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The tendency to overstate impacts through uncritical narratives of success risks undermining the credibility of arguments about why state subsidies for art and culture are necessary, say Leila Jancovich and David Stevenson.

Someone working with clay. Photographed over their left shoulder

The cultural sector has faced phenomenal challenges due to Covid. A recent Centre for Economics and Business Research report suggests that losing as much as one third of the sector would be a good result for recovery. But in England, eligibility for the new Cultural Recovery Fund was defined purely in terms of the “cultural organisations that were financially stable before Covid-19, but were at imminent risk of failure”. In other words, success and failure are only judged in financial terms and not with reference to what the cultural offer is or who it is for. 

Systemic policy failure

We have been working on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) research project looking at failure in cultural participation for almost two years. Last year in ArtsProfessional we called on the arts sector to be more honest about failure and have since shared the early findings. We have heard from hundreds of policy makers, arts practitioners and participants, through workshops, interviews and anonymous surveys. These insights have contributed to the publication of a range of articles that offer narratives of failure from different perspectives and at different points in the design and implementation of cultural participation policies.

The starting point for our research was an interest in why, despite the headlines about exciting projects and policies to increase cultural participation, the diversity of people who engage in the subsided arts in the UK has changed so little over our working lives. Acknowledging this more openly as a policy failure could help address inequities in how different people’s cultural lives are supported and valued. 

A growing number of people have challenged the way in which the ‘problem’ of cultural participation is understood in policy and the work of the Understanding Everyday Participation research team has provided extensive evidence to support this position. Rather than seeing the ‘problem’ as a failure of certain people to participate, they site the problem as being within the cultural sector itself, in particular a persistent failure to recognise and resource the cultural lives people already have. 

Pushing the ‘feel-good’ narrative

What we have found through our research is a cultural landscape that is not conducive to honesty or critical reflection about failures. A lack of trust and open dialogue between participants, artists, cultural organisations and funders, fuelled by a fear of losing funding, future work or professional reputations, encourages narratives of success. This is a self-defensive act, employed to avoid blame. But it discourages risk taking, encourages repetition of past mistakes and results in a failure to learn that limits significant change. 

Furthermore these ‘feel-good’ narratives have done little to increase or even consolidate political support for public subsidy of arts and culture, as the value of spending in this area continues to be questioned in a way that, for example, spending in education and health are not. The tendency to overstate impacts through uncritical narratives of success risks undermining the credibility of arguments about why state subsidies for art and culture are necessary. In the face of the unprecedented crisis society is currently facing, this failure to convince will be of even greater concern for the sector. 


This is why our work seeks to encourage explicit acknowledgement that policies and projects to support cultural participation are rarely either an outright success or failure. Furthermore different stakeholders, with differing value systems, will define ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in different ways. Yet what we found time and again was a failure to listen to a range of different viewpoints and narratives, leading to a tendency to overlook the truism that a policy or project that succeeds for one group, community, or organisation might fail for another.

The articles sharing the findings of this research seek to challenge this. They offer different perspectives both on participation and on success and failure, which are seen very differently when defined by a policy imperative rather than an artistic impetus. They also demonstrate how the voice of the participant or the artist, are all too often missing in policy design, review and evaluation, and attest to the value of giving them a place around the table.

Success and failure are two sides of the same coin. When reflecting on policy or practice we must ask not only what the criteria for success and failure are, but also who should decide on these criteria and how will conflicting voices and narratives be included in the stories we tell about this work. If we accept that perceptions of success and failure depend on whose perspective we are taking, the questions that need to be answered are: success and failure for whom? in what ways? and to what effect? 

Dr Leila Jancovich is Associate Professor in Cultural Policy and Participation at the University of Leeds School of Performance and Cultural industries and Prof. David Stevenson is the Acting Dean of The School of Arts, Social Sciences and Management and a Professor of Arts Management and Cultural Policy at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.

What might be learnt from your experiences of failing? The Failspace project (@failspaceproj on Twitter) is working in partnership with the Centre for Cultural Value to encourage the sector to openly discuss and learn from failures in a way that will benefit the development of policy and practice. For more information, or to submit a learning from failure story, contact Leila at l.jancovich@leeds.ac.uk.

Link to Author(s): 
Photo of Leila Jancovich
Photo of David Stevenson