Valuing the everyday for cultural democracy - how research can support better arts and culture policy

By Dr Abigail Gilmore

How do national policies support cultural democracy and equity through arts funding and strategic programmes? What does ‘achieving great arts and culture for everyone’ mean if only a small percentage of people engage with the most subsidised of the arts? What kinds of participation happen in the ‘everyday’? How do people value the activities that make up their cultural lives? And what happens when you undertake a large-scale academic research project which aims to radically re-evaluate cultural value for more culturally democratic governance?

Funders ... base their strategies for audience development on measures of engagement mapped onto place ... this approach is problematical since communities themselves become defined as ‘in deficit’ by their lack of formal arts engagement.

With the exception of the last two, these are questions debated in the UK cultural policy sphere throughout the last 150 years, in one shape or another. Over the last six years I’ve been looking for their answers, as part of a large multi-disciplinary team on the Arts and Humanities Research Council Connecting Communities project, Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values (UEP). This mixed-methods research encompassed six case study ‘ecosystems’ in England and Scotland, undertaking household interviews, assets mapping, ethnographic fieldwork, stakeholder consultation, practice-based community engagement, historical research and statistical analysis of national datasets on participation.

The project was initiated through a concern that policies for the arts commonly begin with the mission to draw people into participation, to develop and educate audiences and to democratise opportunities to engage and spectate, but that in doing so everyday cultural practices are rendered less meaningful and valuable. This happens, we argue, because the technocracies through which participation is measured establish narrow definitions which are predicated on the interests of arts institutions (and their funders) and the methods they use to ascribe value (Miles and Gibson, 2016). 

Funders such as Arts Council England (ACE) base their strategies for audience development on measures of engagement mapped onto place (Romer 2018) to target funding at particular places found lacking. Whilst research instruments are becoming more accurate in identifying different levels of participation, this approach is problematical since communities themselves become defined as ‘in deficit’ by their lack of formal arts engagement. Mapping engagement in this way presents a missed opportunity for enhanced understanding of everyday participation, to find out what it is that people value, and what connects them to their communities within those places.

The recent acknowledgement of funding inequalities outside of the metropolitan areas and the call for new forms of place-based policy-making from city-regional devolution ... challenge how national arts policies provide parity of opportunity and outcome across the UK.

The project’s policy implications are situated at macro and micro levels. Statistical analysis confirms findings from research elsewhere: that it is a very small section of the population, an elite minority, who routinely take part in what is understand formally to be ‘the arts’. In addition, UEP research reveals that the majority of people are highly engaged in busy lives taking part in culture and leisure activities that are important to them, and only 11% are truly ‘disengaged’ from culture outside of watching television (Taylor, 2016). 

There are many policy implications at the micro level, for example: how do arts organisations help facilitate participation for young people in care (Gibson & Edwards, 2015), how are local narratives of peri-urban communities places mobilised to provide more equitable access to participation opportunities (Ebrey & Miles, 2015), how do people ‘fit’ their visits to libraries and to the gym into everyday routines (Delrieu and Gibson, 2018) and what are the experiences of older people which make a difference to their quality of life in retirement (Edwards, 2018)? My own work looks at parks as public spaces for commoning and distinction, which engender strong sense of ownership and cultural engagement (Gilmore, 2017).

So how do these findings connect with policy debates in the UK, and what can policy makers elsewhere learn? I argue that there are three main axes of connection:

Firstly, the measurement of cultural value. UEP seeks to unsettle the ways in which culture is counted and accounted for, illuminating tensions between different methods to understand their social lives (Bunting, Gilmore and Miles, forthcoming, 2019) to enhance our understanding of accountability frameworks within cultural policy. These debates continue, not least as the continuing quest for quality metrics raise concerns over ‘cultural scientism’ (Goldbard, 2015; Gilliers, 2018).

