Approaching Cultural Value as a Complex System: Experiencing the Arts and Articulating the City in Leeds

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of English


This research project aims to propose answers to what is a notoriously difficult question: what, exactly, makes a cultural or artistic experience valuable? Such a question invites others that add detail and complexity: in what ways does any idea of value connected to the experience differ for those involved - the audience member, performer, or organisation hosting the event? Does a 'successful' experience mean the same thing for everyone who participates? How do individuals and institutions understand and express the value of the cultural/artistic engagement? And what are the best ways of seeking to capture the experience and the value it contains? We will address these questions through a wide-ranging participatory action research programme that looks at a variety of participants in cultural and arts in the city of Leeds, and in so doing we will add another question to those mentioned above, namely: in what ways does a vibrant cultural life provide value in a major urban centre? The project will utilise existing research connections between the University and several partner organisations, large and small, in the city - Opera North, Northern Ballet, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Yorkshire Dance, South Asian Arts, Thackray Medical Museum, Artlink West Yorkshire, Unlimited Theatre, Heads Together - as well as working with the NHS, Leeds City Council and Arts Council England.

Our research will use a combination of methods and approaches, and incorporate both range and specific focus. To begin, we will ask each of our partner organisations how they understand the value of the culture they produce and showcase, and what experience they think is created as a result. Bringing these partner organisations together to discuss this is a major part of the project, and an early workshop will facilitate this dialogue and exchange, which will be vital for the design of the next research phase. Following this, the project will focus on a single event - the month-long annual LoveArts Festival that focuses on disseminating NHS policy on good mental health and wellbeing - in order to track how questions of cultural value emerge and are experienced. The research team, which possesses expertise across a range of disciplines, from audience participation research and cultural policy to narrative representations of mental health, will work with Festival staff and those attending events to map, through interviews and participant observation, the different ways in which LoveArts works. In so doing, we will be seeking to both gauge the ways in which mental wellbeing is communicated and understood through artistic experiences, and chart how a cultural festival establishes the parameters (in terms of organisation, performance, audience recruitment etc.) that seek to make this happen. In turn, we will explore how the concentrated urban space of Leeds facilitates these processes, producing a city-specific experience of the arts and questions of mental health.

A final project workshop will return to the broad view. We will take the results of our analysis and conversations back to our full range of partners in order to share the conclusions and showcase how the work undertaken with LoveArts, added to the initial sector-wide exchange, can help provide a framework for the evaluation of the cultural/artistic experience in Leeds, understood as a broad category that includes individual reflection, commercial demands, and community cohesion. Our intention is is twofold: to suggest to arts organisations, the NHS and Leeds City Council what a conceptual model of an experience of cultural value in Leeds might be; and to produce fine-grained research, differentiated to meet the complexity of our subject matter, that can capture this.

Planned Impact

The project necessarily places 'impact' as central to the development of collaborative research practice and design, with the aim to involve potential users of the research from the beginning of the process and to strategically expand our circles of engagement through the staged research design. 'Impact' becomes intrinsic to our methods, generated through creating open lines of dialogue with partner organisations, formal collaborators and communities of interest, on questions that are of importance and value to them. We aim for a complex interaction and the systemic participatory action research approach we adopt is chiefly concerned with working with partners to explore questions that already matter to them; it is through these interactions that the potential for ongoing 'impact' is manifest and which, in the course of the project timeframe actively enables engagement with larger audiences for our research.

Through our series of workshops, emerging out of the use of two systemic participatory action research cycles, we aim for a collaborative practice which is multi-vocal in its understanding and articulation of 'experience, 'culture' and 'value'. These workshops will raise awareness of the research project across a range of relevant user communities and contribute to plans for wider dissemination of outputs. We are supported in this aim by Arts Council England, who will provide a regional overview of cultural organisations approach to evaluating cultural value as well as the perspective of a major arts funder. Arts Council England have also pledged to provide us with access to the National Policy and Research Team, and through this we are well-placed to become participant in conversations about national arts policy in this area.

In addition to the report for the AHRC Cultural Value Project, we envisage a report for Leeds City Council, which will respond to a policy imperative to develop more robust data and better understanding of the 'impact and value of the cultural offer' in the city and to contribute more generally to the Vision for Leeds 2030. A version of this report will also be produced for the Directorate of Strategy and Partnerships at Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (a project partner and organiser of the LoveArts Festival) with similar aims to respond to policy debates around the provision of mental health services.

The innovative research approaches we showcase offer a platform for best practice in collaborative research environments and the opportunity to inform open discussion about research, research design and the different contributions of academics and external partners and to therefore support a solid basis for the formation of academic- partner collaborative research teams in the future. We will also actively engage with the AHRC to consider ways the research might inform future practice in Cultural Value-funded projects and activities.

