Loraine Leeson – Art with Communities: Reflections on a changing landscape

DATE: February 2008


Loraine Leeson has worked as an artist with communities for over 30 years. In the late seventies her work focused on the politics of health and in the 80’s Loraine co-founded, with Peter Dunn, the Docklands Community Poster Project which ran for ten years during the re-development of the London Docklands. Following further work developing participation and social change through art, she established cSPACE in 2002 to explore the internet as a space for collective creative practice.

In this article, Loraine reflects on how her practice has had to shift in relation to the changing politics from the 70’s to today – what have we learnt and what can we leave behind?


While opportunities for artists and arts organisations working in the public realm have certainly increased since the 1970’s and 80’s, a number of new challenges have replaced old ones. Uniting the two periods is a resurgence of interest in this field, following a decade or more of critical silence and even disdain from the artistic mainstream. For those who have persisted through labels of community-, public-, participatory- and now socially-engaged art however, not just the terms but the whole social and political landscape has shifted – and more than once. The social value of artists within regeneration is now widely accepted, though the ways that their commissioning takes place sometimes leaves much to be desired. Similarly, funding has become an increasingly constraining force, directing artists to follow bureaucratically determined ‘good practice’ rather than supporting artist- and community-led initiatives developed through organic engagement with local issues and contexts.

Weaving a way through these positions is not easy for emerging artists today. There are increasing opportunities for commissioned work and community-based activities, though artists and participants may find little access to the wider implications of the political jigsaw of which their work forms part. If they are not careful, artists can find themselves pawns in a game neither of their making nor choosing, and designed to benefit abstract policy rather than real people.

The longevity of my practice has offered an opportunity to recognise and reflect on personal intentionality and processes of engagement against a changing social and political backdrop. I hope that observations arising from this may help to throw light on some of the issues now facing artists and arts organisations to support those who are seeking a key role for artists in our increasingly regenerated urban landscape. There are many issues that could be raised here, so I am going to confine myself to listing some key points.

What can we learn from that earlier period?

· That social and cultural benefits actually do emanate from radical work by artists, as they did then – even against the backdrop of an ultra conservative government.

· The power of collaboration and collective action, while understanding the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’(1).

· Cultural output and inner cities flourish when political and institutional support is given to community-based arts, as did London under the Greater London Council in the 1980’s.

· A sense of critical debate underpinning project assessment can also stimulate the cultural climate. In the 1980’s Tower Hamlets Arts Committee involved community and tenants’ groups as well as artists on its panel. The GLC’s community arts sub-committee distributed £1m of public funds every year, while proposals came under rigorous peer scrutiny.

· Both art and innovation prosper when funding institutions support, rather than impose, ‘good practice’.

What can we leave behind?

· Any notion that ‘excellence’ and ‘community’ are incompatible.

· The avant-garde as the measure against which all contemporary art is assessed.

· The necessity for women and ethnic minorities to endlessly fight in order to be heard.

· Equating social engagement with ‘bad mural painting’.

· Darkrooms (except by choice!)

What is better now?

· Wider acceptance of the social value of art in the public domain.

· A more widespread recognition that public art benefits from community engagement.

· Greater possibilities for partnership working.

· An understanding, not always realised in practice, that public art should be initiated at the beginning of a development and not at the end.

· The enormous benefits that digital and communications technologies have brought to creative networking, collaboration and international co-operation.

What can we adapt from the earlier experience for the current climate?

· A conscious attempt to involve artists in the conceptualising of programmes and developments.

· Increased dissemination of artists’ skills and profiles to help create a more informed commissioning process.

· The re-introduction of support for good practice by artists successfully developing work in the field under their own initiative.

· A re-emphasis on the selection of appropriate artists for commissions based on previous work, rather than through competitive proposals. In this way the key phase of research, development and consultation may become a properly funded and intrinsic part of the work.

· While recognising the social value of artists’ work, to refrain from using them as a cheap panacea to replace social infrastructure.

· New social situations call for different artistic input. Staying with old models is not always useful, and may even be damaging.

· Recognise that artists and arts organisations need sufficient support to be able to develop new and appropriate responses themselves.

A key benefit of the earlier period was that support for artists and arts organisations was less likely to be linked solely to output, enabling essential research and development to take place, and relationships with community groups to develop over time. In the intervening period many effective methods for artists’ social engagement have been mapped and are now generally accepted; for example, the involvement of community members in managing a project, or workshop activity, to accompany public art. It is very positive that such models are valued, though it can become a problem if they are imposed. A rise in the target-led economy has resulted in increasingly directed roles for artists and arts organisations. Much creative potential is therefore remaining untapped, undeveloped or in the process of becoming destroyed through lack of support, and society is losing out. My plea is to create frameworks rather than straightjackets, allow artistic ideas and community relationships to be formed through consultation, and to re-direct support towards projects developed organically under artists’ own initiative.


1. Freeman, J. 1972, ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ in The Second Wave, Vol. 2. No. 1, USA. Originally published as a pamphlet addressed to the early women’s liberation movement, it remains applicable to other areas of radical struggle including collective forms of art production. Republished online in Variant, issue 20, 2004, http://www.variant.randomstate.org/20texts/structurelessness.html.

LINKS: http://www.cspace.org.uk/

Shattering the Developers’ Illusions
© Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson, Docklands Community Poster Project, 1985

The seventh image from the first sequence of photo-murals exploring issues surrounding the re-development of the London Docklands from the viewpoint of local communities.

18’ x 12’ (5.49m x 3.66m) photo-mural

© Loraine Leeson and The Geezers, 2008

Current project with an older men’s group to tap the tidal power of the Thames.

Initiated through a research initiative by Queen Mary University and recently launched at SPACE Gallery with large-scale video interviews and visualisation as part of the Not Quite Yet exhibition. Photo: John Cockram