The Arts, Creativity and Social Change

Decorate or Disrupt: what’s the role of art in transforming public services: What role does art play in changing society? Do you need to be an artist to be creative? Are all artists creative?

Can more involvement of creative art practices such as theatre, music, poetry, visual arts be  catalysts for igniting the imagination and developing new ways of working, tackling systemic issues and delivering public services? 

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”


I’m aware I’m posing more questions than answers, but these are the questions that I’ve been mulling over in preparing for Fire Starter  Festival 2020. In thinking about the future Scotland we want to build, what role could arts play in provoking us to conceive of something different, and what could that look like?

I’ve always been influenced by art forms and artists in my work in social work, education and now in government and collective leadership. I’m appreciative of those who challenge my understanding of the world and push me to take risks – the thing I’m always encouraging others to do!

When working in education I was astonished by  Paul Gorman’s work, with 11 secondary schools,  responding to a ‘state of emergency’. The multidisciplinary creativity  blew my mind – it was curriculum for excellence in action.   Paul was instrumental in developing the Fire Starter Festival’s precursor, The Festival of Dangerous Ideas, shifting the axis of what’s possible in education, so it’s good to see him back at this year’s festival not only collaborating with others to imagine possible Education Futures For Scotland   but also taking a key role in our events on exploring what role the arts play – or could play  in changing society. For Paul, re-imagining education requires us to place disruptive and critical thinking at the heart of creative practice.

Cover image: Speed of Light VI, by Graham PowCC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

This  focus on disturbing the norms and taken-for-granted practices is also reflected in the  work of Jocelyn Cunningham. In her research on ‘Leading a City Differently: The Arts, Partnership and Public Services’ she highlights the importance of disruption in order to escape “business as usual”. She cites work in Peterbourgh where leaders reflected that “existing models of working were unlikely or unable to produce new ideas of working that would be genuinely transformational.” A new mind-set was required.  By introducing creative practices leaders could experience what it meant to operate differently. It gave them room to experiment and be more aware of the dynamics of change – and what they can feel like.  All of this was in the familiar context of the challenge of how we place aspirational outcomes over individual interests and agendas. is our human capacity to imagine, collaborate, make new connections, engage in meaningful conversations that allows trust to be built and ideas to flourish.

This type of creative  collaboration can be seen in Paisley, where Leonie Bell, explains that the  Paisley Partnership for Cultural Regeneration (physical, social and economic) “is rooted in a sense of place and is shaped by its people. It draws on the rich heritage, cultural strengths and creative potential held in Paisley’s present, to reshape its future.” For Leonie, a future Paisley is based on a collaborative approach to cultural regeneration where culture can support as well as lead change.  Although culture is part of everyday lives, itis notoriously difficult to define. It can mean the arts, architecture, craft, design, museums, libraries, film and TV… and it can also mean everything that makes a place what it is: how people live in the present and understand and express their history, heritage and future. These broad ideas of culture shape Paisley’s approach to cultural regeneration.

This all sounds very positive and I can feel myself filled with hope for the role of the arts, culture and creative practices in shaping public services and the cities and towns we live in. But….. I’ve also met with Anthony Schrag whose research highlights an interesting question about how we use arts in social change and the pressure for consensus rather than supporting diversity of views and conflict.  

In the UK, over the past two decades, participatory art practices – particularly those funded by ”Government/Local Authorities – have been employed to address issues such as community cohesion, social inclusion, or to assist groups perceived as marginalised. This has created an over-arching impetus for this kind of work to be ameliorative, seek consensus and eradicate conflict. The public sphere, however, is an inherently conflictual zone, constructed of debate, discourse and difference, and this creates a disjuncture between the intention of commissioning participatory practices and what these practices can feasibly achieve. [What is the] place of conflict in institutionally commissioned participatory art projects?

This brings us to an interesting place where we can consider how art and artists bring attention to  conflict, contested spaces, discrimination, inequalities and the frustrations of those excluded and ignored.

Please join us (Leonie Bell, Jocelyn Cunningham, Paul Gorman and Anthony Schrag, and more)  at these events to discuss, debate and deliberate on the role of arts and culture in shaping a future Scotland.

Get more information and secure your place at these events now:

  • 27 January 2019: FSF 2020 Launch Event
    10am-13pm @ the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
    Register here!
  • 28 January: The Art of the Impossible: the producer competencies
    9.30am-12.30pm @ Whitespace, Edinburgh
    Register here!
  • 28 January: Decorate/ Disrupt: what’s the role of art in transforming public services?
    1pm-3.30pm @ Whitespace, Edinburgh
    Register here!
  • 28 January: Trailblazing dialogue walks for Scotland
    4pm-7pm @ Whitespace, Edinburgh
    Register here!

Please also have a look at all other FSF 2020 events on our FSF Event Calendar.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.