The project PI, Stuart Murray, is Director of Arts Engaged Impact and Innovation Centre at the University of Leeds, a Centre established specifically to explore and develop innovative research practice that has impact and engagement with non-academic partners at its core, while Co-I Lorraine Blakemore is Arts Engaged Research Fellow in Government and Public Policy, one of five postdoctoral fellows with collective responsibility for the development of strategic thinking and innovative methodologies for the embedding of impact in all stages of the research process. Blakemore was selected for the AHRC Engaging with Government Programme, which aims to achieve sustainable relationships with participants and to inform the development of policy impacts in academic research. CI Helen Graham is Deputy Director of Leeds' Creative and Cultural Industries Exchange, a cross Faculty initiative that develops research engagement with the cultural and creative industries in Leeds and supports the development of nuanced understandings of research 'impact'.


10 25 50
publication icon
Walmsley B (2016) Deep hanging out in the arts: an anthropological approach to capturing cultural value in International Journal of Cultural Policy

Description As part of this project we have conducted conversations with representatives of arts and cultural organisations across Leeds. From these conversations it became clear that organisations face a series of key questions and challenges:
• How can we access and understand participant experience?
• If funding bodies want evidence for the value of the arts, does this evidence already exist? What different kinds of evidence (or 'ways of knowing') might there be?
• Our buildings, venues and spaces are very important. But how can we make best use of them?
• Funding conditions are pressurised: how can we respond most effectively?
• The sustainability of cultural provision and cultural participation are key: what can we do to promote sustainability?

Our work on this project suggests that these challenges are deeply connected. The pressurised circumstances that cultural organisations find themselves under include the demand to demonstrate, document and evidence the 'value' and 'impact' of the work they do to a diverse range of stakeholders. At the same time, organisations report the difficulties they face in accessing the experiences of their audiences, visitors and participants. There are some tried and tested ways of knowing about audiences, their preferences and motivations - from Box Office data, to surveys, questionnaires, feedback forms, and focus groups. But from our conversations it became clear that there is a pressing concern for new and more consistent, more connected and more effective methods to learn about who attends, why they attend, what experiences they have, and what the implications, consequences and meanings of these experiences are.
What our work with arts participants and organisations points towards, we suggest, is an approach to developing relationships between organisations and audiences that responds to this need for new methods in a sustained, creative and democratic way. This is not a merely (or even primarily) a new approach to 'evaluation'. It is the cultivation of an attitude towards audience-organisation relationships which in itself promises significant benefits to participants, organisations and to the cultural life of a city. Our proposal is take the collaborative, participatory methods of 'thinking with' audiences about their experiences that we have developed through this project, and to make them integral to the working life of cultural organisations. In other words, to turn participants in the activities of arts and culture - whether 'organisers' or 'audiences' - into ethnographers: the active and collaborative producers of knowledge about what the experiences of cultural participation are, and what makes them important to people.
Building on the work on this project, we propose that we collectively reject the premise of 'The Cultural Value Question', and instead ask some more relevant and constructive questions in the future. We suspect 'the answer' lies not in capturing and pinning down 'value' but, more likely in life, relationships, discussion and organisations knowing-their-value as part of their work. Because, after all, that is what the work of arts and cultural organisations is all about.

We propose that - together - cultural participants, organizations and researchers ask of any given cultural organisation:

1) How might people live with and through our organization, its spaces, programmes and imaginative spaces?
2) How might knowing the importance of our work become embedded within our programming? How might we not capture but make palpable our value through our work? How might we become an organisation which is constantly working with our users to know and grow our significance in people's and cities' lives?

We suggest that by working as 'responsive organisations' of this kind, centres of art and culture will already be engaging in the kinds of attitude and practice that make them valued by their participants. By moving from a model of 'capturing' cultural value to 'knowing with' audiences - embedding knowledge about the experiences and importance of cultural participation within the everyday lives of organisations - organisations will simply be more fully and consciously realising their potential as welcoming, dynamic, democratic spaces. It is this kind of cultural space for which visitors are most likely to develop affection and loyalty, and through which they are most likely to cultivate their wellbeing.
Exploitation Route Through the work of this project we have become ever more convinced of the importance of the arts to wellbeing: to the lives of participants, and to the collective life of cities. We are convinced that universities and individual researchers need to play a facilitative role in this. We are therefore committed to continuing and strengthening our collaborations with cultural organisations and participants; and to implementing our proposals for increasingly participatory organisational spaces in which organisers and audiences share in the work of living life through the arts.
Sectors Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description At the project's end we put together a report on our key findings that we circulated to our project partners (a number of cultural organisations in Leeds along with individuals who participated in the Leeds LoveArts Festival). we also presented the findings as part of the 'Conversation' element of the 2014 LoveArts festival. Arts & Minds in Leeds, the NHS organisation responsible for the LoeArts festival have expressed a desire to take forward our work in developing their provision in the city.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Societal

Description Participation in LoveArts health festival Leeds 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The project team for 'Approaching Cultural Value as a Complex System: Experiencing the Arts and Articulating the City in Leeds' AHRC project were invited to give details of the project finding to an open session of the LoveArts Leeds health festival the year following our own spotlight focus on the festival.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014