All entries for Thursday 09 August 2012

August 09, 2012

What’s brewing? The #culturalvalue Initiative

The most perceptive and observant readers of this blog will have noticed references to some recent happenings here at the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, such as mention of a cultural value workshop in the thoughtful post by my colleague Jonathan Vickery, and in Maria Barrett’s compelling report of the recent ICCPR conference in Barcelona. Indeed, something has been brewing, and I am now really excited to reveal all, or at least some of the activities that I have been working on developing over the past year or two (yes, really that long!).

There is widespread agreement within the cultural policy community (and I’m not talking just the academy) that ‘cultural value’ is shaping out to be the defining debate for the foreseeable future, not just in our relatively small field, but more broadly: the recent announcement by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (the main public funding agency for arts & humanities research in the UK) that they have set aside £2 million for a cultural value project headed by prominent social historian Geoff Crossick testifies to a broader relevance of the topic, and a shared sense of urgency as to the timeliness of a serious and rigorous engagement with it.

For me, personally, the identification of cultural value as a key area worth of in-depth exploration has resulted from my long-standing engagement with researching the idea that the arts have transformative powers, and the related notion of the social impacts of the arts as a driver of cultural policy-making. I might at this point subject you to my full publication list on the topic, but I’ll spare you that, and instead I’ll summarise in a few sentences the conclusion that the past 11 years of research have led me to: in spite of public declarations of commitment to evidence-based policy making, what has been driving cultural policy in Britain (and elsewhere, of course, but I’m sticking here to what I have focused on myself) is a belief in the ameliorative and positive effects of the arts. Such belief has a very long history in Western civilisation (ever heard of Plato & Aristotle?). Due its resilience and continued elaboration over time, such belief in the transformative powers of the arts has become embedded, normalised and institutionalised: it lies at the heart of the workings of our cultural organisations and our educational system. In other words, we have a cultural policy because we have some notion of cultural value as something worth nurturing. Whilst I am not dismissing the growing importance of empirical evidence in aiding decision-making, it is clear that looking at the evidence alone does not explain what has occurred in cultural policy in the past 20-odd years.

Every cultural policy decision is predicated on the existence of cultural value: every decision is in effect a process of valuation predicated on the exercise of cultural authority. This is where things get tricky of course (and terribly interesting): who has the authority to bestow cultural value on some cultural forms and not others? And what vested interests, mechanisms of social distinction and what recognition/silencing processes are at work in these value-bestowing practices? It is clear that, whatever the discipline of cultural studies would have you believe, outside of the academy, cultural authority has not really been democratised, and the power to allocate cultural value is still far from being inclusively distributed across society. In a policy context, a clear sense of this can be gained by having a quick look at arts spending data: in the UK most of the available funding still goes to a handful of big cultural organisations, (too) many of them located in metropolitan London.

Those of you who know me will not be terribly surprised to find out that it is precisely this slightly unsavoury, politically problematic aspect of the cultural value debate that I intend to explore; that and its connection to the politics of measurement and evaluation, another keen interest of mine.

Over the past few months I have been campaigning internationally to make ‘cultural value’ a central theme for cultural policy research, and have been overwhelmed by the response. So much so that, together with colleagues at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships at the University of Melbourne, my serial co-conspirator Dr Anna Upchurch of Leeds University, and the research departments at the English and Australian arts councils, I have been working on developing an international cultural value network of individuals and organisations who are committed to developing a rigorous, collaborative research agenda on cultural value. We are currently looking to find ways to resource the network with a view of facilitating this and opening up the debate beyond the core project partner and our current affiliates worldwide.

I am still recruiting for more cultural value champions for what I am calling The #culturalvalue Initiative, so I might soon appear at a research seminar near you! Whilst I work frantically on filling in funding applications to make all (or at least some) of the interesting projects ideas in my mind happen, you can share your cultural value related thoughts with me on twitter: the Initiative has its own account: @CulturalValue1 or you can tweet me directly: @elebelfiore.

In addition, thanks to generous funding by Warwick’s Arts Impact Officer (who ever said ‘impact’ was all bad?!), I have been able to have the June workshop on cultural value professionally filmed (another post on the workshop to come soon, I promise) and to enlist the help of a web designer to create a nice and functional blog for the #culturalvalue Initiative. This means that, hopefully soon, there will be some really interesting resources on cultural value freely available online, providing a great stimulus for what I hope will be a conversation you will want to be a part of.

More, much more is brewing… so watch this space, and get in touch if you want to be part of the Initiative!

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