Mark Banks: The Values of Cultural Work: ethics, interests and motivations in the cultural and creative industries

Cultural Industries, Work and Values

My review examined the values embedded in cultural work in the cultural industries (the professional worlds of the arts, media and design) drawing on an interdisciplinary social science literature.


It was first argued that the cultural industries foundationally suspend on a productive, dialectical tension between an economic and a cultural value, broadly defined. This provides the context in which cultural work – the organized production of cultural goods – takes place. Increasingly, however, it was noted that the economic value that underpins the cultural industries is becoming relatively dominant, and now – under an advanced ‘creative economy’ logic – appears to threaten or diminish the other cultural (and political) values that are also inherent to cultural work. The kind of economistic thinking that tends to seek ever more efficient means of managing ‘creatives’ and creative production, now does so in ways that increasingly undermine cultural workers’ material conditions of existence, and their meaningful lives and ambitions – by advancing work’s precarity, inequality, informality and extensification. Yet, by necessity, the cultural industries must continue to provide an indeterminate context for culture as politics – for explorations of other worlds beyond the established and known – since this is not only the animated desire of the capable worker, it is also the best guarantee of future accumulation. It is culture’s unpredictability, its capacity for unintended consequences that make it both an appealing (as well as threatening) prospect for capitalist growth.


Some of the key concluding points of this review were therefore:

  • The general focus on cultural value in terms of objects and commodities, symbols and intangible assets, remains vital, but lacks a work-focussed or labour perspective. Cultural value partly arises from the contexts of production where ideas of value, quality, character, content and form are significant, and shape the subsequent value generated in circulation and consumption. The cultural industries workplace is therefore a significant source of cultural value, however this value is defined.
  • In focussing on the workplace, we see that the values of cultural work are most often made concrete in objects. In most (if not all) cases there is some relationship between the internal work process and the values of the cultural object produced. For example the craft good is valued intrinsically, as a product of the maker’s hand, and this is what accretes its external value. Similarly, the music produced authentically by an artist under conditions of relative autonomy has a particular kind of value than the engineered corporate song-hit. The ethical intentions and practices of the net-worker are significant in the final evaluation of the integrity of the software good. The ethical connection between the work and the object are significant in many cases, but tend to be overlooked in cultural value discourse. In this way, we recognise that the cultural value of objects can be related to the lived conditions and intentions of the labour invested them – and not just their market price, or perceived aesthetic essence.
  • In this respect, while establishing economic value for the cultural industries sector continues to (quite legitimately) preoccupy different interests, the pursuit of a robust economic analysis is only one part of the story of value. Neither is promoting the ‘creative economy’ in its own right – divested of any sense of the necessary tensions between culture and economics – the best way forward. This is because such efforts not only serve to misrepresent the foundational dynamic of the relationships between culture and economy, and narrow the debate about value, they tend also to exfiltrate the political and cultural questions that must necessarily arise in the context of any cultural industry evaluation.  It’s been suggested here that work is a primary locus of much of this tension between cultural and economic value.
  • Work has the capacity to provide people with material sustenance and fulfilling and meaningful lives; but the question of how to attain this value is almost entirely neglected in creative economy thinking. There is instead a bland and misguided assumption that any kind of work is valuable, and that cultural work in particular is inherently good. Evidence has shown repeatedly that this is not the case. A more critical discourse around work in cultural policy making would go some way to beginning to address the consequences of ‘creative economy’ instrumentalism.
  • Culture as we understand it today, cannot be said to exist outside of the market system which grants it recognition and legitimacy; crucially, however, this does not rule the possibility of some relatively autonomous action which can ameliorate the effects or transform the quality of that system – cultural workers are at the vanguard of that exploration of political possibility, and this has its own value.


Symposium on Arts Participation in Washington DC

Geoffrey Crossick, Director, AHRC Cultural Value Project

Last year, at an early stage of the Cultural Value Project, I spent an intensive week in Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York meeting people in the cultural, academic and policy areas to share thinking about some of the issues we were hoping to address in our work. This included an invigorating half-day talking to Sunil Iyengar, Director of the Office of Research & Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, and some of his colleagues. As we parted, we agreed that we needed to find a way of working together.

The first outcome was a two-day symposium in Washington DC that Sunil and I have been organising over the last year and which took place at the start of June 2014. What we had initially thought of as a symposium on arts participation surveys developed into something much more exciting as we defined the problematics that we wanted to address and identified the speakers and other participants. We really wanted to challenge many of the underlying assumptions bound up in conventional national arts participation surveys. The resulting symposium carried the title Measuring cultural engagement amid confounding variables: a reality check.

