Working for cultural equality by putting the arts to work for the community in a way that is relevant, practical and exciting..


City Arts Centre’s belief in the possibilities of art to fundamentally change individuals and communities provides a vision for the Centre, a vision which sees art at the centre of an equal, just and sustainable society.


As a result of this vision, art itself must undergo a transformation from it’s present position as the arbiter of taste and status: recognising that art is not a precious quest for the ideal but is a human right, a human necessity and a dynamic tool for change, will lead to a new role for art and to new forms of artistic practice and presentation.


Effective community arts practice provides the possibility for an equal voice in how culture is experienced, formed and presented. The hierarchy of culture, as represented by the ’genius’ the ’masterpiece’ and the aesthetic face of power must be removed in favour of acknowledging, understanding and supporting all cultural possibilities. Communities must be empowered to develop their own cultural voice and must be given an equal place at the cultural table.


The future development of dynamic cultural opportunities must begin with children. The education of children from the earliest age must be based on imagining change and imagining oneself as an active contributor to such change. Children are, in the main, referred to in a passive way. This passivity is represented by protection, control and the transfer of knowledge, like the filling of an empty vessel. Little is heard of empowering children, of giving children a basis from which to imagine a better world, a life full of confidence, of understanding the ’self’, of ideas and enjoyment, of dreaming a better future into reality.


A danger for community art is the possible parocial nature of the community perspective. Defining a community in cultural terms can also lead to a chauvinism that ’believes in the innate superiority of (it’s) own identity’†. This is a very real danger with communities who, once they have indentified their culture, fix their cultural values as a defense against outside forces or as a means of oppression on weaker communities. The quality and equality of relationships between different communities is central to a sustainable society. Having other perspectives, local, national or international, is a vital ingrediant of City Arts Centre’s work and networking, exchange and joint initiatives are a priority for the Centre.

In short, City Arts Centre sees it’s role as something of a research and development organisation investigating the possibilities of changing art from a received form of oppressive ’givens’ to a liberating force for change. This role is approached in an attitude of learning and participation. Programmes will have as their aim the long term development of City Arts Centre’s policy and the key elements will involve a generational perspective, an emphasis on the quality of relationships between all the players and a quest for cultural equality and development through art and new and exciting forms of art through cultural equality.


Value 1 - Equality

The principle which underlines all of City Arts Centre’s work is equality.

As City Arts Centre immerses itself more and more in community art, the issue of equality grows in importance. People with disabilities, children and young people, ethnic minorities, women, gays, travellers - in fact, all people have rights as citizens and as human beings and these rights are constantly undermined through inequality.

Further, all other living species on the planet have rights which can not be separated out from our own existence as humans. Equality is a universal tenet for living.

Oppression through inequality arises from the idea that humans are at the pinnacle of the evolutionary chain and that within the human race, the fittest rise to the top in some sort of natural order. These views have led us to devise the most vile and hideous methods of destruction, both of other life forms and of each other. Such an approach leads us to value nothing but our own success, at any price.

As a cultural objective, success at any price, changes human creativity from an exciting developmental tool to a drive towards domination. Power becomes the ultimate measure of progress, be it political, economic or artistic.

But there are other human instincts which inform alternative forms of development. Human beings are very social animals, have a highly developed intelligence, are caring and aware and have a creative facility which seeks a better future. While the ’domination equals success’ profile is very evident through the history of human beings it is also the case that non-dominant approaches have always been endeavouring to check and balance the excesses of ’survival of the fittest’. Equality is at the root of all positive developmental approaches to human progress, from democracy to non-violent protest.

City Arts Centre, during it’s long history, has aligned itself with equality groups, cultural or otherwise. What it has sought to do is place art at the centre of equality issues, believing that art has a central role to play in such issue based work. But of equal importance is the intrinsic integrity of the creative action or artefact. The importance of liberating the creative self and then the empowering nature of realising an inner vision in some objective form can never be underestimated. In City Arts Centre’s view it is the marriage of these two elements, the issue and the imagination, in the service of equality, which gives culture it’s vibrancy.

