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The focus of Hester Gartrell's article, which explores two East London examples of the  interaction between art and cultural initiatives, municipal policies and local issues, is public art as a key factor in our social and political life. Drawing an analogy with the Bulgarian context, the material’s purpose is to stimulate discussion on arts and cultural initiatives aimed at expanding access to culture, engaging with community issues, and in general on projects presenting opportunities for arts and municipal strategies to intersect and benefit from each other.

Can public art ever be apolitical?

Public art is by definition art placed in the public realm. It is open to criticism and discussion, it can represent an artist or a community and its placement can also define an area. In this context, can public art ever be apolitical, and does public art have the luxury of being created simply for the sake of art?

While culture and art are often seen as an indulgence, it has always been central to social and political change. When beginning to write this discussion piece I attended the Women in Revolt! Art and Activism in the UK 1970–1990 exhibition at Tate Britain, London which exemplifies the interaction between art, social movements, and institutional change. The exhibition starts with a quote from Anne Berg and Monica Sojöö, Images on Womenpower – Arts Manifesto, 1971: “WE SAY NO TO EMPTY ABSTRACTIONS, to the ‘art for art’s sake’ philosophy for the privileged white middle-class male artworld. WЕ THE OPPRESSED cannot afford this empty play with words and forms…” 

Gina Birch, still from Three Minute Scream,1977. Courtesy the artist. Photo credit: Tate Britain

This quote inspired me to start the piece with a question to artists, curators, and others involved in the sphere of culture [1]: can public art afford to be ‘art for art’s sake?’ and if we decide that public art always includes a social or political aspect, is its role to work alongside existing political and institutional systems, in opposition to the status quo, or can public art simultaneously challenge AND work in collaboration with existing power structures? While it’s easy to put art or culture in a box, art can and should be integrated into every aspect of our lives. This isn’t a unique opinion and the interaction between art and society isn’t a novel idea but how as artists and social activists can we ensure that art becomes a central part of the fabric of our social interactions or solutions to local or national problems?

Photo credits: Tate Britain. Courtesy/copyright and description of the photos below.

In this context, this piece presents two case studies from East London to act as a tool for further discussion on this topic, looking particularly at how art can interact with municipal policy and local issues such as citizen participation, local history, antisocial behaviour, empty municipal property or land and the economic realities of being an artist or a citizen struggling to access cultural opportunities.

Rather than simply presenting instances of the overlapping between local government and art or cultural initiatives, each section also includes questions on common themes which can be used when considering the development of a public art project in any country or locality. Through these questions, the piece aims to stimulate further discussion about how we can develop public art projects that engage with local community issues and municipalities, going beyond the traditional boundaries of art to think about the broad and multifaceted impact art can have on a local level.

Both Barking&Dagenham and Newham are situated in the East of London and have seen significant economic and population change over the last several decades. Throughout the 20th century, heavy industry was a mainstay of the economy. In recent decades, the area has seen significant de-industrialisation, and Newham and Barking&Dagenham have long faced challenges in relation to regional poverty. In recent years both municipalities have seen many opportunities for redevelopment, though Newham to a greater extent due to its transport links and proximity to central London. This is exemplified by the successful Olympic bid which saw a brownfield waste site transformed into a new park for hosting the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. Part of this site has now become a cultural quarter with the London College of Fashion and the Victoria & Albert Museum both opening buildings in the East Bank. Due to the region's connection with the docks, East London has always been a culturally diverse area. From the French Huguenots of the 17th century, the Jewish population fleeing Russian persecution in the 19th century to the more recent arrival of Caribbean residents in the 1940s. Both Newham and Barking&Dagenham are culturally rich municipalities which demonstrate the influences of a variety of Asian, African, Eastern European, Jewish, and White British traditions.

Culture has been seen as a key facet in the economic and structural redevelopment of the region by local municipalities with both instituting cultural policies which aim to attract creative industries, artists, and cultural institutions to the region. In addition, there has been a movement to integrate culture into other citizen-facing aspects of municipal policy such as health and wellbeing, housing, and participative democracy.

Questions: What is the context of the region you are working in? How will you involve different cultures and traditions in your project?

What is the role of art and artists in participative democracy initiatives?

