The power of arts in transforming your social innovation work

Video recording of “Arts based social innovation” event

“Arts based social innovation and collaboration opportunities” was an event co-organised by Social Innovation Exchange and Glasgow Caledonian University for SI Connect, a UK partnership part of EU-funded programme supporting the establishment of national social innovation ‘competence centres’ across Europe. This event was organised to bring social innovation and the arts world together. 

What can social innovators learn from arts based approaches, particularly in their stakeholder engagement work? How can socially engaged artists consider applying their practices to tackle social challenges in different contexts?

From Exeter to Scotland, we invited various artists and artist support organisations to share about socially engaged art and its impact.

This article summarises the impact of socially engaged art through the lenses of different practitioners and sets out four key lessons discussed during the event. It concludes with an analysis of the gaps in the system and suggests possible actions. 

1. Socially engaged art is a co-creative process that opens up spaces for empathy, awareness and reflection

Fié Neo, founder of INSEP (International Network for Socially Engaged Practitioners) and project manager at SIX (Social Innovation Exchange) opened the session with an introduction of what socially engaged art is and different ways of understanding this field. She also shared diverse global case studies of how the arts has been used to address various topics like sustainability, gender violence and trauma, using theatre, drones, large scale installations and more. 

“Socially engaged practice describes art that is collaborative, often participatory and involves people as the medium or material of the work.”

Tate Modern

The artist’s aim in socially engaged art is not to produce a predefined output (like a painting) or to engage in a solitary creative process. Often, the artist takes on the role of a facilitator, creating safe spaces for the community to engage, open up conversations around certain issues or to raise awareness. The artistic methods are tools and skills that socially engaged artists may use in the process of engagement. What this process can look like is opening a collaborative space to tune in to what is emerging among the participants and then facilitating the group in co-creating outcomes that are collectively decided. The artist may hold this process in the framework of forum theatre, participatory filmmaking or other medium depending on their background and experience.

Below is a summary taken from Tamarack Institute’s recent article that highlights the key characteristics of socially engaged art. 

‘Making the case for arts based engagement’ by Tamarack Institute

Another way of understanding the value of socially engaged art is that artistic thinking is experience-centred. This table by Andy Sontag succinctly highlights the difference between design thinking and artistic thinking. While design thinking is user centric, artistic thinking is an experience that opens up space for human connection and empathy, opens up conversations around controversial or difficult topics and creates a journey of engagement that inspires and empowers people to transform themselves.

Image taken from Andy Sontag’s article “Experience Designers need to think more like artists

Systems change doesn’t just come with the mind, it also needs the heart to be moved. In this heavily metrics focused society that we created, we must also put in resources that would engage the heart. Socially engaged arts offer exactly that but it cannot reach its full potential without funding and support.

2. Social innovators and socially engaged artists have much in common to exchange learning – Six ethical questions to stay grounded in your process

Clara Bloomfield, a socially engaged artist from Scotland shared these powerful questions for reflection. 

“Social innovators and socially engaged artists, I ask you to consider in the future when you talk of change: 

What do you really mean by this (change)? 

Who is this change for? 

What is its purpose? 

By whom is this change taking place for and why? 

Who’s the initiator of this? 

What is an integral part of your process for someone else to be the hero of their own story?”

The ethics of engagement is an important element to consider, especially when working with vulnerable communities. It is important not to enter with a saviour mentality. The power of socially engaged practice is that it is a humanising process. Instead of looking at communities as problematic groups with issues to be solved, the practice looks at ways to support people through bringing out the strengths in them and empowering them to act. Clara’s set of questions allows every socially engaged practitioner to critically reflect upon their purpose, power and processes in order to ethically engage with communities. 

3. Socially engaged art has the power to inspire behaviour change in local communities and bring about transformative change.

Madeleine McGirk from ITAC (International Teaching Artists Collaborative) shared about her theory of change and the impact of their recent commission for climate storytelling with teaching artists. 

She broke down the impact of Teaching Artists’ work by looking at behaviour change. 

Teaching artists skillfully brings people into engaging in activities that shift their perspectives on a given topic. Through different artistic processes, participants explore new ways of interacting with concepts or by developing empathy rooted in this idea. An artistic, fun and creative experience engages participants in a process that offers the right conditions and new knowledge for them to develop empathy and shifts their beliefs.

An impactful ITAC project realised by Teaching Artist Ra’z Salvarita highlights how Madeleine’s theory of change works in action. 

Teaching artist Ra’z was commissioned by ITAC’s climate action grant to work with local farmers in order to understand the impact of typhoons and climate change on crops, which is a very real and imminent issue in The Philippines. He then engaged local community members in workshops to understand the issues in more detail. Together, they created stories about the farms, masks and art pieces depicting the entities causing the issues based on their learning. Ra’z then helped the community members, based on their requests, to bring their findings to the local mayor’s office. The local mayor has now engaged the groups to help roll out better, more engaging ways to promote information about sustainability in future. (Learn more about his project on this podcast.)

The artist can play a critical role in bottom up community engagement and empowerment. Through this act of creative co-creation, local community members gained a stronger sense of ownership and responsibility in driving change. These are examples in the arts that could be replicated and scaled, alongside other social innovation projects. 

