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Working together to articulate cultural value



Children drawing by the side of a lido

When the coronavirus crisis eases and government is prioritising what happens next, nothing will be more important than being able to articulate cultural value. Ben Walmsley and Anne Torreggiani explain how the new Centre for Cultural Value will support funders, policymakers and the cultural sector to make more effective use of research and evaluation.

This article was first published in Arts Professional on 1 April.

It’s notoriously difficult to articulate cultural value but in these challenging times, the imperative to do so seems more urgent than ever. Although we know that everyone values culture in some way, shape or form, there’s no consensus about how to capture and measure that value. We know that many academics, funders and policymakers are suspicious of the advocacy focus of much of the sector’s evaluation and we know, in turn, that many arts and cultural practitioners feel frustrated that the painstaking evaluation reports they do produce often end up gathering dust on a funder’s shelf or festering in their inbox. They might also feel that they lack the necessary time and skills to produce the kind of evaluation that they’d ideally like to.

No more wheel reinvention
We’d go so far as to say that there’s an evaluation crisis in the sector. This was confirmed by the scoping and listening events that we hosted across the UK in the spring. There is a hunger for training and peer learning in all aspects of evaluation and for the findings of existing evaluations to be digested and shared. Because without this, we keep on reinventing the wheel, and failing to learn from what goes wrong, as well as what goes right. Indeed emerging research from two of our Associate Directors is highlighting the extent to which ‘failure’ is often buried in cultural practice and evaluation.

The remit of the new Centre for Cultural Value is to further understanding of the impacts that arts, culture and heritage have on people, and, more broadly, on society. The Centre aims to promote an evidence-based approach to cultural policy and planning, and to enhance impact narration and evaluation.

The challenge ahead
In getting to grips with this ambitious remit, one of the first things we have to acknowledge is that meaningful primary research is challenging. It can be resource-intensive and requires specialist skills. As such, it puts an extra strain on those whose primary concern is making creative work and/or delivering social impact. So one of the most powerful things we can do is to help the sector mine the rich seam of evidence that already exists, hidden from sight within academic publications, in forgotten archives and on ageing hard-drives. We have an important role to play in signposting and synthesising the best evidence out there. We can stop hard-pressed cultural practitioners straining to prove what has already been proven – or otherwise – and instead help them build on what is already known. We can nurture a culture of evidence-sharing which currently struggles to thrive in an anti-failure environment.

Most powerful of all, we can help to address the “so what?”. In order to get a real sense of social and public value we need to work as a collective, combining our stories, evidence, findings and experience to make what we know to be a compelling case. We are planning to develop new resources and meta-analyses to enable shared learning, easy navigation and collective storytelling.

Who needs evaluation?
We can also ask the question: Who is evaluation actually for? There is a strong tendency to consider evaluation as a necessary evil demanded by funders. But what we’ve heard over the course of our scoping events is a strong desire from practitioners to develop a culture of reflective and collaborative practice. We’ve also heard that we need to cohere and collaborate more on evaluation, supporting organisations to adapt and adopt approaches from within and beyond the cultural sector.

So we are planning to convene a working group of evaluation experts who will co-create a new set of evaluation principles. We’re all too aware that there will never be (and shouldn’t be) a one-size-fits-all approach to cultural evaluation, so what we won’t be doing is developing a reductive evaluation tool or even toolkit. But we will identify and showcase good practice in research and evaluation, and work closely with key funders and policymakers to get cross-sector buy-in to an agreed set of rigorous principles. Alongside a new series of How To Guides, we hope that this will help cultural practitioners and organisations to plan, commission and/or conduct robust evaluation that has a positive and compelling impact on their funders and provides fresh insights into cultural value.

Our aspiration is to create a movement of cultural value. We are a small Centre dedicated to enhancing understanding of the value and impact of arts and culture and we can only make real inroads into this if we work collaboratively, always. So please join us in our endeavour to make a difference and make research and evaluation more meaningful.

Ben Walmsley is Director of the Centre for Cultural Value and Professor of Cultural Engagement and Director of Research and Innovation in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries at the University of Leeds. Anne Torreggiani is Co-Director of the Centre for Cultural Value and Chief Executive of The Audience Agency.

Image: Fun Palaces, Brockwell Lido. Photo: Helen Murray

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