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

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Nick Ewbank – Cultural Value and Social Capital: Investigating Social, Health and Wellbeing Impacts in Three Coastal Towns Undergoing Culture-led Regeneration

For our contribution to the Cultural Value project, the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health and cultural regeneration consultancy Nick Ewbank Associates carried out research in three coastal towns where there has been significant investment in culture-led regeneration in recent years, focusing on the impacts of Turner Contemporary in Margate, the Creative Foundation in Folkestone and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.

We adopted a mixed-methods participatory action research approach, using mind-mapping, vox pops and focus group discussions with around 300 public participants. We also carried our sixteen in-depth interviews with politicians, cultural leaders, academics, funders and public health experts.

The resulting report, ‘Cultural Value and Social Capital’, found that, despite an intuitive feeling that there is a “connection between cultural activity and feeling good”, health and wellbeing is not currently prioritised as a driver of either programming or outcomes. 

The three organisations were found to make a “significant, but at present largely undefined, contribution to social capital and to delivering health and wellbeing in their respective communities”, but outside the specialist field of arts in health practice “this important aspect of cultural value is currently hidden”. 

Des Crilley, Chair of Kent County Council’s Strategic Group for Arts in Kent, is quoted in the report as saying: “I don’t think arts and cultural organisations are able to define the impact they are able to make. They don’t trace it and make it visible. It drives me mad! They change someone’s life and they don’t even realise.”

 

Report Lauch, 16 July 2014. Panel members (Left to Right) Prof Stephen Clift, Helen Goodman MP, Deborah Bull, Sir Peter Bazalgette

Photo Stephanie Mills

Photo Stephanie Mills

We launched the report at a reception at the House of Commons on 16 July 2014. This event included a panel discussion with Prof Stephen Clift (Principal Investigator), Deborah Bull (Culture at King’s, Warwick Commission and AHRC Board), Sir Peter Bazalgette (Chair of Arts Council England) and Helen Goodman MP (Shadow Culture Minister). During the debate Sir Peter said “Fifty percent of local authorities are considering deploying health budget in the arts … it’s about the intrinsic value of the arts first, but to blind yourself to what the [economic and health] benefits are is ludicrous”.

 

Both Sir Peter and Helen Goodman MP, used the event to call for the health and social benefits of the arts to be systematised, with appropriate funding and measurement tools put in place.

Deborah Bull called for a “progressive research agenda” able to take the long view and not driven by the calls of different “flip-flopping” governments. She added that this will require the higher education sector and the research community to work very closely with the cultural sector.

The report proposes the introduction of guidelines with models of best practice, an idea supported by the three organisations involved in the project, who also said they would “welcome the introduction of simple-to-use evaluation tools that might shed light on levels of wellbeing generated by their everyday activities”. The report also suggests that cultural organisations should do more research into barriers to public engagement with their work, and give more consideration to programming and commissions aimed at “addressing specific health and social issues”.

Both the report and a short film of the House of Commons launch event can be viewed at www.canterbury.ac.uk/Research/Centres/SDHR/CentreNews/AHRC-Report-published.aspx

Or at www.nickewbank.co.uk

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.

David Beel: EViDAnCE – Exploring Value in Digital Archives and the Comainn Eachdraidh

A large proportion of the work on cultural value centres upon primarily institutional accounts as to how ‘culture’ brings value to both individuals and communities. Research from institutions such as museums, libraries, galleries, theatres and arts organisations dominate the literature in this area, however, very little is written or researched with regards to more everyday and voluntary cultural work conducted by communities. Even more so this is especially pertinent for rural, remote and peripheral locations where such activities often play a central role in maintaining community ties. This is especially true of the Comainn Eachdraidh (Gaelic for Historical Societies) in the Outer Hebrides whose potential cultural value extends well beyond their initial remit as a historical society. There are around 19 active and autonomous Comainn Eachdraidh groups in the Outer Hebrides with the earliest dating back to the 1970s, beginning with a very specific political motivation: to preserve the aspects of their own culture that more official, institutional and mainstream archives saw as irrelevant or unimportant. The larger groups have almost full membership from the populations in their respective areas. As such, the Comainn Eachdraidh represents a medium for the cultural transmission of meaning (McGuigan, 2004) in order to present and preserve a ‘way of life’ (Williams, 2010) that for Islanders is seen as fragile and under threat due to a variety of long-term external influences.

