Guest Post: Andrew Prescott – The Values of Memory

The AHRC’s ‘Digital Transformations’ theme is exploring ways in which engagement with digital technologies can transform research in the arts and humanities, enabling researchers to investigate new problems and (we hope) to change the nature of scholarly discourse. The theme also seeks to develop a distinctive arts and humanities perspective on issues posed by the increasing ‘datafication’ of society, such as privacy, identity and security. As theme leader fellow, I have the perfect job, since my role is to liaise with and visit many of the various exciting projects that the AHRC has been funding under this theme, so that I can develop a sense of the overarching lessons and messages which are emerging from their work.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to an inspiring event in the Cultural Quarter of Leicester, the launch of an AHRC-funded project called ‘Affective Digital Histories: Re-creating De-industrialised Places’ which seeks to gather memories about the period from 1970 when many traditional manufacturing industries disappeared from Britain’s towns and cities. The decline of British manufacturing is well known, but the personal stories of the individuals affected are often unrecorded and forgotten. The Affective Digital Histories project seeks to recover and preserve the hidden and untold stories of people who lived and work in former industrial buildings at two locations in the East Midlands: the St George’s area of Leicester, which was formerly the hub of the city’s shoe and textile trade but now forms Leicester’s Cultural Quarter, and Glossop, a mill town in north Derbyshire. The enthusiasm and energy of the project’s Principal Investigator, Dr Ming Lim, and her team were infectious, and the way in which the project is a joint enterprise with community organisations such as the Phoenix Theatre is particularly fascinating.

There is a risk that the rebranding of areas like St George’s in Leicester as a ‘cultural quarter’ can increase the sense of alienation among people who worked and lived there, and who may feel that the area now has little to offer or interest them. The ‘Affective Histories’ project is exploring how digital technology can help local populations continue to feel engaged with areas affected by deindustrialisation. The sharing of memories is at the heart of this endeavour and the project will demonstrate how a digital environment enables such memories to be recorded and used on a scale which was hitherto unimaginable. This also enables the community to become fully engaged with research into a neglected but important part of national history. The ‘Affective Histories’ project is building up an online archive of memories, photographs and stories of Glossop and Saint George’s. In January, the project will place booths in the huge Highcross Shopping Centre which will offer the tens of thousands of local people who visit Highcross the opportunity to record their memories of these areas, creating a huge memory digital store of the St George’s area with an emphasis of the type of everyday memory and reminiscence which is often difficult to find in a conventional archive. It is unusual for arts and humanities research to take place in a shopping centre, but those who contribute their memories will help in preserving for future scholars insights into the profound changes which overtook Britain from the 1970s.

The project has produced two apps which are available for iPhone and iPad users from the App store and for Android users from Google Play, The first app is called ‘Sounds of the Cultural Culture’. Among the biggest changes which have take place in British cities over the past fifty years are environmental changes, including changes in the sound of everyday life. In particular, industrial noises which dominated life in British cities for nearly two hundred years have disappeared. The ‘Sounds of the Cultural Quarter’ app enables users to hear both past and present sounds associated with different places in the cultural quarter, and to recapture something of that lost industrial soundscape. The second app is called ‘Hidden Stories’ and presents five specially commissioned stories describing memories of life in Leicester’s Cultural Quarter. Users of the app can use the stories to follow a trail around the quarter, uncovering hidden histories associated with places such as the old Imperial Typewriter factory or Rowley’s Sock Factory.

The eye-catching aspect of apps such as these is naturally the digital wizardry of the local technology company, Cuttlefish, and in this way the project itself feds directly into the digital economy of the Cultural Quarter. But what struck me was that much of the creative excitement around the ‘Hidden Histories’ app derived from the commissioning of local writers to produce stories for the app. This is a reminder that cultural regeneration depends as much on the encouragement and promotion of creative talent as on technology. The ‘Hidden Histories’ app is attractively and robustly realised, but what makes the app compelling is the high quality of the writing it presents. This writing depends on the engagement of each of the writers with different memories of the area, which they supplemented by using the Special Collections of the University of Leicester and the City Archive, thereby achieving what one of the contributors calls a ‘deep mapping’ of the memory landscapes of this part of Leicester. This is a reminder that, in a digital economy, creative content – in such forms as novels, poetry, archives, drawings and sound – is a fundamental asset. Moreover, much of this creative content is rooted in and draws its values from memory.

Memory, as scholars such as Pierre Nora have shown us, animates many different aspects of the arts and humanities, from studies of classical civilisation through to contemporary history. The lifeblood of much of the arts and humanities consists of cultural memory. What is striking about the ‘Affective Histories’ project is the way in which it draws on memory to directly assist in the economic regeneration of this area of Leicester. Perhaps memories are among the most important assets that places such as Leicester and Glossop possess.

For much of my lifetime (I am a child of Harold Wilson’s white-hot revolution of technology), computing and digital technologies have been presented in Britain as an escape route from industrialisation – a means of replacing a dirty and physically demanding form of economic activity with cleaner, more modern and knowledge-based activities. I have suggested elsewhere that, from a historical point of view, the lines of continuity between the industrial and digital revolutions may be stronger than is often allowed. At the heart of the ‘Affective Histories’ project is the idea that memories of older industrial ways of life may feed in many different ways into regeneration. For example, archival materials and storytelling may provide raw material for some of the creative firms springing up in places like St George’s. Regeneration may also be fostered by encouraging the local population to share their memories, thereby promoting connectivity and creativity. Memories of small-scale industrial activity may also encourage the establishment of ‘pop-up’ activities linking new technologies with education and older tradition, such as the New Incunable Print Shop, developed with the artist collective Juneau Projects where visitors can make 3D-printed woodblocks based on their own drawings, and use them to create original prints and artworks. An activity like the New Incunable Print Shop uses new fabrication techniques to reimagine the older industrial and craft traditions of Leicester’s cultural quarter, creating an triangulation between memory, new forms of economic activity and regeneration.

