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The sector’s resilience and creativity in navigating crises show how art and culture will sustain even in the toughest of times. Ben Walmsley explores what is now needed to build a more equitable, confident and sustainable future.   

Young people leaping across a lavender bed in Ilam Park
Film workshop with Soft Touch Arts participants at Ilam Park, 2023

Pascal Vossen for Arts&Heritage

“We need to hold on to what we’ve learnt.” This was a sentence often heard when speaking to cultural sector leaders, practitioners and policymakers as we emerged from the very darkest days of Covid. 

Of course, we didn’t know the nature of the challenges ahead. Or quite how they would absorb time, attention and resource. 

Glimmers of hope

There are no silver bullets to fix to the so-called ‘polycrisis’ facing the arts, cultural and heritage sectors. We’re all too aware of the challenges, and there’s little point rehearsing them again here. That’s not to say there aren’t some good news stories. Hidden in the Spring Budget, there were a few lifelines for cultural organisations old and new, as well as for some regions and entire sectors such as film and TV. 

Government investment on this scale demonstrates how arguments about the pivotal role arts and culture can play in supporting health and wellbeing, as well as generating meaningful jobs and life-enhancing experiences, are starting to cut through to even the more sceptical politicians. 

Yet, we also know that investment in arts, culture and heritage isn’t joined up. Over the past few weeks, it has felt more than ever that the government has given with one hand while taking away with the other. It is now imperative the pressing crisis in local government spending is addressed.

The Centre’s role

Our main job at the Centre for Cultural Value  (the Centre) is to highlight key findings from research and evaluation to support the arts, culture and heritage sectors in articulating and evidencing their impacts. 

We approach this work from the belief that culture and creativity are at the heart of what it is to be human, and everyone should have access to a broad range of enriching cultural experiences and activities. 

In the present challenging context, this work takes on fresh urgency. It feels more important than ever that sector organisations, funders and policymakers have a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of how different kinds of cultural activities create value, for whom, and in which conditions and contexts. 

We do this in a number of ways, including: 
•    synthesising findings from academic research and communicating our learning through accessible digests, podcasts and events;
•    supporting cultural organisations to evaluate their own activities in robust and people-centred ways that embrace learning from failure and sharing their findings with confidence;
•    engaging with funders and policymakers at local, regional and national levels to influence positive change based on our research.

As we approach the end of our first five years of funding, we are now taking a spoonful of our own medicine: reflecting on our achievements and failures and drawing on this evaluative work to plan our future. 

This is not an easy process, but it has encouraged us to pause and step back from our day-to-day activity to think about what we have learnt over the past four and a half years. 

What key lessons do we need to hold on to? 

In 2022, the Centre published our extensive research investigating the impact of the Covid pandemic on the cultural sector

As well as highlighting the sometimes hidden generosity and collaborative spirit that characterises our sector, the pandemic made us all realise (if sometimes all too briefly) that the status quo was not an option. 

We could no longer deny or refuse to acknowledge the stark inequalities in our sectors, the unsustainable working hours and patterns, the damaging bullying and harassment, the poor pay levels and the often shocking disregard for freelancers and independent artists. 

On the back of our research findings, the Centre called for a more regenerative approach to working in the sector. By this we meant the need to build in time for reflection, celebration, play, planning, evaluation, rest, reward and recuperation. We meant taking the often difficult decision to do less – but doing it in smarter, more sustainable ways. We meant acknowledging when we are tired, overstretched, overreaching our mission, overcommitting, placing a sometimes unfair and unbearable strain on our colleagues and peers. We meant prioritising fair work and the generation of social capital.

Regeneration involves embracing, rather than working against, natural rhythms and cycles – personal, interpersonal, environmental, artistic, cultural and financial. It implies building in during fallow periods that are not production-focused, which are less visible, active and onerous. 

It also means co-producing and co-creating so that power, skills and ownership are more equitable and distributed across organisations and networks. It involves moving closer to our communities and finding ways to carry out effective and ethical place-based work.

It requires an ethos of care and mutual support that respects artists and audiences as core partners and co-producers of cultural value. It means thinking of ourselves as an interconnected community rather than a competing set of organisations, an ecology rather than an industry. It means less focus on transactional relationships and more on relational engagements.

Rethinking resilience

Of course, none of this is simple. 

But rushing onwards, ignoring the lessons learnt during the pandemic, isn’t a solution either. 

This is why we are making the case to funders that there is real practical value in delving more deeply into the notion of regenerative practice – with the Centre activating its networks to surface and amplify learning and showcase what it can look like in practice. 

Through this work, we hope to offer a much-needed rethink of the tired and problematic notion of ‘resilience’. After all, we don’t want a sector that is just about able to parry the punches. Instead, we want to support the cultural sector navigate turbulent times with confidence and knowledge. 

Ben Walmsley is Dean of Cultural Engagement at the University of Leeds and Director of the Centre for Cultural Value.
@BenWalmsley | @valuingculture

Delve deeper into the Centre’s learning in their resource hub. 

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.

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Photo of Ben Walmsley