In her 2012 TEDx talk Nina Simon, Executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and author of  The Participatory Museum suggests that museums need to change the way they relate to the general public.  Simon believes that museums need to open up and become places where visitors “can actively participate” and connect with culture and each other.   Museum visitors are thought to be “co-creators”  and “creative agents”, even to the extent that they help select which objects are relevant for their community.  Simon wants to bring political change to museums.

Scott Stulen, project director for the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis,  has a TEDx talk that describes the Walker’s “Open Field” project in some of the same language that Simon uses.  His program takes place outside the Walker Art Center, and is being used to experience “crowd sourced ideas” and build “community”.  Stulen also sees museum visitors as creative participants and wants to give a voice to people who don’t necessarily identify themselves as artists while at the same time “flattening” the hierarchy of the museum.  “People desire connection, they desire community, and a place to share and that’s the power of art, the power of participation”, says Stulen.

What is the origin of these engineered ideas that call for the role of museums to be more participatory?  What is driving the political or social agenda behind the language of “participation”?

Terminologies like – participation, public-private partnerships, social inclusion and diversity – are being used extensively by art organizations from the National Endowment for the Arts down through state and local art agencies and councils.  Organized art advocacy groups no longer talk about the intrinsic contributions of art but rather about economic development and jobs that the “cultural industries” provide.  Artists are considered part of the “creative economy’” and “creativity” no longer attributed mainly to just artists, today’s trend is to consider everyone as creative.  Nina Simon’s activism has it’s roots in a political agenda and it began not in this country but in Europe.

In the late 1990’s then British Labor Party Leader, Tony Blair, began moving his party away from it’s support of liberal socialism to a new incarnation of the party,  the New Labor Party.  This reinvention reject liberal socialism for a new type of political platform called The Third Way.  Proponents saw The Third Way as  a political path between the liberal social platforms of the left and conservative social  and economic ideas.  Critics called it a sell out of liberal socialism for capitalism. Supporters of The Third Way, who would included Bill Clinton in the US, described the reinvented economic aspects of The Third Wave as a mixture of social ideals with an economy built around both public and private investments.

A key advisors to Tony Blair and supporter of The Third Way was author Charles Leadbeater who wrote of a future economy moving away from production to one that would be knowledge based.  Leadbeater believed that the economy and society would be stronger if people were given more freedom but also more responsibility for all aspects of their lives.  He proposed a “participation” in society and called for more “social inclusion and diversity.”   Leadbeater’s key concept is that  of a renewed ‘Individualism’ that was to replace the old ideas of collectivism.  The individual would be empowered to take charge of their own life with the idea that if everyone is following their own desire and goals then the collective society would be more productive and efficient.  The reality of this trope of individual freedom and responsibility would be that social programs would be devalued and reduced along with the removal of government obligations for the poor and elderly, education, healthcare etc.  In reality “individualism” sounded better than it really was.

How did Leadbeaters ideas impact the Arts?

A 2001 green paper delivered by the New Labor Party announced the future was headed toward “individualism”, and declared with exuberance that “Everyone is Creative”.  Four years later Leadbeater’s outlines and the cultural implications of New Labor’s The Third Way were to sound extremely familiar to the ideas expressed in Richard Florida’s 2002 best selling pop-sociology book  The Rise of The Creative Class.

Florida took Leadbeater’s premise of a future knowledge/technological based economy, a future of public/private partnerships and made it sexy.  Florida took individualism and social inclusion and combined them under a usurped notion of “creativity.”   Creativity to Florida is the driving potential for a robust economy revitalizing crumbing cities and communities.  Though the interpretation of his conclusions remain controversial, Florida provided a book of data showing what could happen to communities and cities if people embraced and valued a broadly defined “creative class” of people.

One result of  The Rise of of the Creative Class was a push to think of Art as valuable because it would improve the economy.  Governmental art agencies and art organizations across the county were easily persuaded.  For years the National Endowment for the Arts had been battling with the conservative religious right for the financial survival of their organization and Florida’s book gave them the economic ammunition to fight back.  Talking about art in economic terms rather than it’s intrinsic value was a way that federal and state art organizations could show the arts as worthwhile to conservative politicians.  This eventually changed how we as a society talked about the Arts.

In her book on participatory art “Artificial Hells”, Clair Bishop writes how the focus on the arts changes when political and social leaders ask the question: what can art do for society?

“ The answers included increasing employability, minimising (sic) crime, foster aspiration- anything but artistic experimentation and research as values in and of themselves. The production and reception of the arts was therefore reshaped within a political logic in which audience figures and marketing statistic became essential to securing public funding.”

This line of thinking shifts the focus on art from it’s deeply rooted, intrinsic value to it’s economic value.  It suggests that art is only valuable if it can be shown to be profitable for business and the economy, if it can build community diversity, increase participation in approved behavior, create inclusion in attitudes that are deemed positive for society by those in charge.

Buzz words have been employed in the arts sector to foster the idea of economic responsibility, the key element in Leadbeater’s “individualism.”   Words like –  participation, self-realization, crowd-sourcing, stake-holders – all enforce the goal of individual responsibility and foster the whole. This allows governmental responsibility to quietly slip into the shadows.  Bishop goes on, “Since the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in may 2012 the devolution of responsibility has accelerated: David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, ostensibly a form of people power in which the public can challenge how services such as libraries, schools, police and transport are being run, in fact denotes a laissez-faire model of government dressed up as an appeal to foster  ‘anew culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action’. It’s a thinly opportunist mask; asking wageless volunteers to pick up where the government cuts back, all the while privatizing those services that ensure equality of access to education, welfare and culture.”

The type of participation referred to in Simon’s TEDX talk  is one of social inclusion.  While populist participation has many positive attributes, my concern is that when too many agencies and institutions impose upon art the role of community organizer and social healer, the vitality of artist led critical thinking is lost.  What is at stake is squeezing out the already ostracised queer voice, the overt sexual voice, the voice of anarchy. The danger is losing the individual voices of the few, the voices that challenge, voices that question or prompt new ideas in society, to a populist voice that homogenizes the culture. Participation, as Bishop writes, can refer to positive “self-realization and collective action” or it can be used for the “elimination of disruptive individuals” by those in power.

Thanks to Melanie Parke for her assistance and editing of this post.