It is easy to assume that, in the globalised world fostered by the internet, regional traditions will fade away and become irrelevant. Yet the ‘Affective Histories’ project suggests that local memory and identity may assume new and distinctive roles in a digital economy. The arts and humanities have an important role in fostering the digital world as a place of memory. The way in which the ‘Affective Histories’ project harks back to the days of hosiery, shoes, tanning and typewriters, and uses these memories to invigorate the cultural life of Leicester’s cultural quarter, is striking. But Leicester is not a unique case. In Sheffield, the cultural quarter similarly looks back to the traditions of the ‘small mesters’ of the cutlery and metalwork trades there. Another project recently launched in the East Midlands was a pair of GPS-enabled shoes designed by the artist Dominic Wilcox with Stamp Shoes and Becky Stewart. The shoes use GPS to guide the wearer home using a sequence of LED lights on the toes. These shoes were commissioned by Northamptonshire County Council as part of the Global Footprint project, and again echo the long-standing shoemaking traditions of Northampton. I was fascinated to hear Gareth Neal talk in the recent Make:Shift conference organised by the Crafts Council about the Bodging Milano project which sought to revisit the ancient furniture making methods associated with the bodgers. In another AHRC project, the University of the West of England, which undertakes cutting-edge work on the 3D printing of ceramics, is working with Burleigh Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, the last remaining company to produce ceramic tableware decorated using the traditional printed underglaze tissue method, in order to find a means of restating this method of ceramic decoration in a digital environment.

These old traditions of small mesters and bodgers, of underglazing and hosiery, still have a great deal to contribute to the way in which we think about new economic activities, and arts and humanities researchers can help us reconnect with the memories of these traditions.

Guest Post: Ariane Koek – Art and Science Conversations

The 21st century is being heralded as the era when arts and science interactions finally come of age. That’s according to José Carlos Arna the Director of Etopia – the visionary art and technology centre which opened two years ago in Zaragosa, Spain, in the midst of the economic crisis.

It is being forecast that the influence of arts/science interactions mixed with technology on culture will be as significant as the technology and arts movement was in the 70s as exemplified by the extraordinary E.A.T project held at Bell Laboratories in the USA. This highly influential project fostered collaborations between such artists as Robert Rauchensberg and dancer Lucinda Childs with engineers like Billy Kluver and Manfred Schroeder. Its influence in performing and visual arts has been felt ever since.

However there is nothing intrinsically new in arts and science interactions. Artists throughout millennia have nourished their curiosity and creativity with the ideas of science and natural philosophy.  What is new in the 21st century is the intense cultural focus on arts/science interactions – partly driven by economics as the arts gets to grips with funding cuts; partly driven by a solution focused society in an era of global challenges, including climate change and political uncertainty; partly driven by the promise of certainty which science holds now for the public.  Innovation is seen as the key to tackling these issues, and new ways of looking which combine the worlds of emotions and feelings (arts) with the worlds of method and reason (science) are seen as the pathway to innovations which will provide the solutions to these global challenges.

The UK has a great cultural tradition of arts/science interactions –  for example the Wellcome Collection and Arts Catalyst, which under the directorship of Nicola Tiscott and curatorship of Rob La Frenais, celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.  This organisation has led the way in showing imaginative cultural engagement in the the arts and science – most recently shown by Agnes Meyer Brandis’s Moon Goose project. Equally, visionaries such as ex dancer Scott de Lahunta have pioneered the engagement of science with dance, bringing neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to the work of choreographer Wayne MacGregor and his Random Dance Company. Many of Wayne’s early interactions with scientists were in fact supported in 2003 by what was then called the AHRB, leading to the establishment of Wayne’s work to where it is today right at the cutting edge of arts/ science/ technology which it combines with a seamless ease and aesthetic which blurs any boundaries.

This is the cultural context in which I was approached to collaborate with the AHRC Cultural Value Project and AHRC Science in Culture theme. Our joint mission was to work together to create a one day series of conversations between artists and scientists to lay open for investigation some of the values of cross-fertilisation of artistic and scientific practices happening today.

Together, we curated 4 conversations between 4 different already collaborating pairs of artists and scientists, and these were the focus of the day. These conversations were held in front of a specialized and invited audience across the fields of arts and science, who commented, engaged and responded to what was being said. All these views were to feed into the AHRC Cultural Value as well as Science in Culture theme. The aim was to put forward different perspectives on arts/science interactions, uncovering their different permutations, possibilities and differences.

I was asked to be involved because in 2010 I was hired by CERN – The European Organisation for Nuclear Research – the world’s largest particle physics laboratory outside Geneva to be their first Head of International Arts. This is to my knowledge the first time a major international science laboratory has created a post specifically for a cultural specialist, with the remit to put arts and science on the same level as each other and not as a straight forward communications tool. The post was as a result of a 3 month feasibility study into creating an arts programme which I carried out at the laboratory at my own initiative as part of my Clore Fellowship in 2009. The laboratory embraced the feasibility study, and out of it was born the Arts@CERN programme which I created, fundraise for, and direct since April 2010.

