The debate on regional arts funding: data, capacity and postcode pedantry

April 28, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society 

The debate about arts funding distribution across England and the unfairness of allocation decisions bubbles up from time to time.  Last week three arts professionals, Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell independently and through self-funded means published a report ‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital’ with the intention of bursting the bubble on the debate so that radical change might happen once and for all. Read more

The acceptable face of creativity: how Media Diversified creatively challenges the “ubiquity of whiteness” in the media

April 15, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society, Fellowship 

A couple of months ago, I was watching music videos with friends when a band made up of Cambridge graduates came on the TV. As images of the musicians flashed in front of our eyes, someone made a “joke” about one of the non-white band members: ‘he can’t have gone to Cambridge, he’s black’. While it’s easy for some to dismiss this as a harmless aside, this one comment tells us a lot about British society. Even if a minority ethnic person succeeds at their creative endeavour (whether academic or musical), the focus is not on their talent, but the colour of their skin. Read more

Vulnerability is not a weakness

March 12, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters 

In her brilliant TED talk ‘Listening to shame’ Brené Brown claims that ‘vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change’.  While we might think of vulnerability and weakness synonymously, Brené argues against this myth stating that vulnerability is all about pure courage, emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty.

I heard Grayson Perry, Turner Prize winning artist and ‘transvestite potter’ talking at the Women of the World festival where he also talked a lot about vulnerability.  His lecture Men!  Sit down for your rights proposed a Bill of Rights for Men, which included the Right to be Vulnerable, and the Right to be Uncertain.  Grayson thinks that the ‘Right to be Vulnerable’ would be a part of giving men a new model for masculinity at a time when the current constructs of manliness feel dated.

Following her own ‘vulnerability hangover’ (but let’s face it we all have them) Brené observed that in fact vulnerability is actually essential to whole hearted living and so I was uplifted to read a blog from an English teacher, ’5 things that scared me’.  An honest portrayal of a challenging week at work where the lesson learnt was ‘always do what scares you, only when out of your comfort zone will we truly learn and become our best selves’.

I think this is a really important idea.  Embracing our vulnerabilities comes down to asking ourselves to think differently and in turn this requires empathy to allow others to be open.  Being out of your comfort zone is difficult and many of us might identify with Brené’s epiphany:  that whilst being frustrated at not being able to get her work out to the world, she realised a part of her was engineering to stay small, to stay under the radar.

However if the implications of showing our vulnerability are innovation, creativity and change then we need to make it a more socially acceptable behaviour, in our working relationships, personal relationships and our friendships.

And how might you embrace vulnerability in adolescence? It strikes me that this is a time when most of us feel particularly awkward, out of place and unsure of ourselves.  Do schools have a role in addressing vulnerability head on?  Can you allow space for vulnerability?  How can you do this safely and appropriately?  Is it just about taking chances, leaps of faith?

Joe Hallgarten and Selina Nwulu with RSA Fellow Barbara Hearn are working on a project called Rethinking Adolescence.  They are starting from the idea that adolescence is an under-utilised asset, that this time is valuable and not just a phase in life to get through.  There is a perception that young people are ‘citizens in waiting’ and that adolescence is a time of ‘vulnerability of personality’ (Verhellen, 2000) because changes are so rapid.  It is a chapter when we experiment, push boundaries and start forming the kind of person that we want to be (or perhaps don’t want to be) so if we had the scope to express our vulnerability more, what might this lead to?  And not just for adolescents.  Vulnerability is often the grist for artists’ creativity so there is every reason to think that this would generate everyday innovation and change if vulnerability was allowed to flow.

As a last point I thought I’d share a personal story to illustrate the title of this blog in a small way.  I’ve started to play the ukulele.  I’ve got carried away with the idea of me playing the ukulele.  I’ve talked about it a lot.  I’m also not very good it but my basic ability to strum out a tune found me announcing to my parents one evening that I was going to give them a rendition of Maggie May.

