Wider Context

Wider Context

Wider Context

It is important for a local authority Arts Office to question its assumptions about the role of the arts in our lives and what we mean by ‘participation’. Exit 15 is a part of DLR Arts Office’s work towards that end.
The Exit 15 project emerged as part of a longer process of inquiry, begun in 2016 in partnership with Voluntary Arts Ireland. It came from a desire on the part of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council’s Arts Office (DLR Arts Office) to develop a service that is responsive to the artistic interests, activities and needs of the county’s residents. Upon taking stock of the Arts Office’s activities throughout the County, the team realised that they had a lack of engagement in the local area of Ballyogan as compared to other parts of the County. However, rather than assume that this lack of engagement is because there is a lack of artistic participation—interest and activities—in the Ballyogan area, DLR Arts Office began to wonder if they really understood what people’s actual artistic participation is within Ballyogan. An award from Arts Council Ireland’s Invitation to Collaboration Scheme made it possible to establish Exit 15 in 2017 with the goal to build the Arts Office’s awareness and understanding of the artistic life of Ballyogan and thus develop new ways to better support it.

In considering the public policy context of Exit 15, this post will explore why it is important for a local authority Arts Office to question its assumptions about the role of the arts in our lives and how Exit 15 is a part of DLR Arts Office’s work towards that end.

The Government and the Arts

Since 1994, Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council has been supporting and developing the arts in the county through a dedicated Arts Office. As a local government Arts Office, DLR County Council is one actor in a network of bodies in Ireland that work to support and develop the artistic life of the country as a whole. The image below gives only a snapshot of the types of bodies involved. These include other local government Arts Offices as well as central government, such as the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht; non-governmental agencies like the National Youth Council; quangos, such as Arts Council Ireland, which provides public money to support the development of artists and public engagement in the arts—from music to visual arts, to theatre and film, for instance; publicly funded organisations like arts organisations and charities; and commercial artistic organisations, such as film and design companies.


In establishing and maintaining the Arts Office, DLR County Council recognises local arts development as a part of local government planning, with the arts having a role in the County’s social and economic life and in establishing a sense of community. The remit of the Arts Office is thus to support the “sustainable development of the arts within the County.” This work involves, but is not limited to, distributing funding to, for instance, individual art projects in youth services, venues like the Mill Theatre in Dundrum, individual artists to make work, and amateur music and drama groups. They also host exhibitions at DLR Lexicon, support festivals in different communities and develop partnership projects like Creative Classrooms, an artist in schools scheme in partnership with Blackrock Education Centre. These activities are funded by DLR County Council itself as well as Arts Council Ireland. They are also supported through the development of partnerships with some of the agencies listed above.

As part of the work the Arts Office does, it is required by law to create an Arts Development Plan for supporting the sustainable development of arts in the County. The plan is informed by consultation events with County-based artists, residents and organisations; learning gained from the activities they do; and government policies and Arts Council Ireland policies.

DLR Arts Office is informed by a number of wider policies, but there are three main national policy documents to note here:

  • At national level, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s Culture 2025, the first national strategy for culture and creativity; 
  • Its associated implementation programme, Creative Ireland; and
  • Arts Council Ireland’s 10 year strategy, Making Great Art Work

These documents help direct planning for the support and development of the arts in Ireland, including strategies for how funds may get distributed as well as to whom or what organisations in addition to the development of different projects or new buildings, for instance.

Statements of Value

Government tends to describe the arts in two ways (Yúdice, 2009):

1) as a public good —like a product—an exhibition, theatre performance, or music classes, made available to the public to take part in, and

2) as a service – helping create jobs and bringing people together, for instance

As government documents, what Culture 2025, Creative Ireland, DLR Arts Development Plan or even Making Great Art Work say about the arts is a statement of the value that the government places on arts activities. Across the documents “people and places are [described as] central to policy and provision in the arts”. Participation in the arts is argued to have “transformational potential” in building people’s confidence or helping them to express themselves differently. Arts activities are also argued to support individuals’ “well-being” and have “the power … to bring communities together and … strengthen …a sense of identity”.  These documents also articulate the arts as being at the heart of “developing vibrant cultural locations” and building or showcasing a “sense of place” in urban, suburban and rural areas, making places more “attractive”, fostering economic success through the creation of new jobs and bringing in “tourism” and “investment”, and building local “pride” through, for instance, the building of arts centres.

What’s the problem?

