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‘Hold my Brain; be still my beating Heart’ – How to measure the culture we love.

Background paper for comments in CWE Meeting, Theme 2: From Statistics to Indiicators- Can we arrive at a European Cultural Participation Index? Andrew Ormston, Helsinki 30 June 2012

‘Ha! hold my Brain; be still my beating Heart.’ – How to measure the culture we love.

Mountfort’s famous words are three centuries old and concerned matters other than the formulation of a method to measure culture’s impact, but they sum up the challenge of using objective measurement of activities that are so meaningful to us. If we are to make a strong dispassionate case for culture today three key questions lie at the heart of our enterprise:

• what evidence is meaningful;
• what are the relative merits of quantitative and qualitative evidence; • how can we understand rapidly developing areas of practice?

Our belief in the importance of cultural pursuits is but one in a variety of reasons for establishing a framework of cultural participation indicators that can be used to describe cultural activity across Europe. While the most immediate is to inform action to safeguard and sustain participation in culture as an important human right, evidence of other impacts may prove more significant in securing future cultural investment.

‘There is very little comparative data available on the creative and cultural sector. This makes it difficult to pinpoint problems and their scale, and to develop evidence based policies’. Aviva Silver, Head of MEDIA programme, British Library, 2012.

While this quote from a recent Creative Europe briefing event is striking, so was the obvious respect for the MEDIA programme and its Head from a floor composed mostly of film producers and directors. Professional admiration at the interface of practitioner and institution is not an everyday occurrence. It seemed incredible to me that after a ‘practitioner’ career, where it seemed I was constantly providing data, benchmarking, and completing questionnaires, that there is a shortage of data. But it was the supportive response of the profession that was most striking and a reminder that we need to also consider the practitioner perspective when measuring cultural impact. The siren call of only including what is easy to measure when looking to evidence the impact of culture will distort the picture for policy maker and practitioner alike.

In the UK the target driven years of New Labour government and a rush to cultural instrumentalism (health, regeneration, education and more) created an impressive body of evidence and evaluation. The CASE culture and sport evidence programme 2008 and 2011 is the largest body of evidence yet gathered in England about cultural participation, and is based on David O’Brien’s philosophy of using tools and concepts of economics to articulate the benefits of culture, or as one civil servant put it, ‘if you treasure it, measure it’. This is also, however, a time when the UK Office of National Statistics doesn’t include culture in any of its wellbeing indicators. Evidence does not always connect to policy and decision making.

The Taking Part Survey in England has now run for 7 years as a face to face survey and is the key mechanism for gauging cultural participation and access. The 2011 survey had a sample size of over 10,000 participants and does represent a considerable commitment to monitoring and evaluation in cultural, heritage and sporting participation. There are key indicators for percentages of participants in sport, heritage, museums and galleries, libraries, arts, archives, volunteering, and philanthropy. Each category has a number of sector definitions attached to it, sixteen in the case of the arts category, from theatre to being a member of a book club. As you can imagine this does not always tell us the story we would like to hear.

We also know, that as well as not always giving us good news, even when it does, evidence in itself does not automatically make for good advocacy. For that it has to become embedded as a kind of shorthand, in much the same way that Richard Florida’s work became shorthand for the creative city arguments. Sadly the UK’s culture evidence apparatus reached maturity just as this era came to an end. Financial pressures and reduced organisational capacity in government, local government, NGOs and cultural organisations is leading to a reappraisal of what our data evaluates and why. Is evidence useful (making the investment case or identifying good practice,) or a hindrance (substituting compliance for innovation, ticking rather than creating boxes), or even not much more than ‘policy decoration’?

My consultancy work is changing as clients are less focused on evidence, and more on ensuring it is translated quickly and powerfully into action. For example my company was recently commissioned to map and review the cultural and creative industries in an English region. Once the evidence was assembled – economic impact, online surveys, consultation, mapping – we provided what Justin O’Connor calls the ‘coherent narrative’ the persuasive shorthand or story of the evidence.

