new connections.

3. Is the project accessible?

Is taking part in the project accessible to all in your subset? There’s not much point hosting workshops for persons with physical disabilities in their twenties at a local studio, if there is no wheelchair accessibility. Less visible accessibility factors - such as computer literacy (e.g. you’re asking people to submit something online), or english literacy (e.g. you’re asking for feedback) may also be a factor.

Think about the skills needed, the equipment that needs to be used, and the sensibilities of the participants.

4. Reach out to people

Identify the best approach to reach the people you want to target - make the project not only accessible in its practice, but in its communication. Reach out early, and to the right interest groups.

I feel that this step can be the pitfall of many arts projects. Yes, you can start a beautifully crafted Instagram hashtag, but are your targeted communities actually on Instagram? If not, #getoffthegram.

@humansofny initially started by telling the stories of New Yorkers via photoblog - using social media it has now expanded to the global scale - an example of #instagramdonewell!

So have a mix of social media (but choose which channels carefully), but also undertake consultation and collaboration with the formal and informal community groups that already exist in this area.

5. Remember above all else: community-based art projects exist not to use the community, but to benefit them. As long as you remember this, you can create a wonderful project.