One of the four conversations which we curated for the one day workshop featured an artist/scientist combination from the CERN Visiting Artist programme – the lightest touch strand of the Arts@CERN programme which just provides one day curated encounters rather than the intense 3 month curated deep time experiences of the flagship Collide@CERN residency programme.  Nevertheless the one day encounters have impact, leading to many artists either developing projects from these one day encounters, like Mark Baldwin, artistic director of Rambert Dance Company whose new piece The Strange Charm of Mother Nature was inspired by his visit to CERN, and fashion designer Iris Van Herpen’s Spring/Summer 2015 fashion collection featured on the Catwalks of Paris this year. And curation really is the key here – a feature which is often left out of any analysis of arts/science interactions and yet it is something which people like Scott deLahunta do so well and yet so invisibly.

CERN physicist Dr Bilge Demirkoz and Visiting Artist Goshka Mocuga demonstrated so well in an open ended and frank conversation that mutual respect and fascination leads to a continued engagement. They were first introduced in 2012, when Goshka was preparing work for Documenta 13. Bilge’s words about dark matter featured in that exhibition. Since then, Goshka has been commissioned by the Centre d’Art Contemporain to make a CERN inspired work, and continuing her conversations with Bilge is leading to a work in the show which takes into account, amongst other things international politics, relations and the role of science engaging with the unknown.  For Bilge, the experience is opening her up to a different way of seeing the world and engaging with it, through feeling, rather than exclusively intellect. Both say they feel as if this dialogue is only beginning, but what this pair show is the basis of the Arts@CERN programme as a whole – fundamental research for artists at a laboratory famous for fundamental research for scientists.

So what we have at CERN now is a fundamental research laboratory in the widest possible cultural sense – not just in science and technology, but also in the arts too.  This is why I was so keen to collaborate with the AHRC to put together a one day symposium. Also what we do which is highly unusual for an arts programme at a science laboratory is to concentrate on the process of discovery and exploration – and not the end result or product/outcome. Thus seemingly counter intuitively as a result we get significant outcomes  – like the world tour of QUANTUM or Rambert Dance Company’s new piece which premiered this Autumn, The Strange Charm of Mother Nature.   Equally what we do at the lab is work with the arts not to illustrate or describe the science. Instead, the arts and science are put on the same level of mutual inspiration and exchange, with the ideas of science and the arts becoming mutual springboards for the imagination for both. This leads to a non-utilitarian process orientated approach which I feel is incredibly important  and needs to be reflected in any scoping of the arts, science and technology sector.

In our product and application driven age, we are becoming increasingly concerned with outcome, impact and societal use. As a result art is in danger of being reduced to becoming increasingly utilised as a tool and a means to an end, with artists becoming the catalysts and solutions for engineers and scientists. The emphasis is moving from the process of creation to exclusively focusing on the outcome/end, in a movement which I call art by design/application. There is nothing wrong with this per se. What is wrong however is the potential for art by design/application becoming seen as the be all and end all of artistic practice – the most fundable because it is outcome and quantitatively driven.  This is due to pressures of economics, quantitative evaluation and funding mechanisms, and it is in danger of   excluding  other ways of creating and making art/ arts, science and technology interactions, namely the more open ended approach like the one we do at CERN.  After all, the open ended approach in science and technology has led to cultural revolutions, like the invention of the worldwide web at CERN.

This belief in openness and the necessity for fundamental research in the arts, like in science, is reflected in the way I strategically created, structured and direct the CERN arts programme.  I say very clearly that there does not need to be an outcome as a result of the residency – this is because an artist exists to create and make and a work of art takes as long as it takes (and not just 3 months or the Collide @CERN residency). What is important is getting the conditions right so that s/he will create something and to trust both the artists and the process.  So far every single artist on the Collide@CERN residency programme has made something – some, like the sound sculptor Bill Fontana within the first 3 days of being there. Get the conditions right for the process to evolve, and new work will develop and create mutual inspirations between the artists and the scientists with mutual but different benefits. For the artist it is clearly the work. For the scientist it is exposure – contamination even – to the world of feelings, emotions and different connections which artists engage with as well as learning new ways of communication, thinking and being in their every day lives.

Thus in part of the conversations for the one day symposium, Visiting Artist Goshka Mocuga exchange thoughts and ideas with Dr Bilge Demirkoz. This is very much the beginning of a relationship which began in 2011 with Goshka’s first Visiting Artist curated experience when she was developing a new show for Documenta 13 in Kasel, Germany. Bilge’s reflections featured in her work and they have continued exchanging ideas ever since. This has an additional resonance because as a Turkish woman scientist, Bilge’s position will also be reflected in a renactment of one of Goshka’s previous works which is happening as part of a major new show at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva.

What is clear from observing them interact is the inspiration they get from each other and the quality of thinking between them. It is a creative collisions between different points of view which leads to further understanding as well as different ideas and approaches to practice. But it can’t be quantified, as such. Bilge can not say how it has changed her science. All she can say it has changed her ways of thinking and looking at the world.

