It is no surprise that the latest report on local authority arts expenditure shows a decrease to two-thirds of the levels reached in 2008 (p1), but it is interesting that, in this second slicing of arts budgets, many of the cuts have been own-blows to local authority arts services. Surgery is now being routinely applied to the soft underbelly of local arts services, including development projects, and now to arts officers, whose activity is not obligatory for local authorities and whose presence is often unseen.
During the past two decades of growth in public investment in the arts, those we entrusted to spend our taxes enjoyed a relative largesse, and their investment often did not need demonstate an impact. Evidence gathered by arts organisations and arts councils has largely been used as an advocacy tool, with hard evidence often being buried if it didn’t prove the required point. This has devalued the research process and diminished its validity. But a cold new dawn is rising as investors now start to apply the scrutiny which is routinely applied in science, medical treatment, engineering and technical fields.
The Paul Hamlyn Foundation commissioned report ‘Whose cake is it anyway’ (p2) sends out the first chill signal of this new order. The report into the outreach and participation activity in museums and galleries finds that this activity exists on the fringes of the sector’s activities, rather than at its core, and suggests that decades of investment in participation-related activity have not only failed to embed participatory practices in museums and galleries, but appear to have been instrumental in keeping this part of their work on the periphery. These findings will not be a surprise to most AP readers but the report marks a distinct shift in tone from most of the usual research reports published, which emphasise the positive.
The reality is that many in the arts and cultural community view gathering evidence of impact as a tiresome diversion. We know that engagement in the arts is uplifting, inspirational and one of life’s greatest joys – why can’t that be enough? The feature on Arts and Health (pp 5–8) explains that the NHS requires proof of impact and includes several citations of the woeful lack of rigorous evidence to demonstrate the benefits of engagement in the arts as a positive healing activity. Dr Jenny Secker, Professor of Mental Health, highlights the need to move beyond the anecdotal.
Demonstrating empirical evidence of the positive impacts of engagement of the arts on active citizenship and health must become a clear objective for the cultural community over the next few years. To do this, there needs to be a substantive independent and objective research programme which seeks the truth rather than seeks to make the case for more funding of current practice. The research needs to include longitudinal elements and comparisons of the costs and benefits of engagement in different types of creative and arts activities against engagement with other activities. Such an investment needs a research programme which is rigorously defined, conceived, planned, executed, analysed and communicated. This means harnessing the skills of research scientists and academics – and being honest about the findings.
This week Anne enjoyed the wit, intelligence and brilliant performances of Brian Ferguson and Siobhan Redman in David Greig’s ‘Dunsinane’ at the Lyceum; was transfixed, stimulated and sometimes ‘sent’ from immersion in Pipolotti Rist’s installation ‘Sip My Ocean’ in the Narcissus Revisited exhibition at the Fruitmarket. Immediately after emailing this editorial, she set off to pay homage to JM Synge on Inis Meáin before the Irish Theatre Forum Conference in Galway.