A good home's where the art is

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What is government for? Good governments set out to provide the best possible standard of living for the most people. Money is the currency governments deal in, measurable outcomes, easily defined. But what of the pursuit of happiness? We are all supposed to know, taught at our mother's knee, taught by religion, taught in schools, that money isn't everything. Can't buy me love, the Beatles sang.

It is harder to be happy if you are miserably poor, but not impossible. The worst aspects of poverty are often not the lack of cash itself but lonely, depressed, isolated lives in frightening estates with nothing worth doing and no one interested in anything you might be able to do - the life of a human vegetable. Scattered bands of community workers struggling to breathe life into godforsaken urban wastelands talk of "empowerment". Hope awakens here and there, where people do somehow manage to create some sense of community for themselves, a few small flowers in the desert. When it happens it is a triumph of the human spirit. But it is too much to expect the most depressed and unself-confident people to do it all by themselves without help and encouragement.

Today, Use or Ornament: The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts is published by Comedia, a group with a long record of arts research and planning, funded by Rowntree, Gulbenkian and others. They have assessed the best arts projects, measuring the immeasurable, counting the added happiness and life-enhancement the arts can offer.

In the hard-nosed Tory era, the arts had to justify their existence by proving they were commercial. The talk was all of "art multipliers" and the "culture industry". The emphasis in Labour's pre-election arts manifesto, Create the Future, reflected this arts-as-milch-cow attitude. Mark Fisher, now arts minister, said at its launch last March: "The Labour government will be sympathetic because we know the cultural economy is not only good for the cities but it affects investment. Culture creates jobs." As one writer caustically pointed out, if the arts are only good for investment, employment and tax yields, then you might get a better return putting your money into the arms industry.

Community arts got a bad name in the late Seventies and early Eighties. The phrase evokes images of hideous GLC-funded murals with political messages corruptly commissioned by friends of those on arts committees without asking communities what they wanted. Brixton still suffers a vast and dreadful example of a skeleton wicked Uncle Sam astride a nuclear- bombed-out world from the days when Lambeth was a nuclear-free zone. Often the budgets were hijacked by disabled black lesbian writers' co-operatives and their ilk who alienated the communities they were funded to serve.

Community arts have always had a raw deal. Planners regard them as an afterthought, the cherry on the cake, a few window-boxes to gild their housing schemes. They fight off the idea that a significant part of their regeneration budgets might go to anything so frivolous and expendable. At the other extreme, the "real" artists fight off any depredations on their budgets for a lot of amateurish dabbling which is plainly social work and therapy, not "real" art at all. This report appeals to both sides to tilt their attention towards both the artistic and social value of good community arts. The arts establishment has to learn to value participation, genuinely, as the community needs its skills, and offers in exchange the chance to cultivate a new audience. Planners need to ask themselves exactly what is to be renewed if not the people themselves?

The report bristles with examples - some large, some small but telling, such as the resident artist on a desolate estate who gets everyone to design their own ceramic number plate, leading to much wider participation. Two part-time artists in a down-and-outs' hostel transformed the place and for the first time made the residents feel valued and useful, so there was no vandalism of the new elegance they had helped create for themselves. One crime-ridden estate decided they wanted to be known for something other than crime, so through arts, drama and local history projects they are transforming not only the reputation but the reality of the place.

Surveying all those who have taken part in arts projects, people talk of how their lives have been changed. Eighty-four per cent feel more confident about what they can do, 80 per cent have learnt new skills, 91 per cent have made new friends, 86 per cent want to do more projects, 63 per cent have gone on to help in other local activities and 73 per cent say they are happier since being involved.

These are the personal impacts, but the report measures the effect on crime and fear of crime, on improving relations between the young and old and on reclaiming the unemployable.

The chief executive of Making Belfast Work, the government urban regeneration scheme, told a conference recently that if he was starting all over again now, he would begin with culture: it had proved to be the key transforming process in all that he had done. He gave an example of a play from a Shankill drama group about Protestant Irishmen who died on the Somme, which was so strongly acclaimed that the Catholic Falls Road arts centre invited them to perform it there, something unthinkable until then. He said, "Too often urban regeneration focuses on the power and resources; cultural development is essentially about the why."

We have learnt little since the errors of the Sixties: new bricks and mortar have failed time and again to make life significantly better for the poor. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently reported, it is the quality of community life that makes or breaks an area as much as the buildings.

This report shows how arts projects draw in people who never otherwise get involved. Anyone who has sat through interminable tenants' association meetings about lampposts and council agendas knows exactly why so few people take to community action: those who do are often the sort of busy- bodies who alienate others.

But arts schemes open new doors and windows. The disaffected young who would never go near youth clubs are easily enticed with music, art and drama. Art is exciting, it is status, it is inclusive, it is not do-goodery by others, nor does it proceed through quarrelsome committees. It has the power to transform anyone anywhere.

This is about what arts can do for society instead of the arts holding out a begging bowl for more funding. At a time when at long last we have a government thinking deeply about unemployment, crime and social alienation, here is research about something that works and costs relatively little.

There will always be large numbers of people who cannot work for one reason or another - because of where they live, their physical state or their age No one is likely to offer them more money ... but they could be offered a better chance of happiness none the less.

There is no reason for thinking

That, if you give a chance for people to think or live,

The arts of thought or life will suffer and become rougher,

And not return more than you could ever give.

(Louis MacNeice)