François Matarasso – “Can you teach community art?”

In the 1980s, when the first generation of community artists had been around for long enough to feel they understood the territory they’d discovered, and were beginning to cast their eye over other lands, with different attractions and rewards, there was a lot of talk about how to pass on to others what they had learned. Documenting the practice became a concern, though it rarely went beyond accumulating boxes of papers and photos that would, decades later, be thrown out or, in a few cases, find their way into a university archive. Training was another priority. Mostly, that meant away days organised by community artists themselves, but in included the experimental ethos of Dartington College of Art courses, and the apprenticeship scheme financed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (which was my own way in).

‘The Cabbage Field Opera’, performed by Lower Šančiai Community Association (Kaunas, Lithuania) in Differdange, Luxembourg, June 2022 (photo by François Matarasso)

As a young person discovering and committed to this work, I remember feeling a responsibility to help others come up the same ladder that I’d been offered, and I don’t think I was alone in that. Many of my friends in the Association for Community Artists shared this preoccupation with opening up the field to everyone. We knew the territory because we lived and worked in it, but we had no maps for visitors or hopeful residents. There was a lot of reflection and debate about how those maps might be drawn, and by whom. Mapping, after all, is an interpretation of reality. It has the power to impose a narrative on the ground. Who can be trusted with that?

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