Value 2 - Art is at the core of what City Arts Centre does.

By art, City Arts Centre means the tangible manifestation of culture. And by culture we mean lived experience.

Art in the 20th century has come to represent a product and, in most peoples minds, this product is a piece of visual art. The reasons for this are many but one of the most defining is the market value of such art works and the attendant publicity the sale of art works receive. This value, akin to gold and diamonds, is reinforced by art museums and private collections. In simple terms then, culture = art = visual art = money = power = elite. While most people will declare they like a nice picture, most will also say they find modern art incomprehensible and sometimes ridiculous. From this point of view the vast sums of money paid for art is ludicrous and leaves most people feeling ’what a waste of money’ and ’I must be dumb not to see the value in this’ and ’it’s all beyond me’.

From this perspective it is easy to see why many people see culture and art as removed from their lives. Worse than this, it makes any attempt to practice art seem worthless, literally making most art ’worth less’ than the masterpieces, and it makes culture into something that only ’cultured’ people have by owning and understanding art.

People and communities must believe in their own worth and the uniqueness of their own lives. Art, in what ever form, which represents and symbolises this uniqueness must receive due recognition and support. The vital role art has to play in personal and communal development will only be recognised when such practice is owned and understood by a wide range of people rather than the rarefied activity it often is.

Value 3 - There should be no hierarchy of art and culture.

The common perception of art and culture is that it is either high or low and one is dominant over the other. This means a hierarchy of culture with ’master-pieces’ at the peak and a daubed profane graffiti message at the bottom, each symbolically representing a way of life that is also hierarchical and oppressive to those at the bottom of the ladder. It is hard to escape the fact that most people live in the shadow of the profane graffiti and a minority bask in the reflected glory of the ’master-piece’.

However, if culture is a lived experience then the hierarchical model does not reflect the reality of culture as a living, breathing, eco system of human existence. Culture is the space between human beings and between human beings and everything else. This space is filled continually with human ingenuity. Being ’cultured’ is not a social aspiration as it is often understood. It is the way we live and how our means of existence defines our past, our present and our future.

Value 4 - Art and culture are key issues for survival.

The validity of cultures, many different cultures, and their right to equal co-existence, is a key issue for the development, even the survival, of our species. Of late there is much talk of Biodiversity, the fragile balance of life forms that share Earth as a home. The way people live and their relationship to the wider environment, is now the key question for sustaining the planet. Culture, the creation of our living environment as humans, is the primary element of any study of Biodiversity.

Communities develop in particular ways because of a set of unique circumstances. Not to value each culture as part of the web of human life on the planet is no different and no less damaging than allowing wildlife to become extinct. A rural or urban village, an identifiable grouping with it’s own distinctive boundaries and characteristics, should be protected and developed as a precious eco-system within the human chain of life, whether in Brazil or Ireland. We all live within such boundaries. We interact in a very particular way with our surroundings, operating in very defined spaces and in very defined patterns; trips to the shop; to visit neighbours; a walk with the dog; bringing children to school, and the hundreds of other traverses we make from our hall door. In this way we build relationships with our local area and the people who live in it. Out of this grows a culture and out of this culture symbols and artefacts become the short hand of who we are and the way we live. A disruption of this culture is very upsetting. If our regular route to the shop is blocked we are angry. If the post office or credit union closes we feel we have lost more than just a service. If the bus link is terminated or the school closed we fear for the future. Even positive developments instil stress.

If art and culture are not brought to the fore in the spheres of planning and development then it is inevitable that we will get it wrong.

Value 5 - Communities and their culture must be supported, protected and valued within development.