Having verbally committed to the performance I found myself on the sofa, ukulele in hand with an expectant but somewhat uncomfortable looking audience.   I realise my enthusiasm has set the expectation bar high and I can’t remember the last time we all sat round for a jolly sing song.  The Von Trapps we are not.  In that moment a gulf of awkwardness sprang up.  There was nothing for it but to plunge in vulnerable and exposed.  Strumming then singing, tentative sound filled the room.

I still wasn’t very good but I was out there, a chorus in and committed when out of nowhere my dad started singing.  Finding something of Rod the Mod we belted out ‘Oh Maggie I couldn’t have tried anymore’ and a rather beautiful thing happened.   We looked at each other, smiled and in that brief moment something changed.   There wasn’t a vulnerability hangover in sight.

I like it. What is it?

February 10, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Design and Society, Social Economy

Image by Anthony Burril.

The first ever unMonastery launched this month in the city of Matera, in Southern Italy. Doing something new is messy. The path is unclear, doubt is a killer, and it’s somehow never easier to quit than when you are on the verge of something real.

2014 could be the year of unMonastery, and my mission, gladly accepted, is to help shape evaluation models and metrics that help us understand what it is and if it is working.


UnMonastery is place-based social innovation that throws a group of people into one place – currently Matera – and sees what happens. It takes issues facing the whole of Europe – youth unemployment, mismatched skills, brain drain to major cities, under-utilised buildings, depleted public resources –and offers up a secular, 21st century version of the monastery. People with skills and projects to offer are housed, fed and work out of a building that would be otherwise left empty.

Best suited to areas suffering brain drain and a lack of home-grown opportunities, the ‘unMonasterians’ are tasked with working with people from the local area to develop locally specific projects that respond to local needs and assets.  For me the key question will be measuring whether the project is one that both preserves the sanity of its protagonists, and can be mapped to really engage with and become embedded in its local area. Without the wellbeing of those working in it, it becomes a workhouse, without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans.


The unMonastery building is highlighted in red.

The Matera unMonastery is situated in the ‘Sassi’ of Matera, a ridiculously picturesque setting in the labyrinthine ancient part of the city, where, since the troglodyte era, houses have been built into the local ‘tufo’,a calcarenitic rock that comes from marine sediments. Whilst fantastic, this setting will actually prove to be one of the first challenges for the unMonastery: Matera, the people, is not Matera, the beautiful and touristy Sassi.

The team

The Matera unMonasterians were selected through an international open call in which people were encouraged to apply for residencies in Matera with projects that responded to local needs and interests, as had been set out following a series of co-production workshops. The final team comprises of projects that take us from building functional solar-panel trackers with local young people, to setting up water-filtering systems for urban farming. The skill-set of the unMonasterians spans coders, graphic designers, illustrators, engineers, social scientists, artists. Over the next four months their projects will focus both on Matera, and on unMonastery as a venture in its own right. UnMonastery favours total, brutal, transparency: you will able to follow its progress, with everything from project plan updates to budgets available online. If at all curious, you can meet the team and ask many questions today (!) from 10am UK-time, by following the hasthtag  #unmon on twitter.

Anthony Burrill –

Progress so far?

The first week has been slow, taken up with the difficulties of setting up when much is out of your control: internet down, heating variable, furniture arriving after the people.

Due to the iterative nature of building unMonastery, it was always hard to know what it would end up being. Born as an idea in the first EdgeRyders conference in Strasbourg, it only became real when Matera – currently a candidate for European City of Culture 2019 – stepped up as a host and funder. First Materans shaped unMonstery in their understanding of what Matera’s assets, resources and needs were; then the unMonastery applicants shaped unMonasery through the projects they proposed. And now, Matera and unMonasterians – sometimes the same thing – will shape each other.

So, how will we know if it is working?