So when we look at the 21st century as being heralded as one between the arts, science and technology, lets also include in this vision the necessity for fundamental creativity – creativity which does not have a defined application or outcome. Fundamental research in the arts is just as much as threat as it is in the science in our world and in this sense they are common allies.. As Peter Higgs said recently, he would have never been able to have had a career in science today, because he could not prove that the theory of the Higgs Boson he was creating existed – catch 22. Equally Tim Berners-Lee under today’s conditions might never have been able to carry out further investigation into his idea for how laboratories could communicate with each other. After all, his supervisor wrote a note which said ‘Vague but interesting.”

Yet it is through openness, the liminal cross over points, and interactions that paradigms can be shifted and changed. With a mixed creative economy, we crucially leave the door open to the unexpected, to the ineffable and creative change in all its manifestations.

Guest Post: AHRC Care for the Future Theme

Professor Andrew Thompson is Leadership Fellow of the Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past Theme. Christine Boyle is the Theme Co-ordinator.

On 9th and 10th September 2014, the Cultural Value Project worked with Care for the Future to organise a joint symposium on ‘Culture, Conflict and Post-Conflict’, a topic suited well to the research interests of both programmes. The purpose of the symposium was to consider the role of arts and cultural practices and performance in the process of post-conflict resolution and transformation.

Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past affords an opportunity for arts and humanities researchers to explore the dynamic relationship that exists between past, present, and future through a temporally inflected lens. The past is all around us. The future’s uncertainties weigh heavily on the present and turn us back to history for insights into the age in which we live. Environmental change, pressures on welfare, technological advances, humanitarian interventions, and the causes and effects of globalisation are all being subject to historical scrutiny in myriad ways.

The Theme opens up fascinating issues of intergenerational communication, and of who and what purposes histories are written for.  It also looks at how the past is set out for different needs, and whose voices are heard and silenced in the process. Great interaction under the theme between disciplines across the arts and humanities enable us to think through complex questions, including the consciousness of time; and whether history can furnish us with moral obligations.

Care for the Future awards grants to researchers investigating issues of time and temporality. Three Large Grants were recently awarded under the theme; these are innovative and collaborative research projects involving over 50 different UK and international partner organisations, and which will serve as ‘beacons’ of the theme to develop and promote the intellectual work done under Care for the Future.

Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage led by Dr Rodney Harrison at University College London, will compare a range of conventional and unconventional future-making practices from a number of different heritage and heritage-like fields. It aims to facilitate co-creation and sharing of practical knowledge across domains of practice which are rarely considered collectively and to contribute to the development of innovative and sustainable approaches to heritage conservation.

The second award is The Antislavery Usable Past, led by Professor Kevin Bales at the University of Hull. There are an estimated 30 million slaves alive today; this project seeks to provide the contemporary antislavery movement with a usable antislavery past and help translate history’s lessons into today’s effective tools for policy makers, civil society, and citizens.

Dr Stephen Muir (University of Leeds) leads Performing the Jewish Archive. This project’s objective is to bring recently rediscovered musical, theatrical and literary works by Jewish artists back to the attention of scholars and the public, and to stimulate the creation of new works based on archives. This scholarly work and artistic practice will engage with and re-theorise traditional archives, ethnographic archives, and artistic works themselves. The multi-disciplinary team will focus on the years 1880-1950, an intense period of Jewish displacement, in order to illuminate the role of art in displacement. Information on other projects taking place under the Theme can be found at

In addition to awards like the Large Grants above, we also hold events to bring together award holders and other researchers concerned with Theme-relevant issues. A major sub-theme for us is cultural memory and historical legacy – how we understand knowledge of the past to have been translated into the present.  For the Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past Theme, questions of memory, healing and trauma, as well as the dynamics of relationships between generations, are of great concern. The Theme seeks to understand how societies come to terms with difficult and divisive pasts, how past conflicts are reproduced in present generations, and how different creative, literary and artistic modes of engagement with the past may help to envisage alternative futures.  It recognises the complexities of cultural phenomena, and the need to distinguish between the role that culture can play in the politics of identity formation and representation on the one hand, and its role through in the mediation of conflict on the other.

The recent ‘Culture, Conflict and Post-Conflict’ symposium is one event we have used to bring together arts and humanities academics and arts practitioners to interrogate these concepts. Participants considered the role of arts and cultural practices and performance in the process of post-conflict resolution and transformation, explored with special reference to conflict and post-conflict situations within the boundaries of states, primarily South Africa, Northern Ireland and Bosnia. Art and culture are often given some prominence amongst the tools that are used to reconcile communities and to help deal with personal and collective trauma. The symposium explored why that is the case, how effective it is to use these tools, and what complexities surround their usage.

Find out more about the event here: As part of the symposium we had an excellent performance by Kabosh theatre company of Laurence McKeown’s Those You Pass on the Street. You can learn more about the work of Kabosh theatre company here:

Guest Post: Jon Dovey – Valuing Creative Citizens

Media, Community and the Creative Citizen, Connected Communities

As we wrote in our mid-term report, we are witnessing an explosion of new, digitally-produced and often co-produced content as well as an expansion of access due to digital technologies and social media; these technologically-induced changes are forcing the need to re-think the inherited and one-dimensional model of what culture is and how it should function in our society. The Creative Citizens initiative – introduced below by Professor Jonathan Dovey – responds to this challenge by seeking to understand how new forms of creative citizenship can be unlocked through digital media. As Jon suggests in the last paragraph of his entry – there are some differences between the Creative Citizens project and the Cultural Value Project, perhaps most notably that our project (CVP) is not primarily or exclusively concerned with the digital forms of vernacular production of cultural value (this said, we do have some very interesting projects in this area!). We have however many shared interests – not the least, in figuring out how the sense of individual agency triggered by cultural engagement may translate into a sense of collective agency – so we very much hope that our approaches will meet, as Jon suggests they should.

The Creative Citizens research project was one of three funded in 2012 as part the of AHRC’s Connected Communities and Creative Economy call. Our central question is how creative citizenship generates value for communities within a changing media landscape and how this pursuit of value can be intensified, propagated and sustained. This inquiry is driven by our understanding that the tools of creativity and communication made available through digital unlock new potentials for creative forms of DIY citizenship. The project is a collaboration between Cardiff University, the University of the West of England, Bristol, the Open University, Birmingham City University, the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre and the University of Birmingham. The team is led by Ian Hargreaves, Professor of Digital Economy at Cardiff University.

The idea of value is in crisis. The 2008 crash has exposed finance as a dangerous game played by out-of-control algorithms; this crisis produced, in Los Indignados and the Occupy movements, worldwide attempts to articulate new critical value systems. At the same time the ‘web-native’ generation coming to maturity during the age of austerity have an historically-unique experience of practices of co-creation and shared forms of socially mediated organisation. These recent histories remind us that value is never stable – it is a permanently contested terrain. Plural belief systems condense as commensurable values through complex discursive, cultural and political processes.

We have been investigating social production in three sites, the burgeoning field of hyperlocal journalism where self-started online news operations are filling the void left by the collapse of local journalism; secondly, in the field of community-led design where local people mobilise themselves to co-design new spaces or services; thirdly, in informal creative networks where aspirational digital start-ups in design, music, media and tech have a range of invisible impacts on their communities.  Our approach to value is in some way distinct from that of the Cultural Value Project – our emphasis rests on the ‘supply side’ rather then the experience of culture for its users. Indeed one of our presuppositions is that user/producer distinctions are collapsed in the digital media milieux that interest us. Our general approach to value is also led by the idea that value is relational. Even ‘intrinsic’ value is produced through a network of relations (otherwise it would merely be subjective judgement).  This recognises that creative-citizen networks are mobilising and activating different valuing practices. Agents in the value-creating constellation will be driven by different values.

We can identify a clear range of different kinds of value in these processes – value that contributes to what we might call Citizen Benefit:

  • Most clearly at a personal level, respondents speak of how their activities with the process we have investigated have changed them, offered them new routes, new assets and contributed to their personal sense of empowerment.
  • These subjective benefits lead into other more obvious benefits in terms of education, training and skills. Commitment to the processes we looked at was either motivated by a desire to increase employability or resulted in unexpected enhancements of prospects. The unemployed journalists who started the Port Talbot magnet are typical: “There was an opportunity. There was a desire to do something to create jobs; that was the starting point. We wanted to create jobs for ourselves. We didn’t want to just sit there and go, well, the old traditional paymasters are not providing us with jobs anymore, boo-hoo, let’s all go and be press officers. We decided we wanted to do something proactive about that and try and maintain ourselves in journalism in a more entrepreneurial way, and to try out new ideas. “

Such an attachment to self-realisation might normally be associated with a strongly entrepreneurial drive, a restless seeking out of new opportunities for development and growth. However we frequently find that this motivation and drive is here understood as a driver of both, personal or commercial development and, at the same time, a community-level asset development. These personal values are also drivers of social value:

  • The creative practices of social media and other digital communication technologies produce a value flow between individual subject, enterprise and community network. South Blessed, in Bristol’s St Paul’s for instance, hosts over a 1000 music videos from the region on its website which constitute a creative community that combats division across different suburbs of the city.
  • The activities we looked at were clearly appreciated by users in terms of local representation and participation. The maintenance of a local public sphere is a motivating value for producers and users alike in the hyperlocal news networks; local news services and police liaison groups appreciated the contributions to community coherence that our respondents made.
  • Community design groups, hyperlocal news and informal creative networks in cities were all identified as creating value in different ways for urban regeneration processes.

We are getting to the end of our 20-month project. We started to draw together some of our findings at the Creative Citizens conference, which took place on 18 and 19 September at the RCA ( – where we hosted a joint workshop with the Cultural Value Project, with contributions from Eleanora Belfiore of Warwick University and Patrycja Kaszynska (AHRC). The session confirmed some significant distinctions between approaches. Primarily these have to do with our different sites of investigation, the Creative Citizens research has been focused on everyday creativity afforded by digital media. Our approach to value has therefore not looked at the impacts and transformations of encounters with particular cultural forms but rather at how value accrues within the local public sphere of people’s vernacular creativity. Our analysis of value looks at ‘supply side’ rather than consumption. In the future we might be able to co-operate further in understanding how the distinctions between creative producers and audiences are of declining utility and how understanding these changes might help us to get a better picture of how cultural value is circulated, produced and experienced.

For more information about the Creative Citizens project go to

Guest Post: Norma Daykin – Creating Cultural Citizenship

Creating Cultural Citizenship. Understanding the impact of participatory arts on community health and wellbeing, Connected Communities

Improvements to health and wellbeing is one of the components of the Cultural Value Project; indeed, one where we are supporting a significant number of projects (some of them have already been introduced on this blog and more are still to come). Our objective is first and foremost to understand the processes at work in arts and health practices – this, we believe, is a prerequisite to successful evaluation. As revealed by on-going work in this area, meeting this challenge may require that we think beyond the classical RCT approaches used in drug testing, break down the silos existing in health provision, as well as marry different perspectives from the humanities, social and biomedical sciences. Today’s entry from Norma Daykin (who received a Development Award under the Connected Communities’ Communities, Cultures, Health and Well-Being strand) introduces yet another nuanced voice into the debate. Norma suggests how – in order to appreciate the health benefits of participation in activities such as visual arts and music – we should move beyond the ‘medical model […] focused on individual health outcomes’.

