Helen Rees Leahy: Learning from the Past

“Art is not only a useful thing… but is, certainly for all dwellers in large towns, a necessary for health. Neither the community nor the individual, who is not affected by the influence of Art, can possibly live a full healthy life in a modern town.”

Thomas Coglan Horsfall, The Need for Art in Manchester, 1910

From the perspective of 2013, Thomas Coglan Horsfall’s 1910 prescription of a regular dose of art for the inhabitants of Manchester sounds remarkably prescient. Today, the idea that access to the visual arts can deliver diverse benefits, beyond aesthetic enjoyment alone, to both the individual and their community is established orthodoxy among cultural practitioners and policy-makers. Indeed, the quest to produce evidence of the social, developmental and therapeutic value of cultural participation drives much of the current academic and institutional research into the production of cultural value.

A century ago, Horsfall needed no such research outcomes to make his case. Instead he relied on the ‘evidence’ of his own remarkable experiment of putting into practice the ideas of his mentor, John Ruskin, on the capacity of art to promote both social reform and spiritual well being: namely, the creation of Manchester Art Museum. Horsfall’s Museum opened in Ancoats, one of the poorest areas of the city, in 1886 and contained rooms dedicated to painting, sculpture, architecture and domestic arts. The educational purpose of the enterprise was manifest in the detailed notes, labels, pamphlets and guided tours that explained the artworks to visitors, especially children.Innovations included free concerts, lectures and other entertainments on weekday evenings and Sunday afternoons, all of which became extremely popular in the neighbourhood.

Reflecting on the success of the Museum, Horsfall argued that it clearly demonstrated that exposure to artworks was essential to ‘maintaining the mental and moral health of the inhabitants of large towns’(Horsfall, The Need for Art in Manchester, 1910. p.35). For Ruskin and Horsfall, it was self-evident that paintings could inspire religious faith and understanding through the depiction of the beauty of nature as well as biblical scenes. And this, of course, reveals a critical difference between Horsfall’s justification for investment in museums and galleries and our contemporary debate about cultural value.

Horsfall’s work – and its rhetorical and institutional legacies – frames many of the questions that we are researching in our cultural value project ‘Learning from the Past: Cultural Value, then and now, in principle and in practice.’ The project aim is to introduce historical breadth to contemporary questions of cultural value, by bringing historical sources into dialogue with contemporary practice and research. Specifically, we are investigating histories of museum and gallery practice in Horsfall’s ‘ugly town’ of Manchester (ibid. p.17).

So how do museums and galleries today understand and draw on the resources of their own histories in their practice today? One answer to that question is provided by the current exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, entitled ‘Art for All: Thomas Horsfall’s Gift to Manchester’. It’s a rare outing for some of the artworks from the Manchester Art Museum, now in the collection of Manchester Art Gallery, most of which are regarded as embarrassingly kitsch and/or lacking in artistic quality by today’s professional curators. Horsfall’s emphasis on personal development, education and inclusivity resonate with present practice, but his overtly religious agenda and aesthetic taste are less compatible with present notions of cultural value.

Siân Jones: Valuing the Historic Environment

In one way or another, most of my research over the last decade has focused on the role of the historic environment in the production of identity, memory, and place. Through qualitative social research with various constituencies and communities, this work has highlighted the dynamic, iterative, and embodied nature of people’s relationships with the physical remains of the past. At the same time, I’ve become acutely aware of the stark contrast between the forms of value created through these relationships, and the kinds of ‘intrinsic’ value that still largely underpin the designation, conservation and management of specific heritage places. Having also worked with heritage bodies at various times during this research, I’ve become fascinated by the difficult and complex issues surrounding how value is narrated and measured in this area of the cultural sector.

This Cultural Value project investigates these issues through collaboration with four project partners: The Council for British Archaeology, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. The overall aim is to explore how forms of value are created through people’s relationships with the historic environment, and how the heritage sector can acknowledge, accommodate and communicate this. It is specifically concerned with what is usually referred to in the heritage sector as ‘social value’; a concept that encompasses identity, distinctiveness, belonging, and wellbeing, as well as forms of memory, spiritual association and cultural practice. Through a critical review of existing research the project will examine modes of experience, engagement and practice surrounding the historic environment. It will also explore increasing evidence that points of crisis and conflict are particularly potent contexts for the creation of value. The range of methodologies used in existing research and surveys will be critically discussed, along with their application in the spheres of heritage conservation and public policy. Finally, the appropriateness of a conceptual apparatus that tends to quantify and fix values will be examined. The possibilities for capturing more fluid processes of valuing the historic environment will be considered.

As in other spheres of culture and the arts, the question of value is an increasingly pressing issue for the heritage sector. I’m particularly excited about the opportunity to explore this area in the context of the wider Cultural Value project. Initial consultation meetings with this project’s partners highlight just how much overlap there is between the challenges they face and those confronting other areas of the cultural sector. At the same time, the complexity of the forms of value characterizing the heritage sector make it an ideal context to explore some of the wider issues raised by the Cultural Value Project. Different ways of conceiving of value will be critically analysed and contextualized, with a particular focus on how they intersect and at times conflict with one another. The trend towards defining discrete aspects of value and measuring them through particular outcomes will be critically examined and alternative approaches explored. Furthermore, the project will explore the tension between institutional or ‘official’ values, and the values people produce in and for themselves; a tension that is an endemic and difficult issue across the cultural sector.