In the UK, there has been a significant decrease in formal political engagement and trust in the government over the last 60 years. While civil society is strong in the UK with multiple NGOs and citizen groups, volunteering has also recently seen a decrease with 16% of people stating that they volunteer at least once a month in 2021-2022 (down from 27% in 2014–15). There is active discussion about increasing societal division and the impact of austerity on communities. Despite this the country generally lags behind Europe in the implementation of innovative governance models and participative democracy initiatives which can be seen as part of the solution to disillusionment and disconnectedness. Citizen Participation has been globally discussed and implemented in countries such as Brazil since the 1990’s however it’s only in 2018–2019 that both national and local governments in the UK began to institute participative democracy initiatives. It is difficult to judge the effectiveness of these initiatives and little data exists on the numbers engaging on a local level. However, with careful planning and implementation, citizen participation can bring a diverse range of people together to discuss topics that they are passionate about in a solution focused way.

In 2018, Newham Municipality began a participative democracy initiative that brought together residents in a series of citizens assemblies where they could discuss, propose, and vote on a range of projects designed to improve their local neighbourhood. In Stratford and West Ham, residents highlighted drug dealing and associated crimes such as gang violence in Stratford Park as a major issue. Due to the high level of crime, many people in the area felt unsafe using the park. Increasing footfall (the number of people using or passing through) in the park was proposed as one of the solutions.

Newham Poetry Group, founded by local resident and poet Sonia Quintero took a leading role in this proposal. After the creation of a poetry cafe in Stratford Park was voted for by local residents, the group worked closely with municipality staff from the local community neighbourhood teams, municipal services overseeing care for the park, and others within the municipality leading to the renovation of a disused Bowling Club. The old pavilion has now become a welcoming space where regular meetings, festivals, and events are held by the Poetry Group. In 2021, in addition to their ongoing projects, the Group undertook an initiative to collect and transform residents’ memories of the pavilion into poems and short stories with the aim of challenging the narrative of antisocial behavior associated with the park.

Photo: Newham Poetry Group

This interaction between art, collective memory, shared space, and the municipality demonstrates how collaboration and cultural initiatives can be integrated into wider policies relating to disused municipal-owned space, resident safety, and citizen participation as well as with other municipal institutions such as local libraries and archives.

Photo: Newham Poetry Group

Questions: Have you thought about how your public art project elevates citizen voice? Can or should your public art project play a part in municipal citizen participation initiatives? How might your art project interact with other local issues important to local participants?

How can physical space support public art and access to culture?

As well as demonstrating how artists can be a crucial part of citizen participation initiatives and how art can interact with a myriad of municipal services, the above examples also provide valuable insight into the importance of physical spaces in opening up opportunities for people to engage with art and culture.

While the development of the East Bank (Olympic Park) has superficially brought increased access to galleries, museums, etc. to many residents in the East of London, several barriers exist including the placement of the park at the edge of the borough and poor public transport accessibility. Aside from flagship projects such as the East Bank, what does real accessibility to culture look like in East London? How can we take art from existing institutions to something which we are confronted with in our everyday lives, as we go about our daily activities?

Across London, including in Newham and Barking&Dagenham, ‘meanwhile use’ has become an important vehicle for municipalities to bring cultural initiatives into public spaces. In Newham, the 2018 Local Plan supports flexible community spaces and meanwhile use in town and local centres. This means that council properties can be used for community initiatives if left empty, creating spaces for people to come together or for local groups to develop projects in spaces which sit in the heart of communities. Alternatively, as we see in the example of Newham Poetry Group, they can also be used to regenerate and rejuvenate areas with low footfall.

Manor Park Meanwhile Use project provides an example of how abandoned spaces can be used for community benefit, with a clear timeline for how long the space can be utilised as a community asset as well as having sustainability in mind. It also shows the importance of consultation being delivered in a way that reaches out to citizens to involve those who would not otherwise engage in formal consultation processes. The project used a mixture of in-person consultations in public spaces such as libraries, bus stops and the local Christmas market, door knocking and online surveys. This has led to the creation of a re-redeployable building which after the duration of the project can be used in other locations, providing a flexible space which meets residents’ needs for a makerspace, event venue, meeting space, and workspace.

It is creativity that the Manor Park Meanwhile Use places at the heart of the community, it also acts as a mechanism for residents to take a lead in placemaking, while the clear and transparent interaction with the architects and municipality opens up opportunities for local people to learn more about municipal processes and architectural projects.

Questions: Do you plan to reach out to citizens in a way that reflects their everyday realities and movement? How will you ensure your project doesn’t rely only on the people who have the time, knowledge or interest to come to you? How will you share your project timeline and outcomes in an accessible way?

Does your public art project open up opportunities to people living in areas that have very little cultural infrastructure?  How does public or municipal-owned space interact with your project? Is there an opportunity for the creation of a long-term cultural space as part of the project?

Is there a co-dependence between cultural and economic development?

