All entries for June 2014

June 26, 2014

The IPPEA Conference: A treat in Utrecht

Just home from an enjoyable couple of days in Utrecht at a conference, International Perspectives on Participation and Engagement in the Arts, organized by the networkbrought together by Leila Jancovich and her team at Leeds Metropolitan University. The two day conference explored the issues of meaning, measurement, method and values which continue to animate debates about thwp_20140622_016.jpge arts and culture and their relationship with their broader publics. An impressive range of papers and presentations, began with reflections from the playwright America Vera-Zawala on her work in community-based theatre, one example of which concerned the impact of the closure of a mill on the Swedish town of Norrsundet. A play was written and produced with the local community at the precise time of this trauma and, amongst the many fascinating aspects of this process, what stuck with me was the relationship between the artist and the community and the vexed question of who had the responsibility for creative decision making. Participants expressed considerable anxiety about taking control over the direction of the project in deference to the accredited expertise of the theatre professionals. They in turn, for reasons relating to their commitment to the integrity of the process they had initiated, were equally reluctant to impose the right way to proceed. It was an impasse resolved by nothing more complicated than time and dialogue, through which participants took eventual ownership of the narratives of their own experiences.

This story had a perhaps surprising echo in a plenary from Andrea Bandelli about processes of participation in the management of science museums. Science, Andrea reminded us, is not a democracy, although this does not mean that scientific processes, and priorities should not reflect democratically established priorities, or that scientists are not required to communicate with the publics who fund them. There was a degree of fear, expressed by the boards of science museums in Andrea’s study, in managing this balance, especially as science is so regularly deliberately or accidentally, misrepresented in public discourse, as either saviour or villain. There was a telling piece of evidence, though that perhaps this fear was partially misplaced. When asked, attenders of science museums wanted there to be public representation of some form on museum boards. At the same time, when asked if these lay board members should have an executive role in decision making, attenders seemed happy to defer to the experts. Both these stories might be interpreted as evidence of an impulse to be involved with decision-making that gives a lie to one of the more abiding narratives in this field, that of the ‘deficit model’. So much of the official discourse relating to participation starts from a working assumption that people lack some capacity which prevents it. Too often that serves to cement the position of the institution or individual accredited with the means to fill the deficit, who are all too ready to pay lip service to the notion of participation but are also reluctant to embrace the accompanying challenge to their own authority that it brings. It was gratifying to hear some critical voices on this topic in many of the presentations.

CCPS was well represented by both me and Maria Barrett, who presented some initial findings from her research project into the theatre audience of Liverpool. I was presenting some further 'work-in-some-kind-of-progress’ thoughts about participatory arts work as work, which I first blogged about here. It was really useful to think and talk this through in this forum, which included artists who had lived through the processes I was examining. It was especially exciting to meet up with the Artworks team which has been engaged in an extensive sector analysis and important empirical inquiry into this topic. Hopefully these conversations can be productive and ongoing.

In keeping with the mission of the network, the event brought together academic researchers with policy makers and arts practitioners. This sounds blindingly obvious but is difficult to do, and especially difficult to do well and there are inevitably some grumbles in the process. These might be, depending on which camp you’re in, about ‘rigour’ of research, about the use of theoretical ‘jargon’or abstraction, about the fetishisation of anecdote or personal experience or the search for ‘practical’ applicability or the critical examination of assumptions. Such debates can be uncomfortable – exemplified by the intense looking at the floor of some academic colleagues when it came to actually participating in composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven’s Saturday lunchtime interactive music performance. More seriously, such discomfort might stem from public forums like this also being places where professional identities in all these areas are performed, and where stakes in the territory are marked out and defended. That might be inevitable - but the organizers are to be commended for creating a comfortably uncomfortable space for people in these different fields to talk to, rather than past, one another. It was certainly a thought-provoking couple of days in developing my own research. Utrecht was a lovely place to visit and my thanks go to our hosts and organizers for their hospitality.


June 25, 2014

What is Luxury in a Globally Mediated World?

Researching the concept of luxury in action

Our industry tutors Sara Lattey and Sandy Bradley are currently working with MA Global Media and Communications students on a specific luxury travel-related Applied Communication Project brief this Summer Term 2014 and this has given us all a great opportunity to study the concept of luxury as background research: what it is; the people who seek luxury and aspire to embrace luxury in their lives; and those for whom luxury is the norm. Below they reflect upon what they have discovered so far and their visit with some MA Global Media and Communications students to the Four Seasons Hotel in Hampshire.