Lynn Froggett: Public Art and Local Civic Engagement

Public Art and Local Civic Engagement will compare the legacy of two controversial public artworks which appeared in the small coastal town of Ilfracombe in 2012. Damian Hirst’s Verity – a 66 foot high bronze of a naked pregnant woman – towers over the Harbour, sword aloft (and as one blogger observed “appears to be marching on Ireland”) . With one side ‘flayed’ to reveal skull and fetus, she has been described as “pretty hardcore for the fainthearted” and also “quite traditional on many levels”. Conceived by the artist as a modern allegory of truth and justice, she has been loaned to the town for 20 years eliciting comments which range from “poor town!!!” and “Ilfracombe needs all the help it can get” to “Really Cool!”. The financial complexities of Hirst’s generosity have also attracted attention “so this is what you make when you have more money than God. Did he buy the town as well?”

By way of comparison, Alex Hartley’s Nowhereisland – an island made of land from the Arctic, accompanied by its mobile embassy – visited Ilfracombe for a weekend on its voyage around the South West coast as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. On its way from the Arctic, Nowhereisland had been declared a new nation with citizenship open to all. Preparations for its arrival began a year previously, involving several local primary and secondary schools. Nowhereisland’s visit was timed with a local festival, Sea Ilfracombe and the island was welcomed with a Citizens’ March, the Town Crier and singing choirs. The project website was running for the year before the south west journey and included 52 weekly resident thinkers, films and resources. 23,000, people from around the world became citizens of the nation of Nowhereisland and there were 2,700 proposals for the evolving constitution. All of this exploring the question at the heart of the project: “What if an Arctic island went south in search of its people?”

Nowhereisland attracted considerable national and international media attention. Emma Boon was quoted in The Daily Mail, “It’s absurd taxpayers struggling with rising bills are being asked to pay for a piece of the Arctic to travel around the south coast” , while the Arts Council justified funding as “inviting us to consider and debate some of the key issues of our time – including migration, nationhood, global responsibility, human rights and climate change

The quotes reveal the complex, cross-cutting issues surrounding the commissioning and reception of public art and its civic, intellectual, aesthetic, environmental, and economic implications. They raise key questions on the nature of cultural value and what kind of public art we should invest in: permanently sited works by celebrity artists with the potential to attract tourism and commercial interest to a town – or temporary projects which engage and provoke ideas on the quality of present lives and concern for the future. These issues can be researched by conventional methods: interviews and focus groups which access the range of public opinion. Our project will also attempt to understand legacy in terms of the ways in which public artworks create an emotional climate, and can affect the public imagination, asking questions that go beyond opinion: What thoughts and chains of imagery are set in motion by public art?; How far are these shared?; Are people able to see that things might be different?; Is the capacity for creative illusion enhanced?

To do this we will convene and record two very different kinds of public thinking process: a Citizens’ Forum which will debate and analyse in the time-honoured mode of point and counter-point and a visual matrix which will invite reflections and associations to images of the artworks. The visual matrix method is innovative and has been devised and tested by the Psychosocial Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire to enable ideas to flow in a group setting, framed and led by images rather than words. It offers new ways to involve communities in the consideration of public art. This is the first time the Visual Matrix will have been used alongside a Citizens’ Forum, allowing us to understand the possibilities and limits of both methods, and which parts of the public imagination they reach.

The Cultural Value Project enters its second phase

A great deal has happened since Easter when we last posted. Whereas we then spoke of coming of age, we have now progressed to watch the seeds planted in the first phase of the Project begin to grow. The Open Funding Call, which closed on 16 April, resulted in some fascinating proposals. The Assessment Panel met in early June and faced the difficult task of making funding recommendations. The outcomes were announced in July. You can see the full list of the 43 proposals funded under the first round of funding here.

The range of the projects supported under our Open Call is broad and diverse. The projects have however some points of commonality and shared characteristics. Many of the research awards involve collaboration with cultural organisations, often small and local in character. Above all, the funded work sees cultural value as more nuanced than the simplistic instrumentalist account would allow and promise some imaginative answers to the challenge of getting a better grip on cultural value. Indeed, the aim of the first call was to harness the imagination of the research community and its success should be measured in these terms.

Sadly, we will have to wait a while for the answers to be harvested – to stick to the life-stages metaphors – as the majority of these projects will not be completed until 31 May 2014. We will, of course, seek to engage with the awardholders between now and then. We are, for instance, thinking of bringing projects with cognate methodological approaches and thematic overlaps together in a series of workshops. We will keep you updated about this on this blog. We will also be giving you a ‘preview’ of all these projects by inviting the awardholders to contribute blog entries explaining what makes their projects exciting and important from the point of view of the Cultural Value Project. Indeed, over the next few months, we will be publishing here contributions from our researchers – please watch this space!

If you missed the first Open Call but still want to engage with the Project – the good news is that it is not too late. In fact, our second funding call is released today. We will be supporting three types of activities: Critical Reviews, Research Development Awards and Expert Workshops. Please have a look here for more details. Unlike the Open Funding call, this call is much more targeted. Following a consultation with the Project’s Advisory Group, this directed call invites applications in a number of clearly defined areas in order to address the gaps remaining after the first round of funding and to cement the framework delineated by what we’ve called the components of cultural value. Two things it does share with the Open Call are: the expectation of imaginative responses to the set questions and the tight time scale – the deadline for all applications is 7 November 2013. So, it’s not too late to engage with the Project, but, if you want to do so, you have to act with some urgency. Please pass this on to any others whom you think might be interested. We look forward to getting high-quality applications for all three types of activity.