Monday, 7 April 2008

What do people want from the arts?

The Arts Debate was a major public value enquiry, carried out by Arts Council England last year. It has published a number of reports and summaries of the findings, which you can access here. A new summary report has just been published, ‘What people want from the arts’. I draw a few conclusions relating to these findings, by drawing it to your attention:

People of all kinds value the arts but many feel there are barriers to them getting involved personally. These are mainly psychological, and relate (or so it seems to me) to confidence to act independently. As such they may be rooted in class, feelings of distance from power, or education systems and so on as much as specifically arts-related issues.

People get different things from the arts. The areas of value are described as relating to capacity for understanding and navigating the world, enriching our experience of life and applications to achieve wider outcomes such as learning or community cohesion. Although we might all choose different words, I think this is a useful way of looking at public value. From this flows the need to focus on quality and innovation, especially quality of experience, product and project.

This then has implications for all funders – not just the Arts Council, though particularly us – in terms of how we support people to create work that meets these aspirations in a fair and transparent way.

Some people will say this tells us what we already knew, and to a certain extent they might be right. But it tells us it in a different way, and it is a real endorsement from the public – including those not currently ‘engaged’ with the arts – of what artists and promoters and the Arts Council have been arguing for decades. As such it is powerful ammunition for use with, say, local councillors who think their constituents ‘don’t care’ about cultural provision.

One can look at these findings from a number of perspectives – which is what I hope to do over the next few posts, so this doesn’t turn into an essay (just now.) What might this mean for the sector’s response to a greater emphasis on ‘excellence’ in the arts? What does this mean for ‘participation’ – do we need better, subtler ways of defining it? Do we need to revisit our thinking on diversity and how we nurture new talent in the sector? Might there be implications for some of our basic models – of business, arts education, arts development, arts marketing?

(I’m also really keen to hear if there are examples of these issues being dealt with elsewhere in the world, where the influence of class in cultural experience might be different from Britain.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I also think Arts Debate was a learning experience for Arts Council. There was some anxiety before it started as to what "The Public" might say. The confidence achieved at a successful process will, I hope, enable Arts Council to take the risk of more public involvement and discussion in future. A dialogue that genuinely goes both ways, not dictats from on high.