Failspace (previously Cultural Participation: stories of success, histories of failure)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Performance & Cultural Industries


This proposal builds on the findings from a two-year AHRC funded research project which was undertaken between 2019-2021. It examined how and why, despite a long-standing international discourse about participation, approaches to increase cultural participation have largely failed to address social inequality in the subsidised cultural sector. It further examined why meaningful policy change has not been more forthcoming in the face of such apparent failure.

What we found was the extent to which a culture of mistrust, blame and fear between artists, organisations, funders and the public has resulted in a policy environment that engenders overstated aims, accepts poor quality evaluations, encourages narratives of success and is devoid of meaningful critical reflection.

In our academic research outputs we argue that this absence of transparency and honesty limits the potential for "social learning" (May, 1992) which is necessary for greater understanding about the social construction of policy problems, something which is a precondition to any radical change in policy. We offer suggestions as to how failure might be better acknowledged, learnt from, and acted upon by policy makers, funders and art organisations and have developed frameworks and tools which are intended to be of practical use to those working within the cultural sector, in particular those involved in policymaking and grant distribution, but also to evaluators and managers of participatory programmes.

By employing participatory research approaches during our earlier research process and co-creating knowledge with our research participants, we have given policy makers and practitioners a real stake in our research. As a result there is a strong appetite from the cultural sector to test our research findings in practice. We have already had requests from a number of evaluation consultants, policy makers and arts networks to work with them to embed our recommendations in practice. Some of these are represented in letters of support attached to this application.

This proposal therefore seeks funding to support a number of initiatives to test and develop the recommendations, frameworks and tools designed out of our research in policy and practice. It will do this by working in collaboration with industry, including cultural practitioners, cultural policy makers and evaluators on a number of case studies of learning from failure. It will also build new audiences for the research through feasibility studies with health workers as well youth work and community services to test the applicability of our findings on other parts of the public sector.

Funding therefore would specifically be used to
- support at least 6 champions from different locations and/or different parts of the arts sector to extend the reach of our research by facilitating opportunities for their networks to discuss failures openly
- partner with a targeted group of funding organisation to embed our approach in policy
- partner with at least 2 organisations outside the cultural sector to test the transferability of our findings to new audiences
- deliver a media campaign to raise awareness of our research
- encourage more open conversations about failure to take place by arranging a 'Failspace' conference for cultural sector professionals
- create an online repository of 'Failstories' that will act as a longer term legacy of the work


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