Carbon Media executive producer Mike Smith on high-culture programming for arts' sake.

Alot has happened in the five years since we pitched Big Art, our four-part series that lets members of the public call the shots on the creation of a world-class public artwork in their neck of the woods.

Back in 2004, times were good enough to do things for others. The buzzwords were ‘innovation', ‘par-ticipation' and ‘social enterprise'.

It was a licence to think big. There was an expectation that TV could inspire things on and off the screen and make a serious contribution to the cultural life of the country. There was even a C4 fund set aside for making projects. How the world has changed.

In its embryonic state, Big Art was a simple enough idea: if the public commissioned art, we would reveal not only the mind of the artist, but the passions of the people. A succession of previous commissions, also by Jan Younghusband, proved the case.

Operatunity, Ballet Changed My Life and The Play's the Thing had given C4 a whole genre, bringing mainstream audiences to art forms long perceived as elitist.

It fitted with C4's arts ethos: a commitment to campaigning and life-changing public engagement projects that could make a difference beyond the screen.

Even as we mapped the 1,400 community nominations that had applied for Big Art, we had the first broad brushstrokes of a new portrait of Britain. We also knew it would be good telly - a clash of cultures and a big challenge to the art world.

From the start, Big Art shoots have been a tightrope walk. Pro-jects of this nature create unfam-iliar editorial dynamics: we are both the instigators of concept and delivery model as well as the programme-makers following the resulting narratives.

So, should we be delighted that it's great telly or distraught that a great artwork might not get built? What if it's us in the firing line for failing to meet expectations?

To resolve this conflict, we recruited the expertise we needed and - with C4's backing - created The Big Art Trust, a not-for-profit company at arm's length from the TV production.

Over the past four years, we've followed seven communities as they have battled to realise their Big Art dream. Leading artists from across the world have generated stunning proposals that reveal what art can do.

But the ultimate challenge will be the final shoot of the series. At St Helens, the final section of a 20m-high sculpture (called ‘Dream') will be lifted into place a few days before the series goes on air.

It will be a landmark for passing motorists and for the community of ex-miners who have commissioned it. It is also a landmark for a partnership between the public, artists and broadcasters that has produced something bigger than the sum of its parts - artworks the public actually want where they live.