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The value and impact of culture: what more would we like to know? By Dave O’Brien

Arts Council England has just published a new report entitled ‘Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences’, consisting of a literature review that the US arts consultancy WolfBrown produced for ACE. Dave O’Brien’s guest post reviews the report and looks at it in the context of what is now a rich and diverse research landscape in this area. Dave raises a very good point when he suggests that it would be interesting to consider what the review might have looked like if it had included more material not written in English and produced in non-Western parts of the world. Indeed, as somebody whose PhD was a comparative analysis of post-1980s cultural policies in the UK and Italy post-1980s, I would suggest that even within Western Europe there is plenty of diverse approaches to the articulation of cultural policy concepts and their embodiment in policies and administrative structures: in order to make sense of the Italian literature I had to have an entire chapter to explain how the fact that the Italian language does not have a separate word for ‘policy’ has shaped the way that public policy has (not) been studied and understood as discrete from politics! So, is the current debate over cultural value too narrow because of the predominance of Anglo-Saxon conceptualizations and analyses of the concept? 


Carnwath and Brown’s Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences is the latest publication in a long line of work on value and impact by both Arts Council England and the UK’s Ministry of Culture. This particular report argues there are three ways to consider the impact of arts experience: the impact on the individual; the value of arts organisations to society; and the capacity for arts organisations to create ‘impactful’ experiences. Notwithstanding the use of the ghastly term ‘impactful’ the report provides a useful contribution by reviewing the first and last of these areas of research.

The report’s two core areas of literature review, on individual impacts and organisational capacity are usefully contextualised by outlining key papers and thinkers as well as individual comments on the literature. However it would be rather bland to simply reiterate the content of the report, which can be read here. Far more interesting a task is to consider the questions raised by the report, how they may be answered and the meaning and impact of the report for those in a position to contribute to those answers.  Three comments come to mind.

In the first instance the link between marketing literature and more traditional forms of research is important. It fits a much broader recognition in British social science that commercially driven forms of data collection may tell us much about society as compared to academically driven or influenced studies (indeed it may tell us a great deal more). However the report’s authors are keen to insist that any form of measurement or data collection must be grounded in some form of theoretical starting point, even if it is just at the level of working out what questions need to be asked.

The need for theoretical reflection is also a bridge to other areas of academic concern. The report pinpoints the dearth of longitudinal studies in this area, supporting the intuitive, but under researched, idea that the impact of a cultural experience may only manifest itself many years after the event, whether for the individual or as a contribution to society more generally. For both the Arts Council, an institution subject to the short term horizons of policy but resilient enough to have survived over 70 years of changing government agendas, and academic research, the puzzle of how best to interrogate the historical and the prospective contribution of culture must rise to the surface of forthcoming work by DCMS, AHRC and the Warwick Commission.

The global reach of the report is important, although the authors do admit that most of the focus is on the Anglophone world, with the report reflecting the British, Australian and American concerns with valuing and valuation. Whilst this reflects the policy context of these nations, the under representation of non-English language work also poses a fascinating research question, around the importance (or not) of national specificity. Culture is most usually seen as a universal human practice, manifested in differing forms and artefacts. This reflects both the broader project of The Enlightenment within which the modern nation state is grounded and also the hope of universalism that is at the core of much of the western cultural canon. Focusing on the impact, more often than not narrated as positive by much of the literature reviewed by Carnwath and Brown, is not just a reflection of a Western policy context. It is also a reflection of a Western, specifically Western European, view of Art and Culture as a universalising good. One is forced to ask how non-Western approaches to these questions are posed and whether, or to what extent, a more globally focused review would have run into the difficult matter of defining art and culture themselves.

Finally it is my personal hope that the report will provide another nail in the coffin of the intrinsic/instrumental divide that has been a catastrophic dead end for policy, practice and research into culture over the past 20 years.

As a concluding thought it’s worth remembering the policy landscape confronting the arts. Its clear that budgets will continue to shrink, whichever party wins the election next year. In this context (and with an associated post-election spending review) ACE faces the problem of narrating and accounting for itself in terms of its strategic goals, but it also faces the issue of evidencing this. It is, unfortunately, no longer enough to se artistic quality, in whatever terms, asserted. Carnwath and Brown’s report is a ground clearing exercise around future research and some potential measurement methods. However what is now required is leadership and direction from both ACE and DCMS as to the best frameworks to respond to the challenges of funding allocation in the near future.



Dr O’Brien is a Lecturer in Cultural and Creative Industries at City University London. Dr O’Brien’s work on cultural value includes a secondment and report to the UK’s Department for Culture Media and Sport, along with several conference papers and forthcoming research articles. His work on urban cultural policy can be found in his PhD from the University of Liverpool, which explored the governance of the European Capital of Culture programme and cultural policy in Liverpool and NewcastleGateshead. His first book Cultural Policy Management, Value & Modernity in the Creative Industries was published by Routledge in 2013.






2 Responses to “The value and impact of culture: what more would we like to know? By Dave O’Brien”

  1. Thank you really enjoyed reading; private funding is the main channel for the arts in the US…isn’t that the hope for UK?

    Posted by Barbara Dean (@Barbara_Dean1) | July 26, 2014, 10:42 am
  2. Many thanks for giving notice of the report. At the moment I am writting a dissertation about cultural value. Mainly on the aesthetic experience as a central part of the process of attribution of cultural value. This helps my a lot.

    Posted by Maria | August 4, 2014, 10:57 pm

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