Archives such as these are generated as an articulation of ‘heritage from below’ (Robertson, 2012) and they represent spaces of ‘marginalised memory’ (Creswell, 2011) attempting to give a counterpoint to more top-down and mainstream articulations of history (Mason and Baveystock, 2009). As Stevenson et al. (2008) suggest, their relevance and value extends well beyond the physical site of the archive itself, it is ‘the active and on-going involvement in the source community in documenting and making accessible their history on their own terms’. This makes understanding the practice of archive production amongst volunteers central to comprehending their broader value. Added to this, through the process of digitisation something is both gained and lost in the ‘click of a mouse’ (Latour and Hermant, 2004), and understanding both the production and outcome of such ‘clicks’ is key in understanding the different ways in which value is potentially generated.

Most Comainn Eachdraidh groups have some form of digital presence whether through social media (facebook, twitter and blogs), their own websites or through online digital archives. Digitisation, however has not been a simple process for such small groups to undertake alone. Despite allowing their archives to reach beyond the walls of the archive, it have often meant trading-off autonomy. Due to the expense of converting analogue records to digital form as well the need for long-term hosting solutions, collaboration with other Comainn Eachdraidh groups in order to pool resources has been necessary (for example see Hebridean Connections and their blog . This raises a series of interesting questions about the nature of such practices in term of how digitised content creates value for Island life. And following on from this a series of further questions which this project wishes to understand – How are everyday practices of cultural heritage production represented in digital formats? What value do volunteers/non-institutional heritage work have culturally, economically and socially for communities? Finally, in a broad sense, how does the ‘memory work’ of the Comainn Eachdraidh build identity for individuals and communities?

Project website/blog – evidance-ahrc.com

Flora Samuel – The Cultural Value of Architecture: A Critical Review with specific reference to UK homes and neighbourhoods

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This nine month project, led by Sheffield University and supported by the Royal Institute of British Architects, has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of a wider Cultural Value of the Arts project. The project is already proving extremely timely. Our initial findings have already been submitted to the Call for Evidence for the government instigated Farrell Enquiry on architecture. It will also contribute to a three year project on the value of architecture recently launched by the new RIBA President Stephen Hodder. In these days of increasing austerity councils, housing associations and others are under real pressure to prove value and our project is already contributing to this debate, for example at a symposium for Registered Providers of housing led by the Homes and Communities Agency on value in housing later in November.

We really enjoy the richness and complexity of trying to pin down architectural value, a notoriously difficult and contentious task. Previous studies have generally focused on economic benefits or have been based on highly debatable assumptions, for example that it is always good to make as much community interaction as possible or that urban regeneration is always helpful. Our focus is on wellbeing.

The project has two very different workpackages. The first is a critical review of a very large range of reports and standards on housing written over the last decade in the UK by government. These are so numerous that we have to make a initial sift – the criteria being research rigour – before choosing the ones that we will subject to in depth analysis. The critical review has initially been divided into three components : Health and Ageing; Neighbourhood Cohesion; a as well as Identity, Belonging and Heritage, but these two are subject to revision. Our aim here is to reveal how others have tried to assess or evidence value and to use these findings to suggest possible future frameworks. The critical review will form the basis for a database accessible via the web, a report and a proposal for a new framework for the evidencing of architecture’s cultural value, to be published as a book Why Architecture Matters by Routledge in 2015. The project team benefits from an extensive, interdisciplinary advisory board of world experts who are themselves helping us to create a definition of value in this context.