Secondly, highlighting distinctions between ‘democratisation of culture’ and ‘cultural democracy’ approaches, a binary underpinning recent vociferous debate over models for policy practice proposed by Arts Council England (Belfiore & Hadley, 2018) as well as longer-standing debates between the interests of elite institutions and community-led arts interventions.

Thirdly, understanding participation as situated practice, within the context and politics of place. The recent acknowledgement of funding inequalities outside of the metropolitan areas and the call for new forms of place-based policy-making from city-regional devolution and a new national Industrial Strategy, combined with a huge decrease in local authority arts funding, challenge how national arts policies provide parity of opportunity and outcome across the UK.

UEP findings call for place-sensitive and participatory governance models, working to assets-based rather than deficit models. They come as ACE and other major funders and policy makers are re-evaluating their strategic frameworks, at a time where internationally there are struggles over democratic deficit and populism. We hope they help inform more democratic arts and cultural policies for the everyday lives of everyone.

 

References 

Belfiore, E. and Hadley, S. (2018) Are we misunderstanding cultural democracy?, available from https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/magazine/article/are-we-misunderstanding-cultural-democracy

Bunting, C. Gilmore, A. and Miles, A. (forthcoming 2019) ‘Calling participation to account: Taking Part in the politics of method’ in Gibson, L. and Belfiore, E (eds) Culture and Power: Histories of participation, values and governance, Palgrave Macmillan

Delrieu, V. and Gibson, L. (2018) The effect of place and space on patterns of participation in libraries and leisure centres, available from: http://www.everydayparticipation.org/guides-briefings-and-reports/the-effect-of-place-and-space-on-patterns-of-participation-in-libraries-and-leisure-centres/

Ebrey, J. and Miles, A (2015) Interim briefing on the Aberdeen case study, report for Understanding Everyday Participation, available from: http://www.everydayparticipation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/UEP-Aberdeen-interim-briefing-report.pdf

Edwards, D. (2018) Inclusive Cultural Strategies for an Ageing Population, report for Understanding Everyday Participation, available from: http://www.everydayparticipation.org/inclusive-cultural-strategies-for-an-ageing-population/

Gibson, L and Edwards, D (2015) Valuing facilitated participation: The cultural and everyday activities of young people in care, report for Understanding Everyday Participation, available from: http://www.everydayparticipation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Valuing-Facilitated-Participation.pdf

Gilliers, C. (2018) The consistency illusion, Arts Professional, available from: https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/magazine/article/consistency-illusion?utm_source=Weekly-Good-Reads&utm_medium=email&utm_content=nid-209491&utm_campaign=27th-September-2018

Gilmore, A (2017) The Value of Parks and their Communities, available from: http://www.everydayparticipation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/The-Value-of-Public-Parks-and-their-Communities-UEP-Research-Briefing.pdf

Miles, A. and Gibson, L (2016) Everyday participation and cultural value, Cultural Trends, 25:3, 151-157, DOI: 10.1080/09548963.2016.1204043

Romer, C (2018) Data map reveals levels of arts engagement across England, Arts Professional 15th June 2018 available from https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/data-map-reveals-levels-arts-engagement-across-england

Taylor, M. (2016) Nonparticipation or different styles of participation? Alternative interpretations from Taking Part, Cultural Trends, 25:3, 169-181, DOI: 10.1080/09548963.2016.1204051


Dr. Abigail Gilmore is Senior Lecturer in Arts Management and Cultural Policy, and Head of the Institute for Cultural Practices, The University of Manchester (see http://www.alc.manchester.ac.uk/icp/). Her research concerns local cultural policy, management, evaluation and participation. She is Co-Investigator on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre. Recent projects include AHRC Connected Communities project, 'Understanding Everyday Participation - Articulating Cultural Values', AHRC Research Network 'Beyond the Campus: Higher Education and the Creative Economy' and the NESTA/Arts Council England/AHRC Digital R&D Fund for the Arts project, 'Culture Metrics’.