Matthew Flinders – Participatory Arts and Active Citizenship

Reconnecting Communities:  The Politics of Art and the Art of Politics

What does arts and culture deliver in terms of social benefits? How can these benefits be demonstrated? What role do arts and culture play in re-engaging ‘disaffected democrats’? And can this offer further proof of the social value of arts and culture? An innovative new participatory arts project in South Yorkshire is examining the ‘politics of art’ and the ‘art of politics’ from a number of new angles.

‘The general value of arts and culture to society has long been assumed’ a recent report from the Arts Council acknowledges ‘while the specifics have just as long been debated’. It is this focus on the specifics that forms the rub because in times of relative prosperity there was little pressure from either public or private funders to demonstrate the broader social impact or relevance of the arts. In times of austerity, however, the situation is very different. For example, a focus on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) within education policy risks eviscerating the funding for the arts and humanities (and the social sciences) unless these more creative and less tangible intellectual pursuits can demonstrate their clear social value. The vocabulary of ‘social return’, ‘intellectual productive capacity’, ‘economic generation’ – or what some might prefer to label ‘the tyranny of impact’ – may well grate against the traditional values and assumptions of the arts and culture community but it is a shadow that cannot be ignored.

The publication of The Impact of the Social Sciences (Sage, 2014) provides more than a sophisticated analysis of the value of the social sciences across a range of economic, cultural and civic dimensions. It provides a political treatise and a strategic piece of evidence-based leverage that may play an important role in future debates over the distribution of diminishing public funds. I have no doubt that the impact of the arts and humanities is equally significant. But the problem is that the systematic creation of an evidence base remains embryonic. The belief that the arts and humanities are educationally critical, essentially humanizing and therefore socially essential elements of any modern society is meaningless without demonstrable evidence to support these beliefs, presented in a language policy makers will accept. The methodological and epistemological challenges of delivering that research base are clearly significant. It cannot only be measured in simple economic terms, social benefits rarely can be, but as the Arts Council emphasizes ‘it is something that arts and culture organisations will have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources’. The integrity of the arts needn’t be undermined by robust and in depth exploration of its social benefits.

As a political scientist I have always been fascinated with the relationship between art and politics. Though heretical to suggest to the arts community, I have often thought that the role of the professional politician and the professional artist (indeed, with the amateur politician and the amateur artist) were more similar than was often acknowledged. Both seek to express values and visions, to inspire hope and confidence or dread and disgust and both seek – if we are honest – to present a message. It is only the medium through which that message is presented that differs (and relationships of co-option, patronage and dependency are common between these professions). Similarly, the problems faced by the cultural sector and formal political institutions are by no means dissimilar. Both seek to expand and diversify their ‘audiences’. Both have the potential to offer a medium of expression for all, but, fundamentally, only manage to give voice to those who are already well heard. The analogy may go further still in the potential solutions. “Art should not be sequestered in special zones, where special people – the artists – deploy their special skills and experience,” argues Leadbeater (2010), “art should be grounded in the common experience of everyday life.” Could the word ‘art’ in this statement, not be easily changed for politics? Having (crudely) established a connection or relationship between art and politics (or artists and politicians) could it be that one of the true values of the arts lies not in how it responds to the needs of the economy or its importance in our education system but in how it responds to the rise of ‘disaffected democrats’ and the constellation of concerns that come together in the ‘why we hate politics’ narrative?

We demand participation. As artists and as politicians we yearn for meaningful routes to engagement that are relevant to us all, rather than token gestures from those with real decision making power. Vromen (2003) offers us this definition of participation: ‘acts…that are intrinsically concerned with shaping the society that we want to live in.’ Inadvertently, Vromen offers another parallel between politics and art: but this time specifically between political participation and participatory arts. Participatory arts originates in a concern for community development and a wish to promote ‘better living’ for all, or a concern for ‘shaping the society we want to live in.’ Participatory arts can therefore be an instance of political participation. But is there potential for it to be taken further? In a time of increasing social anomie and political disengagement, especially amongst the young and the poor, can participatory arts projects provide a way of reconnecting communities and provide a means for broader political reengagement?