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The study has involved comparisons of luxury brands, immersive research into how some of those brands position themselves and how they reach out to, and cater for the people who buy into them.

One of the several definitions of luxury is A pleasure obtained only rarely’, whereas others include ‘An inessential, desirable item which is expensive or difficult to obtain’ or ‘A state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense’.

For us, this raised a number a questions.

If luxury is defined as a rare treat, then how do the uber-wealthy who live their lives in a state of permanent luxury define the word? What lengths do they go to in order to create a state of ‘beyond luxury’ where it is still a ‘pleasure obtained rarely’ but still way, way beyond the reach of most of us?

And how do luxury brands go the extra mile for those who seek them out?

Luxury brands are regarded as images in the minds of consumers that comprise associations about a high level of price, quality, aesthetics, rarity, extraordinariness and a high degree of non-functional associations. (Klaus Heine 2012)



A global luxury brand that particularly interested us was the Toronto-based hotel management group Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and a field trip was arranged to conduct observational research at Four Seasons Hampshire UK.

Four Seasons’ current brand mantra is Extraordinary Experiences, a promise that they keep in all their establishments, worldwide – offering authentic, local experiences for the wealthy traveller wherever they may be…..seeing how the locals live, but with the safety net and brand reassurance of Four Seasons. The sky is the limit (literally), with their latest offering being a round-the-world tour in a private jet stopping at Four Seasons hotels wherever they land – at a cost of £75,000 pp.

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Four Seasons’ Hampshire did not disappoint and provided fascinating insight into their approach and how they interpret the Extraordinary Experiences brand ethic in the heart of the Hampshire countryside. In an idyllic location surrounded by small villages and thatched cottages, they have the perfect opportunity to offer the ‘typical English country house experience’ – with as many associated bells and whistles as their guests are prepared to pay for: an impressive state-of-the-art equestrian centre, huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ within the massive estate housing the original, now-extended Georgian residence, a canal boat on their own stretch of canal, their own ducks and chickens, sheep and goats, with a finger-on-the-button concierge service that can arrange just about anything a guest requires; from men’s final Wimbledon tickets to ‘hitherto full-house’ London West End theatre tickets. An extensive spa and fitness centre offers a mouth-watering array of treatments – including facials at £500. They even have their own perfectly-trained pet Labrador called Oliver….who roams freely in designated areas of the hotel…. to the delight of guests.

With suites costing between £1,000 and £3,000 per night (not including breakfast), their guests rarely have to worry about the cost of anything they need…..this is luxury.

Members of staff are rigorously trained in absolute discretion, but interestingly – not deference. Famous names are never revealed….but everyone is treated politely and in a friendly manner but with top quality service. They have a simple philosophy for interaction with guests: 'Treating guests as peers - neither subservient nor aloof'. It seems to work. Guests come here to relax – and retreat from the stresses that come from managing their wealth. They return time and time again….trust is paramount.

For our research visit (humble students from the University of Warwick!) they went to as much trouble as if we had been royalty. A guided tour, meeting key members of staff and seeing both ‘front of house’ and ‘heart of house’ ( their wonderful name for the service areas), we were served a fabulous array of cakes and pastries with coffee with a ‘hand-crafted from icing ‘ University of Warwick logo as the centrepiece….all produced by the pastry chef. ‘It’s simply what we do’ shrugged our guide as we gasped at the work involved.

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The concept of luxury is not new. It is many centuries old. Wealthy people have always craved the unique, the special, the generally unattainable….and would delight in collecting the work of popular, skilled artisans of the day as a physical expression and demonstration of their wealth and status. (Indeed, as the new world opened and global trade developed, wealthy merchants would increasingly trade objects from distant lands.) Intricate carvings, precious gems and metals and the finest fabrics were all desirable to those who could afford such luxury.

Interestingly, it was the artisans themselves who created such exquisite work who subsequently rose to become a ‘nouveau riche’ in their own right as their popularity spread. Thus began a symbiotic relationship between the creators of original work and the purchasers….each pushing the other acquire to bigger, better and more unique possessions.

Was this the beginning of the luxury brand? The principles remain the same today.

The students’ study continues and some of them attended the Leverhulme Luxury Networkas part of their research.


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