  Without the wellbeing of those working in it, #unMonastery becomes a workhouse; without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans

Anthony Burill –

The job of the unMonasterians is now to work hard and be nice to each other – not too light a request when living and working in the same space as up to ten people for up to four months.

Using metrics developed in the RSA’s Connected Communities work, I am helping them develop ways of measuring how things are going, inside and out.

1. How are you? Social change is messy, and burn-out is often the cost. The unMonasterians will be asked to measure their levels of wellbeing, and make sure they have routines that allow for some version of the five ways to wellbeing and proper sleep.

2. Do you feel part of a community? RSA Connected Communities work has really highlighted the importance of feeling part of a community, of feeling accepted where you are.

3. Do you feel supported? It is important to know that you can go to others when you need, and our social connections are often the first thing to suffer when we move around. Even for those who live in Matera full-time, their new focus could disrupt those social connections that currently help them feel well.

4. How are you and your project linking in to the local area? This is the big mama of the questions. Even if our unMonasterians are happy, bright eyed and bushy tailed, without real local engagement unMonastery is a spring-break, not a new way of working. Using social network analysis, and possibly linking to unMonasterian Lucia‘s walking ethnographies, we will be tracking who the unMonasterians are working with, how this changes, and if this goes beyond the existing contacts of our contacts. Everywhere is a bubble: a key question will be whether we can burst ours.

2014 could be the year of the unMonastery, and unMonastery could be the start of something really excellant. Please do follow unMonastery on twitter, keep up to date with what they are doing here, and join them for an online twitterstorm at 10am today!




Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project.

She is an an Edgeryder and an UnMonk advisor, founded the RSA Social Mirror project and is ¼ of the ThoughtMenu.

You can find her on twitter: @la_gaia

The fabulous poster images are all by Anthony Burrill

The problem with power is patriarchy

January 21, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society 

It’s relatively easy to talk about the diffusion of power when you’re a man. Because looking at recent news – from the lack of stories about sports presenter Charlie Webster to the proliferation of those about Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard – it’s clear that patriarchal power isn’t showing any signs of waning.

Over three-hundred years ago, Edmund Burke offered a sage piece of advice to the world when he said, ‘the greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse’. Burke’s forewarning may seem obsolete in light of a recent talk given by Moisés Naím at the RSA where he proclaimed that power is no longer concentrated but is diffuse. Or, as Adam Lent puts it, that power is dying. However, Naím’s theory falters when we turn through the pages of world history and pay close attention to an overarching constant: it is predominantly men who wield power. Meanwhile, when women manage to grasp the reigns of power, they do so on the condition that they perform conventional maleness – think of Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister, the so-called Iron Lady. Therefore, even if we accept Naím’s thesis, the ability to possess power is predicated on performing conventional masculinity, consequently it tends to remain in the hands of men who do so. And, as Burke suggests, with their great power, men commit dangerous abuse.

It’s not new to suggest that power and traditional masculinity are closely woven together, but despite our awareness of this fact, the close bond between the two is not showing any signs of loosening. We need look no further than our own legislative branch of government to see unapologetic patriarchal power strutting around Westminster with full plumage on show. An investigation into a number of sexual harassment accusations against Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard has found that while allegations cannot be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, ‘the evidence suggests that Lord Rennard’s behaviour has caused distress to a number of women’. Despite this damning indictment, Lord Rennard refuses to apologise because, he explained in a statement yesterday, he doesn’t believe an apology for something he ‘had not done’ is appropriate. Although he has been suspended from his party, Lord Rennard’s apparent lack of regret for causing offence and, perhaps more startlingly, his absence of an attempt to feign the lamentation that is usually shown by politicians when the public glare is shone on their alleged gross misconduct, shows the power that he feels he’s entitled to as a wealthy, white man. His attitude seems to say, women feel they have been assaulted, but it’s simply not my problem.

