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Basics on active arts participation policies

Posted on Jan 10, 2015 by in issue #03 |


By Dr. Anna Villarroya

Associate Professor and Vice-president of the European Association of Cultural Researchers (ECURES)
University of Barcelona



Basics on active arts participation policies​: Objectives, mechanisms, sources​ and​ ​common ​tendencies in Europe.



Active involvement in arts activities is one aspect of cultural participation that has received comparatively little academic attention. Frequently, terms such as “active involvement in arts”, “amateur arts”, “active cultural participation”, “active arts participation”, “voluntary arts”, “creative participation” or “arts engagement” are even used indiscriminately to describe the same activities. This inadequate conceptual framework is also apparent in the various national and international surveys that group different examples of arts expression under the same or similar concepts. However, given that the literature does provide a number of distinctions on the subject of participation patterns (e.g., UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics Report of 2012, which examines active versus passive participation, creative versus receptive participation or the distinction between inventive, interpretative, curatorial, observational and ambient arts participation), this article will use the intuitive pattern that distinguishes active from passive participation. Participation (“taking part”) will be used to denote both (passive) “attendance” and (active) “participation” and will refer to individuals’ varying degrees of involvement and creative control in cultural practices; and the emphasis will therefore not be on attendance but on participation in an active sense, meaning that the participant is involved in artistic production by making, doing or creating something (Brown et al., 2011).

In terms of participation rates, engagement in performing arts or in visual arts activities is far less common than “passive” cultural participation.”.

In terms of participation rates, engagement (active participation) in performing arts (singing, dancing, acting or music) or in visual arts activities (painting, drawing, sculpture or computer graphics) is far less common than “passive” cultural participation. According to the latest Eurobarometer data (European Commission, 2013), in 2013, the most common activity for Europeans was dancing (13% had danced at least once in the last 12 months), followed by photography or making a film (12%) and singing (11%). Fewer respondents had played an instrument (8%), participated in creative writing (5%) and acting (3%) in the last year. Individual involvement, in terms of performing or producing a cultural or artistic activity, has decreased significantly since 2007, probably as a result of the financial and economic crisis.

This low level of participation contrasts with the numerous potential benefits of active arts participation in individual, communal or civic life. A recent recommendation by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on “the right of everyone to take part in cultural life” (2012) stresses the responsibility of states and local public authorities to ensure that the necessary conditions are met to develop people’s talents to the fullest. Also at a European level, recent discussions on the importance of active participation, the improvement of its media coverage and a proposal for a European Cultural Participation Index have brought together a number of experts on cultural policy (in 2011 the Compendium experts community and the Amateo network for active participation in cultural activities organised an international meeting on active cultural participation in Europe; and in 2012 the Council of Europe’s CultureWatchEurope initiative and the Compendium community discussed the topic “Cultural Access and Participation – from Indicators to Policies for Democracy”).

The research on active arts participation and on the cultural policies that aim to promote it is limited. In 1991, Eckstein and Feist began the process of culturally mapping the amateur arts and crafts in the United Kingdom, examining both the role of various umbrella organisations and national interest groups in this sector and the means by which amateur arts organisations are supported and financed.

In recent years, in Belgium and the Netherlands large scale studies have been undertaken to describe the core aspects of amateur arts participation. In Flanders (the northern region of Belgium), recent sociological research carried out by Vanherwegen et al. (2009) showed that no fewer than 1 in 3 people practised the arts. Among the wide range of research results, the authors reported that people who practised the arts were much more active as receptive cultural participants and that amateur artists were less individualistic, and were more socially aware than those who did not practise arts. From a political perspective, one of the Flemish government’s targets for the amateur arts sector is to make it more pluralistic and professional. The Flemish government supports one national organisation per art discipline or sub-discipline. As a result, the amateur arts sector is divided in nine federal, pluralistic organisations that support a wide range of productions. On the basis of a 5-year policy, these organisations give amateur artists and groups the opportunity to participate in various competitions. They also provide information and artistic, organisational and technical guidance for any active practitioner, as well as facilities for amateur arts activities. More recently, in a comparative study on Flanders and the Netherlands, Vanherwegen et al. (2011) showed how active arts participation is enhanced to varying degrees by government cultural policy. In the Netherlands, along with a tradition of self-organisation of amateur arts in clubs, societies or associations, there is a tradition of training in amateur arts provided by local government (music schools and creative centres). The Flanders study reported that most amateur artists do not feel that there is a need for more (financial, promotional and administrative) support, though they do consider that there should be more of a focus on active arts participation in school.

