Squaring the Circle: Examining cultural value through a re-evaluation of Arts Lab

Lead Research Organisation: Sheffield Hallam University
Department Name: Faculty of Arts Computing Eng and Sci


This proposal has been developed in response to the Arts & Humanities Research Council's Cultural Value Project. Squaring the Circle aims to address the gifting of value to experimental and transitory arts practices. Focussing much of its preliminary research on the short-lived Arts Lab, which operated in Covent Garden from 1967-69, the project considers an organisation which is periodically cited as a prime-mover in the avant-garde of London in the late 1960s, but for which there is currently scant evidence that can express its value in relation to past, present or future cultural ventures.

This project aims to provide a mixed-methodological approach to gathering and assessing data for capturing cultural impact. Research would begin with Arts Lab, but would evolve as new stories and lines of enquiry unfold, suggesting forensic examination. Through archival research, the conducting of organiser, participant and audience interviews and the use of cultural probes, diverse perceptual responses and testimonials will be recorded and collated.

This investigation will pose key questions that may be answered differently from disparate user-perspectives. The assembled data will be explored by the research team, employing several research methods to consider a pluralistic approach to qualitative analysis. Key to the agenda for this research project is the proposal to share its generated and collated primary and secondary evidence amongst a diverse selection of invited practitioners drawn from the social sciences, criminology, ethnography, arts and culture, history, geography and economics, who will work to interpret the data in efforts to assess its cultural value. These critical responses will be made available within the web-based project archive and form the basis for public events in Sheffield and London.

Mapping and collectively exploring the impact of Arts Lab through its organisers, participants, audiences and those who consider themselves inheritors of the organisation's legacy, the research will seek to fully articulate and expose the plurality of narratives involved in this endeavour and the linked organisations and individuals it reveals. Investigating the allocation of value within the more experimental, ephemeral and experiential arts has been historically difficult and this project aims to introduce new methods for the dissemination of such practices, starting with a case study based in the 1960s, which may continue to hold relevance in the present.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of the project will be drawn from academia, cultural and creative sector, and the general public.

The outputs, particularly the online presence and two public events in London and Sheffield, will provide a rich source of data and analysis investigating specifically an arts organisation from the 1960s which to date has little formal research attributed to it in relation to its legacy, value and impact on present organisations and individual practice. This will be of benefit to artists, cultural and creative industries, scholars of art history and social sciences, and interested public. The website will not only provide data but also data analysis and information on research methodologies used to collect and analyse data. It is the opportunity to look at the relevance of a smallscale, shorterm organisation to cultural value and to test whether there is benefit from examining the cultural ecology from such a specific focal point. This aspect of the website and research aims to provide source material for interdisciplinary research, cultural research and organisations, qualitative researchers looking at pluralistic approach to research methodology, SMEs and Social Enterprises, and analysis that has the potential to be of value to the cultural sector including policy makers and funders such as Arts Council England, NESTA, AHRC and DCMS. An emphasis on assessment of value will position Squaring the Circle's context in the Cultural Value Project and activities.

The two public events will offer an opportunity for the wider public to engage with the work, respondents and researchers. Working with cultural institutions aimed at reaching a wider public and the cultural sector, this will help to establish links across academia and the cultural sector facilitated by the researchers all of whom have worked with cultural institutions and academia.

The methodology for gathering and analysing data including interviews and cultural probes will enable cross-generational responses from people active over five decades and the nurture of a community that may not have had the opportunity to address the research topic in specific detail. The public events will allow exchange across representatives from different disciplines, sectors and times as well as being a conduit to the wider public.

Respondents to and analysts of the data will be drawn from an interdisciplinary context such as representatives of historiography, criminology, psychology, cultural geography and economics sectors. Alongside the skills of the core research team the aim is to nurture debate across disciplines, to compare ways of assessing value in these contexts and to investigate hybrid approaches to measuring cultural value. There is potential for this approach to benefit all the disciplines concerned and especially to add new and innovative contexts to investigating value in a cultural context.

The research methodology involves innovative techniques to date only used in the social sciences. The transference of this approach to a cultural and art historical setting aims to provide new approaches to research for the cultural sector both academic and public.

Through the examination of Arts Lab and the model it represents as a process based, community orientated cultural organisation the aim of the research is to provide information for assistance in defining an approach to the formation of community organisations, to provide new insights into experimental practice and models and their impact on mainstream culture, and an investigation into the value of such models across policy, interdisciplinary research, culture, social cohesion, engaged citizens and reflective individuals.


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Description Squaring the Circle provided a combination of research methodologies to discuss the cultural value of the Arts Lab's experimental practices and their contemporary resonance for a new generation of arts practitioners. The approach itself was experimental and further research could be undertaken to test its robustness.

The project has amassed a rich and valuable oral history archive of the Arts Lab through the interviews collected. These interviews will be available online for fellow researchers to access both in written and audio-recorded form for their own analyses.

Key areas of relevance to contemporary practice were discussed within the context of the historic organisations. These included wide-ranging discussions regarding tolerance of risk and failure, the impact of editorial control and the democratisation of public platforms, funding and recognition, and perceptions of the importance of leadership within collective enterprises. The interviews and the discussions and reflections provoked by analysis of them raised important questions regarding enduring challenges for policy makers, cultural institutions and arts practitioners.
Exploitation Route The archive of interview transcripts and the commissioned presentation, discussion and reflective responses to these sources offers an unusually pluralistic portrait of a much lauded, but only partially documented precedent for UK-experimental arts practice. The conducting of interviews with key participants and first-hand witnesses to the 1960s organisation has preserved anecdotal, subjective and idiosyncratic historic perspectives, which might not have been recorded and made available to future researchers without the support of this AHRC project.
Sectors Creative Economy

URL http://squaringcircles.org
Description The findings from this project have been submitted to the AHRC Cultural Value team to be collated as part of a wider RCUK thematic enquiry. As one of a large number of small-scale pilot projects, this research forms a component part of an aggregate distributed survey into new methods to enable the documentation, measurement and analysis of Cultural Value.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural