“Loring Park Art Fair” by flickr user m01229

Title: Understanding the Value of Arts & Culture

Author(s): Geoffrey Crossick & Patrycja Kaszynska

Publisher:Arts & Humanities Research Council

Year: 2016

URL: http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/documents/publications/cultural-value-project-final-report/

Topics: Art, culture, cultural value, economics, community development, arts education, health and wellbeing

Methods: Literature Review

What it says: This report represents the culmination of the Cultural Value Project (CVP), a three-year initiative undertaken by the Art and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) of the UK into understanding the value of culture. It draws upon a body of original work made possible by the following research grants administered by the AHRC:

  • 46 Research Development Awards to carry out original research,
  • 19 Critical Review Awards to undertake reviews of the literature in a particular area, and
  • 7 Expert Workshop Awards to organize intensive discussions amongst specialist academics and practitioners.

This original work was supplemented by additional literature review by the project’s leaders to trace the historical and current boundaries of how we conceive of cultural value, make recommendations for moving forward, weigh in on the methodologies used by arts researchers, and present the available understanding of how culture creates value in several key areas: reflective individuals; engaged citizens; communities, regeneration and space; the economy; and health, aging, and wellbeing (the report also includes a “note” about arts education).

The final report’s historical discussion of cultural value explores the tension between concepts such as intrinsic and instrumental benefits, excellence and access, and quality and expansion. The project conceptualizes cultural value as a broad framework of different values, each evaluated by or demonstrated with appropriate and differing methodologies (in the process, rejecting what the authors describe as a hierarchy of methodologies that privileges quantitative evidence over qualitative). The project also sought to expand beyond what it saw as a narrow focus on publicly funded art, and focus on the commercial sector as well as amateur arts and cultural practices. The goal was to put the art experience of the individual at the center of the research.

The following is an overview of findings from key benefit areas.

  • Reflective Individuals. The report finds that cultural engagement helps to improve understanding of oneself and others. Evidence for the latter centers around the ability to empathize, which one study defines as the ability to understand others’ difference while maintaining a strong sense of self. Findings are based mostly on self-reported changes following participation in arts and cultural experiences. Two case studies discussed in the report reference literature focused on distinct populations: ex-offenders and caregivers/healthcare professionals. For ex-offenders, the literature pertains to the arts’ contributions to self-reflection and the ability to imagine alternate paths, although the relationship to re-offending is not clear given compounding factors. For caregivers and healthcare professionals, the literature relates to humanizing patients and individualizing their experiences. The report notes that longitudinal studies, help to distinguish between affective and cognitive dimensions of cultural experiences, and their differing effects on reflection over time. However, more of this type of research is needed to further discussion and understanding of affect.
  • Engaged Citizens. The report cites a body of evidence that affirms an association between cultural participation and pro-social behaviors such as voting or volunteering. This evidence is largely derived from United States-based studies that analyze existing data sets, and findings echoed by additional work conducted in Europe. The mechanism or cause of this association is not as well understood. The report also singles out a framework from the work of Stern and Seifert which posits three theories of action for how the arts influences patterns of civic engagement: didactic (instructing or persuading), discursive (providing settings for discussion and making connections), and ecological (creating spillover effects that increases engagement and social capital). The report posits that the arts provide “spaces within which alternative ways of thinking, imagining and acting may take shape.” These reviews draw on case studies in the areas of climate change, as well as healing after armed conflict to develop this idea.
  • Community Development. The report draws on research that identifies three ways that cultural activity is thought to be linked to urban regeneration: development of cultural and creative industries, raising the public profiles of cities, and improving social circumstances in urban areas. The report finds that these propositions lack clear definitions, making it difficult to find evidence to support claims. In particular, there are several areas in which longer-term effects are not as well understood – for example, measurement of the ongoing benefits of investment in large-scale cultural facilities beyond an initial boost to tourism or public profile, or the long-term stability of neighborhoods in which creatives and other residents are often quickly priced out as an experience-based economy supplants production-based economic activities. The report cites initial work highlighting the potential for small-scale cultural assets in neighborhood social development (most notably in work by Stern and Seifert, and Grodach), and calls for more research in this area.
  • Economy. The report highlights two areas of research which move beyond frequently used economic impact approaches, and looks at the arts and creative industries as a growth vector in the wider economy. The first is the potential for the arts to draw investment and skilled workers to a region: research using self-reported data demonstrates that businesses and skilled workers report placing some value on cultural assets in their decisions on where to locate, though authors note that the actual level of effect on investment and movement of skilled laborers is not as well-defined, and more research is needed. The second area of inquiry highlighted in the report is on spillover effects from the creative industries to other sectors, most notably related to increased innovation. The report cites European studies that have found correlations between interactions with creative industries and indicators of innovation in other sectors, although identifying causality and mechanism of such an effect requires more research. The report also discusses more traditional economic impact research because, as the authors point out, economic impact has become the principal way that advocates demonstrate the economic value of the arts. The authors discuss methodological questions in regards to determining spending measurements, highlighting methods that adjust for concepts like displacement and deadweight (i.e., spending that has been pulled away from another sector, or that would have happened anyway) as promising tools for more accurate understanding of economic impact. They also discuss satellite accounts designed to measure the economic footprint of creative industries and the arts in the long term, and point out that these accounts may prove most valuable as efforts to define and track the creative industries to enable future research. The report also discusses econometric valuation methods, used to determine the value people assign to non-market goods, usually by asking them to self-report that value in some way. The authors see promise in developing this approach within the cultural sector, based on initial project research which explored and developed an econometric valuation methodology.
  • Arts Education. The authors draw from a body of research on the effects of both arts education and arts participation, to determine that there is little evidence that they have a significant effect on educational attainment via test scores. However, there is evidence of positive effects on skills associated with learning, such as cognitive abilities or pro-social behaviors and motivation. The authors also report some evidence that these effects may be greater among children of low socioeconomic status. The authors conclude from this that the role of arts in education would be better presented as contributing to skills and behaviors that provide a platform for greater learning, as opposed to directly leading to higher attainment in all disciplines. They also caution against a hierarchy of disciplines, which privileges gains in certain subjects like math and science, as opposed to valuing achievement and/or learning within arts disciplines themselves.
  • Health and Wellbeing. The report draws from a varied body of research about health and wellbeing, based mostly on existing literature. Researchers note five areas in which the arts help to improve health and wellbeing: clinical outcomes, such as reduction in anxiety, stress, and pain among patients (music programs dominated these studies); quality of health care settings and contribution to patient satisfaction; healthy living habits and improved mental health outcomes (developed through community-based, health-related arts activities); subjective wellbeing; and maintaining good health and quality of life of older adults. The report points to a number of shortcomings in the research, including: difficulty in isolating variables and attributing effects to specific arts interventions; prioritization of quantitative methods such as randomized control trials, which may not be suitable for evaluating arts interventions but are typically relied upon in clinical drug trials; the relative absence of longitudinal studies; and non-standardization of theoretical underpinnings and rigor of research design across studies. Concerns about contested understandings of wellbeing were also noted.

