How can we evidence the impact of participatory art on adult skills?

Added on Monday, November 23rd, 2015

suepotts Sue Potts is Knowledge Exchange Manager at the ICC and leads its Culture & Collaborative Practice research strand. In this blog, she recounts her experiences working with participatory art and outlines some of the early research findings from SILO, a research project which aims to validate the skills that socially excluded adults gain from involvement in participatory art.


As Knowledge Exchange Manager and Research Lead for the ICC’s Culture & Collaborative Practice research strand, my role at the Institute is concerned with collaborative practice between arts organisations and audiences, artists and communities, and higher education and civic engagement.

Professionally, I have experience in participatory art practice which dates back to a former role at the charity Venus, where I secured numerous socially engaged artist residencies, at the same time as developing my own award-winning practice in digital story telling. I have also worked extensively with the socially excluded – not least during my time as Digital Inclusion Development Manager at the International Centre for Digital Content, where I led an eight-year programme that involved many different socially excluded communities and individuals in the creation of digital content.

Currently, I am the lead researcher on SILO (Supporting Learning Opportunities for Hard to Reach Adults), a pan-European project funded by Erasmus+ which happens to intersect both of these domains in its aim to develop pedagogy for the validation of skills gained by socially excluded adults through participatory arts.

As part of the project, we involved 75 artists from across Europe in a consultation concerning best practice for developing participatory arts projects. Although the project team is yet to issue its final report, this consultation has helped to establish an invaluable framework for good practice that can be used by other participatory artists. Here are some of its key guidelines.

1. Understand the need of participants

Understanding the need of participants is clearly of crucial importance. From our consultation, we found that artists working with hard to reach adults often already conduct their own research into the needs of their beneficiaries. They do this by:

  • Working with groups and individuals – using creative techniques to draw out physical restrictions, understand mental health needs and understand fears and lack of confidence
  • Researching policy and good practice concerning individuals with complex needs
  • Consulting with key workers at host organisations and an individual’s wider support network

2. Build a conducive environment and rapport

In socially engaged practice, it is recognised that artists often create environments and conditions for people to realise their talents in situations where formal education and support practices have failed. The SILO consultation asked artists to describe how this special atmosphere is created through participatory arts. Their responses include:

  • There is an emphasis on on ‘curiosity and collaboration’
  • They start from the individual’s experiences, interests and points of reference
  • There is a flexible approach using many methods – visual, audio, kinaesthetic
  • The projects build a gradual increase of challenge
  • The emphasis is on building a space and environment of social learning

3. Capture the impact

Tools for capturing and validating skills development must be robust enough to withstand formal validation procedures, but also flexible enough for use in participatory practice in a manner that does not impinge upon or dilute the approach.

We asked artists if they currently recognise and record skills gained by their beneficiaries. Overall, artists agreed that they do recognise and capture evidence that participants gain skills and competencies – although some of those interviewed highlighted that skills were not the main emphasis of their practice. Indicators employed by artists to measure skill development include:

  • Changes in behaviour
  • Improved capability to deal with stressful situations
  • Improved relationships with family and friends
  • Increased confidence and self-esteem
  • Developed capacity to work in a team
  • Quality of artistic product
  • Increased awareness of own abilities
  • Achieving self-identified targets

For more information about SILO and its developments visit the project website.

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