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What do we mean by Social Practice?


A central tenet of Social Practice is collaboration. Collaboration is a natural thing; it is about working together and happens in most artists’ practices to a greater or lesser extent, whether through group projects, sharing ideas, mentoring etc. Social Practice, often referred to as socially engaged practice, socially engaged art or collaborative practice, is an art medium focusing on engagement through human interaction and social discourse(1). In this toolkit we consider social practice as referring to you as an artist working with groups of people who share a collective interest, place, membership or profile such as age, gender etc.


‘Social Practice’ differs from ‘participative practice’ in that it takes considerable time, and requires a level of trust in order that open communication/intersubjective exchange can take place, and be able to address and move across boundaries of difference. It may be useful to examine  Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation as a tool to identify what is aspired to and what is possible within the terms of a project.

Why would I want to work collaboratively?


Social practice is a two-way learning process that results in the personal and professional development of all involved. Your motivation for working this way might include a desire to deepen your understanding of the world, to understand how people work together, to broaden your exploration and experience of a particular subject area, to experiment, play and develop new artistic and creative processes and ways of working. You may wish to influence or be influenced by those around you, to push the boundaries of your own thinking and the thinking of others. 

Many people are attracted to this way of working because it means not working in isolation, and you may feel that the skills you have as an artist could be very valuable to these contexts.

Whatever the stimulus, artists involved in this way of working should be very clear about their role, and how it may be distinct from the roles of other professionals such as teachers, youth workers, therapists, etc.  It’s important to identify your motivations.  What do I want to achieve and why?

In what kind of contexts does Social Practice work happen?

There is no end to the contexts in which social practice work can happen. It is a growing area and more and more groups of people are seeking to explore their own creativity and become engaged in such projects. In some instances such as schools and health care settings it can be driven by leaders of those groups. In other instances, it can be the group members who are providing the momentum. As already referenced, while peer to peer collaboration among artists is commonplace, this toolkit is principally written from the perspective of, and for the purpose of, artists working with other groups of people in the community.

How does an artist start a Social Practice? 

When developing a social practice it can be hard to know where to begin. Inform yourself, conduct research. Organisations such as Create and their international counterparts are invaluable resources with vast experience, know-how and case studies of best-practice. Many third level institutes provide training to artists wishing to develop specific expertise in this area. Your local authority arts office or local arts centre may also be able to offer advice. The Arts Council and many Arts Offices provide supports towards your professional development.  If you can, it would be helpful to arrange to shadow another more experienced artist to get a feel for how they work. Think about your fields of interest, this will help you to identify a group that you may potentially be interesting to work with. Look to your own community network. Ask a group you know if they would be open to testing different project ideas. Invite your group to collaborate, they can either accept or decline.

Because of the multiple roles and responsibilities involved, artists who succeed in this area are highly creative, well organised and prepare thoroughly; they are effective time keepers and can work to a budget. They are good communicators, contribute confidently and can adapt well to changing circumstances. 

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1. Helguera, Pablo (2012). Education for Socially Engaged Art. New York: Jorge Pinto Books. p. 22.

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