Understanding the value of arts and culture

When I arrived at the Arts Council a little over two years ago, I discovered (with some alarm!) that I was going to be the Executive Board member with responsibility for Goal 1, for ensuring that ‘excellence is thriving and celebrated in arts, museums and libraries’. Who was going to determine what was ‘excellent’ – our arts and cultural leaders? The professional critics? …Me? Would it ever be possible to agree within the Arts Council – let alone amongst arts and cultural organisations – what are the key determinants of ‘quality’? 

The Iron Man by Graeae. Credit: Alison Baskerville

The Iron Man by Graeae. Credit: Alison Baskerville

As someone who had worked as an arts producer for some 30 years, I have always had my own ready reckoners on what might indicate whether the show I had created was any good – a) what the critics said, b) what my peers told me, and c) how successful it was at the box office. But these are not exactly the most rigorous of measures. What happens if the show doesn’t get reviewed? And how in touch are most critics anyway with current developments in arts and culture? What if my friends and peers are just being polite? Above all, is a member of the public’s willingness to buy a ticket the most reliable indicator of the quality of that event? What happens if it is free or not ticketed? Do perceptions of quality change if there has been no financial transaction involved? And if it really is a clunker at the box office and gets terrible reviews, does that necessarily mean that the show is no good? As someone who once ran the Lyric Hammersmith, the story of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party has always loomed large in my mind. Its first London run at the Lyric Hammersmith was a commercial and critical disaster (pace Harold Hobson) and the show closed after 8 performances in 1958. It is now arguably one of the most important and influential plays of the second half of the 20th century and is regularly performed around the world. In other words, don’t we need to find a way of taking the long view rather than rushing to judgement?

For a sector that relies so much on the reaction of the public, we know surprisingly little about what it is that they value in an artistic or cultural experience and what they really think about the quality of that experience. When someone engages in an activity, what makes that person say ‘that was great’? Did they simply find what was presented relaxed them, raised their spirits, got them excited? Or something more; were they transported to another world, a better world? Did they have a moment of clarity?  Were they inspired to do something new?

Trying to capture and understand all these responses and to get a better reading of the way that an individual member of the public values a particular artistic or cultural experience is an enormous challenge. However unless we try to rise to that challenge, I believe we will never create a truly convincing account of the public value of arts and culture. After all, whilst all of us working in this sector recognise that arts and cultural activity has a positive economic impact on our towns and cities for example, if we’re honest, the reason most of us choose to work in the arts is because of those tiny intangible moments when we know that a piece of art has changed the way we see the world. If we can find a way of capturing and articulating those moments, these intrinsic impacts, then surely we will be able to get closer to defining artistic and cultural ‘quality’ and make a better fist of setting out the real value of public investment in arts and culture.

The document we are publishing  today gets us a step closer to meeting that challenge. Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences reflects on what researchers and thinkers from the last 20 years tell us about the benefits to individuals derived from cultural experiences. It helps us to understand how individual experiences are the key building blocks - but also recognises that there is more work to be done.

Sitting alongside this literature review conducted for us by John Carnworth and Alan Brown are two practical, sector-led projects that we have been supporting which aim to take this quality agenda forward. The Manchester Metrics project builds on the work of John Knell and Michael Chappell in Western Australia by trying to define a set of quality metrics and then test them with arts organisations, their peers and the public. The Quality Principles for work by, with and for children and young people involves the development (with artists, teachers and children and young people) of a set of 7 principles and then tests their application in improving the quality of work.

Two things excite me about both of these projects. The first is that they are led not by the Arts Council but by arts and cultural organisations.; it is them, not us, who is determining what they value in their work, what they think are the key drivers of quality in what they deliver. The second is that they have at their heart a determination to understand what the public value in the work they are involved in – and to learn from that understanding.

After all, it’s surely important that when we talk about delivering ‘great art and culture for everyone’, that it is the public, not just us arts and cultural workers, who perceive the work as great.

Links and more information

Read our news story about the report we've published today: Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences

The new review builds on the recently published The value of arts and culture to people and society, which examines the impact of art and culture on society, economy, education, health and well-being.

The publication of Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences coincides with a thought-leadership  event being held today at Sadler’s Wells. The aim of this event is to explore issues and concepts relating to quality, seen from perspectives of the WolfBrown literature review, our Quality metrics work, and Quality principles for work by, with and for children and young people. We are filming today's event and we will make the videos available on our website very soon.

Find out more about the Manchester Metrics project and watch this short film:

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