The evidence suggests that arts participation has a positive effect on social cohesion, on community empowerment, on personal development and on local image and identity.

Other countries have mainly focused their research on the social impact of active arts participation. Since Matarasso’s long-term study on the social impact of participatory arts projects in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Finland and the US (Matarasso, 1997), a considerable body of research has been conducted on the social impact of participation in amateur arts. The evidence suggests that arts participation has a positive effect on social cohesion (bringing people together, developing networks and understanding), on community empowerment (building local capacity for organisation and self-determination), on personal development (leading to enhanced confidence, skill-building and educational developments which can improve people’s social contacts and employability) and on local image and identity (celebrating local culture and traditions and strengthening cultural life).

The positive effect on social cohesion, many studies suggest, is visible in the essential contribution that participatory and amateur arts have made to the development of vibrant and inclusive communities (Jeanotte, 2003, for Canada; Convenio Andrés Bello, 2004, for Colombia: McCarthy et al., 2004, for the USA; Dodd et al., 2008, for England) and to juvenile crime prevention and conflict resolution (Hollinger, 2006, for Venezuela).

The positive effect on community empowerment is visible in how involvement in an arts group in the UK has a statistically significant effect on trust in civil institutions and in people (Delaney and Keaney, 2006). In the United States, Taylor (2008) has maintained, the arts can create enjoyable public spaces and shared experience, and encourage intergenerational activity.

The positive effects on local image and identity have also been evidenced in the literature. In their study on the voluntary and amateur arts in England, Dodd et al. (2008) described the important artistic and creative value of the voluntary arts sector, both in terms of sustaining cultural traditions and developing new artistic practices. Waldron and Veblen (2009) found a sense of community and belonging by joining people in the learning and playing of traditional folk music in Australia. More recently, Brown et al. (2011) reported that in cities and towns across the United States participatory arts practice is gaining recognition as an important aspect of quality of life and a means of building civic identity and communal meaning.

Participation in the arts can also have a significant impact on people’s self-confidence and, therefore, on their social lives (Matarasso, 1997). Individuals who engage in arts practice are usually more trusting in general and political terms and are more optimistic and tolerant (Stolle and Rochon, 1998).

Finally, however, Dodd et al. (2008) have stressed governments’ lack of concerted interest in amateur arts. For these authors, organisations operating at a local level are in the best position to provide groups with direct support and guidance and to influence local funding and policy. Jeannote (2003) observes that indiscriminate cuts in culture can have far-reaching negative implications for the sustainability of the communities in which they occur.

Because of their limited nature, none of these studies on the social impact of active arts participation have been exempt from criticism. Frequently, they address a single organisation or local programme or concentrate solely on community development arts programmes with one intended social outcome (Ramsey, White and Rentschler, 2005; Ramsden et al., 2011).

In this context, this article explores policies that promote more active arts participation in a set of European countries. Specifically, the article analyses the main objectives behind cultural policies that seek to encourage active arts participation. Next, it examines mechanisms that support active participation in arts activities, as well as the sources of funding used to foster this sort of activity. Despite the fact that there is an extremely wide range of arts activities, the article attempts to identify the most popular disciplines promoted by active arts policies. The last part of the study focuses on the identification of the most common aspects and tendencies in active arts policies, from an international perspective.

Basic facts on policies promoting active arts participation in Europe

Information provided by the Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe ( is used to explore the policies implemented by various European countries to promote active arts participation. This is a web-based system for monitoring national cultural policies. The transnational project was initiated by the Steering Committee for Culture of the Council of Europe and has been running as a joint venture with the European Institute for Comparative Cultural Research (ERICarts-Institute) since 1998. It is carried out in partnership with a “community of practice” comprised of independent cultural policy researchers, NGOs and national governments. The project currently includes information for 42 member states co-operating within the context of the European Cultural Convention, which is updated each year. This paper focuses on those countries located in Europe and uses data corresponding to the year 2011.

