Guest post: Phil Jones – The value of cultural intermediation

Cultural Intermediation: Connecting Communities in the Creative Urban Economy, Connected Communities

Our third guest contribution comes from Phil Jones, University of Birmingham, who is also leading a Connected Communities’ project – Cultural Intermediation: Connecting Communities in the Creative Urban Economy. The question central to Phil’s research – How can the creative economy benefit all and not just a chosen few? – resonates with the Cultural Value Project. Not only are we interested in how the cultural value generated by the creative industries can be captured and evaluated; we ask how the arts and culture give rise to value in the creative economy in the first place (or, to put it more simply, how the cultural sector is related to the creative sector). Crucially, we want to know about the distribution of this value – Who gets to access and benefit in the creative economy sector? Indeed, it is apparent to us that it is no longer sufficient to ask whether the creative economy is a strong driver of development: the key question is whether it promotes a sustainable and inclusive development on social, environmental and economic levels (to use the terminology of the recent UNESCO Creative Economy Report). There are several angles one could take to tackle this question. Phil’s project approaches this problem through the lens of cultural intermediation. Its findings are of great interest to the Cultural Value Project.

From the late 1970s the UK economy became more divided between the haves and the have nots. The Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, rose steadily until the mid-1990s and although it has declined slightly since its peak, today there have not been significant gains for more deprived communities who are being left behind as the economy slowly recovers.

Although the creative industries are now a lucrative segment of the UK economy, they tend to have high barriers to entry and a disproportionately large number of people working within the sector have undergraduate degrees. Thus while the creative industries may generate economic growth, the danger is that they have little value in reducing overall inequality.

In our project we have been looking at the people and organisations who try to get communities more engaged with arts and culture. Drawing on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, we refer to such people as cultural intermediaries, in that they act as bridges, joining up communities and forms of cultural activity that are often disconnected. Within this intermediary sector a great deal of effort is being made to help more deprived communities gain from the benefits of creative economic activity. This is more obvious in the publicly subsidised arts and culture sectors, which have a more overt social mission than the private sector.

There is a belief that the value of engaging struggling communities with different kinds of arts and culture is in inspiring young people to new career paths, raising aspirations and confidence, and a general sense that culture enriches people’s lives. Engaging with a local arts project or going to your local art gallery thus does not immediately hold the key to getting a job in the creative industries, but is often seen as an investment in the future of a community.

This raises important questions about the value of this activity and its sustainability at a time when sources of public funding are drying up. In our work with intermediaries, what’s becoming clear is that the mission of social engagement is under real pressure. Public funders still want to direct cultural activity toward various social aims and make the same kinds of demands of intermediaries as they did in the past when funding was more readily available. For those intermediaries attempting to operate in this austere funding climate the trade-off between the demands of funders and the resource available looks less and less appealing. Other sources of income and types of activity with perhaps less emphasis on the social mission of community engagement may have to take priority even where intermediaries are personally committed to making a difference to communities – artists still have to make a living after all.

Another issue is that large cultural institutions and small community arts organisations are sometimes lumped together as working within the broader cultural sector, but as intermediaries they generate value in very different ways. The primary value of these large institutions is simply not their capacity to raise aspirations in deprived communities on their doorstep, but is instead about international branding and reputation for the host city. The scale of the funding to these larger organisations can and does, however, generate real resentment from smaller, community arts organisations struggling to make ends meet. This of course raises a broader debate about the relative value placed on general economic growth through city marketing as against attempting to directly raise aspirations and enrich the lives of the very poorest in society.

Phil Jones, University of Birmingham


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