There were over 60 people at the event, hosted in the fine spaces of the Gallup Building in downtown Washington, drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds (arts funders, cultural policy makers, academic researchers, cultural consultants and others) and from not only the US and UK but also Canada, Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands. The underlying question was a straightforward one: the standard surveys of participation – of which the DCMS/Arts Council England’s Taking Part is just one example – have become a necessary part of the evidence base for those seeking to make the case for public funding of the arts, but how far are they fit for purpose in the changing world of early-21st-century cultural participation and data availability? Is the current approach predicated on unspoken assumptions and expectations, does it miss the complexities of what participation is today, and are big national surveys appropriate to a very different data universe than existed when they were set up?

We’ll each have taken away our own messages from the very stimulating discussions and, in addition to forthcoming podcasts on the NEA’s website, a full report will be issued later in the year. What are the messages that I took away? The first is about data. We got very excited when Bob Groves, the former Director of the US Census Bureau, told us in the challenging plenary lecture that opened the symposium about the plethora of organic data that he said would sweep away the relevance of infrequent survey-based censuses and sample surveys and replace them with data drawn from Google searches, scraped data, Twitter, retail scanning and credit cards and so much more that was about actual behaviour, rather than asking people what they did. Subsequent contributions pinned this more precisely to the cultural world where evolving digital modes of participation and interaction could provide the rich material we might need. It was exciting stuff but we slowly pulled back from writing off the traditional survey because – even without the serious ethical and political considerations that might temper what we did and which strangely did not surface in our discussions – the raw character of organic data meant that we might need the structure of enquiry that emerged from traditional surveys as well as refined methodologies before we could make sense of it. This was not the time to leap too quickly into this particular unknown.

Second,  the interesting presentations we heard on what we’re in the UK calling ‘everyday participation’, starting with what people do rather than with the established categories of cultural engagement, provoked a good deal of thought. Much debate on arts participation is based on a deficit model – which people don’t participate and is it the excluded who are at fault or the arts organisations? Most probably, given that we’re talking about government criticisms of the arts and of the poor, both are often judged to be at fault. If we look at the wide variety of everyday cultural activities that are not captured by surveys but which shape people’s lives, we might have corrected that deficit vision. But is there a danger that by doing so we’re somehow talking ourselves out of social inequality? Work on everyday participation is both interesting and important, but might it lead us to ignore the inequalities of provision and of opportunities that underpin the arts in deeply unequal societies?

Third, why are we interested in arts participation and are they relevant to the arts and cultural sector? Arts organisations appear to care about them because their funders do. What most current surveys, whether national or local, do not provide is much help for arts organisations and practitioners who are genuinely interested in their audiences and the experiences that they have. Can audience and participation surveys be made more relevant, telling organisations more about why their audiences come and why those who are absent don’t, and more about their experiences that go beyond whether they enjoyed it (are you meant to enjoy all cultural experiences, in any case)? Does that mean more surveys that are based on locality, organisation or event? There was much sympathy for this approach, but also an awareness that the big survey mapped the environment in which organisations operated and also helped them to refine their business models in support of financial sustainability. Another message that warned against excessively neat dichotomies.

Fourth was the unspoken disjuncture between the imperatives of policy making on the one hand and academic research on the other, and a sense that that disjuncture might be more pronounced in the UK than in the US where academic researchers often seemed closer to policy makers and to funders (the majority of the latter being foundations rather than government). It is not surprising that people have different objectives nor that these carry implications for methods, for conceptual framework and for overall analysis. If the two communities don’t interact then it is both wasteful and unproductive, but it can be equally wasteful and unproductive if they engage without a clear understanding of their different agendas. Neither should want to see high-level surveys cast aside, even if they need enriching and supplementing with new kinds of data and new kinds of question. If many of us believed that academic research should be the underpinning for policy interventions then we surely need to be aware of the conflicting imperatives rather than wishing them away.

My fifth and final message concerned failure. To be more precise, if one of the main uses for such surveys is to meet the requirements of funders then is there a danger that we’ll be undermining the very risk taking, and thus capacity to fail, that is an essential part of any successful arts practice and arts environment? There is evidence that the press, public and funders pick up on those art forms or organisations that appear less strong in a particular survey rather than those that are flourishing. And if one art form or organisation is doing less well in terms of participation and audiences, then it will be determined to succeed in the future in ways that might inhibit risk-taking and experimentation. Participation and audience surveys that are used for accountability make compliance the driver, and that can threaten the innovation that makes the arts so important.

These were the five big messages that I took away with me from this engaged discussion, but there were others. As an urban historian I was delighted to see the insistence on place, real physical locations, as something that had not been swept away in a digital world, an insistence that emerged from several of the presentations. And I also concluded that there is a great danger in believing that the digital space constituted the cultural ecology when it was in reality no more than one (and a relatively new) part of that complex ecology. Both these were realistic and encouraging. Which I think was part of my conclusion from the symposium as a whole – it was realistic and encouraging at times, but also visionary and imaginative at others.