Despite the limitations of comparative analyses among countries with different institutional systems, welfare state models and levels of economic and social development, data included in the Compendium permit a first approach to the policies on active arts participation that are implemented by a large group of European countries.

The descriptive policy analysis concentrates on the following five basic areas: the main policy aims supporting active participation in arts activities; the principal mechanisms for encouraging arts participation; the existing sources of funding active participation in arts activities; the key areas of intervention; and the main issues and common trends existing in that area of cultural policy-making.

Policy aims to support active arts participation in Europe

The most common objectives set for active arts participation policies in European countries are to promote creative pluralism and intercultural dialogue, preserve and maintain some artistic disciplines, and contribute to social cohesion.

The most common objectives set for active arts participation policies in European countries are to promote creative pluralism and intercultural dialogue, preserve and maintain some artistic disciplines, and contribute to social cohesion.

Countries whose amateur arts policies aim to promote creative pluralism or cultural diversity are Belgium and various Eastern European countries (such as Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and Ukraine). In some Eastern countries (Georgia, Latvia, Poland and Slovenia), amateur arts policies aim to maintain intangible cultural heritage and to strengthen identity. Embedded in the grass roots of local communities, amateur arts in these countries are seen as a source of national cultural identity.

Other countries explore the contribution of active arts participation to communal or civic life. Thus, participation in arts activities is perceived as especially important for building community networks (the United Kingdom), empowering citizens, regenerating local communities, acting as the ideal breeding ground for civic commitment and involvement (Germany), and contributing to social cohesion (Slovenia).

Some countries support amateur arts because they provide access to culture. This is the case in Eastern countries such as Latvia, Macedonia and Slovenia and in the Netherlands, where artistic activities are developed to facilitate cultural life at local level and secure the availability of professional arts in the future. In this sense, active and passive or receptive cultural participation tend to feed off each other.

For individual members of communities, participation in amateur activities can lead to increased levels of self-confidence and self-belief (Harland et al., 2000; Cowling, 2004), and can improve interpersonal and communication skills. This is one of the aims of the United Kingdom’s cultural policies focused on participation.

Mechanisms for supporting active participation in arts

A wide variety of tools are implemented by European governments to support amateur arts or the more active involvement of their population in arts. Administrative and financial support to organise festivals, exhibitions, performing arts productions, workshops and other events are among the most common public mechanisms. Many Eastern European countries (Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine) and some Western European countries (such as Ireland and Portugal) use these tools to promote active arts participation among their population. In the United Kingdom (England), many local authorities have small pots of funding for amateur arts groups, which can help them to introduce new activities, gain access to professional speakers/teachers or develop publicity and websites (Dodd et al., 2008). In addition, many amateur arts groups in the United Kingdom benefit from in-kind support also administered by local authorities. And so although arts groups are almost all independent local organisations established by their participants, self-financing and essentially independent of national and local government, the crisis-driven reduction of local budgets and the reduction or cessation of these small grants may make it more difficult for groups to have access to proper venues, networking opportunities and training. Moreover, the severe cuts affecting the professional arts sector in the United Kingdom may eventually cause amateur arts practitioners to lose out as consumers and audience members, significantly affecting the quality of life for large numbers of people (Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Arts Council England, 2008).

Other countries, like Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Russia, organise or fund annual awards, contests or competitions for amateur arts to foster these types of cultural activities.

Regarding the provision of facilities for amateur arts activities, some countries (Ireland, Latvia and Lithuania) contribute to the creation, modernisation and maintenance of buildings such as cultural centres. Other countries (Lithuania, Portugal and Slovenia) provide technical equipment to increase active arts participation or offer suitable venues for meeting, performing or practising at a reduced cost or at no cost (France, Slovenia and the United Kingdom).

To a lesser extent, some Eastern countries support research centres for ethnic culture (Lithuania), fund first recordings of traditional music (Albania and Hungary) or include cultural heritage in their school curriculum (Poland).

