Jacqueline Reynolds – The Story of Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent: Towards Deeper Understandings of the Role of Arts and Culture

Our Cultural Value project, involving an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the Faculty of Arts and Creative Technologies at Staffordshire University, is concerned with issues of empathy, compassion and understanding. It is rooted in a remarkable story about Stoke-on-Trent and the tiny village of Lidice in the Czech Republic, which was completely destroyed by the Nazis in June 1942. In Stoke-on-Trent, in response to this tragic event, local Doctor and Councillor Barnett Stross launched the ‘Lidice Shall Live’ campaign, rallying local working people to donate to a fund that ultimately contributed to the rebuilding of the village after the war. It was an amazing demonstration of empathy and compassion that ordinary miners and pottery workers donated in many cases up to a week’s wages to this campaign.

Significantly in terms of Cultural Value, the village of Lidice today expresses its story through arts and culture, including the largest rose garden in Europe, and a museum and art gallery that sit adjacent to the new village. A commemorative event takes place in Lidice each year on the anniversary of the tragedy, and in recent years, the links between Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent have been refreshed with cultural exchanges, involving a range of arts projects and events that celebrate the cultural ties between the two places. It is striking that in all of the civic engagement and partnership working recently developed between these places, we choose to explore, express and celebrate these ties almost exclusively through arts and culture.

Influenced by the story of Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent, our research focuses on storytelling approaches in exhibitions and in community and participatory arts projects. Our key aim is to improve our understanding of the potential of arts and culture to develop empathy, compassion and understanding across geographical divides. It is often an implicit, taken-for granted aspect of arts and culture that people’s emotions can be engaged in this way, but demonstrating the value of this is clearly a challenge. We have used new insights from our research to develop resources for the design and evaluation of arts activities.

One of the significant things about this project is the key importance of issues of empathy and compassion to society as a whole. We find discussions about such issues in many different contexts – for example, healthcare, journalism, politics, and education. They are at the very heart of our relationships with other people in the world, and developments such as the widespread use of social media constantly raise new questions about the extent to which we feel and express empathy, compassion and understanding.

Our project draws on insights and understandings from a wide range of academic disciplines, and also from diverse groups of artists and creative practitioners. We held focus groups and individual interviews (some of which were filmed), at Staffordshire University and in local arts venues. We have been delighted at the levels of interest in the project, and at the in-depth and thoughtful discussions that have taken place. Discussions included what empathy, compassion and understanding mean to people, and how they apply their understandings within their own work. We asked people to reflect on when they have been deeply moved by an arts or cultural experience, and to consider why this was so, any actions or changes that this led to, and how we might be able to capture this kind of information in evaluating arts activities. We have analysed a wealth of data that have been generated by these discussions, as well as completing a literature review that draws upon a wide range of disciplines.

Following on from the focus groups and interviews, we established a working group of university lecturers, artists and creative practitioners, to contribute to the development of new resources for the design and evaluation of arts exhibitions and projects. An important part of the design of our project was a research visit by some of the working group to Lidice (in June 2014) to attend the annual commemoration of the Tragedy, and to take part in the arts and cultural events that take place at this time. This was a deeply moving and unforgettable experience for the group, and it contributed significantly to the outcomes of the research project. The visit was an opportunity for our group to consider the emerging findings from the research in relation to our case study, to exchange ideas with creative practitioners in Prague and Lidice, and to begin to formulate ideas for a new project to be informed by the outcomes of this research project.

During the project, we worked with film makers Suzanne James and Darren Teale (Junction 15 Productions), who filmed a number of the individual and group interviews, as well as the visit to the Czech Republic. This resulted in a series of eleven short films, including four case studies of projects that have connected people across geographical divides. All of the films are shared on the project blog. The films are intended not only to share the findings of the project with a really wide audience, but also to be useful resources to artists and creative practitioners who are considering issues of empathy, compassion and understanding as part of their work.

We also drew upon our research findings to develop a set of ‘Caring Cards’ to support the design and evaluation of participatory arts activities. We commissioned artist Nicola Winstanley to design the cards, which highlight issues of cultural value and empathy, compassion and understanding from a range of perspectives, all informed by the research. They include participant quotes and some key themes, and are designed to be used as a tool for project management in community and participatory arts work. They address some of the implications of the research at each stage of the project cycle, and can be used to support conversations and planning by artists, and also as a tool for evaluation. All of the cards include original illustrations that have been developed in direct response to the themes that have emerged from the research. They are therefore visually interesting in a meaningful and engaging way and they contribute towards developing a ‘visual language’ to help explore the themes of empathy, compassion and understanding. As well as being available on the project blog, we obtained additional funding from the Institute for Applied Creative Thinking (I-ACT) at Staffordshire University to produce pilot printed versions of the cards. They were introduced during a presentation about the project at the Arts in Society Conference at Imperial College London in July 2015, and a range of international delegates agreed to pilot the cards. They will thus help to address the on-going international challenges of demonstrating cultural value across a range of contexts.

Our project blog, including full project reports, can be found here:
Notes:
The Story of Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent: Towards Deeper Understandings of the Role of Arts and Culture, is a six-month project (February-July 2014). The project team (from Staffordshire University) includes:
Principal Investigator: Dr Jackie Reynolds (now at Keele University)
Co-Investigator: Janet Hetherington
Postdoctoral Researchers: Dr Ann O’Sullivan and Dr Kelvin Clayton.
John Holmes (Visiting Research Fellow, Staffordshire University)

The Research Team is grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for the funding that supported our project. We would also like to thank participants in the UK and the Czech Republic who generously contributed their time, knowledge and expertise to this project.

Joshua Edelman: The Value of Amateur, Subsidised and Commercial Theatre for Tyneside’s Audiences

Dr Joshua Edelman: What is theatre worth to Tyneside?
Creativeworks London blog.
What can theatre do for a city? Why should its citizens value it, and make time and space for it within their lives? Why should democratic governments, charged with nurturing and developing not just an economy but a society, spend their limited resources on it? And how do these values differ between theatrical forms, between cities, between modes of production and between individuals? Our project seeks to address these questions through a qualitative and quantitative study of the theatrical audience of contemporary Newcastle, Gateshead, and the surrounding Tyneside region: what draws them to the theatre, what values they take from it, and what effect this has on their lives, and the different values different sorts of theatre hold.

Especially for a six-month project, this may seem impossibly broad. The value of the arts for society has been so thoroughly debated over the last 50 years—indeed, over the last 2500 years—that these questions may seem unanswerable at best, and ignorant at worst. We have two defences against the charge of naiveté. First, while the relationship between arts and society has been a major debate within aesthetic philosophy since Plato (see the useful intellectual history in Belfiore & Bennett’s 2013 The Social Value of the Arts), very often this discussion remains at the level of theory, or at best, refers only to a few extraordinary examples of artistic achievement. Very rarely has this philosophical debate come into full dialogue with good data on the reality of the living art world: not just exceptional masterpieces, but the day-to-day reality of the social practice of making and attending to the arts. Second, theatre makes a poor proxy for the other arts. The theatre has always been a bit of a problem for aesthetic thinking; too commercial, too collaborative, too entertaining, too low-class, it has been seen as more akin to circuses for the masses (or rituals for the faithful) than poetry for the discerning reader. Claims to the value of the arts as an autonomous sphere are much harder to maintain for a business like the theatre where public opinion and the public purse are ever-present forces.

How can we make a small contribution to the addressing of these very large questions? Our methods have been developed by the Project on European theatre Systems (known as STEP), of which both the project’s research assistant, Dr Maja Šorli, and I are members. STEP is a group of theatre sociologists from seven countries around Europe. It is led by Dutch arts sociologist Hans van Maanen. Building out of the work our first book, Global Changes/Local Stages (2009), STEP has developed a set of metrics to gauge the values that theatre has for audiences, and a common questionnaire and focus group technique to measure them. The values these metrics try to capture are based on the post-Kantian theories of the social value of the arts, including those of George Dickie, Arthur Danto, Pierre Bourdieu, Niklaus Luhmann, Bruno Latour, Nathalie Heinich and others, as described in van Maanen’s book How to Study Art Worlds (2009). By sharing a common set of metrics and measuring technique, we can create a data set that is easier to replicate and much more comparable. Using survey and focus group techniques to measure the value of the experience of the theatre is difficult. But using these techniques to compare the value of different theatrical experiences is much easier. We can, for instance, see how audience members value different theatrical genres differently, or how people from different demographics value their experiences differently, and so on. We can also compare the theatre of different cities. So far, STEP members have used these methods in Aarhus, Denmark; Tartu, Estonia; Maribor, Slovenia; Berne, Switzerland; Groningen, the Netherlands and Debrecen, Hungary. Together, these projects are assembling the largest single data set on the audience experience of theatre in contemporary Europe. The initial results of these international comparisons have now been published in the journal Amfiteater, which will be online by the end of the year.

On Tyneside, we worked in partnership with most of the local theatre community, and in particular the Empty Space, a valuable theatre resource organization for the local area. We complied over 1600 surveys and conducted 12 focus groups. A particular focus of our Tyneside work is the different values that amateur, commercial and subsidized theatre hold for their audiences. From the perspective of what an audience takes from it, what makes subsidized, not-for-profit theatre different from its amateur and commercial cousins? What are the values that amateur theatre realizes, and are they more like that of the professional theatre or more like that of a local football club? Answers to these questions would be fascinating to arts sociologists, of course, but they will also help those who organize, promote and fund theatrical work in this country to have a better understanding of the effect they actually have on audiences so that they can better advocate for it.

Our initial findings showed that we could identify two relevant sets of values that theatre had for its audiences. One set of values (which we called the I Component, for impressiveness, as it contained aspects of the audience’s emotional and aesthetic admiration for the performance) was consistent across commercial and subsidised theatre; audience members saw it in all kinds of professional theatre (though not to the same extent in amateur theatre). Another set (which we called the C Component, as it contained ways in which the performance posed an emotional, aesthetic or intellectual challenge to its audience) seemed to mark a remarkably clear separation between commercial and subsidised theatre. Subsidised theatre audiences embraced these values, while commercial theatre audiences did not. More detailed results have now been published in our final report, which specifies these two components in considerable detail. But our analysis raises questions as well, particularly about amateur theatre. Though amateur theatre did not score as well on the I Factor as its professional counterparts, this did not seem to matter to audiences so much. It had a particular draw — a joy in watching the arduous, impassioned labour of people ‘just like us’ — that seemed both potent and compelling, even when audience members knew no one in the cast. We are talking with the Empty Space and our amateur theatre colleagues on Tyneside about conducting a follow-up project to learn more about this area.
Joshua Edelman is senior lecturer in the Department of Contemporary Arts, Manchester Metropolitan University