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Building an arts community


The eighth in a series of essays reflecting on the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s experiences in the arts

The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (‘R&V’) has, just like its predecessor and sister organisation (Poet in the City) been established on the basis of a community-driven model for the arts, and such a model is arguably now essential for a small or medium-sized arts organisation (SME). In this essay I shall explore what we mean by a ‘community’ in this context and how this can be used as the basis not only for the sourcing of content and recruitment of audiences, but also for demonstrating the social and political importance of the arts in a pluralistic society.

Social capital building

Only a few books can be said to be truly life changing. For me one such book is Bowling Alone by the American sociologist Robert D Putnam. First published in 2000 this looks at the contribution made by clubs, associations and other grass-roots organisations to the functioning of our communities, societies and politics. It uses a barrage of charts and statistics to demonstrate a precipitate decline in such ‘joining in’ across the entire Western world since 1961. For me the book is not only persuasive but also makes sense of a lot of separate and previously unconnected observations I have made over the years. It turns out that suburban housing, dependence on the motor car and the rise of television all really do have a measurable impact on the propensity of individuals to participate in grass-roots activities, whether it be a local football league, an arts club or a parish council. Like many ‘baby boomers’ (those born between 1945-1964) I regarded my parents’ participation in the local bowling club, the Rotary and the Bridge players’ network as boring and old-fashioned. However, the result has been a disastrous cultural shift in which people have increasingly opted out of community, and in which clubs and associations have been left in the hands of a rapidly declining cadre of people, now often the same people who have been running them for the last 25 years. Only towards the end of the 20th century did the implications of this switch off finally become clear as many of these organisations began to fail and to disappear (hence ‘bowling alone’). Previous generations acquired years of experience of working with others in the gardening club, the choral society or the constitutional association, in settings that required persuasion, action and compromise. The implications of this trend go far beyond the arts and can arguably be seen in the current failure of our democratic institutions. However, it is also clear to me that Putnam’s arguments are important to anyone working in the arts.

When I first read the book I had already been running Poet in the City for a couple of years. Initially I did not think about an arts start-up in terms of social capital building, but it quickly became clear to me that the development of a community and a network of support was essential to its success as a new arts organisation. Elsewhere I have written about how I have approached attracting new audiences in the digital age. But the point I am making in this essay is not about audiences but about active supporters. Poet in the City developed on the basis of a community of volunteers which eventually numbered over 450 people, of whom about 50 were actively involved at any one time. Volunteers took on a wide range of roles and responsibilities, from event management and programming to data collection, web site management and audio interviewing. Team of volunteers were involved in leafleting, in managing the front-of-house function at events, in generating new ideas, and in writing about or reviewing content. Just as importantly, these activities were an excuse for regular meetings, get-togethers and parties, at which volunteers made friends and mingled with like-minded people from many different age groups and backgrounds. In other words it was inescapably an exercise in social capital building. It was a pleasure to see individuals thriving in this community, learning new skills, growing in personal confidence, expanding their personal and professional connections. I have also written elsewhere about the career development opportunities my own arts organisations have provided for younger people wanting to break into the creative sector, and the CV points they have provided for others pursuing more mainstream careers. These benefits are just as readily attributable to the social capital building functions of an arts community, providing a context for social interaction and personal growth. As such an arts organisation, like any club, association or network, is inescapably ‘political’ (with a small ‘p’). It provides a practical education in getting things done, in working civilly with others, and in achieving shared objectives, all of which is traditionally associated with the schooling of citizens for participation in a democracy. Edmund Burke famously wrote of the ‘little battalions’ of engaged individuals on whose shoulders the success of constitutional freedom rested. In the arts I believe that I have experienced a ‘green house’ for such social capital building in action, and the impact and outcomes are out of all proportion to the size of the arts organisation. It is a form of impact which is hard to measure because it is as much qualitative as quantitative and so it often goes almost entirely unrecorded.


Running a volunteer community on this scale requires a significant amount of time and effort. It requires evening working on a regular basis, reserves of patience and diplomacy, and a willingness to give time to individuals. Many arts organisations avoid more ambitious efforts to recruit volunteers because they fear being overwhelmed by the need to motivate, communicate with and involve them. However, I think this is a mistake. The task can be very rewarding and, if successful, can greatly enhance the impact of an SME arts organisation. For me the secret is to treat volunteers just as you do permanent employees, as valued members of a single team. There should be no sense of hierarchy between the ‘professionals’ running the arts organisation and the volunteers, many of whom have considerable skills acquired from other jobs or activities. It follows that expectations applied to volunteers should be as high as for paid employees, despite the fact that they are not being paid, with best practice being encouraged at all times. In practice I have often found volunteers to be indistinguishable from paid employees in terms of their abilities and commitment. The absence of a financial incentive actually serves to emphasise that contributions are motivated by something more powerful, namely passion and a belief in what they are doing. In turn this imposes a special obligation on members of the team who are being paid to be ‘servant leaders’ and to embody the vision and values of the arts organisation. Cynicism or hypocrisy are not options if you are to persuade people to give up their free time for something important and valuable. This scale of volunteering effort definitely has a pastoral component, and it is sometimes necessary to spend time on managing difficult and problematic individuals. In most cases they can be accommodated within a welcoming volunteer community. But when someone is being unpleasant, divisive or discriminatory it is sometimes necessary to exclude them too, if only for the sake of others. In all these respects volunteer management is a pure exercise in social capital building.

The digital revolution certainly allows us to reach out to a large number of people, but engagement online is often shallow and ephemeral unless it can be converted into hands-on engagement and social interaction of a deeper and more committed kind, which usually means in the terrestrial world. The main challenge of digital development in this context is mediating loose digital engagement via social media and online content into personal commitment and conversation. In my personal experience the latter is about finding ways for people to join in, to become active members of a community, and to volunteer their time. To be successful I also believe that social capital building needs to be inclusive. The doors are open to anyone who wants to help and support the organisation. A volunteer community like the one I established for Poet in the City is also a brilliant way of involving individuals from minority and marginalised groups, or those with disabilities. It brings together young people and retirees, people from all races and religions, and from different social class backgrounds in a melting pot.

Engaging with your community

In the case of Poet in the City there was a programme of up to 50 live events a year, and this provided plenty of opportunities for volunteers to become involved in all aspects of the organisation’s work. There was always something going on, and always an opportunity for an individual to roll up their sleeves and provide practical help, if they wanted to. Joining in with friends and like-minded people was great fun. At R&V this has been more challenging, especially after the organisation ceased to receive funding for its events from Arts Council England in 2016. Initially R&V quickly established its own volunteer community of about 50 people, nurtured around the events programme. This community played an active part in the creation of the Rock for Rimbaud initiative in 2016, which was a good example of how the passions of volunteers can be channelled into an active project. In this case the Rock for Rimbaud team drew up a manifesto which is a bold call to action for the arts and an innovative proposal to create platforms for up-and-coming music artists, inspired by the poet, resulting in two live concert events.

Although R&V continues to hold larger events from time to time, these have not provided the reliable opportunities for joining in. Instead it has developed a monthly programme of salon-style events which engage with its community in a slightly different way. The object has been to replicate the idea of a literary or artistic salon by holding regular small events based around a single interesting guest speaker or artist. Held monthly in an upstairs room at Blacks Club in Soho these events have featured an eclectic mixture of speakers and themes and have typically attracted an audience of up to 45 people, the capacity of the space. What makes the salon format different is the intimacy of the venue and the interactivity of the event. After the speaker has talked for 35-40 minutes the discussion is opened out to the room and it becomes a participatory event. The salons attract a highly engaged curious and committed audience, including many individuals with their own significant specialisms or prior knowledge about the subject. How does this relate to social capital building? Well, the salon is something more than an arms-length arts event. It is more like an opportunity for R&V’s core supporters to come together once a month for social interaction. For me this kind of drop-in style event also forms an important element in a thriving arts community.

Crowdsourcing of content

I have written elsewhere about R&V’s distinctive approach to the crowdsourcing of content. This is perhaps one of the most striking features of successful social capital building. An open-ended community facilitates the introduction of many great ideas for artistic content. Both R&V and Poet in the City have been notable for the fact that many of their events, activities and commissions have emerged from within their own networks of support. In the case of R&V I can safely say that nearly all of its content comes from ideas or approaches made to it via its community of support, which effectively functions as a network for people interested in poetry, literature and the Decadent Movement in the arts. From its inception R&V has been in the happy position of having a flow of great ideas, suggestions and proposals coming its way, and its only challenge has been in selecting which projects to pursue, and how to attract a critical mass of funding to them. As with all social capital building, its strength lies in being open and inclusive, and in finding a home for great ideas and significant talent.

Reframing the arts as social capital building

Elsewhere I have written about how R&V has been challenging ideas about the role of the arts in society (notably by commissioning a translation of works by the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka). Patočka’s ideas also confirm the importance of the arts in social capital building. Indeed they informed directly the notions of civil society and ‘living in truth’ which played a decisive part in the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989. It was perhaps no accident that Vaclav Havel, the first President of the newly democratic country, as well as being a prominent dissident, was also a world-renowned playwright.

Anyone who knows about Socrates and classical Athenian democracy (so conspicuous in Patočka’s thought) will know that participation in social capital building is not easy and requires constant advocacy, self-questioning, and an adherence to a strong sense of civic values. It is also fragile and depends on a level of practical support and funding to make it happen. One aspect of ‘priming the pump’ financially in the arts is also about empowering an arts organisation to fulfil its potential as a grass-roots association, providing a platform for up-and-coming artists, jobs for those who want to make a career in the arts, and opportunities for those who want to gain valuable skills or simply to join in with others. This is not sufficiently represented in current funding criteria. What I have learned is that whatever funding is available should be used knowingly to foster the growth of community and social capital, something which both greatly enhances the impact of an arts organisation and which also allows it to play an important part in the ecosystem on which the survival of a tolerant and inclusive society depends.


Graham Henderson

Posted on:Thursday 24th March, 2022