What government funds and recognises as the ‘arts’ in these regards makes a statement that these activities are what is of value. What government does not fund or otherwise resource or support, what state policies and strategies do not discuss or acknowledge—what gets excluded—is perhaps perceived as having lesser or no value.

This raises some important questions:

  1. What gets included and excluded when government and other agencies describe and develop policies and plans for people’s participation in the arts?
  1. Who makes these decisions? Who is not making these decisions? Essentially, who knows best about what art we feel is important to our lives?

Perceived levels of participation in government-funded arts have been cause for concern in the arts sector in the Republic of Ireland. Efforts to broaden access and tackle psychological, economic, social and spatial barriers to engagement remain key policy goals for the Arts Council. A strategic review of Arts Council policies held in 2014, Inspiring Prospects, highlighted how the emphasis on “funding the professional arts sector” has overlooked fuller consideration of the ‘public’ and the ‘citizen’s’ actual participation and interest in the arts (ACI 2014, p. 5). There has been acknowledgement that what we typically understand as making up the arts: opera, theatre, painting, printmaking, drawing, music, certain forms of dance: Irish traditional or ballet, for instance, does not fully capture the range of activity that people are doing. The review indicates how policy and programming has typically presented the individual who is not accessing publicly funded arts and cultural activity as a ‘non-participant’, an individual disengaged. This assumption risks neglecting the rich diversity of arts-related practices currently taking place and experienced everyday in Irish society (Miles and Sullivan 2010, see also Understanding Everyday Participation), such as gardening, playing video games, doing crafts at home, reading a book, or watching a movie.

Critiques on strategies to broaden arts participation in the UK indicate that strategies tend to focus on individuals’ capacities for participation in government-funded arts. Initiatives often involve enhanced education and audience development approaches, rather than focusing on the capacity of the sector to engage individuals. Instead of seeing ‘people’s lack of engagement in art…’ as the matter to be addressed, researchers highlight a need for deeper consideration of the artistic and cultural offer and the capacity of the sector to engage with the public (Jancovich 2011, p. 272 – 273; Jancovich and Bianchini 2013; Gilmore 2014; Durrer 2017).

Arts Council Ireland seems to have taken on board these critiques. It acknowledges the need to consider, more strategically, the actual interests and participation of the public in the arts. The significant position of local authorities in this work has recently been more officially recognised.

Equally, DLR Arts Office is acknowledging that people are not being asked enough or perhaps even the right questions about the artistic activities in which they have an interest or participate. Additionally, the public they serve may not be involved enough in shaping the service they provide. These deficiencies foster a lack of understanding that impacts on how government appreciates what makes up the artistic life of a place like Ballyogan.

Through arts-based research activities, Exit 15 is aimed at helping DLR Arts Office better understand people’s everyday lives—their interests, lifestyles and traditions—and how these may relate to the artistic activities in which people take part and thus what supports and policies could be in place as a result. Its methodology is based on the goal of working with (rather than simply for) people in Ballyogan. The emphasis is on learning for DLR Arts Office but also the community of Balloygan: learning about existing and new artistic interests and activities of the people who live and work there and involving Balloygan in making decisions about that provision and support. This project is about building community capacity for arts participation, with community here including the local government Arts Office as well as citizens. While the road will no doubt be long and winding, the ultimate goal is to work toward a local government support service for the arts at local level that is a shared endeavour—a partnership between local government and citizen.

Academic Works Referenced:

Durrer, V. 2017. ‘Let’s see who’s being creative out there’: Lessons from the ‘Creative Citizens’ programme in Northern IrelandJournal of Arts & Communities9(1), pp. 15-37.

Gilmore, A. 2014. Raising our quality of life:
The importance of investment in arts and culture
, London: Centre for Labour and Social Studies.

Jancovich, L. 2015. Breaking down the fourth wall in arts management: The implications of engaging users, International Journal of Arts Management, 18(1), pp. 14-28.

Jancovich, L., and Bianchini, F. 2013. Problematising Participation, Cultural Trends, 22(2), pp. 63 – 66.

Miles, A., and Sullivan, A. 2010. Understanding the Relationship between Taste and Value in Culture and Sport. London: DCMS.

Yúdice, G. 2009. Cultural Diversity and Cultural Rights, Human Rights in Latin American and Iberian Cultures, Hispanic Issues Online, 5(1), pp. 110 – 135.

Understanding Everyday Participation

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