Should we really be surprised? Men dominate the public sphere and are, more often than not, seen as superior to women. Alongside concerns over the nature of the inquiry into the allegations against Lord Rennard, consider the fact  that it was Alistair Webster QC who was at the head of the investigation; whether women were involved in the process, the final say was left to a man. This gendered hierarchy is mirrored throughout society, a quick glance at organisations across the country and it is more likely that you will see men, not women, at the helm.

The inequalities between men and women are not limited to formalised structures of power. Abuse revelations go far beyond Parliament’s grandiose corridors. At the other end of the spectrum from the ostensibly ‘softer side’ of abuse claims, sport presenter Charlie Webster revealed that she was sexually abused by her male coach when she was 15 years old. Webster, who yesterday embarked on a seven-day 250 mile marathon to raise money for Women’s Aid, a charity working to end domestic violence, explained that the reason for her disclosure was to break the taboo surrounding abuse. Webster struggled to admit to her abuse because, she says, “I didn’t want my world to break down”. Often it’s hard to admit that our system is irreparable because it means that we have to shatter it entirely to form something new. Indeed, society’s desire to shy away from the damaging effects of patriarchal power has led to Webster’s admission receiving relatively scant amount of news attention. This reflects an underlying trend; for all of our proclamations of progress and civility, we aren’t properly addressing why gender abuse is commonplace, why 2 women are killed week in England and Wales as a result of domestic violence.

The causal factor: patriarchal power that is woven into the fabric of our everyday. Following on the heels of Lord Rennard’s refusal to apologise, Nick Clegg’s former aide, Bridget Harris, has castigated the ‘intellectual sexist culture and endemic sleazy culture of Westminster’. Sexism is a way of being in the hallowed halls of the Commons, Harris explains. And, again, so it is beyond Westminster. The tapestry of routine abuse displayed on Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism shows how derogatory views of women have become normalised. These views act as a gateway for men to think, even if unconsciously, on a day-to-day basis that they are worth more than women, which can and often does clear the way for gendered abuse.

Consequently, while efforts to address gender imbalances such as all-women shortlists are laudable and certainly needed, these measures only attempt to solve the surface problems of masculine power. Simone de Beauvoir explained that to delve deeper and truly achieve gender equality, ‘the point is not for women simply to take power out of men’s hand…it’s a question precisely of destroying that notion of power’. To do so, we have to start publicly questioning men and their automatic entitlement to power. For many this is an uncomfortable idea, fear is palpable in jokes we often hear, like “what are you going as for Halloween, a feminist?”. Such reactions are understandable. For those who benefit from and fully invest in patriarchal power, a form of feminism that seeks to undermine conventional constructions of masculinity in order to establish a power paradigm based on true gender equality is a very scary indeed.

Another creative resolution? Read more fiction

January 15, 2014 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters 


When was the last time you read a good literary book? Or recommended one? Though a staple for some, reading a good novel increasingly feels like a luxury not all of us can afford in the midst of busy schedules and digital distraction.  Additionally, in a time where literary novel sales are declining and libraries are closing, it’s clear that our appreciation for the literary masterpiece is waning. It also seems as if children are beginning to mirror our increasing disengagement with literature; according to the National Literary Trust, only 40% of children aged 8-16 read daily in 2005, a figure which dropped to 30% in 2011 and by a further 2% in 2012.

However, a study in Science journal connects reading literary fiction with Theory of Mind; the ability to emphasise, imagine and understand the mental states of others. As part of the study, one group were given excerpts of literary fiction, while other groups read popular fiction and non-fiction. When finished, participants were asked to take a test to assess and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. Interestingly, there were stark differences between those who had read literary fiction and those who had read non-fiction. Those who read the literary fiction excerpts exhibited increased levels of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. Participants who had read excerpts of popular fiction were also deemed less able to connect empathically.

