Civic Role of the Arts

Professional dancers practicing for upcoming show
Professional dancers practising for upcoming show


Gulbenkian logo

About the inquiry

In April 2016, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK Branch launched a three phrased inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations. The Inquiry seeks to increase awareness of the civic role that arts organisations play nationally and in their communities. The first phase was intended to tackle the definitions, scope and remit of the inquiry. Its activity includes in-depth research and widespread consultation to understand what constitutes ‘next practice’ and seed a network for future activity.

You can visit the Inquiry Website to find resources, case studies, tools and publications relevant to the civic role of arts organisations #civicrolearts

What Next? collaborated with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Liverpool Institute of Cultural Capital on Phase 1 of their Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations.

Phase 1 explored the value and potential role arts organisations have in promoting civic engagement and revitalising communities. Through research and consultation it sought to develop an understanding of what constitutes ‘next practice’ and seed a network for future activity.

As part of this process, we commissioned three artist groups to work with communities across the UK and ask what they think the civic role of an arts organisation should be and four What Next? Chapters who worked with local partners to understand the role of arts organisations within their geographical context.

Phase One: The Inquiry

  • Seeking to increase awareness and understanding of the civic role that organisations play
  • Arts organisations play an important civic role, sustaining individuals and communities and helping make many places across the country more creative and vital places to live and work.

The Inquiry aimed to increase awareness of the civic role that arts organisations play nationally, and in their communities; develop an understanding of what constitutes ‘next practice’; and develop a movement of arts organisations committed to demonstrating it.

The Inquiry was guided by an expert panel and International Reference Group. You can read about the early stages on the Inquiry on the Civic Role archive website.

Rethinking Relationships

After a year spent researching within the sector, through What Next? workshops, a survey, academic analysis from King’s College and The Institute of Cultural Capital, and 80 in-depth international case studies, they released a report Rethinking Relationships.

Rethinking Relationships explored the themes, uncovered and identified barriers and levers for change. Since the publication of Rethinking Relationships, Calouste Gulbenkian have been working with numerous partners to develop programmes, networks, training opportunities and more which address the barriers and levers identified.

Phase Two: Building a movement of change-makers

In the transition from Phase One of the programme to Phase Two, they dropped the words ‘The Inquiry’ from the name.

The Inquiry became a funding programme, focusing on what advocacy influence and approaches were necessary to bring about systemic change. We introduced the Award for Civic Arts Organisations in 2020 to celebrate best practice and pioneers.

Today, as part of the Access to Culture programme, the Foundation continues to support arts organisations to embed the ‘civic’ into their practice and encourage wider funding and policy change. They continue to recognise that embracing a civic role looks different for each organisation. For some, this is acting as a platform for unheard voices and places where people can come together in uncertain times.

The research was finished and the focus is on what advocacy influence and approaches are to be undertaken to bring about systemic change.

The Civic Role of Arts Organisations Learning Report: From Inquiry to Movement

Author: Mark Robinson (Thinking Practice)

This learning report tells the story of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Civic Role of Arts Organisations programme in the UK. It explores the impact made since 2016 and makes observations on the current state and needs of this field of practice.

The Civic Role of Arts Organisations programme at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has supported publicly funded arts organisations in the UK to better fulfil their civic role by renewing relationships with the public and contributing to solutions for a better future.

With an investment totalling £3.4 million since 2016, the programme has sought to influence change at policy, practice, leadership and network levels. Initiatives such as the Co-creating Change Network, the Creative Civic Change programme and the Foundation’s Award for Civic Arts Organisations have spotlighted and supported the growing movement of organisations embracing a civic role, with often transformational impact in the communities they serve.

In this learning report, Mark Robinson, the programme’s evaluator, gives an overview of the work supported, analyses the impact made and makes observations on how the civic role movement can evolve.

The evaluation concludes that there is a “growing movement” of civic arts organisations, who have achieved:

  • Impact in local communities, through building connections within the community and giving people the confidence to act creatively and develop wellbeing, skills and creativity
  • Sustained change, with the language and approach of arts organisations having meaningfully changed to become more civic in orientation