Five London Projects Building Communities Through Arts Education


Since the emergence of the ‘modern artist’ in the late 19th century, collective artistic practices (including art education outside the academic context) and artist collectives have accelerated avant-gardist ideas. As an urban-social group they have challenged the aesthetic, social and cultural discourse of the time.

With postmodernism pushing to the front-line of contemporary society, the ‘artist image’ – how the artist is perceived in the context of society – has rapidly abandoned its radical avant garde notion. Collective artistic practices are now perceived as progressive tools in neoliberal social cohesion, with factors such as museum participation being used as measures of social improvement.

One can argue that the formalities of neoliberalism diminish the emergence of truly open creative processes, since projects have to be assessed on marketability and efficiency, i.e. achieving a planned social agenda to secure funding, rather than sustaining artistic quality. The door for creative experiment and exchange is shut as projects become target-led and strategically repetitive, diminishing artistic originality.

Due to the increase of financial inaccessibility to higher education and city center exhibition/production space, creative practitioners had to find alternative strategies to sustain creative knowledge exchange. Social media technologies now enable them to attract members, collaborators and advisers. These projects prioritise on teaching, while the social agenda remains secondary to their strategy.

Here are 5 very different and innovative London based engagement projects, that offer individual insights into alternative arts education and their positive effect on connecting the local community.

Trade School Croydon

The Trade School project was established in New York City in 2010 as an open learning space that runs on barter. The project was brought to Europe in 2011. Currently a new school is being set up at Matthews Yard in Croydon, one of South-London’s problem suburbs, as portrayed in the 2011 London riots. At Trade School anyone can teach the specific trade or subject they are skilled at, or passionate about and share it with the community. The class would then be paid through a barter item (like food, supplies, or advice) as requested by the teacher. A great concept for free knowledge exchange and natural social cohesion.

Trade School Drawing Workshop

Zeitgeist Arts Projects, New Cross

Zeitgeist Arts Projects responds to the need for affordable arts education with emphasis on professional development and critical support for artists at all stages of their career. This emerging company offers an inexpensive membership scheme which allows artists to benefit from an annual programme of crits (critical feedback sessions), seminars, tours and portfolio sessions. “The aim of Zeitgeist Arts Projects is to support, encourage and nurture artists, create networks, survive, thrive and exchange”.

National Portrait Gallery, Late-Shift

Every Thursday/Friday evening the NPG keeps its doors open for ‘Late Shift’, a programme that allows to explore the gallery after working hours and participate in a number of gallery talks and free tutored drawing classes. (The emphasis here is on “free and regular” as many other institutions charge for similar events and offer these very rarely.) Hence the gallery becomes a realm for actual open encounter between local professionals, students and visitors, among others.

Wide Open School, Hayward Gallery

Wide Open School is an unusual experiment in learning with courses devised and led by over 100 artists from 40 different countries. The ‘school’ project operated between June and July 2012, connecting world class artists with local communities and visitors, bringing a global perspective to creative knowledge exchange. This project reflected the urgency of rethinking arts education and community engagement in times of austerity. Although being entangled into the marketing formalities of the Southbank Centre ‘Festival of the World’, the project maintained openness towards artistic experiment.

Wide Open School, workshop

Q-Art London

Q-Art is an innovative programme that connects students, graduates and self-trained artist through monthly crits and end of term exhibitions. The concept is to offer art education outside the usual academic context, by building up a network of creative practitioners from diverse educational backgrounds, sharing their wide-ranging expertise. The free crits are run on different London art school campuses, connecting practitioners with different arts institutions and audiences.


With the debate on arts funding cuts, it is plausible that even more emerging creative professionals will now source from alternative training, provided it isn’t slaved to a social improvement programme. Moreover there is an urgency to reinvent artistic engagement, with a focus on high-standard cultural delivery without the impairment of a specific preset social quota.

Silvie Jacobi is an artist and cultural strategist studying urban geography and creative industries at King’s College London.

Images via Tade School, Laura Ashley and Indonesian Performance