The comments I received during and after the event suggested that others felt as I did, that by bringing together people from different backgrounds and approaches, by allowing often challenging short presentations to be followed by long and engaged discussion, by ensuring that the programme was not prosaic and by embracing different national experiences (not least contrasting the North American and the European) we’d managed to organise a lively and productive event from which more work should flow. The involvement of the Cultural Value Project did give it a distinct flavour, and Patrycja Kaszynska and I were encouraged by the way people seemed to recognise that. One subsequent US blog commented favourably on the fact that things were not muddied by quantitative versus qualitative debates – and the writer put that down to the UK influence. As we’ve been pressing that point since the Cultural Value Project began it was good to see it recognised!

Kate Rumbold: The uses of poetry: measuring the value of engaging with poetry in lifelong learning and development

What are the benefits of engaging with poetry?

When people read or hear poetry, how can we express the value of their experience?

What is the role of poetry at different stages of lifelong learning?

Our project takes an exciting, interdisciplinary approach to answering these important questions.  ‘The Uses of Poetry’ brings together researchers and practitioners from literature, psychology, education, philosophy, drama and creative writing to start to develop new research methods for understanding, articulating and measuring the benefits of poetry at all stages of lifelong learning.

When it comes to questions of cultural value, poetry can often be overlooked in favour of other kinds of art and culture – and even other kinds of literature.  Much has been written, for example, about the value of creative writing as an emotional outlet and as a mode of expression for people in challenging situations (from post-traumatic shock to prisons), but much less about what happens when individuals encounter an existing piece of poetry, whether for the first or the hundredth time.

Throughout the project, we have been particularly interested in the ways in which poetry is taught.  In mainstream education, from schools to university, an analytical or cognitive approach to poetry is dominant.  By contrast, outside mainstream education, therapeutic and community based projects tend to emphasise the emotional or affective dimensions of poetry.  There is, at present, little connection between these approaches.  We as a team are keen to discover, through our interdisciplinary discussions and practical experiments, if these cognitive and affective dimensions of poetry might beneficially be connected.  Our emerging results suggest that we will be able to offer some initial recommendations for the future teaching of poetry.

Our project is, by nature, exploratory, testing out new ways of talking about poetry in a planned series of interdisciplinary conversations, meetings and seminars.  After our initial areas of disciplinary insight and expertise emerged in early meetings, our core team of eight participants worked in cross-disciplinary pairs to explore key issues relating to ‘the uses of poetry’.  These have included: the role of poetry in autobiographical memory (led by a pair of researchers from Psychology and Creative Writing); the relationship between poetry and ‘embodied learning’ (Drama and Psychology); the benefits of poetry as distinct from other kinds of writing (Literature and Education) and the applications of poetry (Philosophy and Literature).  The interdisciplinary pairs have proposed ways of testing the benefits of poetry in each of these situations; and, as a team, we have discussed and developed their ideas, informed by an extensive literature review by Research Fellow Dr Karen Simecek (University of Birmingham).

This approach has led to the piloting of some innovative research techniques.  For example, to test the benefits of incorporating a more ‘affect’-oriented approach from ‘applied poetry’ into mainstream education, we have combined literary seminar discussion (designed by Literature colleagues) with emotion-focussed questions (proposed by our team member who uses poetry in her work with post-traumatic patients); and enlisted a combination of psychology questionnaires and discourse analysis to evaluate the cognitive and affective orientation of the participants before, during and afterwards.  Likewise, we have combined historical perspectives on the value of poetry with a practical experiment that gauges the relative effects of poetry and prose on readers and hearers; and we have combined rehearsal techniques from drama with new insights in psychology into the effectiveness of ‘embodied learning’ to understand the effects of movement on memory and learning.  Along the way, we have considered the effects of encountering poetry in groups and social settings rather than alone, with fascinating results.

In developing new research methods for measuring the value of engaging with poetry, we have greatly benefited from conversations with other participants in the AHRC Cultural Value Project – in particular Philip Davis’s work on the value and benefits of The Reader Organisation’s Volunteer Reader Scheme; and the exploration of Shakespeare’s sonnets in Peter Lamarque and Gregory Currie’s ‘Cognitive and Aesthetic Values in Cultural Artefacts’ project.  Our own ‘Uses of Poetry’ blog – – draws connections with relevant poetry projects and discussions around the world.

This week, we tested out some of our new measures of the value of poetry at an exciting World War One poetry event for members of the public in Stratford-upon-Avon.  We are looking forward to reporting back on the results!

