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If we could fully understand the impact of arts and culture on wider society, would this change arts strategies and policies? Jonathan Vickery charts the progression of thinking on the ‘spillover’ effect.

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Evaluation is a term beloved by policy-makers and funders but can strike fear into the heart of arts organisations. Creating and managing an art project is enough work in itself without the added burden of writing a study on it, retracing your steps and trying to explain how everything went to plan.

If an arts organisation really knew their role in the local economy then how could they work that back into their organisational strategy?

Did it meet your initial aims? Or more importantly, did it meet your funder’s aims? Did you deliver? Prove it. Even if you did deliver, how do you know you are delivering value? And value is usually for someone else – not necessarily someone in the arts sector.

In 2014 I was invited to the european centre for cultural economy (or ecce) in Dortmund, Germany, to co-organise a seminar largely for graduate students. The seminar was a preliminary to what became the Forum D’Avignon Ruhr that continues annually with a big public event in Essen (now to be known as Forum Europe Ruhr) and the annual NICE Award.

Interest in spillover

The subject of the seminar was ‘spillover’, a term of increasing interest to EU cultural policy-makers, who we later started lobbying. By this time, a range of funding partners had become serious about developing a policy discourse around spillover. These partners remain Arts Council England, Arts Council Ireland, Creative Scotland and the European Cultural Foundation among others, and they now provide the strategic direction for the project.

Spillover (or ‘crossover’ as EU policy sometimes calls it) is where the arts and culture generate value beyond the specialist orbit of productions and audiences. The term has been used in the past by economists and is sometimes used as a synonym for ‘externalities’, where industrial production can impact a market in unintended ways. Spillover research in the arts and culture is similarly interested in unintended impacts and effects, but also in intentional ones.

Evidence-based research

The first milestone was led by Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy in 2015. The consultancy compiled an international evidence base of over 100 available research documents that contribute to our knowledge on spillover (available on our Wiki).

The report was structured around three categories:

  • Knowledge spillovers: Where ideas, narratives or even products spill over into the wider economy and society (often without directly rewarding or even acknowledging the creators).
  • Industry spillovers: This refers to value chains or horizontal cross-sector benefits to the economy and society generated through innovative forms of organisation, partnership and communication.
  • Network spillovers: This refers to interconnections between people or organisations in a way that increases critical mass and density (perhaps deliberately through creative clustering or cultural quarters).

So, how does value extend out of these spillovers into the wider economy and society? Who benefits and how?

Spillovers are not necessarily positive. No one has yet been able to measure the impact of the arts and culture on house prices or gentrification. Since New Labour, politicians of all sides have remained positively flattering about the arts. “The arts and creativity set us free,” said Tony Blair in 2001. Do they? Spillover research is interested in defensible claims based on the kind of evidence that policy-makers can accept and can make arguments about the centrality of the arts to society.

And in the past few decades, the arts and culture have done much to demonstrate that with strategies of access, inclusion, outreach, wellbeing and so on. But spillover is also interested in core competencies – how do the art’s core competencies possess latent powers of spill? We support cultural autonomy as a principle, and do not believe that spillover necessarily equals instrumentalism (or using the arts and culture for other ends).

There is something internal to the artistic process that should be more than about works of art and performances – it should be about organisation, strategy, urban intervention and the development of cities, the public sphere, health, housing or crime. Whatever is crucial to the lives of people in society and the economy. How can we demonstrate that the arts can (on its own terms) play a role in the ‘real’ economy or social order, whatever their audiences or specific interest groups?

Evaluation vs value

I started with the term evaluation. Is this not the opposite of what spillover research is? In some ways it is, if all we mean by evaluation is the project reports and feedback forms all arts organisations routinely use. Evaluation, properly speaking, is more detailed – it assesses and quantifies value.

Our partners are interested precisely in the full range of what we mean by ‘value’. This may be where the arts and cultural value are converted into another kind of value (non-cultural value areas like tourism, skills and employability, community cohesion, and so on). But more crucially, we are interested in the arts playing a central role in determining their own value production, and playing a more concerted role in the economy or local value chains (where value is often a one-way street, profiting others but not returning).

‘Cultural value’ is now a commonplace term, but it needs to become specific and strategic. We are currently testing methods, and our partners are not just interested in descriptive research (what the arts already do) but strategic development. If an arts organisation really knew their role in the local economy (and could marshal evidence for it), or community health, or intangible cultural heritage, then how could they work that back into their organisational strategy – and increase their spillover?

In 2016 we commissioned four specific research studies (from Poland, Finland, Italy and the Netherlands), each testing methodologies for spillover research on a specific art or cultural project. These are summarised in a new report, courtesy of Alastair Evans of Creative Scotland, Nadine Hanemann at ecce, and all the partners who contributed along the way. All our material is freely available on our Wiki – and waiting for your response.

Jonathan Vickery is Associate Professor at the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies, University of Warwick.

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