by Maddy Costa
Francois Matarasso has been a source of inspiration pretty much since I became involved in New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood. A cultural thinker as generous as he is perspicacious, he frequently alerts me to cultural projects or public activities I might not otherwise encounter, and argues for more genuinely inclusive ways of thinking about, talking about and creating art. As the subtitles to his website and blog so piquantly put it, he writes about art as if people mattered, and thinks about culture as if democracy mattered.
I’ve flagged him up on here before, but his latest post feels particularly provocative for the NTiYN project. It focuses on Les Nouveaux Commanditaires, a programme initiated by Belgian photographer Francois Hers to create an alternative to standard community arts provision: giving people (in Matarasso’s words) “not just access to great art (as selected on their behalf by experts) but access to the means of cultural production”.
The Nouveaux Commanditaires mission statement makes clear that it seeks to overturn cultural inequalities. “Citizens remain absent and silent in art,” it notes. “They seem satisfied with anonymous relations with artists and limit artworks to having a role within a heritage that is managed by markets and institutions whose criteria and values could not stem from a political, let alone artistic project.” In the opportunities created by the programme, by contrast, “the citizen becomes an equal to the artist and acquires the authority to publicly express a need to create as well as to assess what is produced in the name of art”.
NTiYN – especially in its second phase, whose focus is split between touring existing work and commissioning artists to create new work for specific communities – shares many impulses with the Nouveaux Commanditaires. Through the post-show discussions I lead, members of the public are invited to assess what Fuel bring to their neighbourhood (and later to write about it for publication on this blog). New work is being commissioned following Artist Missions, again all documented on this blog: here, artists with motley disciplines and backgrounds – some of them already working with Fuel, but many new to the company – are invited to spend a day immersed in a participating NTiYN location, speaking to people who live there, finding out what culture is important to them, figuring out what kind of theatre work might suit their community, and encouraging participation.
From what Matarasso writes, however, the Nouveaux Commanditaires goes a step further. “Essentially a method of enabling citizens to commission new public art”, it invites people from very different professions – “doctors, voluntary groups, farmers, journalists, gardeners, teachers, politicians” – to choose for themselves the artists with whom they want to work, and what they want made, then collaborate with a mediator to bring their project to fruition. It makes me wonder: what might the NTiYN commissions look like if it weren’t Fuel making most of the decisions?
A possible British answer to the Nouveaux Commanditaires might be found in the Fun Palaces project co-directed by Stella Duffy and Sarah-Jane Rawlings. Inspired by Joan Littlewood’s motto “everyone an artist, everyone a scientist”, Fun Palaces aims to be “not just an event, [but] a movement, putting cultural participation and public engagement at the heart”. At this stage in its development, it’s hard to tell to what extent doctors, voluntary groups, farmers, journalists, gardeners, teachers or politicians are responding to its invitation to make their own Fun Palace, and how entrenched in our culture is this hierarchical notion that artists and art institutions make and curate art, while the rest of us just consume it or, at best, participate as instructed.
It’s a bit much to ask that either NTiYN or Fun Palaces single-handedly undo decades of failure to understand the necessity of art and culture to personal and social well-being. But it’s worth thinking about how these and other community-minded projects invite a general public to get involved, what equalities they successfully promote, and what hierarchies unintentionally persist in their structures.