The art of social enterprise, or how to craft a community voice

This year the UK’s most prestigious art prize was won by ‘non artists’ Assemble who used a social enterprise to showcase their work at Tramway, Glasgow.

 A lot of the commentary, as per with the Turner prize, has been based around the question ‘is this art’? At CommonHealth we’ve been taking a different slant on this conversation and thinking about the relationship between art and social enterprise.

Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in an art gallery in 1917 to question definitions and boundaries of art

Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in an art gallery in 1917 to question definitions and boundaries of art

Assemble’s project with a Community Land Trust, Granby Four Streets, has been lauded as succeeding where other regeneration programmes have failed. This is a claim that we’ve often heard about voluntary groups and social enterprises. Historically, although attention has often focused on social enterprises that create employment, arts based organisations have always been part of the mix. Indeed in some places it was the community arts movement that kick started interest in community and social enterprise. In her book Let The People Sing! Helen Crummy a founding member of the Craigmillar Festival Society wrote:

The annual festival had proved to be the key to tapping and releasing the community’s creative imagination and talent. Once released, men and women’s horizon’s widened. They then became aware of the restrictive and often damaging effect on family life, of living in an area where there are only houses, scare community facilities, little work and second class education. (p58)

We hope to pick up this thread in the CommonHealth research program. Two projects are consolidating a participatory action research approach with the holistic problem-solving pragmatism of design and innovation: Project 3 – Growth at the Edge; and Project 5 – Age Unlimited. Both projects will use design-led workshops to facilitate social enterprise stakeholders’ generation of ideas about developing their enterprise. This approach can use a variety of visual techniques to allow individuals to express themselves in non-verbal ways, and so these projects have the potential to allow individuals to ‘think outside the box.’ As researchers, we are especially interested in how these visual practices can inform our research, and how this can help us to understand the best ways for communities to express themselves. We hope, therefore to begin to evaluate and explore how and why arts based approaches facilitate community expression. Work in this area is frequently expressed as organisations reaching communities that that state and private services cannot. However, what has been overlooked here is that the work of Assemble and Granby Street residents, like the Craigmillar Festival Society, allowed communities to attract the attention of those in power.

Assemble’s work at Granby Street built on the community’s desire to rebuild their homes and streets. It is important to point out that community groups had been working on various activities before Assemble arrived. Assemble worked with residents to rebuild their homes and in doing so developed skills to craft objects that could also be sold.

Does this attention to crafting also resonate more broadly with the work of social enterprises?

At the Knowledge Exchange Forum in Dundee discussed in our earlier blogs, art ran through some aspects of many of the enterprises. One group member there noted a man came into their arts-based enterprise one day and silently worked on his own art project without engaging with staff. Then he silently left. The next day he returned, following that pattern wordlessly day after day until eventually he began to speak. As researchers, we need to become increasingly skilled at listening to and understanding both his art and his process before he says a word.

While we continue to ponder how to capture the intangible value of art and crafting, we will leave you with the wisdom of the monk and author Thomas Merton:

‘Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.’