Stuart Murray – Approaching Cultural Value as a Complex System: Experiencing the Arts and Articulating the City in Leeds

Our project, Approaching Cultural Value as a Complex System: Experiencing the Arts and Articulating the City in Leeds, takes an ethnographic and participative approach to the key questions of cultural value – why are the arts and culture important, and how can we know their value? By taking such an approach, we aim to study the value of cultural participation via the perspectives, attitudes and practices of a group of people who have agreed to be our collaborators – making their own experiences and ideas the primary material with which we are generating new knowledge. By an ‘ethnographic’ and ‘participative’ approach we also mean one in which we, the five researchers on this project, are participant observers: entering the site of cultural activity with our volunteers, working closely with them to generate knowledge in situ.

Overall, our project works with a wide range of cultural partners in Leeds, but the ethnographic ‘site’ of the study is the Love Arts festival, organised by the Arts and Minds Network. The Network is funded by the Leeds and York Partnership NHS Trust, works to promote the arts for mental health, and was established ten years ago in order to co-ordinate and connect the wide range of arts and mental health activity already happening across the city. Three years ago the Love Arts festival was launched as an annual showcase for the work taking place throughout the year; and this year it ran from October 2nd to 24th.

Our study takes this festival as its ‘spotlight’ focus, and given that the timing of the festival coincided with the start of our Cultural Value project, we began with a bang. During the weeks it took place, the five members of the research team spent time ‘hanging out’ at the festival, talking to people, soaking up the atmosphere, and experiencing Love Arts for ourselves. Each of us has ‘buddied-up’ with one of five volunteers, and in our pairs we have been attending events, sharing experiences, and exploring how and why the arts are important to these festival goers.

The research team met with partner cultural organisations in September, subsequntely, all five participant pairs got together for the first time, to exchange ideas and feedback on the conversations of the past month. Both meetings have proved to be tremendously productive occasions, with a real sense of knowledge being co-produced, and distinctive experiences and perspectives voiced. A further workshop was held in January, when researchers, research participants and the representatives of arts organisations from across Leeds met together. This provided the occasion to continue the process of generating co-produced knowledge, as a range of perspectives on the importance of the arts and culture were brought into dialogue.

On the basis of the initial workshops, we are very much looking forward to this next opportunity to bring together this diversity of views on the value of cultural activities within Leeds. We intend that one of the outcomes of these conversations will be a fuller, richer sense of the ways in which the city itself – its civic identity, its distinctiveness as a place to live, its vitality or otherwise – is contributed to by the particular qualities of its cultural life. The Love Arts festival contributes just a small amount to this broad, complex civic identity. But in its networked, multi-venue format, drawing together a wide range of participants and locations, it provides a striking vantage point from which to view some of the wider developments and tendencies within the city’s cultural life.

At the heart of this project, we are finding, is a complex concept of well-being, one that we hope we are moving towards being able to articulate. In what ways, little or large, does the festival contribute to the well-being of an individual, a group of people, or a city? Love Arts has a particular focus on mental health; but that does not make the experiences that take place there ‘niche’, ‘medical’, or narrowly ‘instrumental’. We all have well-being. And we all have mental health. Even in these, the early days of this project, we are finding that the highly distinctive articulations our participants give to their cultural experiences are powerful testimonies to the value of an expressive, creative, shared life. These are statements of value(s), we suggest, that could extend across a wide spectrum of mental health, conceived of in all its many forms – spanning a diverse range of ‘arts and minds’. In this way, it may turn out that the testimonies we are documenting also provide new perspectives on what might be meant by ‘the good life’. The challenge is to capture how this might be expressed and communicated, so others can hear the subtlety of our collaborators’ experiences and perspectives.

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