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The second workpackage the public consultation on the value of architecture will take place in the Sheffield University based LiveLab, the city based outreach arm of the architecture school and is likely to take the form of a research by design project involving some twenty five Sheffield MArch students. This unprecedented piece of participatory action research will test the extent of public knowledge about the activities of architects, build public awareness of what architects really do and suggest new avenues for public engagement.

If you have any evidence of value that you think we should be taking into consideration please contact culturalvalueofarchitecture@sheffield.ac.uk , follow us on twitter @home_research

Brian Garrod: Investigation the Role of Eisteddfodau in Creating and Transmitting Cultural Value in Wales and Beyond

Eisteddfodau: The crown jewels of Welsh culture

The eisteddfod is probably the most widely and best-known expression of Welsh culture, other than perhaps the Welsh language itself. The Welsh word ‘eisteddfod’ (the plural being ‘eisteddfodau’) has no direct translation into English, but it refers to a festival of literature, visual arts and performance. There is typically also a competitive element, where participants perform in competition against each other for prizes.

There are many eisteddfodau taking place across Wales each year. Many of these are local affairs, being based in a particular town or village. Many schools also hold eisteddfodau for their students to compete in. There are also eisteddfods that take place in Australia, Argentina and the USA: places to which the Welsh have migrated and settled. The best known eisteddfodau are, however, the National Eisteddfod (Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru), the International Eisteddfod and the Urdd National Eisteddfod (Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Urdd Gobaith Cymru). The National Eisteddfod welcomes around 160,000 visitors every year and has been held in its current format since 1861, although historians are able to trace its origins back to 1176. This eisteddfod moves around Wales, usually alternating between north and south, and is conducted in Welsh. The International Eisteddfod, in contrast, is held annually in Llangollen and has a multilingual tradition, attracting approximately 120,000 visitors every year. Established in 1947, it focuses particularly on choral music, with performers coming to compete in the eisteddfod from all over the world. The Urdd National Eisteddfod (Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Urdd Gobaith Cymru), meanwhile, is an eisteddfod especially for children and youth. It normally takes place in May and, like the National Eisteddfod, moves around Wales to a different venue each year. All three are televised and together form a summer season of eisteddfodau that people may attend, compete in, volunteer at, or simply watch from home.

The purpose of this project, entitled “Investigation the Role of Eisteddfodau in Creating and Transmitting Cultural Value in Wales and Beyond”, is to investigate the cultural value of the eisteddfodau. The starting premise is that the value of an eisteddfod is much greater than simply its profit or loss-making status, or even its contribution to the local economy, although this can be significant. Rather, the eisteddfodau are valuable because they allow people, both from Wales and beyond, to be entertained, to use the Welsh language, and to connect with the cultural and artistic traditions of Wales. They also build up the cultural capital of the communities from where the audience members and contestants come, helping to bring those communities together, establish and maintain interpersonal relationships and to transfer life-affirming skills from one generation to the next. Eisteddfodau also help to transmit the character and cultural values of Wales to the rest of Britain and the world.

These cultural values of the eisteddfodau have rarely been studied, and it is the aim of this project to achieve an in-depth understanding of how they are generated, consumed and transmitted. Intercept questionnaires with almost 1,000 attendees to this summer’s eisteddfodau have already been conducted, with a view to gaining a broad understanding of the cultural values involved, how they are perceived by attendees and how they are consumed. This has been followed up with nearly 30 in-depth telephone interviews, with the aim of developing further knowledge on how people connect with the values connected with eisteddfodau. The next step is to conduct focus groups with eisteddfod attendees to discover how the cultural values are embedded in communities and transmitted to Wales, the rest of Britain, and beyond.

Speaking to eisteddfod-goers, it is already very clear to us that the eisteddfodau are widely regarded as iconic expressions of Welsh cultural values. To describe them as the crown jewels of Welsh culture would be no exaggeration.