François Matarasso’s Use or Ornament (1997) provides one of the most systematic explorations of the social benefits of participatory arts and concluded that ‘one of the most important outcomes of [the public’s] involvement in the arts was finding their own voice, or perhaps, the courage to use it’. More recently the New Economics Foundation’s report Diversity and Integration (2013) suggested that young people who participated in arts programmes were more likely to see themselves as ‘holding the potential to do anything I want to do’ and being ‘able to influence a group of people to get things done’. The Department for Culture Media and Sport has also offered the CASE report (2010) which proposes that engagement with arts and culture can improve literacy, numeracy and ‘transferable skills’ amongst young people. Other studies tentatively offer similarly positive conclusions but few with real analytical depth in terms of identifying between political reconnection, civic reconnection or personal reconnection (in terms of personal understanding, confidence and aspiration). To return to the Arts Council’s recent report – The Wider Benefits of Art and Culture to Society – the existing research base is light on ‘the specifics’.

It is for exactly this reason that the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics has joined forces with ‘Art in the Park’ as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Cultural Value Project. Young people from all across South Yorkshire will be brought together to participate in an eight week arts project that uses creative writing, storytelling and visual art to explore social and political issues. We hope to also involve current or past politicians as equal participants (depending on the views of the young people and artists), who like the young people, will take a role as decision maker and listener in the context of the workshops. Surveys, focus groups and interviews (methodology borrowed from both political science and the cultural sector) will capture how participating in the project affects political attitudes and understandings –positive, negative, political, civic or personal – with the aim of beginning to fill the gaps in the existing evidence base regarding whether the participatory arts may offer an as yet unrealized potential for breathing life back into politics and reconnecting communities. Now that really would be a wider benefit for society.

Matthew Flinders is Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He was recently a winner in the ‘This is Democracy’ International Photography Competition – – but his wife now claims she took the picture.

 Malaika Cunningham is the Research Officer on the project discussed in this blog and is Artistic Director of Sheffield-based theatre company The Bare Project


Eleonora Belfiore: The politics of cultural value: Towards an emancipatory framework

As a cultural policy scholar, the question of cultural value has always fascinated me, as it goes to the very core of how public policies for the arts and culture work. The reason for the centrality of the cultural value question to cultural, and more specifically arts policies (which is the area on which my own work focuses) has been explained very succinctly, but also compellingly, by Richard Hoggart in The Way We Live Now. Here Hoggart says that the problem is, quite simply, that “there will never be enough money”. As a result, “Choices will always have to be made, judgments-between”. These choices and ‘judgments-between’ are clearly both driven by, and the reflection of, a society’ predominant cultural values.

Whilst judgments of value are the bread and butter of cultural policies, the label ‘cultural value’ has captured the imagination of researchers, arts sector professionals and even creative producers in a way that is revealing. Part of the fascination with cultural value lies, I would argue, in the hope that it might get cultural policy debates ‘unstuck’ from the focus on the ‘instrumental value’ of the arts and, especially post-austerity, their ‘economic value’ as central to justifications for public ‘investment’ on the arts and culture. As a consequence, the cultural value debate in the arts seems to have focused predominantly on a celebration of the value and importance of the arts. This has resulted in a advocacy driven effort to evaluate, measure, capture and demonstrate such value in the hope that it might convince policy makers, and even the Treasury, that the arts are worth spending public resources on even in times of austerity measures and wide ranging cuts in public expenditure.

Driving my project is the intention to problematize this approach to cultural value and to question this prevailing understanding by bringing into focus the degree to which cultural value is in fact something that is continually defined and redefined, contested and fought over: it has a clear relational nature and it involves power struggles and vested interests. As Janet Wolff (1981) puts it,  “Understanding art as socially produced necessarily involves illuminating some of the ways in which various forms, genres, styles, etc. come to have value ascribed to them by certain groups in particular contexts”.

The allocation of cultural value therefore is an inherently political process and one in which power relations play an important role. There are winners and losers in struggles over value, as shown by the recent debates over the significant unbalances in per capita cultural spending between citizens living in London and those in the rest of England, which have been estimated as being £69 and £4.60 respectively. Similarly, the conclusion reached by both academic research and the analysis of Taking Part data that a degree and a professional occupation are the most accurate predictors of engagement with publicly funding cultural experiences, also poses serious questions of social justice and fairness in relation to how the arts funding system operates in England and how it might be see to effectively compound social inequalities. This is, of course, highly problematic, considering that widening access and participation are central to the rhetoric of arts funding, and opens up questions of fairness that the cultural value debate must engage with.

The central aim of the project then, is to explore how concerns with fairness and social justice might be brought into public discussions on the value of the arts and culture and cultural policy research. To this end, the project is exploring whether the concept of cultural value might be harnessed as part of an emancipatory intellectual, cultural and political project aimed at achieving greater social justice, and what role of cultural policies might play in facilitating this.