In 2012 implementation is paramount and the project also had to produce a step by step translation of evidence into structures – what organisation should do what and with whom, as well as the brokerage of investment partnerships to take things forward. The resulting report was a clear call to immediate action under a title ‘Right here, Right now’. This was a case of public bodies, and both commercial and not for profit companies, saying ‘let’s get on with it’.

I think there is a growing feeling that there is changed kind of knowledge exchange at work where professionals straddle intersecting worlds as ‘boundary subjects’. The assumed model is – experts providing evidence to policy makers – to make policy that is enacted by institutions making investment decisions – for artistic producers to make work – that audiences then engage with. If this pattern ever did exist, it is probably more jumbled now.

We are also considering a sector where practitioners continuously cross boundaries and disciplines, often in stark contrast to cultural institutions that carefully demarcate their territory. I experienced this in one form as a loud argument with a senior film agency figure in front of a former culture minister about whether film or classical music was less elitist. A musician may feel part of a sector that includes education, digital, advertising and the music of Benjamin Britten. The policy maker or academic may not and we are creating a suite of indicators at a time when many demarcations are falling away, leading to new challenges in capturing data that represents what is going on in the sector.

Established categories and demarcations are under pressure throughout the cultural and creative industries. For example the term ‘classical culture’ has emerged as a discussion point when considering cultural participation indicators. My practitioner experience has been in cities with a range of classical cultures from around the world, from Ireland to India to China to Western Europe, sharing theatres and concert programmes. While the term classical culture need not present too many problems for cultural indicators, as it can be simply dispensed with, the field of popular culture certainly does. Perhaps projects like Damon Albarn’s opera ‘Dr Dee’ are more difficult to classify: opera, certainly; popular culture, definitely.

Our institutions are also changing. Arts Council England now also speaks for libraries, working across two disparate professional cultures and sets of professionals – the former a mixed economy of commercial, not for profit and patronage, the latter organised around the principal of a universal service and a self help ethos. Times have changed from a decade ago when an inexperienced analyst introduced himself to a meeting of theatre managers by saying – ‘we have audience data from every arts organisation in England, all 500 of them’. Well, there were probably 500 within a two mile radius of where we sat, but they didn’t appear on his organisation’s annual report. This scoping of culture to align with policy instruments is, thankfully, also changing.

Creative Scotland is a national body working for, and across the arts and the creative industries, comfortable with investing in ‘the app’ as well as the opera, and supporting events like Culture Hack that bring software developers, academics and artists together, even if, as was the case in a recent Glasgow event, the prize winning project was a Shakespeare ‘app’. The Creative Scotland approach closely resembles that of the Creative Europe Programme, where the MEDIA and culture programmes are brought together, and a new guarantee loan facility introduced. This consolidation and response to the needs of SMEs isn’t because of a market failure in the creative sector, but rather, because of the scale of its impact, employing more people than the car industry, and to quote Aviva Silver again, culture and creativity is ‘our way of telling stories and presenting our face to the world’. The cultural and creative industries are interdependent and their impact requires both calculating the latter’s impact on economy and jobs, and the former’s on democracy, civil society and wellbeing. Each sector represents one side of the same coin.

When it comes to culture we are grappling with how digital technologies are positioning us all as both consumers and producers of culture, sometimes simultaneously. While Florida and others have pointed to the benefits of arts and creative industries convergence in cities like Montreal, we are, to some extent, holding a tiger by its tail in the hope we can evolve interventions for the future that can be as effective as, say, the MEDIA programme has been to date. Even traditional uses of digital, such as the digital streaming of rehearsals or performances from our ballet companies, presents the challenge of trying to understand a digital experience equivalence to the ‘live’ one. If they are equivalent, then why subsidise touring theatre?

This brings us to the ‘elephant in our concert hall’, as Pascal Brunet writes – ‘cultural policy is basically investment policy’ (1). If cultural investment is going to be more directly tied to culture’s value in growing the economy and employment then so will monitoring and evaluation. My touchstone arts development project was the GALLERY 37 apprenticeship programme, recruiting talented young people from the most marginalised urban communities to work intensively with volunteer practitioners from local creative organisations over a five week period, in a specially made tented structure located in a central city squares. The results were comparable to those of higher education, with as many as 90% going on to employment or further training. Arguably this practitioner centred approach is re- emerging now in the focus on creative entrepreneurship. My current work keeps bringing me into the world of Higher Education looking to equip and launch graduates into careers, probably working in small and mid scale enterprises. It seems to me that we have gone through a kind of full circle where once again we are having to trust the artist and ‘creative’ to make things happen and to transform us in the process. The danger is that a convenient discourse about individual entrepreneurship replaces an appreciation of, and investment in, the central value of culture and the institutions and organisations on which it depends.