With regard to methodologies, the report primarily discusses the limitations of quantitative data in research about cultural value. It notes that controlled experimental studies sit at the top of the conventional hierarchies of evidence, but do not always adequately capture the context, particularity, and depth of arts and cultural experiences, for which alternative methods may be better suited. Many of the funded projects that were part of the CVP employed methods and analytical approaches like ethnography, network analysis, economic valuation, arts-based and hermeneutic techniques (suited for capturing nonverbal data), phenomenological approaches, and narrative inquiry. In particular, the report recommends qualitative data as a means of understanding much of the subjective meaning-making and significance attached to cultural experiences, and cautions against prioritizing standardization for the purpose of comparison in all cases. The report notes the value of experimental and quasi-experimental research design in testing art and culture’s effects, particularly in the arts and health fields. However, given the difficulty in isolating variables in cultural experiences, the report suggests augmenting this approach with rigorous qualitative research, which might be characterized by multi-modality, scalability (extrapolating from case studies), and iterability. It also calls for more attention towards formative and participatory evaluation, rather than the more common summative evaluations used for accountability and advocacy purposes. The report concludes with recommendations for future research, including equal consideration of informal, publicly-funded and commercial arts and culture, and more extensive insight into the effects of distinct cultural forms, collaborative vs. individual experiences, and the psychological effects of cultural engagement.

What we think about it: This project offers value to the field of arts research, most notably in summarizing and advancing theoretical conversations about how to conceptualize and investigate the value of arts and culture. The overall body of work created by the project’s research awards and workshops is also immensely valuable, and a capstone report synthesizing the overall findings of multi-year, multi-project research engagements should become common practice in the field.

Most of the report’s major theoretical decisions (emphasizing individual experience as opposed to works of art, using a broad definition of arts and culture, drawing on wellbeing and the capability approach, and moving beyond a strict defense of the current landscape of public support for the arts to map value more broadly) feel simultaneously landmark and inevitable for this type of research. The researchers’ methodological work is also valuable, but isn’t as convincing. Although the authors argue for dismantling a “hierarchy of evidence” which privileges experimental design above all else, the report falls short of providing the necessary context and examples of rigorous qualitative designs that would more firmly establish how that recommendation translates to practice. As opposed to abolishing hierarchy within arts research, it might be more productive to develop a detailed working model that explores how different methodologies fit together and complement each others’ strengths and weaknesses. This would shed light on the important role of qualitative analysis in an overall process while maintaining clear standards of evidentiary rigor.

The report does offer some direct findings on major areas of benefit of the arts and culture, but much of the analysis of the funded works seems more focused on plumbing the depths of specific research questions and methodologies than building toward an overall understanding of value in the arts. We wish the authors had done more to sketch out how the findings from the research grants and the supplemental literature review add up to a cumulative understanding of the mechanisms through which the arts improve lives, and how that understanding might be useful in decision-making contexts.

What it all means: The Cultural Value Project final report accelerates shifts in arts research that have been years in the making: expanding definitions of arts and culture, paying more attention to relationships between different parts of an arts and cultural ecosystem, foregrounding inequality and inequity, and moving beyond a narrowly defined understanding of cultural value. The report’s methodological suggestions could also yield value to the field. But there is still much work to be done, especially in understanding cultural value in academically rigorous ways, and connecting that understanding to the myriad decisions facing the arts sector around the globe.