The differences between literary fiction and popular fiction stir a series of old rivalries between ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ interpretations of literature, but I think what is most important is the potential for literature to enable a person to think and feel creatively. Good literature gives space and time for the reader to delve more creatively into the psyche of their protagonist and to explore human complexities and behaviours. But as we become increasingly embroiled within the world of social media, everyday communication is often whittled down to 140 characters and appreciation in the form of ‘likes’ and retweets has become a normalised endeavour. Our thoughts are increasingly becoming condensed and immediate for social media consumption as are our reactions. Though clearly beneficial in certain respects, the world of social media often provides a somewhat one dimensional approach to communication, often bereft of emotionally sensibilities.

Reading literature, it seems, is fast becoming the equivalent of ‘slow’ food – wholesome and most probably good for you but without the immediate gratification and universal appeal of faster alternatives. Tellingly, on speaking on Radio 4’s Front Row earlier this month, writer Ruth Rendell connects the belated literary success of John Williams’ novel Stoner, a novel in which a young farm man  falls in love with literature, with our literary nostalgia and claims the novel reminds us of a love of literature that we as a society seem to be gradually forgetting. But in thinking more widely about this loss, we need to consider and examine the detrimental effects of the increasing absence of literature, particularly when considering its role in the development of empathy and emotional intellect.

In contemplating the RSA’s current discussions on ‘the power to create’, it’s clear that reading fiction is certainly not the only way  to delve deeper into what creativity at the heart of RSA might look like (if only!). But it’s interesting and important to consider our collective levels of empathy and emotional intelligence when thinking about channels of power and creativity. And while recent debates are still at the forefront of the RSA psyche, maybe reading literature is not a bad start…

Creativity: the stuff of freedom

January 8, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Innovation 

Adam Lent, head of the Action & Research Centre here at the RSA, recently wrote about the crucial role of creativity for the 21st century. Of his four arguments, I want to elaborate on the first—on creativity as the realisation of freedom. Paraphrasing John Stuart Mill, Adam wrote that “taking the great historical gift of freedom in order to remain passive, ineffectual and conventional” is “horribly wasteful.”

Among the values of this focus on creativity is its reminder of the responsibilities that freedom and self-governance place on us. “A deeper happiness has got to come from using our freedom to be creators as well as consumers”, Adam wrote. I contend that this applies not just to economic and cultural activity, but to freedom itself.

This past December, UK audiences were spared one of those cookie-cutter free-speech ‘controversies’ that played out in the US. Someone on a reality TV show made an offensive comment about homosexuality, and the network—doing the right thing, and not wanting to lose audiences—removed him. Then the Republican clown car flew right off the tracks, with the likes of Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal saying things like “this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views… I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.” The network—doing the right thing, and not wanting to lose audiences—then rescinded the guy’s suspension.

People often seem to mistake ‘the right to free speech’ for ‘the right to have a TV show’.[1]

This episode illustrated a few things. First, politicians say things that don’t make sense. Second, TV networks are feckless. Third, people like to make a sport of saying offensive things.

But that’s the easy critique. The outraged talking heads’ misunderstanding of the First Amendment goes much deeper. The First Amendment isn’t about free speech, although it appears so on the surface. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion are all just foreplay to the main event: the right “peaceably to assemble” and “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
- US Constitution, First Amendment

The First Amendment is not about free speech. It’s about responsible citizenship.

It’s not just that we are free to speak and write and worship in the ways we choose. It’s that we have the responsibility to do all of these things, and to do so in the service of good and legitimately democratic self-governance. And while most other rights do not require action, this is the most demanding of the ten entries on the Bill of Rights, justifiably coming first. The provenance of power it describes was an absolutely radical break from monarchical and authoritarian rule. It mandated that laws reflect the will of the people rather than dictate it. It placed the onus of responsibility onto citizens, not the government, to behave – to speak, to write, to worship – in ways worthy of the dignity of their freedom. The quality of our society was to become only as good as the creativity we exercised.[2]

This is why people who like to ‘test’ their freedom of speech, and thereby beg others not to take them seriously, are not serious citizens. They abdicate their responsibility to take part in sincere dialogue, to behave responsibly and inclusively to create and refine the substance of a free society. Serious citizens produce freedom, rather than consume it. That, in my view, is the democratic essence of the Power to Create. It reminds us that we live in a society that is political to the core, and though there are rules and laws and competing interests, we as citizens are at the centre. Creativity is the realisation and perpetuation of freedom. Creativity is responsible citizenship.