This development project explored the concept of Cultural Citizenship through cross-disciplinary investigation of the role of participatory arts in promoting community health and wellbeing. I had the pleasure of leading this ambitious collaboration between six UK universities as well as project partners drawn from national and regional arts and health advocacy organisations.

‘Cultural Citizenship’ is potentially a strong concept that can illuminate the role of arts and culture in connecting communities and promoting (or limiting) health and wellbeing. At present there is considerable interest in identifying health and wellbeing benefits of participation in activities such as visual arts, music and creative writing. However, much research is framed by the medical model and focuses on individual health outcomes. This project embraced the macro level of policy and socioeconomic context and the meso level of networks and advocacy organisations as well as the micro level of practitioners’ and participants’ experience of arts and health projects, programmes and practices. By introducing questions of citizenship, it broadened the focus of research to include social impacts of arts participation.

The Cultural Citizenship concept has great potential but it is currently very broad: its potential cannot be realised until the concept itself is further elaborated. Our project proposed to do this through the lens of the humanities-based perspective of virtue ethics (VE), which builds on moral philosophy to promote understanding of how society could function for the wellbeing of all. Importantly, this approach identifies the key virtues that are important to particular practice communities, in our case the practice-based communities that are connected through their commitment to participatory arts. By working closely with these communities, we sought to illuminate practitioners’ narratives through a VE lens and to identify the key virtues that are seen as promoting positive forms of citizenship as well as health and wellbeing within the arts and health field. The ultimate ambition was to develop a strong Cultural Citizenship concept that would enable the arts and health sector to influence current policy and practice.

Significantly, while arts participation has many established benefits, we also acknowledged the potentially limiting effects of the arts in culture and commercial media, including celebrity culture and elite arts. By focusing on citizenship, the project brought these wider discourses into the frame of arts and health research in order to strengthen our understanding of arts transcendence in the context of community wellbeing.

Our development project has identified three research questions:
1. What challenges, virtues, narratives and forms of practice excellence do arts and health participants and practitioners identify in relationship to community connectivity, health and wellbeing?
2. How might these narratives be developed through the concept of Cultural Citizenship?
3. How might Creative Citizenship inform understanding of the role of arts in generating (or diminishing) connectivity, health and wellbeing?

What is needed to take this further is an ambitious, mixed-methods study involving coproduction with research participants and stakeholders. This has the potential to provide and elaborate a powerful concept of Cultural Citizenship to guide theory and practice development.

Principal Investigator: Professor Norma Daykin, UWE Bristol
Project Team: Professor Vanessa Burholt, Swansea University, Dr Mervyn Conroy, Birmingham University, Professor Lynn Froggett, UCLAN, Matthew Jones, UWE, Bristol, Dr Rebecca Lawthom, Manchester Metropolitan University, Professor John Mohan, Southampton University, Ann Crabtree, independent arts consultant.
Project Partners: London Arts in Health Forum; Arts and Health South West.

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

Guest post: Helen Graham – How should decisions about heritage be made?

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How should decisions about heritage be made?, Connected Communities Programme

Helen Graham’s project raises a number of interesting issues in relation to cultural value. Like Andrew Miles’ post last week, Helen’s entry draws attention to the problem of legitimising knowledge which renders decisions concerning cultural value a prerogative of  ‘elite (and often unelected) decision makers’. This legitimising discourse can persist unchallenged because of the elusive promise that one day its conception of cultural value will be vindicated by finding the Holy Grail of the missing evidence or methodology, which will ‘prove’ its claims about cultural value now and for all.  By challenging this discourse and its preconceptions, How should decisions about heritage be made? speaks to the Cultural Value Project in a number of ways. Firstly, it echoes our conviction that the notion of cultural value must reflect what people actually consider to be of cultural merit in addition to, or sometimes independently of, the canonised main stream. Secondly, it aligns with our belief that there’s no silver bullet – no single methodological innovation, nor single piece of data that will validate one supreme manifestation of cultural value. Indeed, recognising this, in the Cultural Value Project we have adopted a framework-approach spanning a number of irreducible components of cultural value calling for different methodologies and forms of evidence. We are therefore glad to welcome Helen’s challenge to consider ‘the question of the value of culture or heritage not as bound up with a deficit of evidence but much more with a deficit of democracy’.

Perhaps the greatest dangers of the Cultural Value debate is the sense of ‘cultural value’ being primarily an epistemic problem. While the AHRC Cultural Value project has created space to explore and challenge this persistent sense of an evidence lack, there remains a seductive desire that if only we could find the right piece of data or the right methodology then the value of cultural could be proved once and for all to policy makers and funding for culture and arts forever secured. In its most dangerous iteration this ties together a particular form of knowledge production ‘about the value of culture’ to a particular set of elite (and often unelected) decision makers. You could say the ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ project approaches the question from the other direction – seeing the question of the value of culture or heritage not as bound up with a deficit of evidence but much more with a deficit of democracy.

‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ is funded under the AHRC Connected Communities programme. The project is part of a pilot programme ‘Co-Design Development Grants’ which offered funding in two phases. The first being a four month period of collaborative working and ‘co-design’ leading to a research project plan, followed by a second phase of funding which supported us to carry out our research. Our co-design work was premised on ideas of plurality of perspective, with our team being made up of people who work in, or engaged with, heritage in quite different ways. Our understanding of heritage has been to emphasis that it is part of life, our everyday and as ‘ordinary’ in Raymond William’s sense. Our conceptual interest has been to see heritage as part of wider and complex systems of constant and ongoing interaction between people and things. Our methods have been of experimentation and action, from active reflections on practice, to undertaking collaborative collecting of electronic music with fans and music at the Science Museum to engaging our research questions at a city-wide level in York. If you’re interested in how we designed our project and what we’ve done have a look at our booklet produced for the July 2014 Connected Communities Festival and our project blog.

But rather than offer lots more detail on what we’ve done I want instead to share our work around two concepts that speak directly to the politics of cultural value. From our first co-design workshop – hosted at Bede’s World in Jarrow – we recognized the political problem generated by ‘heritage’ lay in its rather un-ordinary claims; that ‘heritage’ is ‘for everyone and forever’, for all of humanity and for posterity. A key strand of our work has been to suggest that this task is too big and, because it is impossible to involve everyone now and everyone in the future democratically, decision making has become about knowledge and expertise exercised ‘on behalf of’ us all. This has served to put a lot of power for determining what is significant and important in a small number of hands.

One idea with which we’ve been experimenting at the Science Museum and in York is that specific collections, ideas or buildings generate around them their own democratic constituencies. Two things are enabled by this which reconnects knowing, politics and life. Rather than hold people at arms length in the name of the greater good (if everyone can’t touch an object, then no-one should’), we’ve been trying to think about 1) anyone not everyone; to create meaningful communities who can manage, look after, know about and decide about specific collections, buildings and places and 2) the future comes from now; a more meaningful future for collections and places can emerge from present day use and passion.

We don’t need to ‘know better about’ what the public value is so better decision can be made by professionals; instead communities and constituents can live and act through collections, buildings and places – and from this let a more democratic decision making emerge.

A strand of the project has focused on Stonebow House a brutalist building in York. We’ve been using stalls, history menus, facebook discussion and events to see how a constituency might be developed around the building.

Image 3 Stonebow credit York Mix copy

Stonebow House. Credit York Mix

Paul Furness leads York: A Walk on the Wild Side, March 2014

Paul Furness leads York: A Walk on the Wild Side, March 2014

Jorvik Café is based in Stonebow House. We developed some history menus

Jorvik Café is based in Stonebow House. We developed some history menus






To find our more about the ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ project see:

Our recent booklet:

The ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ project blog:

The York strand of the project has generated it’s own blog: York: Living with History:

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Guest post: Andrew Miles – Understanding Everyday Participation:Towards a more democratic approach to Cultural Value?


Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values, Connected Communities Programme

This week we have the first of our guest posts: Andrew Miles, University of Manchester, introduces one of the large research projects funded under the Connected Communities Programme. Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values, which is the project in question, addresses a host of issues of great interest to the Cultural Value Project; most notably, it speaks to our desire to be sensitive to the fact that cultural value is socially negotiated and institutionally framed. Promising as it does to shed light on how understanding everyday participation gives us an insight into how value attachments are formed, the empirically-informed research of the UEP project will no doubt be extremely helpful to our thinking on the Cultural Value Project.    


 What does it mean to participate in culture? Why are some activities seen as culturally valuable and others not? How does cultural participation inform issues of personal, social and community identity? In what ways are understandings of spaces, places and so-called ‘creative economies’ rendered through participation?

These are the core questions being addressed by the ‘Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values’ (UEP) project. UEP is a five-year research project that began in 2012 and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of its Connected Communities programme, with further investment provided by Creative Scotland. A collaboration between the Universities of Manchester, Leicester, Exeter and Warwick, it brings together an 11-strong team of experts from History, Sociology, Museum Studies, English, Drama and Cultural Policy Studies, supported by a group of 16 national and local partner organisations spanning the cultural and third sectors.

UEP starts from the proposition that the relationship between participation and value needs radically rethinking. Orthodox models of cultural engagement are based on a narrow definition of participation, one that focuses on the ‘high’ arts and traditional cultural institutions but which, in the process, neglects the significance of more informal hobbies, pastimes and other, ostensibly mundane, day-to-day activities. Our work sets out to explore the value of such everyday cultural practices through a five-part programme of interdisciplinary, mixed-methods research.

Reflecting a particular concern with the ‘situated’ nature of participation, the empirical core of the project focuses on a set of six case study areas, or ‘cultural ecosystems’. These are Manchester-Salford, Aberdeen, Gateshead, Dartmoor, Peterborough and Stornoway; locations chosen for their contrasting profiles in official statistics for levels of participation and investment in formal cultural activities. On one side, these local studies are being contextualised by new historical research on participation and value and by the reanalysis of existing survey data offering new perspectives on time use and the spatial dimensions of participation. On the other side, we are examining the policy applications of the case study findings in partner-led projects on local participation issues and by reviewing how the processes of partnership working across the project might inform dialogue across different communities of practice (research, policy, production) in the cultural sector.

