Cultural Playing Field

Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences by Robin Simpson
July 24, 2014, 10:50 am
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , ,

On Monday I was at Sadler’s Wells in London for the Arts Council England event on “Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences”. This event marked the launch of a literature review commissioned by ACE from WolfBrown. Alan Brown and John Carnwath of WolfBrown explained that they had been asked to gather literature from around the world on the intrinsic value of arts and cultural experiences. They looked at what people mean when they talk about value, impact and meaning in relation to the arts and culture. They identified three meanings of ‘value’: the value of cultural experiences to individuals; the value represented in cultural organisations; and the value to society of a thriving cultural sector. The literature review concentrates on the first two meanings. John Carnwath spoke about the intrinsic and instrumental benefits as they are experienced by the individual. He described peaks of impact decreasing (or sometimes increasing) over time – with some cultural experiences resulting in impressions that linger in audiences’ minds weeks later. Alan Brown outlined the ‘creative capacity’ of organisations as six core elements: 1. Clarity of intent and commitment to risk taking; 2. Community relevance; 3. Excellence in curating and a capacity to innovate (new works are not necessarily innovative); 4. Technical proficiency, skill and artistry; 5. Capacity to engage audiences; and 6. Critical feedback and commitment to continuous improvement. These elements are backed up by two conditional elements: supportive networks and sufficient risk capital.

Alan Brown, Principal, WolfBrown, speaking at 'Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences

Alan Brown, Principal, WolfBrown, speaking at ‘Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences

I was interested to hear Alan Brown say “Many agree that quality is best judged by outside experts. We know from our own research that programmes of what some would consider low artistic quality – for example amateur productions of stage plays – can generate high audience impacts. And, contrariwise, programmes of high artistic quality can leave audiences uninspired or worse.”

Jane Bryant from ArtsWork asked about the relationship between audiences and participation. John Carnwath said there is “a lack of agreement among different studies in terms of the constructs that they are using and the methods they are using to assess impact, [which] makes it very difficult to compare the studies with one another. There are some studies that are more focussed on active participation and others that are more focussed on reception but there is very little that we can say about comparing those at this point.”

Alan Brown added: “when an individual contributes something to the creative work itself, making something or in co-creating or being involved in some way, there is literature to suggest that another level of meaning can be accessed in terms of creating something of your own that is an expression of yourself and the identity development outcomes that are associated with that, up to and including legacy outcomes and creating something that is a legacy, which are unique to participatory involvement. But teasing out the additional impacts of participatory involvement is really tricky and very much a need for additional research.”

You can read the full literature review at:

Nick Merriman, Director, Manchester Museum, speaking at 'Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences

Nick Merriman, Director, Manchester Museum, speaking at ‘Understanding the value and impact of cultural experiences

After the WolfBrown presentation we heard from Nick Merriman, Director of Manchester Museum, and Catherine Bunting about the Manchester Quality Metrics pilot. Inspired by an Australian example and developed for Manchester by John Knell, the pilot has been working with a number of arts and cultural organisations to trial before and after surveys – for audience members, arts organisations and peers – using tablet computers. The next phase of development has been funded through the Digital R&D for the arts fund (supported by ACE, NESTA and AHRC) and will comprise a 12-month project to refine the metrics, wider testing, automating the system, exploring how to incentivise public feedback, and carrying out academic research. ACE has published a report on the quality metrics pilot which is available at:

Finally we heard from James Mackenzie-Blackman (from New Adventures and Re:Bourne), Caroline Sharp (from the National Foundation for Educational Research) and Ben Lee (from Shared Intelligence) about quality principles for work by, with and for children and young people. Caroline said they had identified seven principles characterising high quality work. I was intrigued to hear her make a distinction between young audience members, participants and artists. What is the difference between a ‘participant’ and an ‘artist’?

The ACE event was interesting and thought-provoking but I found the lack of attention to active participation, in relation to the value and impact of cultural experiences, frustrating.

Robin Simpson.


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