Emerson once asked, “Are you for man and for the good of man; or are you for the hurt and harm of man?” This is not a question that can be left to any higher authority. Citizens must answer this for themselves—and then act.

[1] Madison was to quill this as the Eleventh Amendment, but succumbed to his crippling fear of prime numbers.

[2] Mistakes were made. Tocqueville: “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”

Creativity? That’s not for me.

In Adam Lent’s recent blog ‘Why is creativity the most important political concept of the 21st century’ he outlines the broadest definition of creativity as being ‘an act that is unique to an individual’s own capacities or vision’.

Why is it then that you’ll frequently hear people recoil in trepidation asserting ‘oh, but I’m not creative’?

Is it fear that they’ll be asked to draw? Or worse still, sing? Is it that someone way back told them they were no good at something and it’s stuck? Is it an excuse to get out of doing something? You’re creative, you do it. Is it an underlying lack of confidence in themselves? Is it a lack of birth right or sense of status?

Lent goes on to explain that creativity is important for four reasons:

  1. It’s good for us
  2. It’s economically more important than ever
  3. It’s the only solution to long term austerity
  4. It is under threat.

Do read his blog for more on this, am oversimplifying here to provide context, with this in mind I’d like to add two different thoughts.

Firstly, and perhaps crucially, does it matter then that people claim not to be creative? And often vociferously so.  Is it because they default to the narrow association of creativity = art?  Who are these people?  And what implications does this have for our growing mission of the ‘power to create’ and the broadest definition of creativity.

Secondly, and perhaps fundamentally, I have to throw into the concept driven mix that creativity is FUN!  Don’t we all want to be more creative?  Personally and professionally?

Creativity enables us to solve problems, to meet people, to feel more human, to relax, to use our hands, to express ourselves, to experiment, to get dirty, to learn a new skill, to be brave, to get something wrong, to have a laugh, to feel fulfilled, to innovate, to feel a sense of achievement, to take a risk, to grow inside, to allow us to think a bit bigger.

But in case you were wondering , think you are not creative? Oh yes you are. It is in us all, it is innate. Embrace it. Follow it. See where you go.

“Cracking good job, Gromit!”

November 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Fellowship 

Bristol, and indeed the west region, was taken over by Gromit fever over the summer.  Eighty different 5ft high giant Gromits  were painted and situated all over the city, creating an art trail and the opportunity for people to explore Bristol whilst searching for the Gromits.

(c) Roz Bonnet

(c) Roz Bonnet

It’s not exaggerating to say Bristol went crazy over these Gromits, Bristol Evening Post reported “The city’s museums have seen a 65 per cent increase in the number of visitors through their doors this summer compared to last, shops and restaurants have seen a rise in customers while Bristol’s tourist information centre has seen more than double the number of people through its doors.

Most of the businesses and organisations that are seeing a boost in visitors are crediting the Gromits.”

015 (2)

(c) Roz Bonnet

The Gromit’s were finally brought together in the Royal West Academy for a week and the queues were insane – up to 6 hours queuing to see them altogether, it caused chaos.This chaos was good however as the Gromit’s were auctioned off to raise funds for Bristol Children’s Hospital and over £2.3million was raised.

