David McGillivray

Professor, interested in events, culture, digital participation & sport.

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Assessing cultural value

In my role as Reader in Events and Culture at the University of the West of Scotland I have been trying to reach out beyond the confines of the institution to connect with a series of events and cultural organisations working on the premise that we have a responsibility as new media academics (or new model academics) to work with external stakeholders to enhance the learning opportunities open to our students, to help them evaluate their activities and to developing respect and trust in each others’ contribution as the basis for long term relationships.  On my travels it has becoming increasingly clear to me that assigning value to the contribution of the arts, culture and events to economic and public policy is a common problem for organisations – a problem that researchers can (and should) be able to help address.  More of how this might be achieved later.  

My first illustration of the problems associated with developing creative and cultural criteria is in relation to a most engaging meeting I had with Leonie Bell of Creative Scotland. One of Leonie’s roles is as a Creative Programmer for the London2012 Cultural Olympiad and we spend some time discussing the challenges of legitimating the outcomes of an event like this when the criteria for value accepted by policy making institutions remain rooted in the language of econometrics and instrumentality.  Consider the Artists Taking the Lead project as an example.  How do we evaluate the outcomes of this project using the established event impact instruments, such as eventImpacts? They are, at best, uneasy bedfellows and this represents a significant problem for the arts and cultural sector, especially in these times of austerity when their value is already being seriously questioned. In an unrelated Twitter conversation, I came across the work of @DrDaveO’Brien from Leeds Metropolitan University, an AHRC/ESRC DCMS fellow who looked at different approaches to generating economic values associated with engagement in sport and culture.  Dave’s work is interesting because it tries to take culture and sport and fits them into the dominant economic discourse.  But does that approach actually help or hinder the arts and cultural terrain?  It certainly helps them to talk the language of economics which are well understood by policy makers, but for many this can also undermine the very essence of creativity and expressive activities.  Meeting with Julie Tait and her team at CultureSparks (@CultureSparks) brought this debate into sharp focus.  They represent 30 cultural organisations in Glasgow and, interestingly focus on intelligence and innovation as central to their approach to representation.  They are keen to work with my colleagues and I at UWS’ School of Creative and Cultural Industries to start a dialogue with their members on an alternative way of thinking about their members’ contribution to society – the concept of Social Return on Investment (SROI).  THe idea of bringing those activities normally outside of the market and calculating a financial value for them is along the same lines as Dave O’Brien’s work in that it responds to the criticism of the cultural sector as being reticent to engage using the language of instrumental neo-liberalism. Once things is for sure, there is a need for further research on the respective value systems and criteria for measurement of the role of arts and culture in our society.  I’ve put forward a proposal for a studentship recently to try to contribute to the evidence base and, along with possible collaborative work with others mentioned here there are now a number of linked developments which will establish appropriate criteria to assess the value of creative and cultural endeavour.

David McGillivray • January 17, 2011


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