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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!

May 02, 2012

'Cultura y Patrimonio: Un Nuevo Ministerio para Chile'

I have recently been to Chile to present a paper at an international seminar hosted by Libertad y Desarrollo to discuss some of the issues that have been raised by the development of a new Ministry of Culture within the country. Apart from the chance to meet a number of interesting people - not least the new Minister of Culture, Luciano Cruz-Coke (who I suspect is the first actor in soap operas to achieve Ministerial rank anywhere in the world), Magdalena Krebs, the Director of Libraries, Archives and Museums in Chile, and Barbara Negron, the Director General of the Observatorio Politicas Culturales in Santiago - there was also the opportunity of learning more about the development of cultural policy and its management in a continent that I knew relatively little about.

What was most intriguing was that many of the issues concerning these subjects were still at a relatively early stage of discussion within Chile, and that many of the ideas and references that are often taken for granted in Western Europe, Australia and northern America are not part of this discussion. Some of this is clearly a result of the different intellectual and academic traditions that exist in Chile (I must admit that I have never heard quite so strange a pronunciation of 'Bourdieu' as I did during the seminar) which have led the debate in directions that are not the usual in current Western arguments. On the other hand this also meant that there are lines of argument being developed that are new in Western terms, even if they are concerned with issues that have been argued in mind-numbing detail in the West. The issues concerned in this ranged from: cultural policy, is it about cultural preservation or development?; cultural democracy or the democratisation of culture? (I was hoping that I would not have to revisit the sterility of this argument but it is clearly an important matter within the Chilean context); which cultural policy model should be pursued? The last of these was discussed largely in terms of a division between an 'anglo-saxon model' of arm's-length organisation and a 'French' model of centralised ministerial control. Given the organisational complexities of state involvement with cultural policy in Chile - multiple central government divisions with seemingly every Ministry having its own cultural policy unit, relatively weak local government units and limited resources for cultural affairs, and a developing world of national quangos with responsibility for cultural affairs - the development of an effective means of policy co-ordination and co-operation is almost an essential prerequisite for the creation of any sort of national policy at all.

At this level Western nations have proved to be not particularly good models - the continuing arguments about the over-centralisation of cultural affairs in both the United Kingdom (a common part of the debate in England, Scotland and Wales) and France testifies to the difficulties that there are in both the 'anglo-saxon' and 'French' models of developing a coherent policy when policy responsibilities are divided both horizontally between central organisations and vertically between levels of government. Some of this difficulty is a direct consequence of the divisions of power that exist within all governments giving rise to various forms of inter- and intra-organisational politics (and this is just as true of the private as it is of the public sector). Some of it is also a consequence of the questions of legitimacy that are associated with attempts to intervene in the cultural field: what should governments be doing in this area? how should they be doing it (directly, through quangos, through the private sector?) Until this combination of organisational and legitimation issues are resolved it is unlikely that any government would be capable of producing an effective policy or set of policies that can be implemented without causing large-scale conflicts about what it is that they are doing and how they are intending to do it.

In this line of argument cultural policy is not simply a set of technical decisions that can be determined through bureaucratic or professional means alone. Instead cultural policy is an inherently political thing that is subject to multiple sets of decision processes ranging from deciding on the underlying ideological principles upon which decisions rest, to the organisational allocation of responsibilities between competing claims for policy leadership, to the more practical decisions about the division of limited budgets between competing policy sectors and the co-ordination of policy activity between multiple providers. These demand different sets of policy responses from those who hold power, some of which might be best served by some top-down imposition and some of which may be more suitably undertaken through bottom-up forms of public involvement. The expression of political preferences through the choices that are made about these issues are an inevitable consequence of organising cultural affairs: to see this as an apolitical sphere this not really an option. The Chilean case is already grappling with these matters and, if the case of those countries that have got a somewhat longer experiences with them is anything to go by, it is unlikely that there will be a simple resolution to them. The complexities of the essentially contested nature of the concept of 'culture' is sufficient in itself to create continuing political conflicts even without the host of ideological, party political, organisational and factional divisions that exist in this field. At least in Chile there is the chance for the serious arguments about what governments could and should be doing in the cultural field to be heard, and for the Chilean people to be able to contribute to this debate. For many (if not most) countries in the West it would probably be useful to have these same foundational arguments if only because they have largely been unheard in the past or because they have been colonised by the supporters of what Sigrid Royseng has termed a 'ritual' cultural policy rationality royseng_sigrid.doc.

The Chilean case raises a large number of cultural policy issues for which there are no simple solutions. The essential response to these in Western countries has produced no more than a series of local preferences on the behalf of governments. In future postings I intend to return to some of the points that I have raised here to question the effectiveness of these for the creation and implementation of cultural policies that actually mean something more than grand words.

Luciano Cruz-Coke, the Chilean Minister for Culture with Clive Gray Clive Gray (left) with Luciano Cruz-Coke the Chilean Minister for Culture

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