My question is why this fever for the Gromit’s, a similar trail was around last summer with gorilla’s and although popular it didn’t cause this kind of fever, not seen since the Banksy exhibition at the Bristol Museum.  Was it because they were Gromit’s (Nick Park’s Aardman Animations is based in Bristol and therefore it has a close connection to the city), was it because the Evening Post featured photos in the paper? Was it the gamification of the gromit’s and the fact you had to follow a trail to find them? Was it social media – so many photos were posted on facebook, twitter…. I’m not sure but it is something I would like to explore in the West region.

We recently saw how the focus of a key theme can bring Fellowship together (at the RSA Yorkshire conference) focusing around the Incredible concept, spearheaded by Pam Warhurst (FRSA), see blog about it from Matthew Taylor.  I would like to find what could ignite the Fellowship interest in the West – our key themes have been identified as environment, health and education – how can we create a Gromit effect for Fellowship?  All ideas gratefully received!

Lou Matter is the Programme Manager for West and South West. You can follow her @loumatter 


What might work? Making the case for a Cultural Endowment Foundation

November 5, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters 

Today the RSA and Arts Council England will launch Towards Plan A: A New Political Economy for Arts and Culture. This series of four papers which examine how the arts sector might play a full role in the UK’s economic and social renewal In the papers:

  • Martin Smith asks for a new industrial strategy for the arts, to make the most of ‘ the prickly, sometimes antagonistic but always necessary relationship between art and commerce’;
  • Alex Jones asks for cities to be more honest about their capacity to be so-called creative hubs – not all cities can be – and more intelligent about the way they understand the impact of cultural spending on regeneration;
  • Mandy Barnett and Daniel Fujiwara argue that ‘the cultural sector needs to agree a single framework within which to talk about value, whilst disentangling the social from the cultural in the process’; and
  • Sue Horner (chair of RSA Academies), in calling for a ‘grand partnership’ between education and cultural sectors, suggests how both sectors need to step up to harder-edged collaborations.

John Knell’s excellent introduction also offers recommendations to inform future policy and practice. This includes the idea that: “ACE should commission, in partnership with DCMS, DfE, AHRC, key trusts and foundations, and the sector learning network, at least one ‘high burden of proof’ study – involving if appropriate randomised controlled trials – which would explore the impact of particular arts interventions in a key impact area (for instance health and well-being, education or community cohesion).”

Having spent several years leading probably the largest ever ‘high burden of proof’ study ever undertaken in the arts, the Creative Partnerships learning programme in thousands of schools across England, it would be tempting to show John my wounds and medals. As, over the years,the quality of our research, evaluation and outcomes improved, it actually became more difficult to make the case for continued investment. However, I think John is onto something, and his proposal could be even more ambitious.

Could the cultural sector create something similar to the Education Endowment Foundation – a body dedicated not just to commissioning rigorously evaluated projects, but also to improving the way that evidence is built and used across the education system? Importantly, the EEF exists and is funded through an endowment – from the DfE – which secures both its independence and its long term stability. Although it is too early to judge the impact of individual projects (and my prediction is that only a few will show statistically significant impacts on closing the attainment gap), the Foundation’s processes and toolkits are already informing school decisions. Many schools are finally moving from a culture of data use to a culture of evidence use.

A Cultural Endowment Foundation, perhaps funded through a small percentage from the recent 4G auction, should be entirely independent from Government and Arts Council England. ACE is too invested in demonstrating rather than understanding the impact of its spending. It should support programmes to be externally evaluated against cultural as well as social or economic outcomes, possibly using Mandy and Daniel’s single framework, so that the arts are not just the servants of other public policy masters. Finally, it should be prepared to go public when the cultural sector engages in poor quality, advocacy-heavy evaluation processes – I’ve got a few favourite worst evaluations, which I won’t name and shame here. Understanding value should not be a compulsory activity for all in the arts sector – some will just want to get on with making great art for everyone, to use ACE’s mission statement. A Cultural Endowment Foundation could help cultural organisations make the choice between either doing evaluation properly or not doing evaluation at all.

Joe Hallgarten   Director of Education     @joehallg

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