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A 'simple but radical' approach to co-creating arts offers a way to move from project to programme to true partnership, academics say.

A workshop from the MAKE project

Evaluating arts projects on the value their participants generate rather than preordained outcomes is key to levelling up, academics say.

A recent evaluation of MAKE @ Story Garden, a collaboration between University of the Arts London (UAL), Central St Martins, Camden Borough Council, Somers Town Community Association and property company Lendlease, found the initiative spawned new networks, resources and funding opportunities by letting participants decide for themselves what was meaningful about the work over several years.

Dr Patrycja Kaszynska, Senior Research Fellow at the Social Design Institute and evaluator of MAKE, said the sector is "very much stuck" on a top-down, results-based way of working.


"Maybe that's changing, but the emphasis is on outcomes, the effectiveness of interventions and, sometimes, how much you get for your investment.

"That commits you to a certain way of working, but much more happens in creative projects than that. How do we pick up the pieces that fall through the cracks?"

Kaszynska, who is also working on DCMS' framework for valuing cultural buildings and assets, says this model of evaluation has long been used in marketing and management.

"It surprises me, given that so much of the sector is focussed on working with audiences and communities, that value co-creation isn't more popular.

"People keep beating themselves over 'if only we could demonstrate [value] better'. If it's okay for management, why are the arts held to a higher standard?"

This iterative, non-hierarchical approach is "highly relevant" to helping the sector achieve its placemaking and levelling up ambitions, the project partners commented.

"There's a lot of work that goes into levelling before levelling up,"  Kaszynska added.

'Simple but radical'

First established in the 60s, value co-creation is a "simple idea but yet very radical", Kaszynska said.

Adam Thorpe, Academic Lead for MAKE, said the project brought participatory practices into UAL's collaborations with neighbouring organisations. This approach of "infrastructuring" - enabling the conditions for co-creation to occur - helps develop organisational and community capacity, align agendas and combine resources.

Nearly 1,700 people engaged in 189 events between July 2019 and January 2021 despite a dip in involvement during the lockdowns. Participants reported benefits to their mental health, creativity and relationships and six new funding bids emerged from the networks that developed.

Several projects started through MAKE are continuing, including a Cumberland Market public space project between local residents and Masters' students and a new online communication platform, Somers Town Loop.

"It's always a very contested space because not all organisations have the same ideas," Thorpe said.

"Gradually over time, you can trust each other and understand how to work together on more critical innovations."

UAL President James Purnell said in a statement: "Now run by the community it was designed to serve, we should see this as a model for how organisations can collaborate to create a positive impact."

Trade offs

For all its potential benefits, value co-creating means accepting some trade offs, the researchers said.

The first, a notion that's gaining ground within the arts sector, is the need to relinquish control: "If you're genuinely co-creating with your audiences you might end up with art you don't like,"  Kaszynska said.

"It doens't mean outcomes can't be demonstated - they can - but it's shifting the emphasis."

But perhaps more challenging is letting go of ideas about efficiency. With the focus on process over progress, it's impossible to grow across all dimensions at once.

Thorpe said: "Over six years we have been delivering this work in ways where if it goes wrong, it doesn't matter."

"For me, one of the biggest successes is the relationships that we have formed.

"It enables us to move from a project to a programme to a more strategic piece of work with partners in place."