4. The art of facilitation as a creative act – Understanding that socially engaged art is not just about artistic activities opens up new possibilities of its application 

Jojo Spinks from Interwoven Productions shared their work with local communities in Exeter through their quiet voice methodology.

The quiet voice methodology involves the “invisible person”, the animateur who steps back, facilitates and supports the local community to come together and connect with their neighbours. The animateurs are also known as place champions who bring together people on a single street to come together to share their love of this place and find a way of reaching their neighbours. Interwoven productions work as an activator and supporter of the animateurs through training and community support groups. These animateurs are not necessarily artists who create art with participants but the creativity embedded in this process, according to Interwoven Productions’ approach, is in the act of knowing how to step back and allow a community into their own power. In other words, the art is in the facilitation.

Socially engaged art is a growing discipline with practitioners experimenting and developing their practice in countless different directions. There are no fixed ways of doing things, as is inherent in the spirit of creativity. Socially engaged art can look very different when working with different practitioners. Sometimes, that might not seem like art that you conventionally know it to be, just like how the work of the animateurs does not seem like an artistic one. Interwoven Productions has come a long way from creating theatre to learning, adapting and applying their creative processes into the art of the animateur. There might not be paintings or drawings in the work of the animateurs because the art here is the process of engaging communities – activating people in a place and facilitating a safe space for every participant to feel included. An awareness of the diverse forms of art, like the art of the animateur, and openness to what art can be allows the socially engaged practitioner to sense what is emerging from the community that is engaged and to co-create something that works best with them. When we understand socially engaged arts as a creative process, it opens up many more possibilities on where it can be applied in social innovation projects and creates unexpected outcomes. 

Where can we go next?

What would happen if artists were invited by municipalities to work with local communities? What if we engaged socially engaged artists in narrative shifting work for systems change?

Socially engaged artists can play an important role as a neutral facilitator to bring together local communities and the public sector (municipalities etc). They can act as a disruptor in a system, using emotive participatory storytelling to change behaviours within a community. They can be artists in residence within civic organisations to inspire creative ways of designing engagement processes. 

There are various ways of engagement but it is important to note that socially engaged artists often struggle with the sustainability of funding in their work. Individual practitioners do not necessarily have the legal entities (registered NGO) or skills to navigate bureaucracy and larger funding proposals. What often happens is micro grants barely able to cover the cost of the project, let alone properly compensate the artists. Burn out happens and small funding does not allow the long term continuation of projects with local communities. The potential of socially engaged art for transformation stops short at practitioners having to find resources for their project while juggling other paid work to survive. We need to create a supportive ecosystem for socially engaged art to reach its maximum impact. This could look like the creation of roles within organisations, institutions or projects for socially engaged artists. This role will not be that of a social media manager or graphic designer. Instead, building a process within the organisation, institution or project that could adopt the facilitation, empathy building and creative mindset shifting skills to better achieve their goals, not just through the mind but also the heart.

Funding comes when funders recognise the importance and value of the work. More spaces need to be opened up for artist to share their experiences with various types of funders – philanthropy, european funding, public sector. With global advocacy and awareness, resources (impact bonds for the arts, grants, fellowships) could be built into the system to support this type of work.   

In addition, open funding for such cross sector experiments is extremely important. As it exists, funding streams narrow into specific outcomes and processes that the system is used to. (Eg. Artist residency for painters, incubation programs for social entrepreneurs, consultancy budget for researchers.) An idea that is unconventional and involves unlikely actors (eg. an artist, a policy maker, a civic organisation) is unlikely to meet the requirements of funding calls meant for just one kind of practitioner. However, imagination and new ideas for the future emerge out of intersections of spaces. Bringing socially engaged artists into social innovation processes and allowing space for experimentation and play could create out of the box solutions that connect with the emotional faculties of participants in transformative ways. 

It takes time for practitioners from different disciplines who speak different lingo and see different perspectives to learn how to communicate and work with each other. This is a process that requires time and resources for capacity building. With such investment, what we will notice in the long run is not just more creative innovations but also a more interconnected ecosystem that can create impact in faster and more effective ways. 

Socially engaged arts is a powerful tool for building empathy, imagination and creativity. Systems change is not just a numbers game of services and beneficiaries. Transformation at its essence needs to engage with the heart and the arts has been doing this since the beginning of culture. Impact goes much further when we work on systemic issues not just logically but also empathetically. 

If you are interested in exploring ways of engaging socially engaged art in your social innovation work, feel free to contact Fié at

The slides and chat of the event can be downloaded on the left. 

(In the chat are various resources shared by participants.)

Additional resources:
Make @ Story Garden report by Central Saint Martins

Making the Case for Arts-Based Community Engagement by Tamarack Institute

Experience Designers need to think more like artists (Part 1) by Andy Sontag

About participatory art and its impact

The Adventures and Personal Manifesto of a Socially Engaged Art Practitioner

Value and valuation through design by Social Design Institute


Onions Talk by INSEP

Why Change? by Creative Generation

Theatre for Good podcast