[Riflessioni] At the University of Leeds, the Centre for Cultural Value is founded. Culture, beyond its economic value
A conversation between Franco Bianchini and Dr Ben Walmsley (University of Leeds, UK), Director of the Centre for Cultural Value and author of important studies about audience engagement in the arts and cultural democracy
The Centre - which is co-directed by yourself with Anne Torreggiani, who runs the UK-based Audience Agency (https://www.theaudienceagency.org/) - originates from the initiative of three UK-based funders: the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC, https://ahrc.ukri.org/), the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF, https://www.phf.org.uk/) and Arts Council England (https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/). The three funders have invested in total about half a million pounds a year for five years, from 2019 until 2024. What has encouraged these three organisations to fund the Centre?
The Centre for Cultural Value’s remit covers the entire United Kingdom. The Centre is built on the foundation of the Cultural Value research project by AHRC (led by Professor Geoffrey Crossick), which consisted of about 70 sub-projects (https://ahrc.ukri.org/research/fundedthemesandprogrammes/culturalvalueproject/ ). The Centre therefore originates from the intentions of AHRC and of the other two funders to keep alive the legacy of the Cultural Value Project. The Centre for Cultural Value aims to study the experiences of cultural audiences, to give voice to cultural participants and to adopt approaches to the evaluation of cultural activities which use creative and qualitative, rather than economic or econometric, methodologies. The presence of Arts Council England among the funders of the Centre is essential to produce change in the cultural sector and was a pre-condition for obtaining financial support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. The three funders reflect central aspects of the Centre’s mission. For AHRC the priority is to increase the practical relevance and applicability of academic research, and to make it accessible to a wider audience; this strategic objective inspires our tasks of synthesising and disseminating existing research. Arts Council England instead is more focused on policy making and on the creation of a shared evidence base to prove the value of culture, while for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation the main objective is raising the standard and rigour of evaluation processes.
Could you please illustrate the Centre’s principal activities, and the reasons why you have decided to focus on certain areas of work?
It has been difficult to choose where to focus, because the concept of ‘cultural value’ is so broad and nebulous. Co-creation and collaboration are founding values of the Centre. This is why we started a process of consultation of our stakeholders in each of the four nations of the UK, through scoping events (before the COVID restrictions) and an online survey of the cultural sector. A huge desire for digests of the most important academic research emerged from this consultation. We will study also the relationships between the arts and health, because there has been some important financial investment in that field in recent years. That investment, however, coexists with significant gaps (from the point of view of quality and rigour) in available evidence about the impacts of cultural activities on health and well-being. The start of the pandemic in February-March 2020 led the Centre to prepare a successful request for funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to study the impacts of COVID-19 on the cultural industries across the UK and also on people’s creativity during this year of restrictions to freedom of movement – a year in which cultural practices have had a key role, providing comfort and psychological support. Such themes as everyday creativity, cultural participation, lifelong learning and new forms of digital engagement with the arts have become central to the Centre’s activities. The Centre is developing Yarn, a new online platform which aims to gather individual stories about cultural value by people during and after the lockdowns. The final theme emerging from the COVID crisis is place shaping, or culture, place and identity. This is about the roles cultural activities play in shaping people’s identities and in animating towns and cities.
Does this last theme include the ways in which cultural organisations have to redesign, rethink and re-format venues as a result of the pandemic?
Absolutely; our research will look at issues including audiences’ perceptions of safety and the rise in outdoor cultural activities.
Could you please say something also about the Centre’s plans for training activities for the cultural sector?
Yes, we are developing a resource centre called “Culture Hive” (in collaboration with the Arts Marketing Association). It is an online repository for ‘essential reads’, digests, podcasts, short films, case studies and other materials. In terms of training, we will be developing a programme of CPD (Continuing Professional Development) courses and we have funding for a free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in 2023 or 2024. This MOOC will look at putting into practice the set of cultural evaluation principles developed by an experts’ working group (jointly led by Beatriz Garcia, from the University of Liverpool, and Oliver Mantell, from The Audience Agency). The MOOC will also focus on how to support cultural management and policy decisions based on research and evidence. The delivery of the course will be supported by a peer learning network. We will try and facilitate the setting up of regional groupings, because what we heard in our consultation process was that people wanted a blended approach; they didn’t just want digital learning, they wanted to be able to come together and share stories, insights, problems and challenges.