Too often communities and their culture is overlooked in favour of planning, profit and convenience. Planners and builders tend to see progress in terms of the built environment and in terms of the future tense. New houses are good. New factories are good. New roads are good. Far superior than the tatty old buildings that were there, with a post office serving a hundred people and a narrow road. But what some planners fail to grasp is the culture behind the tatty buildings and narrow roads. People have probably developed a living community over generations and it is a delicate balance of inter-relationships between people and environment. Destroying a human eco system like a community is not to be taken lightly and the negative results of such destruction are to be seen everywhere.

Through neglect, bad planning and, sometimes, sheer greed, communities have had their culture destroyed. The results are dehumanisation, anger and an insidious undermining of human rights. To maintain that one environment must be replaced to create a better or superior environment is to deny peoples right to have a voice and the very basis of human co-existence.

Value 6 - Opposing Cultural Oppression

These issues are now coming to the fore with the realisation that many cultures have been oppressed (women, ethnic groupings, travellers etc) by and in favour of a dominant, and powerful, hierarchy. It is a fact that culture has been defined by those powerful enough to define it. In the West the three pillars of Church, Royalty and State have defined our understanding of culture for hundreds of years. This domination is now giving way to the all persuasive market which is no less of a ruling hegemony than it’s predecessors.

While every tribe, village, community and group, has always developed unique profiles for themselves it is only those profiles that represent the rich and powerful which have, almost exclusively, receive the imprimatur of the truly worthwhile. The result of this domination has resulted in the hierarchical culture of the ideal, the rule of the ’perfect’ and the loss of identity for the mass of people.

The phenomena of popular culture in the second half of the 20th century has given the illusion of a breakdown of this cultural hierarchy. In reality, the controlling powers have reinforced their stronghold, rationalising their interests down to power and money. Church, Royalty and feudalism have given way to a Global economy dominated by fewer and fewer people. In the past, armies were recruited and marshalled by leaders seeking power and wealth where as now we are complicit in our own domination and partake willingly in the destruction of our culture. What used to require huge investment in military campaigns to reap the rewards of domination can now be achieved from an office with a lap top.

As we lose more control over our lives and our future, society breaks down. The cultural ’cells’ that make up society are damaged, mutated or destroyed altogether. The resulting problems are there if one wants to look: poverty, homelessness, drugs, neglected and abused children, racism.

Hand in hand with the glaringly unfair distribution of wealth and resources which exists in the world, is the whole sale damage the abuse of such wealth and resources has on the rest of society. Valuing people, their community and culture, is not high on the agenda of multi-nationals and, in turn, the governments who must pander to these multi-nationals for
jobs, resources and the very root of power itself.

Value 7 - Sustainability

City Arts Centre sees community art as a challenge to both the community and the art sectors in it’s promotion of art as an integrated socio-cultural activity with a vital and central role to play in sustainable development.

As City Arts Centre states in it’s policy by-line the arts must work for the community. Whereby culture is the way people live their lives, art is the mechanism and the means by which we may engage with our selves, other people and our environment. Often art is alienating for the majority of people due to the ownership, marketing and valuing of art as an ideal, a status symbol and a measurement of power. To view art as merely a product is to dismiss it’s pivotal position in human development. Art must be given a central role in peoples lives from an early age, as a key learning capacity. But more than this, art has the capacity to change, both on an individual and communal level, and employing creativity in the service of equality promises a valuable interaction for both art and society in general.

*Community Arts:

There is no unifying profile of Community Arts because although creativity is common to all citizens the results through art and culture is always unique. The vision, role and aims of Community Arts are very much dependant on the context where arts and culture work is undertaken. There are, however, common features to Community Arts no matter where it takes place. These features can be described as; a belief in art as a mechanism for change and improved quality of personal and communal life; a commitment to equality; collectively oriantated practices; respect for cultural traditions; long term perspectives; openness to change; integration with community development through art; an emphases on quality processes.

†Fintan O’Toole - ’Cultures, Art and Conflict’ Published by City Arts Centre, 1999.

Modified on Tuesday 21 April 2009