Main sources of funding active participation in arts

Direct public subsidies are the most frequent sources of funding for amateur active arts in Eastern countries (Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Russia and Serbia) and Western countries (Finland, Greece, Ireland, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland).

Governments in Finland, Greece, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal and Slovenia also support amateur arts via special programmes. In Malta, for example, amateur activities are funded through the National Lottery Good Cause Fund. Similarly, national funds for amateur arts are sometimes raised from the lottery surplus, as in the case of Denmark.

In several countries (Ireland, Liechtenstein, Portugal, Romania and Switzerland), the framework of support is based on a partnership approach among various authorities and institutions.

A particular set up for funding amateur activities is the existence of umbrella organisations or federations established at regional or local level to bring together local groups. State funding is channelled through these umbrella organisations in Belgium (Flemish and French communities), England, Estonia, San Marino, Serbia and Switzerland. In England, for example, the Voluntary Arts Network acts as an “umbrella body of umbrella bodies”, promoting participation in the arts and crafts, helping to develop the sector and working on behalf of umbrella bodies (Dodd et al., 2008). Apart from public funding, some umbrella bodies receive regular funding from membership subscriptions or rely on fundraising and income from sales and events. In addition to funding, these bodies can also provide support and artistic, technical or organisational guidance to amateur arts organisations and artists on a need basis.

In some countries amateur arts receive funds from large companies and other sponsors (Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) or professional organisations provide venues for amateur artists and groups to hold their performances: in the Netherlands, for instance, the Engelenbak theatre, offers its premises to amateur artists and groups to hold their performances.

Finally, countries such as Finland or Portugal support amateur arts activities through private foundations of public utility or through public agencies with a coordinating role (Latvia).

Popular areas of public intervention in amateur arts

Amateur arts activities are extremely diverse in essence. The disciplines that are best represented in active cultural policies are folk dancing and music, photography, cinema and video, writing (plays, poems, novels, etc.), theatre, music (choirs, wind orchestras, jazz, etc.), arts, craft and fine arts.

Common aspects and tendencies in active arts participation

Among the most widespread practices and trends in arts participation are the creation of mainly public folk and culture centres that support the cultural sector and occasionally act as intermediaries between this sector and the government. These support centres, which usually provide administrative and training support for amateur groups, can be found in Western countries (Belgium/Flemish community, Denmark, the United Kingdom), and Eastern countries (Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Serbia and Slovakia).

Local authorities play a key role in many countries (Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia and Slovakia) in supporting cultural associations and the local activities of amateur groups, and in contributing to local cultural life, spreading culture and supplying cultural programmes.

Many countries (Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Malta, Moldova, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino and Ukraine) focus amateur policies on special areas of activity for children and teenagers. Arts activities can be particularly effective for increasing young people’s engagement in the community because of their association with enjoyment and because they favour positive emotional mood and social relationships, (Keaney, 2006). In addition, arts participation can be highly beneficial for youth at risk (Weitz, 1996) and contribute to greater academic success, self-awareness, motivation and higher levels of empathy and tolerance with others (Catterall et al., 1999).

Recent years have witnessed the appearance of modern genres related to new technologies (such as multimedia and e-music) and public art (such as graffiti) in several countries (Croatia, Finland, Georgia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia and Ukraine).

Some countries, especially in the East (Hungary, Latvia, Romania and Serbia), have taken advantage of various European schemes (for example the European Structural Funds or the European Cultural Foundation) to support arts centres and NGO networks.


The analysis in this article is the first step towards a comparative overview of what governments do to support their participation.

In general terms, policies that support more active arts engagement aim to promote social cohesion through the involvement of marginalised social groups, to develop artistic activity that provides wider access to culture, to increase the levels of confidence and skills in the population and to foster creative pluralism and intercultural dialogue. In diverse societies in particular, amateur cultural groups can provide a unique space and platform for bringing communities together and overcoming barriers of mistrust (Keaney, 2006). Bearing in mind the still low and unequal proportion of European citizens who are involved in cultural activities, governments and cultural organisations could do more to broaden the social reach of the arts by promoting volunteering and the engagement of the population. Generally speaking, government involvement is frequently reactive and amateur arts tend to be ignored in cultural and arts development strategies (Dodd et al., 2008).

