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Centre for Cultural Value partnership logo

In the face of multiple crises, Matthew McCallum and Ben Walmsley argue that now is the time to make the case for culture as a public good.

Without Walls perform Urban Astronaut at Wakefield's Festival of the Moon

Andrew Benge

In an economic environment where every area of public investment is rightly under increased scrutiny from the government and the public, making robust arguments for the importance of the arts and cultural sector takes on a fresh urgency. 

The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) ambition is to support research that helps bring about a healthier society, more prosperous economies, a more open civil discourse, a richer cultural landscape and a thriving environment for ideas.

Academics across a range of disciplines are exploring questions around the public value of arts and culture: what are the social, health and economic benefits of engaging with culture, how can we adapt practices to maximise them, and how can we best evidence them? 

Connecting people with research

A key challenge for funders, however, is not only supporting work that addresses these questions but also finding ways to connect research with those who can best use the findings and, in turn, shaping research agendas informed by the needs of those communities. 

To create the kind of ambitious change we want to see, we need to use our funding to nurture an ecosystem that creates and sustains new networks. Our funded work needs to evolve in a way that doesn’t treat researchers and research users as separate but as equal partners in creating new knowledge for public benefit. 

One example is the Mobilising Community Assets programme, which supports projects that link and integrate museums and galleries into healthcare systems with the aim of reducing health inequalities. The AHRC Place programme has also funded nine knowledge exchange projects that explore a range of opportunities to forge closer links between research, policy and practice for public benefit. 

And the Creative Communities programme is exploring the potential for arts and culture to help create a stronger, fairer economy and society across the regions and nations of the UK. 

Working together to articulate the diverse ways in which arts and culture add value to our lives, as individuals and as a society, is at the core of all these efforts. 

The role of the Centre for Cultural Value

The Centre for Culture Value’s (the Centre) work builds much-needed bridges between rigorous academic research, the cultural sector, funders and policymakers. Their key role as broker, translator, convenor and knowledge producer in this space is part of the critical infrastructure we need to ensure that collectively we can make the best case for culture as a public good. 

The Centre’s role is to build a shared understanding of the differences that arts, culture, heritage and screen-based activities bring to people’s lives and to society. It does this by researching and communicating the value and impacts of culture, as well as looking to enhance the ways in which the cultural sector evaluates its value and impact. In addition, the Centre engages with funders and policymakers to effect positive change. 

As part of this work, it also funds cultural organisations to explore timely questions of cultural value in partnership with UK-based academics through its pioneering Collaborate programme, which this year attracted almost 300 applications from the sector.

The Centre sees itself as a network of networks: a safe, independent space where different groups of people – from diverse backgrounds, art forms, positionalities and sectors – can come together to discuss and debate some of the knottier questions of cultural value. 

It is a place where people can share stories, examples and methods about what works and what needs to change to develop our learning about cultural value and to foster a fairer, more equitable, diverse and regenerative cultural sector that has something to offer everyone.

The timeliest of issues

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and work our way through the cost-of-living crisis, it has never been more important or urgent to understand the role that culture plays in our communities and wider society. 

As shown by the Centre’s robust research on the impacts of Covid-19, human beings crave cultural engagement during a time of crisis; it offers joyful, playful and meaningful ways to bring us together as couples, families, communities and as a society. 

Furthermore, current policy interventions like levelling-up offer huge opportunities to assert the unique power of arts and culture in animating, shaping and regenerating places in an ethical, people-centred way. Capturing and articulating what works and what needs to change can help ensure funding is targeted to achieve this aim. 

The Centre believes that only through rigorously exploring cultural value will we be also able to appreciate the power of arts and culture to help address global challenges such as the climate crisis. 

Plans for a joined-up future

In its Making Data Work research, the Centre has highlighted the importance of a more joined-up approach to collating, analysing and sharing cultural sector data. As part of the emerging plans for the future, the Centre is exploring the potential for a national observatory for cultural data. 

An observatory will ensure that data is robust and shared in a timely way to offer regular insights into the structure, resilience and preoccupations of the sector and its audiences. In doing so, the plan is to open cultural data up to research and ensure that it can be cross analysed with relevant health, education and retail data to provide a fuller picture of the social impact of culture and cultural engagement. 

Recent crises and policy interventions have highlighted that culture can play a vital role in shaping a healthier and happier society. By working together and harnessing rigorous research and data, we will be better placed to capture and articulate this impact and ensure policymakers make informed decisions for the public good.

Matthew McCallum is an Associate Director of Programmes at the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
Ben Walmsley is Director of the Centre for Cultural Value and Professor of Cultural Engagement at the University of Leeds.

@valuingculture | @McCa11um | @BenWalmsley

The Centre for Cultural Value’s current research themes are:
•    Culture, health and wellbeing
•    Cultural participation
•    Community, place and identity

Delve into our related resources and, if you’d like to share your reflections or contribute to future resources or events, get in touch at ccv@leeds.ac.uk.

This article, sponsored and contributed by the Centre for Cultural Value, is part of a series supporting an evidence-based approach to examining the impacts of arts, culture and heritage on people and society.

Link to Author(s): 
Headshot of Matthew McCallum
Photo of Ben Walmsley
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This makes it sound like a new initiatiive when the need for the arts and cultural sector to relate to a wider agenda on wellbeing etc has been around for decades. Since the 1990s various researchers and researchh companies here and globally have been looking at and collecting data on how we impact , contribute and enhance the wellbeing.,health and lifestyle of our communities. The question is not how do we collect this data but what do we do with it and this we have failed to do over and over again. Please no more research, data collection but more action, collaborative working with other sectors in health, social work, education to reinforce the integral part and role we play in our society and communities. Perhaps then all this will be meaningful. It is now NOW IS THE TIME - the time has always been now