Our work on the ground in the case study locations is predominantly inductive. We are not pre-determining what constitutes cultural participation but looking to identify key domains and emergent themes in each setting. To enable this approach, we are deploying a suite of, mostly, qualitative methods, which can offer different but complementary perspectives on how people and groups come into participation and what is at stake in this process. These methods include two waves of in-depth interviews with a representative sample of local residents, ethnography, social network analysis, community focus groups, local histories and cultural assets mapping. Currently, we are nearing completion of the Manchester-Salford case study, which has focused on the ethnically mixed and economically deprived wards of Cheetham Hill and Broughton, while work in a urban village community on the edge of Aberdeen and on a central corridor of Gateshead adjacent to the city’s formal cultural amenities is well advanced.

The data being produced in these locations are phenomenally rich and these are still early days in terms of moving towards worked up findings. In Cheetham and Broughton the ethnographic work has identified the particular importance of parks and open spaces as cultural resources, partly because they provide neutral, liminal ground for participation in areas defined by cohesive but in many respects mutually exclusive communities. In the Aberdeen case study the ways in which participation is mediated by changing working patterns and the importance of club life and volunteering in sustaining a sense local identity in the midst of economic, physical and cultural transformation have come to the fore. Initial readings of the in-depth interviews – the first wave of which focuses on people’s life histories and participation narratives, together with issues of identity and belonging – emphasise the sheer diversity of people’s participation practices, along with the cultural resonances of their social activities. Bearing out previous work carried out by UEP team members, they are also indicating the remoteness of the formal cultural sphere to the lives of the great majority, for whom ‘the arts’, at least in an institutional sense, hold little if any interest.

This last theme will be of particular interest to the Cultural Value project because it calls into question the privileging of traditional cultural forms and venues of the kind funded by government bodies.  In an earlier post on this site, Geoff Crossick suggested that by placing too much emphasis on participation in the everyday sphere we run the risk of neglecting the consequences of unequal access to the arts in divided societies. Given the association between the possession of established cultural capital and life chances in societies such as our own in the UK (Bennett et al 2009, Scherger and Savage 2010), this is a legitimate concern. Equally, however, this is a position that is unlikely to disturb the status quo, since it fails to challenge the role that existing hierarchies of cultural value play in shaping and reproducing the wider system of inequality in the first place (Bourdieu 1984).

A narrow focus on the importance of the conventional canon in cultural policy obscures the contested and divisive nature of the cultural field and the way in which ideas of cultural value are socially constructed. Policies that prioritise access to the arts in the name of social inclusion are at the same time part of a process of discrimination, marking out social boundaries according to establishment norms and understandings of what is to count as ‘legitimate’ culture (Miles 2013). By taking an empirically grounded, methodologically diverse approach to revealing those practices (and practitioners) marginalised in this process, the UEP project is attempting to develop a more democratic understanding of cultural participation and its values.

For more information about the Understanding Everyday Participation project, go to


Bennett, T., Savage, M., Silva, E., Warde, A., Gayo-Cal, M. and Wright, D. (2009), Culture, Class, Distinction, London: Routledge

Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Miles, A. (2013), ‘Culture, participation and identity in contemporary Manchester’, in Savage, M., Wolff, J. and Savage, M. (eds), Culture in Manchester: Institutions and Urban Change since 1800, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Scherger, S. and Savage, M. (2010), ‘Cultural transmission, educational attainment and social mobility’, The Sociological Review, 53:3


Cultural Value Project: Looking back at the past developments and looking forward to the future

Last week’s entry brought to an end our showcase of the awardholders funded under the Open Funding Call. This seems like a good opportunity to pause and reflect on the past developments in the Cultural Value Project, and to take a quick peek into the future.

Many of you would know (for instance from this entry posted on this forum last October) that, following the first call, we issued a Targeted Funding Call. As we explained at the time, the objective of the second call was to cement our framework and hence, we wanted to attract research in a number of clearly defined areas. (You can find the details of the projects funded here). The Critical Reviews and Research Development Awards funded under this second call are now nearing completion and we will be introducing these projects on this blog latter this year.

There were also a number of workshops supported under the second funding round where we invited academics to run small-group discussions to explore some key issues of relevance to the Cultural Value Project: from cultural value in the domestic setting, to the importance of the arts in the criminal justice system, to voluntary and participatory arts. The work has now been completed on the seven Expert Workshops – please do take your time to read the reports from these workshops available here.

As I mentioned, our plan is to start showcasing the Critical Reviews and Research Development Awards funded under the Targeted Call later this year. In the meantime, we would like to introduce you to other AHRC-funded projects which tackle the thorny topic of cultural value. It is clear that we are not operating in a vacuum. Take for instance, the cross-council Connected Communities programme or the AHRC themes such as Science in Culture or Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past – a number of synergies, parallels and some interesting orthogonal considerations are readily apparent from the scope of these initiatives. In the weeks to come, we would like to introduce a number of contributors working on these projects and themes who can tell us more about their research and the way in which it approaches the question of cultural value from diverse, yet complementary, perspectives. Watch this space.

This conversation with other projects speaking to the central concerns of the Cultural Value Project will be invaluable for us as we are moving slowly but steadily towards the consolidation of our findings in the Final Report. The Report, initially expected to come out in the spring of 2015, will now be published in the later part of 2015, following the maternity leave of the Project Researcher. The Project will continue during that period, albeit in a lower key, and this will not affect this blog and entries will be appearing fortnightly throughout the entire period.

You can always find out more about the individual projects supported by the Cultural Value Project by visiting their external websites, blogs and tweeter feeds or reading the summaries available here.

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!