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Participatory practice in the arts

by Andrew Taylor Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Arts organizations and arts funders have long been discussing the rise of a more 'participatory' interest among arts audiences. Beyond 'butts in seats,' this emerging interest suggests that audiences increasingly engage in expressive activity throughout their lives (online, at home, among friends), and they value a similar engagement in other cultural consumption. The James Irvine Foundation has just released a new report that seeks to define and document this part of the arts universe.

Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation is essentially a field guide to participatory arts practices -- offering definitions to help you recognize the genus, and then specific examples to identify the species. It's a very handy guide for those who know they want to increase or enhance the participatory elements of their creative work, but need clarity and strategy (and examples) to do so.

The underlying model suggests that people can engage with artistic activity in many different ways. One way of slicing those experiences is by the relative control arts participants have over the art or the experience itself. Beyond the more traditional 'receptive' roles of Western cultural experience (spectating quietly, or spectating alongside some enhancement effort like a talkback or prep session), the report offers three levels of participatory practice, defined by how much the participants influence the outcome of the work.

In 'crowd sourcing,' participants provide some essential input or selection for the creative process (photos, paintings, voting, and so on). In 'co-creation,' participants contribute in a meaningful way toward an artistic effort by a professional artist or team (participatory theater, storytelling, and such). In 'audience-as-artist,' participants actually create and direct the outcome themselves.

The report is careful to state that participatory practice isn't the 'new normal,' and that even traditional forms of audience participation have active components. But for artists, arts organizations, and cultural communities seeking new ways to connect their friends and neighbors to creative endeavor, this report offers a useful map.