Building in succession (as a requirement) in arts & community projects

Why is it ESSENTIAL to think carefully about succession in arts & community projects? Reflecting on Take A Part’s Social Making: Socially Engaged Practice Now & Next, read how successful socially engaged arts projects have managed the process and what action points project creators need to consider.

Social Making: Building in succession (as a requirement) in arts & community projects

One of the strongest insights for me from Take A Part’s Social Making event was the need to build succession into socially engaged and community development projects – ensuring that initial projects are followed by others with minimal interruption and that skills are built within the community to allow this to happen without / with less future intervention. If projects are interested in genuine engagement and empowerment, this process should be a requirement that informs all other activity.

Darren O’Donnell, Mammalian Diving Reflex Photo Credit: Take A Part

Darren O’Donnell from Mammalian Diving Reflex spoke most explicitly on the topic, detailing the company’s methodology for embedding succession in every project they begin (outlined in “Methods For Mammals”). The principles of the approach start by asking the question “What if these guys [the young people MDR work with] took over the company / the project?”. Then MDR take this position seriously, identifying the need for training to support and actively facilitate the development of the young people they work with, to help them thrive within the context of designing, managing and delivering their arts projects.

MDR’s focus on developing skills for running and sustaining socially engaged projects revolve around four main points:

  • Collegiality – working with young people as colleagues, establishing a situation of equality and mutual affect and giving youth projects main stage (rather than treating these as a sideline)
  • Social Capital – building and distributing social capital by actively involving the people they work with in their professional networks, facilitating new contacts and socialising together
  • Friendship – establishing genuine friendships with the young people, sharing each other’s lives and looking out for each other
  • Performativity – creating situations where equity and generosity are the norm and embracing the performative qualities of this, not just to have the young people ‘on stage’ but also to have them generating the ‘stage’ and setting the agenda in performative and creative ways

This consideration of how a community formed around a project is empowered through their own activity and supported to take over the project themselves, seems both quite simple and quite revolutionary. Working towards autonomy and embedding this throughout should be a key concern (and evaluation point) for those designing socially engaged projects.

Homebaked grew out of the project 2Up 2Down (Liverpool Biennial & artist Jeanne van Heeswijk)
Homebaked grew out of the project 2Up 2Down (Liverpool Biennial & artist Jeanne van Heeswijk) Photo credit: Homebaked

Both Sam Jones (Homebaked) and Kim Wide (Take A Part) referenced and discussed the ‘handover anxieties’ caused by the lack of a clear succession plan being factored into projects. This type of succession planning requires a (sometimes drastic) change of orientation, shifting focus and responsibility onto the people involved in socially engaged projects. As an artist or producer working with (and in) a community, the goal is to get those you work with tooled up to take over your job, and this could (and should) happen as an integral part of the project.

O’Donnell (MDR) went on to discuss the process of ‘building-out’ and ‘peeling off’ the layers of attachment to a particular school, group or infrastructure that allowed initial access to young people. To apply a gardening metaphor, the project needs to outgrow its pot rather than become pot-bound and stifled by its initial support structure. Identifying and addressing this necessity early in the process can lead to a greater chance of the project sustaining itself once the artists involved have gone.

MDR also recognise the potential of their succession strategies to ensure more diversity in the arts at large (to make it less white and less middle class) and as a way to address what O’Donnell called “the deficit of ambient cultural knowledge in young people of colour’s lives”. They work to support a diverse engagement while acknowledging the societal factors that work against this.



CHECK OUT: a practical exercise related to Thomas Schelling’s agent-based model of segregation.


Action Points:

What are the skills, social capital, experience and/or expertise needed for the people involved to take over the running and on-going management of the project we are designing?

What are the development needs of the people we are working with?
Who could best deliver and facilitate these things?

What are the environments and situations that we need to set up for this kind of learning to occur?
How can the identified development needs be creatively embedded into our project?

What principles need to be embedded into our project to ensure and facilitate succession?

How can we ensure that our project doesn’t become ‘pot-bound’ or stifled by its initial support structures?

How can we embed these principles in everything we do and what changes in approach are necessary?



Darren O’Donnell’s presentation from Social Making


This post is part of a series reflecting on Social Making – a conference organised by Take A Part in Plymouth, April 2016. I attended the event as a PAC Home / VASW bursary recipient and this writing is also published in the official conference publication Social Making Socially Engaged Practice Now and Next [available online].

Rachel Dobbs is one half of LOW PROFILE, an artist and educator based in Plymouth, UK. Rachel works on community projects, has a long-term interest in creative approaches to community development and runs workshops, teaching & training sessions for a range of formal & informal groups including students, arts practitioners and communities – contact me for more details.

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