The Manor Park Meanwhile Use project indirectly touches on a challenge faced by many artists in London, which is the availability of affordable studio space. A recent survey found that even with affordable rents, only 12% of surveyed artists in London could support themselves solely through their artistic profession. The economic reality of being an artist in London is strongly tied to the wider cost of living and housing crisis and risks the loss of artistic talent as people leave the profession or choose to live elsewhere.

Barking&Dagenham have recognised in their cultural strategy the impact that culture can have across all their strategic programmes be they around inclusion, youth, participative democracy, health and wellbeing or economic development. A House for Artists situated in Barking and shortlisted for the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize 2023 is the first of its kind in the UK, providing affordable housing and studio space for artists on the premise that they will deliver free creative programmes for the community. The project recognises that cultural programmes and art is inextricably linked with the economic realities of communities and of artists themselves.

Questions: How does your project engage with your own economic realities and the economic realities of your participants? Is there an opportunity to express the challenges of being an artist in your city or country through your art project?

Why does an East London case study have relevance for Bulgaria?

It’s often easy to look at other countries with a false sense of comparison which overlooks the realities of the situation. It can be easy to think that what happens in London is unrealistic and irrelevant to apply to a Bulgarian context but the reality is that East London also faces many challenges when it comes to municipal governance including limited budgets, corruption and financial mismanagement.

While it’s also naive to ignore the differences between the two countries (and the two cities if we look specifically at London and Sofia), the above instances of good practice in Newham and Barking&Dagenham raise some important themes and questions, as well as provide an example of how public art and artists can input across a wide variety of themes, from public safety to municipal property management. In Sofia, discussions about public space and public art such as those around the Monument to the Soviet Army, the Golden Arch in the newly pedestrianized area outside Alexander Nevsky, and the recent Placemaking Connected conference which aimed to launch an official national network of organisations and activists involved in the sphere of placemaking in Bulgaria, indicates increased discussion and interest in how we interact with public spaces. This naturally includes public art and shows the importance of engaging with citizens and taking into account history, lived experience, opinions and aesthetics.

The above case studies highlight important questions and issues that should be considered when developing any project that relates to public art and cultural initiatives aimed to expand access to culture; the consideration of the economic realities of the artist and the participants in the project, how the project might engage with local issues and elevate the voice of local people, whether the public art project might engage with the need to create cultural spaces which sit in the heart of communities and finally, how art and municipal strategies intersect and interact.

The projects shared from Newham and Barking&Dagenham show the variety of ways that art can interact with local spaces and local governance, that art cannot be placed in a box and should not be relegated to the side, instead, it acts as a vital mechanism for public discussions and decisions. Art has the ability to project and represent aspects of our multifaceted world and the variety of lived experiences in our communities, cities and countries. As to the question, ‘Can public art ever be apolitical?’, perhaps the question should be ‘Does my public art project intend to be apolitical’ as by interacting with the whole scope of lived reality through the public sphere, it’s guaranteed that public art is always perceived as political to someone in the crowd.

[1]Throughout this piece culture is used in two ways; to refer to cultural institutions and products such as art galleries, museums, film, music or to refer to local customs or customs/traditions relating to a specific ethnic group or region.

Photos used in the material above and provided by Tate Britain as follows: Alexis Hunter, The Marxist Wife Still Does The Housework, 1978/2005. © The Estate of Alexis Hunter Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery, London and Rome. All rights reserved, DACS 2023; Linder, Untitled, 1976. Purchased by Tate in 2007. © Linder; Mumtaz Karimjee, Stop the Clause protest, 1988. Photograph. Courtesy the artist; Houria Niati,No to Torture (After Delacroix 'Women of Algiers')1982-83 © Houria Niati. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the artist; Jill Posener, Fiat Ad, London, 1979, reprinted 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

HESTER GARTRELL has extensive experience in the field of education, inclusion and participatory initiatives for marginalised groups. Prior to moving to Bulgaria, she worked at Birkbeck, University of London alongside London Legacy Development Corporation (responsible for the development and maintenance of the Olympic Park) and the borough of Newham to open up educational and cultural opportunities to east London residents. In this role, Hester explored how educational institutions can work towards community aims, including leading Birkbeck’s initiatives to share university space with community groups, providing academic-led leadership training to local activists and the university's role as an anchor institution in Newham’s Citizen Assembly programme. She currently works in an innovative Bulgarian social enterprise which provides digital upskilling and access to the global digital economy to people affected by conflict. Hester is part of several community initiatives in Sofia and is an active member of Ekipat Na Sofia where she provides expertise on the subject of citizen participation.



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