Dr Kate Rumbold (University of Birmingham) is Principal Investigator on the ‘Uses of Poetry’ project.  She is working on a six-month project with co-investigators Prof. Patricia Riddell (Head of Psychology, University of Reading), Prof. Viv Ellis (Head of Education, Brunel University), Research Fellow Dr Karen Simecek (University of Birmingham) and team members Dr Abigail Williams (University of Oxford), Dr Jaq Bessell (Guildford School of Acting, University of Surrey), Dr Clare Rathbone (Oxford Brookes University) and Emma Howell (Ark Project).

Martin Wright: Cultural Value of Accessible Theatre

“For the first time I was able to attend a show and understand every word. Prior to that I would just sit there and understand nothing. You saved my social life.”

(Respondent, STAGETEXT survey)

Many people in society cannot benefit from the full value of cultural events if those events are not made available for them to access.

While we tend to think of barriers to access as being geographical (the production I wish to see isn’t touring to my part of the country) or financial (I’d love to see that production if I could afford the ticket price), people who have sensory impairments – either because of disability or ageing – may additionally experience barriers based on lack of support for their access needs. People who have difficulty hearing a theatre production may need captions. People who are deaf may need sign interpretation. People who have vision impairments may need audio description.

Responding to these needs, and prompted by legislation such as the Equality Act 2010, many cultural institutions have shown interest in making their cultural events accessible to the widest possible audience by making them inclusive.

The two organisations at the forefront of providing captioning and audio description services to theatres and live events in the UK to help them achieve this are STAGETEXT ( and VocalEyes (

As part of the AHRC Cultural Value Project, Prof Jonathan Hassell, Prof Martin Wright, and Owen Smith of London Metropolitan University partnered with STAGETEXT and Vocaleyes to examine the cultural value of accessible theatre to:

  • theatres that choose to schedule captioned or audio-described performances, through interviews with the National Theatre, Ambassador Theatre Group, The New Wolsey Theatre, and Society of London Theatre; and
  • the audiences to whom those performances are aimed, through focus groups and surveys of those audiences

Investigating the economic value of accessible performances to theatres, we found that, while the 2008 SOLT Access London Theatre project identified large potential audiences for accessible performances in the UK, and follow-up projects like See-A-Voice have since trained theatres in developing these audiences, the actual audience numbers attending are lower than anticipated. This doesn’t negate the need to schedule accessible performances, due to the remaining legal and ethical business cases. However, the current fragility in the economic business case constrains producers’ desire to hold accessible performances.

We identified many barriers to audiences booking for performances, and the possibility of a ‘Catch-22’: that return on investment requires enough accessible performances to be scheduled to enable disabled people to develop and maintain a ‘theatre habit’; but until enough develop this ‘habit’ accessible performances may actually lose the theatre money. In the current economic climate, without evidence that we are nearing this ‘tipping point’, progress towards it is stalling, as theatres ‘lose their nerve’ and fall back to levels of accessible performance provision that reflect a wish to prevent legal risk to the theatre rather than to develop these audiences.

This is disappointing because our in-depth investigation into the wider cultural value of accessible theatre found ample evidence that audiences who attend accessible theatre performances benefit greatly from many of AHRC’s components of cultural value. However, negative aspects of cultural value are also clear. AHRC’s ‘community dynamics’ component mentions urban demographics that can be included or excluded from the community participating in the nation’s cultural life. Our research found that Deaf, deafened, hard of hearing, blind and partially sighted people are in danger of being similarly disenfranchised if their needs are not considered. Theatres that don’t provide accessible performances have an adverse effect on community cohesion as disabled audiences feel excluded from seeing shows other people are coming together around.

So we believe that it is important that ‘inclusion’ is recognised as a component in AHRC’s cultural value model. Without inclusion, disabled or older audiences can’t access the positive benefits of any of the rest of the components; and will only get the negative aspects of cultural value. Which arguably leaves them worse-off than if theatre didn’t exist at all.

A video summary of our findings is available from:

Back in 2006, STAGETEXT and VocalEye’s See a Voice project achieved a step-change in the level of provision of captioned and audio-described theatre in the UK. This established a model that, through current levels of funding, is enabling many deaf, deafened, hard of hearing, blind and partially sighted people to enjoy much of the cultural value of UK theatre.

However, pressures on the current model, from some frustrated users and potential users, theatres and producers, together with the potential of new technological and organisation interventions that our study identified might shift current ‘immovable barriers’, suggest that it may be time to search for ways to achieve a step-change again.

After all, the prize certainly seems worth it:

 “… the opportunity to return to a place that I love and re-engage with theatre performances has returned to me part of my life I thought was lost forever.”

(Survey Respondent, The Cultural Value of Accessible Theatre)

Blog by Professor Jonathan Hassell