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.

Michael Eades: Bloomsbury Festival in a Box – Engaging Socially Isolated People with Dementia

Dementia has been in the news in a big way over the past week. Tuesday the 11th of December saw the first ever G8 Dementia Summit opening in London, with a headline grabbing promise from David Cameron to double funding for dementia research by 2025. This follows similar promises of urgent action on dementia put forward last year in the Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia, which in fact promises (rather more generously) to ‘[m]ore than double […] overall funding for dementia research to over 66m by 2015’.

Dementia, its treatment, prevention, and (one day, we might hope) ‘cure’, has shot up the national agenda over the last few years. In the process, a discourse has developed around the topic which—as is so often the case with discussions of culture in the public sphere—has drawn upon largely economic measures of value. A language of costs, budgets, investments and returns has shaped the media headlines over the past week, matching the immensity of the social ‘problem’ of dementia with talk of eye-wateringly (and eye-catchingly) huge sums of money.

As part of the Cultural Value Project, our research has a stake in these discourses. From July onwards we have been working on an initiative entitled ‘Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: engaging socially isolated people with dementia’. On a basic level, this project aims to take a peripatetic version of the Bloomsbury Festival—a community focussed arts festival in the heart of London—out to local residents unable to leave their homes and engage with it directly. Specifically, we have been working closely with Age UK Camden’s Dementia Befriending Service, and with the Faculty of Brain Sciences at University College London, to develop and analyse a cultural outreach for those living with dementia.

The idea here is to offer a chance for such people to engage not just in the reception, but in the collaborative creation of cultural experience. Working with Age UK Camden, and with a pool of Bloomsbury Festival artists, we have initiated a programme of weekly visits that take a number of specially designed Festival Boxes out to people’s homes. Each weekly visit comprises a short cultural activity designed to prompt reminiscence—singing, painting, ceramics work, a poetry recital or writing workshop—followed by a short narrative interview reflecting on the experience. Visits are audio-recorded, and a quantitative single-question happiness measure is also taken at the beginning and close of each session. All artists and researchers also keep research journals reflecting on their experience.

Over the course of the project, each of these Festival Boxes has developed into a unique cultural experience. They have become a personalised ‘archive of engagement’ for each participant, and this has allowed us to respond sensitively to the participants’ needs, and to focus on what Tom Kitwood (1997) has famously described as ‘the personhood of people with dementia’. The Festival in a Box project has therefore developed opportunities for reminiscence and narrative storytelling, but also offered an opportunity for analysing the core value of cultural experience itself. By working with participants who, as a result of their memory loss, tend to experience cultural engagement ‘in the moment’, within a disordered narrative present, we have been able to gather valuable material on the affective experience of culture amongst a traditionally ‘hard to reach’ population.

The project is now moving towards its concluding stages, in which the transcribed data gathered from our visits will be analysed via a series of close textual readings across our research team. As well as offering valuable research data, this project will also provide an opportunity for reflecting upon the ‘value’ of socially isolated people within a ‘cultural’ context. It will provide a means through which—we hope—to reintegrate the stories of those living with dementia into the broader narrative of the Bloomsbury Festival, of Camden, and of London itself.

Reflections on the course of the research so far can be found on the dedicated project blog:

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.