Sacco’s three phases of culture (2) places these development in context, beginning with a phase of patronage for the few, on to a cultural industrial revolution, leading in turn to a second phase of expanded audiences and markets for profitable mass cultural production. This phase involves our losing sight of the complex value culture creates, and precedes today’s third and even more complicated stage where it becomes difficult to distinguish between producers and users. If we are to do justice to the work of our emerging practitioners, innovating and carving out new markets in damaged economies, we must find a way to capture their impact as well as that of our cultural infrastructure. While this may be just a companion piece of work, assembling the patchwork of creative industries mapping and impact studies that straddle Europe, Sacco is right in pointing out that ‘awareness and policy activism at regional and city levels is at the moment far superior than that at the country level’.

We may need to look to the city as a starting point, such as the Impacts 08 research of Liverpool and John Moores Universities, a companion piece to the Liverpool Capital of Culture Programme. Here the evaluation was an holistic attempt to directly tell an evidence based story. The scope of the study included: cultural access and participation; economy and tourism; cultural vibrancy and sustainability; image and perception and governance and delivery process.

This represented a genuine attempt to link evidence and practice more effectively and I think it was successful, probably contributing to the way that the UK has taken these sorts of ‘culture as event’ initiatives to its bosom. But it is also about the cultural sector, its size and shape, its quality, and its transformative effect; in Brunet’s (2) words, ‘a cultural policy of people centred investment’.

So what do Europe wide cultural indicators mean to practitioners? Those of us who are, or have been practitioners, are wedded to the transformative qualities of culture. We believe in the power of culture to change lives, often because it changed our own. But Sacco is also right to point out that we are also still wedded a patronage based view of investment, where advocacy far outweighs evidence. Evidence based policy is both about advocacy and about uncomfortable truths. Our search for indicators at a European level must address the following five issues:

a. access to culture remains at the heart of the work and varies enormously throughout Europe.Indicators can inform the directing of investment, the filling of gaps, and provide strong advocacy;

b. culture is a marginalised sector and indicators can provide evidence of overall impact. Bylinking cultural and creative industries data we have a picture of a sector that can show the cumulative impact of a sector that includes a large proportion of SMEs. The companies with the flexibility and drive to create growth and to work with major cultural institutions in developing an offer that is attractive, fresh and relevant;

c. a jumbled sector where linking evidence to decisions and action is often difficult as the actual impacts of culture and the creative industries are not widely understood or owned. It is almost as if we need a sector business case for Europe. Can we make sense of cultural participation in a way that does not seem academic to decision makers and influencers?;

d. a changing sector where we must respond to the challenge of the convergences around digital technologies, production and consumption, classical and popular culture in the picture we paint. If we fail to address these issues evidence will quickly be perceived as archaic;

e. a transformative sector. Participation in culture is transformative and that is what it is supposed to do. Is it possible to capture these kind of impacts across Europe in areas of transformation that are relevant such as self confidence, skills, ability to communicate, employability and citizenship.As a starting point we can continue to refine the formulation of national quantitative data into a succinct and clear picture of where investment is needed. We can then assemble the best qualitative research practice into tools that can be taken up across Europe, and we can also situate research into a useful theoretical frame that helps our understanding of the meaning of the emerging picture, and to develop a narrative that can fully engage with policy makers and practitioners.

 

References can be found on http://www.eenc.eu/.
1. Culture, a smart investment for European Regions? Pascal Brunet

2. Culture 3.0: A new perspective for the EU 2014-2020 structural funds programming Pier Luigi Sacco,* on behalf of the European Expert Network on Culture (EENC)** Produced for the OMC Working Group on Cultural and Creative Industries, April 2011

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