Culture is not the ‘cherry on the cake’ but something more fundamental and vital to society.

October 6, 2023
Photo of the author - Jonathan Goodacre

Jonathan Goodacre

"The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the centre of a nation's purpose...and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization."

- John F Kennedy

Arts and Citizens

Nina Simone wrote ‘Mississippi Goddam’ as a response to the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, saying it was “like throwing ten bullets back at them”. It marked a turning point in her career, as her music frequently incorporated a civil rights message, lending a different and important voice to the movement and on the other hand leading to boycotts of her music.

Sadly, it is perhaps only retrospectively that the importance of such interventions is properly understood, even though there are plenty of contemporary examples that could be put up for consideration.

It’s a point nicely made back in 2009 in Mallika Sarabhai’s TEDIndia talk.

As she says: “You have treated the arts as the cherry on the cake. It needs to be the yeast.”

In these cases, the connection between art and its impact is clearer. More general influences can be harder to assess and demonstrate, even though most major cultural events now use impact and legacy as key reasons for their taking place.

Indeed, such initiatives are now commonly expected to deliver economic impact, meet aims for tourism, engineer place-making, produce social and community cohesion, increase participation, develop skills, engender partnerships, build new models of working and even generate peace and reconciliation (to name but a few). Valuable ambitions though most are, these can be difficult to achieve - building in disappointment - and to measure – leading to poor evaluation.

The reality is that impacts like those described above can only be properly assessed in the long term, whilst most evaluation of such programmes takes place during or immediately afterward. Furthermore, there are many thorny questions around connections and causality that need answering.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has produced two extensive reports on this subject, both of which are free to access and, though thorough, are eminently readable.

The first includes a good review of the existing literature, supplemented by OECD analysis from its own researchers. The second is a useful guide to the development of indicators, based on a number of excellent studies including our own analysis of volunteering at Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture.

Taking an economic perspective as its starting point, it deals well with the legacy of major sports and cultural events looking at them in the round, for example examining the bidding processes as well as the hosting. In addition, it also takes a proper look at the ‘negative’ impacts of events, which are often neglected. These include the effect on the environment as well as examining the long-term effect on communities that have to live in a location long after the ‘circus has left town’.

As anyone who does this sort of work knows, the development of indicators is one of the most difficult but important aspects of the work (see what we wrote about measuring ‘Europeanness’ in a previous edition of International Agent). The OECD guide is good on these points, combining principles from The Commonwealth Secretariat and the International Association of Events Hosts (IAEH). This includes recommendations for the use of good data produced according to recognised standards, preferably externally produced and with clarity over its collection and use.

As they say:

"Being explicit about methodology, assumptions and limitations helps to foster trust and enable comparison between events and across time."

Citizens Now

Meanwhile, in a summer rich with ‘meta’ research studies, The European Commission (EC) has published Culture and Democracy – the evidence which looks at the connection between cultural provision and civic engagement, democracy and social cohesion, boldly stating in its introduction:

"International research shows that citizens who participate regularly in cultural activities are more likely to vote, to volunteer, and to participate in community activities, projects, and organisations."

Its analysis takes a holistic approach to the issue, looking not just at the more obvious factors such as willingness to vote, but also at the sort of characteristics involved in democratic participation, including personal and social skills and the development of positive social attitudes.

Amongst the projects referred to are two in which The Audience Agency has been actively involved – BeSpectACTive! and Adeste Plus. They appear in the chapter ‘What characteristics of cultural activities shape the relationship with civic and democratic outcomes?’ which looks in more detail at the sort of initiatives that are particularly good at encouraging active cultural participation and its consequent effect on democracy.

As well as providing guidance on these practices, the report also importantly draws several policy conclusions and recommendations which, broadly say – to empower communities and support civic and democratic engagement then you need to support and invest in culture.

It’s a reminder that culture is not the ‘cherry on the cake’ but something more fundamental and vital.

Sign up for International Agent to hear about the latest in Audience Development Practices around the world