There is also your Collaborate fund, which I think is another innovative aspect of the work of the Centre. What is the aim of Collaborate? How is it going to work? Have you already got projects developed through it?
One of our overarching goals is to develop reflective learning in the cultural sector. The aim of the Collaborate fund is to support action research projects based on rigorous evaluation, building new partnerships between universities and cultural organisations. £200,000 from the Centre’s budget over the next four years will support between 15 and 25 projects. There will be calls aimed at cultural organisations for projects, which will be based on the specific research needs of the organisations themselves. The Centre for Cultural Value will match each successful applicant with an academic who will refine the research questions and design. We will manage the 6-12 month research process through a dedicated Partnerships consultant.
Can you give an example of a Collaborate project?
We are doing a pilot, working with Manchester Camerata, an orchestra in the North West of England, who have done a lot of work around health and well-being. They have put out a call for an academic researcher to partner with them, and we have allocated a budget of £10,000 over the next 12 months to study how audience experiences can be impacted by different modes of presenting the orchestra’s work. The research question, which has come from the Camerata, will be refined through collaboration with the selected academic (www.culturalvalue.org.uk/collaborate-fund/).
There was the launch of the Centre in November 2020, with 11 free webinars, around the broad topic of ‘What value culture?’ (www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwLokcljOSt4NAz4YxhEhyj6KfqgIRU6w). Can you say something about what you have learned from participating in these seminars, some key learning that could shape the future work of the Centre, and which may be particularly interesting for other countries?
Firstly, there is a real interest in how policy makers need to adjust so that they can respect socially engaged practice and community-based cultural practices and begin to address the issue of the disconnect between the research and evaluation that is conducted in such organisations and the methods preferred by the Government. A second key learning point was that the most popular events were those that focused on evaluation and digital engagement. We have really been struck and surprised by the huge thirst for knowledge – and also by the excitement – around evaluation. I think we are starting to see a shared vision from funders and policy makers and cultural practitioners and academics, about what evaluation should be. I think the problem is how to get there, and there is a lot of miscommunication and sometimes even wilful misunderstanding between groups. The cultural sector hears that funders want quantitative data and they won’t accept failure, whereas you talk to funders and they say they absolutely want to know about failure and ‘failing forwards’ and interesting evaluation methods. At the launch webinars we heard that the future will absolutely be about empowering young people, also by putting them on boards of cultural organisations. For example, Contact in Manchester recently appointed 28-year old Junior Akinola as the first ever chair under the age of 30 of a major UK performing arts venue (www.marketingmanchester.com/contact-theatre-uks-first-ever-young-chair-appointed-to-board-at-major-performing-arts-venue/). A shifting power dynamic is an overarching theme. In addition, I think there is a shift among policy makers away from economic impact and towards social impact, especially in Scotland and Wales.
One of the topics of the launch webinars was how do we evaluate the cultural value of online activities, as opposed to face-to-face. How has the shift to an overwhelmingly digital offer brought about by the pandemic changed the original plan of the Centre?
It just made the issue rise up the agenda. We have been really surprised by some leading national cultural organisations which still don’t have a digital engagement strategy, other than asking people to buy merchandise online. It has always been important to me as an audience researcher, but what has risen up the Centre’s agenda is how digital and online engagement can be used for collaborative meaning-making, and not just for the marketing and distribution of arts and cultural content. We are interested in how cultural organisations can use digital technologies to enhance and elongate cultural experiences – and actually generate more cultural value. We have received funding to collaborate with Tate (www.tate.org.uk) on a collaborative doctoral award looking at exactly that issue: what do Covid and digital engagement mean for the 21st century art museum?
I think that cultural practitioners and researchers in Italy are potentially interested in the Centre for Cultural Value, firstly because such a centre does not exist in the country, and secondly because traditionally the UK has been one of the leading countries in exporting knowledge about cultural policy worldwide. For example, the idea of the ‘creative city’ is largely a British export, as is the creative industries policy developed by the UK government about two decades ago. The Impacts ’08 model, developed by the Institute of Cultural Capital in Liverpool, is still one of the most influential approaches to the evaluation of cultural mega events like the European Capital of Culture (www.liverpool.ac.uk/impacts08/). What the plans for an international strategy of influence of the Centre, and what themes will that strategy focus on?
