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Vital Communities in the East of England

  • Date: 13 April 2011
  • Artform: None
  • Area: South East
community group in art workshop Community art workshop, Vital Communities

Vital Communities, a five-year action research study into engagement with the arts, has shown the vital role that arts activities can play in communities.

With the support of Arts Council England, the pioneering longitudinal research project was carried out by a partnership of seven local authorities in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

Vital Communities delivered 2,285 individual workshops and events with 426 professional artists and arts organisations, creating 272 new artworks, exhibitions and performances. In total 67,521 children and 25,155 adults participated in the activities delivered. Through performances and exhibitions, the programme also engaged a further 31,091 audience members.

High quality creative activities were provided in communities; such as a Britten Sinfonia family concert tour and a story written by local children and published by Cambridge University Press.

The book, entitled The Wishing Eel, was created by children, families and young people from Fawcett Primary School, elderly residents of Crossways Gardens and the wider community members of Trumpington, working with artists in residence, writer Gillian McClure and painter John Wiltshire.

The aim of the study was to test whether these kinds of activities would have a positive impact on participants.

Children, families and other members of the community who participated in the Vital Communities activities reported positive experiences.

One parent said: 'At many of the events, there were people who attended from the village even though they weren't connected to the school. There were several times I would say, "Which one is yours?" (meaning which child or grandchild) and often the response would be "No, we've just come along to look and share". That pleased me, because it made me realise that the message had got to so many other members of the community, that there was something going on and it was for everyone.'

The study also measured the effect of arts activities on the creative economy, social inclusion and community cohesion and was found to have had the following impact on communities:

Increased engagement in the arts

Data collected before the Vital Communities study started showed that 75 per cent of people in the communities in question did not take part in the arts. Reasons for this included time, money and access, while some felt that young children were not welcome.

As a result, the Vital Communities artist programme was designed to be inclusive, flexible and accessible for people of all ages and backgrounds, providing free activities close to home. This meant the project was able to increase engagement in the arts across all of the communities involved.

At the end of the study, figures showed Vital Communities had led 75 per cent of families to try new arts activities together and 57 per cent of all respondents or their families to try new activities through the programme.

Developing and strengthening relationships

Vital Communities supported a 'traditional' concept of community, linked by local geography and face-to-face contact, using schools and community centres as a focus for activities. Participants and practitioners reported the programme overcame barriers and encouraged people to 'grow together'. Many of the arts events directly referenced the spaces and history of the communities in which they were based. This helped to bring out shared experiences and memories for those involved.

Encouraging tolerance and understanding

The programme was able to promote cross-generational and cross-cultural interaction, by ensuring the widest possible group of people had access to the activities. Vital Communities also made a positive drive to recruit minority ethnic practitioners to deliver the programme to add to the diverse experiences of the participant communities.

Promoting community cohesion

More than 50 per cent of participants felt that Vital Communities made a positive change to the community, with no negative impacts reported. Through performances, exhibitions and events, the programme was able to create a strengthened sense of place and belonging. Participants including teachers and parents, said Vital Communities had the potential to develop a stronger feeling of community within and around a school. More than 80 per cent of participants said they felt their local community is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together. This was more than reported in the Place Survey for the region.

To find out more about Vital Communities, go to the Cambridgeshire County Council website.