Challenges to Reciprocity: Gift exchange as a theoretical framework of community arts practice

Joanna Winchester


Community arts have the potential to develop and sustain relationships between artists and participants, which can create the desire for individuals to connect with communities. In an environment of diminishing arts funding, arts practitioners and supporters have placed an increasing emphasis on developing evaluation strategies that provide evidence for the social, cultural and economic impact of community arts. Most current evaluation strategies, however, do not adequately capture the various impacts, from the potential for long-term change for individuals to the level of training received by participants, and the diversity of career trajectories that open up. The absence of engagement in the theoretical side of the practice from within the community arts movement has long been recognised but there is no adequate response from either the scholarly or artistic communities that recognises the creative process unique to community arts. 

By applying the theoretical framework of gift exchange to community arts practitioners’ creative process, I argue that there is a need to refocus attention on the relationship between artist and participant. In order to develop evaluation strategies aligned to the values of community arts practitioners, this relationship must be acknowledged as integral to the creative process in community arts, and therefore essential to the assessment of the social and artistic outcomes. The performance project City Quest will be the feature of this article. City Quest was performed by Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) in December 2007 and was a community outdoor performance event played out in the format of a video game in the city centre of Fairfield, a suburb in western Sydney.

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