It should be added that cultural policies that seek to increase citizen participation have rarely distinguished between the promotion of more passive forms of cultural engagement (e.g., boosting the size of audiences) and more active involvement. The tendency has been to combine both, in a drive to increase access (Keaney, 2006). This view is reflected in the recommendation by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (2012) in which active and passive participation are treated equally. To change the situation and establish a major role for engagement in arts practices, policies aimed at boosting active arts participation should consider increasing arts appreciation curricula in schools and encouraging the development of amateur pursuits in extracurricular and out-of-school settings (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 2012). Apart from promoting junior artists and increasing the value of active arts participation for children and teenagers, this will enhance the substantial effect of education on all types of cultural participation. As observed in the literature, arts education increases the probability of attending arts activities (Bergonzi and Smith, 1996; Borgonovi, 2004; Ateca Amestoy, 2009; Martin et al., 2012); and in social environments strongly oriented to active arts participation, individuals are much more likely to be interested in active arts participation, and vice versa (Sacco, 2011). A growing body of data illustrates the interrelation between participatory arts practice and attendance at live events, particularly for younger adults, who are more likely than older adults to be involved in participatory activities (Brown et al., 2011). Moreover, involvement in the arts as a child increases an individual’s chances of becoming an active arts consumer as an adult (Oskala et al., 2009).

Because parental influence, family background and personal demographics can determine the degree to which children receive or do not receive encouragement to become involved in the arts, more opportunities for children and young people to engage in the arts outside the family context should be provided. Moreover, targeting those who are less likely to receive parental encouragement might enable a larger number of people to experience and become familiar with the arts as they grow up (Fresh Minds, 2007; Oskala et al., 2009). The importance of attendance at cultural events at a young age for subsequent active arts participation has been emphasised, among others, by Fresh Minds (2007) in a report on Culture in Demand commissioned by the UK Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport. According to the report “efforts should be made to foster amateur groups and to include active participation in a child’s educational journey” (Fresh Minds, 2007:10).

Other ways in which participation could be increased are through the creation by local authorities of mechanisms to allow citizens greater input in determining what kind of cultural provisions are valuable to their communities (Keaney, 2006; Jancovich, 2011) and to recognise the crucial impact that grass roots structures like the amateur arts sector have on developing vibrant and inclusive communities (Dodd et al., 2008). Major cultural institutions can be key in developing “participatory projects” (produced with local residents), where members of the public are invited to participate in the creative process through workshops that involve them personally in the artistic practice (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 2012).

Governments can also use the boom of digital culture and the Internet to encourage active participation by the public, especially among young people.

All these social benefits are particularly important in the current context of economic crisis, which has led to severe reductions in the levels of funding available for culture in many European countries. Although the amateur arts sector does not rely as heavily rely on government subsidies as the professional sector, public cuts might have far-reaching negative consequences not only for individuals but also for civic engagement and for the sustainability of the communities. These could be partially redressed by improving the level of understanding of the value of voluntary and amateur arts for individuals, organisations and communities (Jeannotte, 2003; Dodd et al., 2008), as well as by providing potential donors and sponsors with stronger tax incentives, as in the professional sector, and encouraging donors to support the wealth of social and community benefits emerging from the work of amateur arts groups.

In the knowledge that research lacks a common understanding of the main concepts and appropriate data for in-depth contextualisation, this article has contributed to the limited cross-national comparisons of cultural policies fostering active arts participation. In order to further the debate on cultural and arts participation, it is crucial to work on a cross-national statistical framework that provides a reliable empirical basis for comparable EU statistics. The need for a European approach to this issue and for evidence-based policies has been widely covered in the literature (O’Hagan and Castiglioni, 2010). Further research should also explore the way in which cultural policy, legislation, and public and private funding can be used to favour more active arts participation.

Questions for further discussion

1. Which arguments governments could use in order to support amateur arts in your respective countries?

2. Does it make sense to support amateur arts in periods of severe economic crisis?



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