I think the UK’s influence on evaluation debates has been largely positive; I am sceptical about the creative city and the creative industries agendas, that have been dominating and pushed by the English Government. We should clarify that we are noticing huge divergence of policy approaches across the UK. A good example is the Wales. We now have culture at the heart of Welsh Government and public policy (see the Future Generations Report 2020: https://futuregenerations2020.wales/english) which is absolutely revolutionary, really. I think England has a lot to learn from its UK neighbours. The one thing I would like to export from the UK is the model of the Centre for Cultural Value. I don’t think there is blueprint for how to do evaluation. A lot of these issues are absolutely contextual, and the last thing we should be doing is replicating a consultancy model of going around the world telling people how to do it, in a very colonial way. But the conversations we are having, for example with colleagues in Ireland, Australia, Canada, Indiana, the Netherlands and Denmark are about how we partner, and create a global network of Centres for Cultural Value. The great thing about our EU partners is the very different relationship that governments and citizens have with culture: it’s much more embedded and less elitist, it’s part and parcel of who people think they are. In the UK, culture has become much more instrumentalised, and utilised by various Governments (like the Conservative administrations led by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and the New Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1997-2010), for social and economic ends. I think there is a really nice counterbalance to be found among our European neighbours around the cultural and social value of cultural activities.
Are you aware of the existence of similar research centres in other countries?
The only research institution I know that resembles the Centre for Cultural Value a bit is the Center for Cultural Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, USA (https://culturalaffairs.indiana.edu/).
There is a strong British approach to ‘arts and health’ policy within cultural policy. Is there something emerging in the initial research by the Centre in this field which could be of interest to other countries? Are there key questions which could be productively researched through a comparative project?
Our early work on culture and health has highlighted how little academic research there is, for example, on social prescribing, which will be hugely important globally and will rise exponentially, so we need evidence of how that works or doesn’t work. There is very little research about artists and cultural practitioners working in health care settings, so we don’t know anything about the CPD and mentoring needs and experiences of these practitioners. There is more evidence about the impact of the arts on people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, cancer and dementia, for example. International research partnerships in this field are certainly important. One thing we are working on, through a project funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which incorporates a case study of Bradford (one of the cities bidding for the UK City of Culture 2025 title), is to try and put together health data with cultural sector data. One thing the UK is world-leading on is cultural engagement data: The Audience Agency’s work has been quite extraordinary, and we now have, pretty much, a UK-wide picture of what people are doing. For example, the data concerning local and hyper-local cultural engagement are very robust.
Many in Italy’s cultural sector are worried that continued collaboration with UK colleagues will be more difficult after Brexit. How do you see the current situation?
The challenges posed by Brexit are very real. I would hope that the UK government’s decision to leave Creative Europe, for example, will be temporary. I think successive governments will not be in favour of the UK not being part of schemes like Creative Europe. Relationships in the cultural sector between the UK and EU countries are deeply embedded and won’t disappear overnight. What the Centre for Cultural Value can do is to mobilise: we are tiny but we are powerful in that we can broker the right kind of relationships, and people listen to what we say. One of the things Centres like ours can do is build bridges. If we don’t build them from the UK we’ll be a very sad little island in the Atlantic!
Franco Bianchini is Associate Director of the Centre for Cultural Value (University of Leeds, UK) and a member of the Council of Founders of the Fitzcarraldo Foundation, Turin.
Ben Walmsley is Professor of Cultural Engagement at University of Leeds and Director at the Centre for Cultural Value (University of Leeds, UK).
This article takes as its starting point the launch of the Centre for Cultural Value in November 2020. The Centre - which is co-directed by Ben Walmsley with Anne Torreggiani, who runs the UK-based Audience Agency - originates from the initiative of three UK-based funders: the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Arts Council England. The three funders have invested in total about half a million pounds a year for five years, from 2019 until 2024. The article presents a conversation between Franco Bianchini and Dr Ben Walmsley (University of Leeds, UK), Director of the Centre for Cultural Value and author of important studies about audience engagement in the arts and cultural democracy.