Participatory Arts

Participatory arts are forms of artistic expression which enable shared ownership of decision-making processes and often aim to generate dialogue, social activism, and community mobilization. Thus, these arts offer a new medium for political participation.

Problems and Purpose

Participatory arts are forms of artistic expression – through media such as drama, music, writing, video, and photography – that stress shared ownership of the decision-making process and that are often aimed at non-arts agendas, such as generating dialogue, social activism, or mobilizing communities towards a common goal.[1.1]

Art historian Grant Kester suggests that participatory art happens when the creative inquiry is shaped by the participants, the art is co-authored by the participants and participants give informed consent, and are involved in ongoing negotiation about the content and direction of the process. The social interaction component inspires, drives, or, in some instances, completes the project.[2][3]

From "Participatory Arts With Young Refugees" by Christina Hayhow, May Maani, Naqibul lah Salarzai & Leslye Womack:

"A participatory activity is defined as one that goes beyond “mere consultations” with participants, and “aims to activate critical thinking and decision-making, transforming participants into active citizens."[1.2]
This engagement occurs along three main dimensions: (1) production, or the actual “making” of art; (2) decision-making, which determines what type of art is produced, and by and for whom; and (3) consumption.[4]

Increasingly, participatory arts are being utilized by individuals, communities, and organizations as a way to promote political literacy and engaged citizenship. Researchers have suggested that the ‘political/civic value’ of participatory arts lies in providing a different medium for political participation and democratic engagement.

The process of participatory arts involves a ‘bottom up’ and democratic approach to the creation of art and invites participation in the creation of the message, rather than imposing and delivering an elite message to a ‘passive’ audience. As such, the essentially democratic and egalitarian structures of participatory art can reinforce the aims or political motivations of the movements.[5]

Flinders and Cunningham suggest there are at least two ways in which participatory arts may contribute to the encouragement of political participation:

  1. By encouraging participation in a more ‘traditionally’ understood idea of political activity and/or political confidence. This has been seen to occur in studies such as Catterall et al.[6] or Bowler et al.[7] both of which show a correlation between arts activity and political engagement. While the correlation between art-making and political engagement is complex, studies such as Lawy et al.[8] suggests arts activity of a certain nature can increase political literacy and ability for democratic decision-making.
  2. Participatory arts create a new medium and space for political expression, liberating from limits of formal political engagement. Art can ‘show’ rather than ‘say’: it can break down the barriers created by formal political language and express political sentiment directly through art. In this way, participatory art is a political act - the art itself becomes political expression, rather than a means to increased political activity.[5]

Origins and Development

While participatory art is connected to older traditions of cultural emancipation and collective expression, the contemporary roots lie in the artistic, social, and political experimentation of the 1960s, including the participatory politics of feminism and the civil rights movement.[9] Over the past several decades, participatory art has also emerged in a global context[3] and in relation to twentieth-century performance and theater innovations.[10] Commended works by advocates that popularized participatory art include Augusto Boal in his Theater of the oppressed, as well as Allan Kaprow in happenings.

Francois Matarasso argues that the term ‘participatory art’ is in fact a kind of replacement term for ‘community arts’, which although still occasionally used, has widely fallen out of usage amongst practitioners.[11] Part of the dismissal of ‘community arts’ is tied up with neo-liberalism and its overtly instrumentalist aims. It has often been associated (both justly and unjustly) with patronising initiatives aimed at ‘social minorities’ or ‘the socially disadvantaged’ with an entire lack of focus on artistic excellence.[5]

Participant Recruitment and Selection

While some participatory art projects focus on engaging the general public in political issues or campaigns, other efforts offer participatory art programs to reach underserved populations such as immigrants and at-risk youth, while others focus on activities that will increase the overall vibrancy and connectivity of local communities.

For example, in Los Angeles, Active Arts® at The Music Center is reimagining how a long established arts institution can actively engage residents and bring new life to urban, downtown public spaces through large dance events, group sing-alongs, drum circles, and opportunities to practice music. The Oakland, CA nonprofit Banteay Srei uses monthly cooking events and a community oral history project to create cultural bridges between isolated elderly immigrants and some of the city’s most at-risk teens. Make Music New York brings music and the spirit of participation to New York City’s seven boroughs, with thousands of public performances by amateur musicians in a dizzying range of styles, including classical, jazz, rock-and-roll, and even Indonesian gamelan music played on the city’s cast iron buildings.[12]

How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making

The concept of ‘co-production’ has been used as a way to describe how participatory art facilitates public interaction. For example, INSIDE OUT is a global participatory art project that uses large‐format street "pastings" and portrait photography as a way for people "to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into works of public art." Participants self-organize through the website to create portraits of people in their community and then the Inside Out team prints the portraits posters and ships them back to the communities.

Participation is based on people contributing a key creative element to the realization of the art project. This can happen in the planning, design, execution, and/or exhibition. 

Typically, the type of co-production involved in participatory art-making embodies some of key democratic features such as weighing diverse perspectives and collective decision making. It "encourages the use of a collective statement but does not neglect individual development or the need for individual expression”.[13] As a result, participatory art is a careful balance between the individual and the collective and between the artist(s) and the participants. Because the context of every participatory art project is unique, the specific goals and subject matter is a negotiation between the artist(s) and the participants. This relationship between the artist(s) and participants is a contentious topic in much of the literature on participatory arts.[2][3][11][14]

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Political Capacity Building - Evidence to suggest that the process of creating art can be especially important in creating the social cohesion and confidence needed for political engagement. A study conducted by Matarasso showed engagement with the arts can make us more likely and inclined to participate with non-artistic modes of engagement, such as local projects (including local campaigns or protest groups).[15] Furthermore, the encouragement of political interest[7] and democratic literacy[8] can encourage informal political engagement.

Bridge building - Often the intended outcome of participatory art is to to bring collective imagination to bear on artistic challenges while considering other viewpoints and making room for larger common issues. Because participatory art-making combines multiple and overlapping social networks, and in this way supports bridge building between communities.[16]

Collective Efficacy - Participatory art is utilized to build a greater sense of efficacy among community members that they have the collective capacity to make change. In fields such as public health, community development, and urban planning, participatory art in used to as a way to increased sense of social identity and human worth, develop stronger communication skills, strengthen a greater sense of autonomy and responsibility, and increase participation in political decision-making.[12]

Reclamation of Public Space - Participatory art-making programs that take place in public often shape and even define how places are used. Art-making and creativity in new, familiar or forgotten places encourages residents to re-imagine and re-purpose neighborhoods, empty lots, civic plazas and parks in new ways. When unused, forgotten, or single-use spaces are reimagined and repurposed by participatory art-making events, the public realm becomes more visible and accessible, and formerly “narrow-minded” spaces become flexible and approachable.[17]

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Assessing and demonstrating the cultural value of any arts-based project is complex and multi-dimensional. As Flinders and Cunningham[5.1] state:

“Research findings have started to substantiate a strong and positive link between participatory arts and civic/political engagement. It has therefore revealed the potential utility of 'art for politics'; that is, the use of participatory arts as a form of political expression and a medium through which sections of society can not only express themselves politically but also how they can nurture the skills of political literacy and the values of active citizenship. In the context of rising disengagement with politics, particularly amongst young people, this is an important and increasingly urgent area of research in terms of cultural value and a well balanced and equal democracy.” 

See Also

Participatory Arts with Young Refugees 

Artworks Creative Communities 'Get Your Pen Out' Homelessness Project  

Grassroots Jerusalem's Mapping and Storytelling Project 


[1] Lockowandt, Mara, “Inclusion Through Art: An Organisational Guideline to Using the Participatory Arts with Young Refugees and Asylum Seekers.” Refugee Support Network. 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. Available at

[1.1] p. 8 [1.2] p. 3

[2] Kester, G., (2004) Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. University of California Press.

[3] Kester, G. H. (2011) The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[4] NESF. “The Arts, Cultural Inclusion and Social Cohesion.” NESF Report 35. January 2007. Web. 27 Feb. 2016., 2.

[5] Flinders, M., & Cunningham, M. (2014). Participatory Art and Political Engagement. Arts and Humanities Research Council. Web. United Kingdom. May 2017.

[5.1] p. 22

[6] Catterall, J., with Dumais, S., Hampden-Thompson, J., (2012) The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Evidence from four longitudinal studies. The National Endowement for the Arts. Washington DC. Available online at:

[7] Bowler, S., Donovan, T. and Hanneman, R. (2003), Art for Democracy's Sake? Group Membership and Political Engagement in Europe. Journal of Politics, 65: 1111–1129.

[8] Lawy, Robert, et al. (2010) "‘The art of democracy’: young people’s democratic learning in gallery contexts." British Educational Research Journal Vol. 36 (3). Pp. 351-365.

[9] Finkelpearl, T. (2013). What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

[10] Jackson, S. (2011). Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. New York: Routledge, 2011.

[11] Matarasso, F., (2013) ‘‘All in this together’: The depoliticisation of community art in Britain’, Community, Art, Power: Essays from ICAF (ed. van Erven, E.). Available online at:

[12] Lewis, F. (2013) Working Guide to the Landscape of Arts for Change.

[13] Kelly, O. (1984) Community, art and the state: Storming the citadels. London: Comedia. p. 2

[14] Pahl, K. Steadman-Jones, R. and Pool, S. (2013) ‘Dividing the Drawers’ Creative Approaches to Research 6 (1) 71 – 88.

[15] Matarasso, F., (1997) Use or Ornament: The social impact of participation in the arts. Stroud: Comedia.

[16] Putnam, R. D. (2001). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster.

[17] Walzer, M. (1995). Pleasures and Costs of Urbanity. In P. Kasinitz (Ed.), Metropolis: Center and symbol of our times. New York: New York University Press.

[18] Finkelpearl, T. (2015). Participatory Art. Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 2.

External Links

Participatory Arts with Young Refugees

Arts and Refugees: History, Impact and Future (Arts Council England)