CultureCase: Academic Research in the Cultural Sector

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CultureCase is a new resource brought to you by the Cultural Institute at King’s, now available online at www.culturecase.org.

This online resources takes robust academic research in to the cultural sector and makes it easily accessible for practitioners and decision makers. It unlocks the value of academic research and puts that insight into the hands of those who can benefit from it directly.

CultureCase contains research that relates to two broad themes:

  • Research that demonstrates the impact of culture (for use in advocacy and ‘making the case’)
  • And research that shows ‘what works’ and can help improve organisational practice

Around 100 articles have been carefully selected  from peer–reviewed academic journals for inclusion in CultureCase. Each academic paper is digested into a 300 work lay summary and includes only research that is both relevant and robust and the practical insights of the research have been highlighted, while remaining trust to the academic credibility and authenticity of the original research paper. The database can be used as a site for reliable, robust and accessible research. For more information, email culturecase@kcl.ac.uk

This month we hear from Dr James Doeser, a researcher, writer, consultant and Editor of CultureCase.org about using research to make the case for the sector.


Performance management; outcome measurement; evaluation; stakeholder relations. To some, these may seem like repellant concepts that strike against exactly what artists stand for. A kind of management-speak that signifies everything that has gone wrong with art and culture in the bureaucratic 21st Century. At the very least, they perhaps represent an irritating batch of paperwork that gets in the way making art and getting it in front of an audience.

What I’d like to suggest, perhaps somewhat provocatively, is that all of this can be good for the arts: make it stronger, more impactful, more financially sustainable and reach a larger audience. But in order for this to work, it needs to truly respect evidence, and not anecdote. Nor be driven by reluctant sense of compliance. Before going any further, it’s worth taking stock of how we got to this situation: one in which the Arts Council is devising an app to measure the quality of art.

The arts is perhaps amongst the last few areas of public life to be subject to a regime of performance management and outcome measurement. Changes in wider public policy through the early 2000s saw tax-payers’ money increasingly put to work to achieve various forms of social change. Central government introduced Public Service Agreement targets for organisations like the Arts Council and national museums. The logic was simple: public money for the arts explicitly now comes with strings attached. Increasingly, arts organisations and artists are being funded not only for what they do, but rather the difference that they make in the world. That’s the theory at least. This is a subtle yet profound change. And we’re all getting used to what it means in practice.

What used to be called ‘subsidy’ is now called ‘investment’, and investors always look for a return. How is that return described, measured and accounted for? This is where research comes in. And where I believe this new regime can work in the service of the arts and artists, not against them. However, this presents a challenge for the visual arts, and especially for contemporary or cutting-edge arts. The reason for this is because so much of what goes into making and showing this type of art (and its subsequent impact on people) is difficult to measure.
 
There are myriad ways that arts organisations and artists are advocating for the value of their work. The Arts Council’s Advocacy Toolkit has plenty of generic resources, and of course CVAN, Axisweb, AiR, a-n and DACS and ArtQuest are busy collating research and resources to support the work of artists. This is all valuable stuff.

I had a look on CultureCase, to see what evidence there is in the peer-reviewed academic literature about the value of contemporary visual art. CultureCase comprises a vast array of carefully selected academic research from universities and scholars around the world that can add value to the work of the cultural sector. This kind of literature tends to be theoretically grounded, methodologically robust, and takes due regard of previous research in the field. There are plenty of general findings on CultureCase about the impact of engaging in the arts – primarily benefits to individuals and communities derived from active participation, such as singing or painting. For those interested in the impact of encountering visual art in a gallery space, two papers in particular stand out, and should probably be more well known. They both relate to the way people create and understand their identity through contemporary visual art. One looked at how young people negotiate their multi-dimensional identities in an inner-city school; and another examined how some older adults can use contemporary art to navigate through their changing lives as they begin retirement.

How can research help with advocacy and fundraising, in the brave new world of Key Performance Indicators and S.M.A.R.T. objectives? If funding bodies and policy makers are serious about maximising the returns on their investment, then they will want to support things that are proven to work. By referring to high-quality evidence artists and arts organisations can ensure that they are embarking upon projects and programmes that have a track record (although not necessarily in exactly the same arts practice or context). Once projects are completed, with proper evaluation and measurement of what is accomplished, then this evidence can be used to seek further support in times of scarcity. Generating the right evidence is vital to winning this game. 

All this might require a re-orientation, away from simply articulating the benefits of funding to individual artists, and instead identifying the impacts on society as a whole. Money for travel, training, studio space or materials may make someone a better artist, but how does it help the funding agency achieve its objectives? I don’t profess to have all the answers, but there are certainly some fruitful ways to tackle the question. For example – there are ways to associate the success of an individual artist with a wider set of beneficiaries (perhaps bringing a certain cache to a funder, or to a town, subsequently attracting wider interest from audiences and visitors). All these things can be measured. Likewise, any benefits directly accrued (new knowledge, skills or access to markets) could be shared with other artists. Again, this is a measurable way for investors and funders to maximise their returns from a single intervention.

The contemporary visual arts are frequently at the sharp end of debates about value and measurement. This is why amassing an arsenal of high-quality research is so important to ensuring the ongoing survival of this part of the sector. The task might seem daunting, but with a little rethinking and re-articulation, the solution may be close at hand.

James Doeser is a freelance researcher, writer and consultant. He is the editor of CultureCase.org