I am working with the concept of ‘misrecognition’ as developed, among others, by Nancy Fraser and considering whether publicly funded initiatives and projects that aim at redressing it might be a way for cultural policy to embrace and promote social justice. To this end, I’ve partnered with Cultural Solutions UK to look at a participatory project that they developed and run in 2012, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Working closely with the educational charity Lincolnshire Travellers Initiative, the Cultural Solutions team worked with children and young people from the Lincolnshire Gypsy and Traveller community and their families to work on a ‘cultural heritage conservation project’. The project was interestingly called ‘Our Big Real Gypsy Lives’, which makes explicit the intention of the project to redress the misrecognition caused by Channel 4’s highly successful but controversial programme ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’.

Photo by Katie Smith

I was interested to discover how the project came about, what challenges the project team and the community artists working with the Gypsy and Traveller families encountered. I’m trying to establish what can be learned from their experience about the potential of a participatory arts projects to work as a vehicle for recognition and for the more equitable redistribution of ‘cultural value’ for the benefit of a community whose negative public image, disenfranchisement and ‘social abjection’ (Tyler 2013) has been significantly affected by another cultural product – and one that has generated substantial economic value as well as popularity with the TV public.

The fieldwork for the research has involved semi-structured interviews with the team involved in making the project happen and a number of key participants, including Gordon Boswell, whose Romany Gypsy Museum – a veritable labour of love and dedication – features prominently both in the original community art project and the research.

The picture emerging so far reveals that cultural work of a socially engaged nature can bring fruits, but requires a remarkable commitment on the part of the delivery team, flexibility and good communication, and that theories of recognition and ‘right to memory’ (Reading 2011) can go some way towards refreshing cultural policy studies and bringing a concern for social justice to the fore.

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!

Stephanie Pitts – Dropping in and dropping out: understanding cultural value from the perspectives of lapsed or partial arts participants.

I have been interested in musical participation for some time (see Pitts, 2005), and have carried out a number of case studies that have investigated the experiences and motivations of amateur performers and composers, and of regular audience members at jazz and classical events. While the richness of participants’ musical experiences is always fascinating, and the social and personal satisfaction that they gained from their involvement demonstrates ‘cultural value’ in everyday life, the question that has increasingly troubled me is “If musical participation is so great, why aren’t more people doing it?”

Previous researchers have identified a sector of ‘culturally aware non-attenders’ (Winzenried, 2004; Dobson & Pitts, 2012) – people who are receptive to arts involvement, but are currently minimally engaged. These people seemed like the ideal starting point for an investigation of cultural value ‘from the edges’: being well-disposed towards the arts, they might be willing to contribute to the research, but being minimally involved, their perspectives on arts engagement might be different from regular participants, so shedding light on what makes one person join a choir or go to the theatre while another in similar circumstances uses their time and energy differently. The next challenge, then, was where to find such people…

With my research assistant, Katy Robinson, I have embarked on three interlinked studies of lapsed and partial arts involvement. The first of these (confusingly labelled Study 2 in my initial planning) is a questionnaire survey of arts audiences in Sheffield, in which we ask respondents about their knowledge and experience of a range of arts, genres and venues, and also to describe and evaluate their most recent arts attendance. Thanks to interest from cultural venues in Sheffield, we hope to extend this study to include an ‘audience exchange’ element, where regular concert goers, for instance, will be taken to some contemporary theatre and then join a focus group to discuss their experience of being in an unfamiliar audience. We have been distributing flyers for our survey at cultural events around the city, through mailing lists and social media, and are so far receiving a steady flow of interesting responses, to be followed up in the new year with Study 3: life history interviews with a range of survey respondents to explore their varied routes into adult arts engagement.

Finally (rather than first) we have Study 1, or ‘the violin in the attic’: here we are interested specifically in music, and in those amateur musicians who have ceased to play or had a long gap in their membership of choirs and ensembles. We’ve begun this study with a pilot that follows up on Katy’s MA research, and that of her classmate at Sheffield, Kunshan Goh: both of them completed dissertations looking at musical participation in adulthood, and so we are returning to some of the ensembles that they worked with to seek out members or ex-members who have stories to tell about dropping in and out of ensembles. We are also beginning to approach other ensembles, to ask their members to complete short questionnaires about their current involvement, and to help us recruit lapsed musicians amongst their former members or from their own past experience.

Our data collection is in its early stages but progressing well, and we hope that our findings will help broaden the debate about what ‘cultural value’ means from a range of peripheral perspectives, from lapsed arts participants to occasional arts attenders, and so to bring new insight to what is already known about the use of the arts in everyday life.

You can keep up with our progress on the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre website