This opening blog post was going to start with a description of being sat in an interview, pitching for an engagement project at a museum, and being bluntly told by someone from the upper levels of management that the only thing they cared about was the number of people who came in through the door.

Meanwhile, yesterday came with the news that Arts Council England plans to impose on its National Portfolio Organisations a standardised system for measuring artistic quality (NPOs to adopt it in the 2018-22 investment period).

Can you measure ‘great’ art?” asks Simon Mellor (Executive Director, Arts and Culture, Arts Council England), the scare quotes around ‘great’ foreshadowing the growing sense of doom as I scan through the articles in a few minutes snatched from time spent preparing work for an exhibition.

I originally trained as an engineer; I get why standards are important. But, but, but…

I’ve been awarded an a-n Professional Development Bursary to help me get better at articulating that but.

My practice centres around asking questions and inviting people into a conversation; there are so many reasons why equating quality to audience or participant numbers doesn’t work for me. This blog will document my research into finding alternative methods of expressing the value and the success of my projects.



A few days ago I went to a session organised by Ludic Rooms as part of their Random String professional development (I’ve been a mentor on this year’s programme). Our focus was on applied research – artists working together with academics – but we also repeatedly returned to questions about value and evaluation.

Here are a few extracts from my notes:

How can you be involved in the research process rather than just making someone else’s work more palatable to the public? [As a group, I think we put higher value on being integral to the research rather than illustrators of it.]

The academy questioning the reliability/validity of the research output if people have been playful with the research material.

Teaching academics having different metrics for success compared to research academics (where the focus is often on publishing papers in a selection of highly rated journals and taking risks is, well, riskier).

One academic described the process of trying to get the metrics widely reimagined as being like turning a tanker around.

We also talked about how valuing collaborations (and collaborators) could greatly affect the working process and the experience of being involved – both in terms of working relationships and also in terms of the scaffolding and preparation that’s put into supporting the collaborative process.

Timescales came up a lot, particularly in terms of giving relationships time to form and grow, but also in recognising that many current funding and reporting systems encourage evaluation to be concluded promptly (for example, Grants for the Arts requiring an activity report form before you receive the final 10% of the grant) and that often this makes some of the value invisible.


I went to a networking session about 18 months ago where I approached one of the speakers afterwards and we began a process of conversation about our respective practices and the overlap between them. This has recently evolved into 2 or 3 months’ worth of funded work, but it won’t show up in any evaluation for the networking session because the programme that organised it has already closed down.

Themes from the day echoed a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about in my research here and also more widely within my practice. I’ve been close enough to people working in academia over the last few years that I have a real sense that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is seen by many as a system that promotes a particular idea of research and also favours traditional types of outputs, in turn reducing the willingness of academics (or perhaps the departments supporting them) to be more creative in their working processes. Creativity (creating new things) and research (understanding new things) both being two processes that carry a certain amount of risk; otherwise you’re just re-treading old ground…



I spent December in Japan: first a week working in Tokyo as part of the Playable City Tokyo creative lab (read more about it here) and then a few weeks traveling around refreshing old connections and making new ones.

There’s a blog post on my website giving an overview of my travels; this is expanding a bit more on a section of it.


I hadn’t initially planned to go but, after receiving several recommendations, I went on a spur of the moment day trip to Naoshima.

Naoshima is a small island in terms of both size (I walked across it in about 30 minutes) and population (about a three hundredth of the size of Birmingham’s population).

Located in the Seto Inland Sea, I gather the traditional fishing industries are in decline at least in part as a result of increasing levels of pollution. Given that the northern end of Naoshima is home to a massive mining operation – complete with tall belching chimneys* – you can easily see how this might be the case.

[*I’m hesitating here because of course I composed all my photos to avoid the signs of industry and it seems many others have done the same so I can’t double check my memories!]


Nowadays the island is as likely to be associated with art as it is with fishing or mining. There are several contemporary art museums,  various installations and a regional triennale.


Even though I went in December and things like the main information office were closed, there were still a fair amount of tourists making a similar trip to mine (our paths kept crossing at the main travel termini!).

I think most of the people who had suggested Naoshima to me had probably experienced the big museums or perhaps been there when the island was in triennale mode. My impulsive but late start and a series of badly coordinated travel transfers meant I had limited time, so I opted to hunt out the Art House installations dotted around the port of Honmura rather than to travel around to the southern part of the island where the galleries and museums are.

Empty buildings have been transformed into artworks, containers for artworks, and things that blur the boundaries between the two.

Unfortunately photography isn’t allowed inside any of the properties, but hopefully these snaps from the outside of some of them will give you a sense of the range of buildings involved.

The 200 year old Kadoya house, a former dentist’s office and a renovated Shinto shrine:

There are 7 locations in all – entrance for 6 of them is charged at about £7 – with staff at each location stamping your ticket/leaflet as you go in.

My afternoon left me incredibly curious about how the project came about (it seems the first installation was in 1998, the latest three in 2006) and where the different sorts of value are perceived to be.

The sort of empty shops projects I’m familiar with in the UK generally involve run down areas – hence the empty properties – and colonisation by emerging artists. They (the spaces, not necessarily the artists!) usually have a, shall we say, a certain rough and ready aesthetic. The first house I went to (the former dentist’s office) didn’t jar with this too much, but several of the subsequent locations had a very different feel – both in terms of the work presented and with the age/style of the buildings being used. (My perceptions of age=value becoming evident there…)

It was new (and, I have to admit, somewhat discombobulating) to see an empty buildings project that appears to involve a string of established (presumably well remunurated) artists, and that can support admission charges and associated costs of staffing and marketing.

I was full of questions, but my basic Japanese language skills only extended to trying to ask one of the attendants what had come first; what had catalysed Naoshima’s embracing of contemporary art?

I was expecting (or perhaps hoping) that there had been some grass roots activity that had grown to critical mass and then everything had taken off.

Had this been something that had just evolved, or had the project been masterminded and commissioned by someone?

The leaflet included some text in the same vein as this (although I’ve lifted this from an online description:


Going from one of the houses to another, visitors pass through the Honmura district, where everyday life unfolds around them, in the process not only engaging with works of art, but also sensing the layers of time and history interwoven in the community and the fabric of local people’s lives. A notable feature of the Art House Project is that because viewing it means traversing a zone of daily life, it acts as a catalyst for interaction between visitors and local residents, giving rise to many a memorable episode. A truly organic project that changes day-to-day, it has evolved to present a new model of community, characterized by positive interaction between urban and rural, young and old, resident and visitor. [source]

The Art Houses read like the sort of project I am familiar with, but it felt very different.

I recently found out a bit more information with a little bit of online detective work…

The leaflet that also acts as your ticket bears a tiny little Benesse Art Site Naoshima logo. I was aware that Benesse was associated with the swankier stuff on the south of the island, but I hadn’t realised there was a connection to the Art House project. Well, that explains the types of artists (I assume are) involved, then!

First of all, a few extracts from the Benesse Art Site website:

Benesse Art Site Naoshima’s origin can be traced back to the overlapping vision of two men.

Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the founding president of Fukutake Publishing, who aspired to create a place in the Seto Inland Sea where children from all over the world could gather; and Chikatsugu Miyake, then incumbent mayor of Naoshima, who dreamt of developing a cultural and educational area on the island. [source]


Benesse Art Site Naoshima was born from the Naoshima International Campsite in 1989. It then opened Benesse House (1992), an establishment offering hotels rooms and dedicated spaces for exhibiting contemporary art. After holding the outdoor exhibition “Out of Bounds” (1996), in 1998 the focus moved from the art museum toward the local town and its inhabitants as they went about their daily routines, leading to the start of the Art House Project. In 2004, it opened the Chichu Art Museum as a stage for showcasing a compilation of all the art activities carried out in Naoshima up to that point. Over a span of many years, it has made art become ingrained with Naoshima and its natural landscapes. [source]


Mar. 1998 Start of the Art House Project
A project that takes old houses in Naoshima’s Honmura District, restores them, and lets artists convert these spaces into works of art. The first work of this project, Kadoya, was opened to the public in 1998. This became a great opportunity for expanding the area dedicated to art projects, reaching out from the Benesse House Museum toward the local town and its inhabitants, and engaging with their daily routines. [source (click on the title in the timeline to view this caption)]



This is all I have to go on, so not the most comprehensive or wide-ranging of source materials, but I’m starting to get a sense of how this facet of Naoshima has come to be. Previously I had been wrestling with some sort of assumed divide between placemaking projects being from the bottom up and big budget long-term projects being commercial endeavours. Both these shaped by my own experiences as an emerging artist working in the UK: short-term, low budget.

It’s taken a while – and a bit of digging – but the Art House project has reminded me that things can be different. It may yet be that Benesse is a canny business investment (it certainly now seems to own a lot of property on the island), but it’s been eye-opening to see an initiative led by a private investor and sustained over such a long time.

I still have questions: about how all this art is regarded by the locals and whether either the art itself or the repercussions of the associated business has improved the quality of life for the residents (if at all). In particular, in the wake of the Playable City Tokyo lab, I am curious about the claims about positive interactions between residents and visitors.


For the whole afternoon looking at the Art Houses I didn’t really have any interactions with anyone beyond getting my ticket stamped, and I’d mostly been inside my head all day, existing in the space behind my eyes as I waited for transport or passively viewed art.

After everything started to close for the day, I decided to meander over to the next town, where I had the most stand-out experience of the whole day: a series of interactions with a young girl who was playing with a football in the car park outside this ramen restaurant. She found the courage to come up to me at the bus stop to say hello. (Something she couldn’t convince her little sister to try!)

It didn’t feel like something that had been facilitated by art, but maybe she was used to seeing foreigners waiting there and had had other chats with other tourists.

How do you assess impact like this?


I’ve begun reading Nina Simon’s book “The Art of Relevance” after listening to some podcasts and watching some videos of her talking about value in the museums sector.

I’ve just followed a link on Twitter to this article on diversity in the arts by Tania Canas – “Diversity is a white word” – and it seems to be echoing some of the directions in which I think The Art of Relevance might be heading. It’s also a good reminder that superficial diversity isn’t really diversity.

It’s also resonating strongly with work that I get asked to do within community settings of different types and I’m seeing it as a reminder to look below the surface at the frameworks of power.

This in turn is reminding me of this Tweet that I saw earlier this morning

Even though I was arrested, I smiled bc I was on the right side of history. Find a way to get in the way #goodtrouble

— John Lewis (@repjohnlewis) July 19, 2015

Here are a few quotes from the diversity article, but I recommend you read the article in full.

Diversity is the in-vogue theme for the cultural industry, becoming an exercise in ill-thought-out, quick responses to stage diversity rather than as an opportunity to re-imagine the entire sector. It has become painfully obvious that the sector’s increasing self-awareness and subsequent panic, has caused a scramble towards superficial diversity, rather than an opportunity to dismantle the frameworks that created the systemic exclusion to begin with.

Just because we exist in a space, doesn’t mean we’ve had autonomy in the process by which the existence has occurred. It is not about ‘giving a voice’, we already have one. It has been systematically silenced. What we are talking about is power and self-determination.

The sector needs to abandon its quest for authenticity and instead seek multiplicity. Authenticity is determined, verified and labelled by the dominant narrative in relation to periphery narratives. When tied to ideas of staging ‘authentic voices’ the arts restricts, places demands on form and content as well as systematically silences the multiplicity of truths. It is an exercise of institutional and national power from the entitled to do so (Hage, 2000). Multiplicity, as opposed to authenticity, defies constructs that are palpable and easily consumable to the dominant narrative.


Back in February, when my head was full of several nebulous beginnings of projects, I made a series of notebooks in which to gather people’s stories.

Most of the books were to help catalyse my thinking around what was to become the project ‘Orrery for Landscape, Sinew and Serendipity‘, but there was one there that had this research in mind:


Tell me about a time when an artwork (or a contrivance that could have been an artwork) had an impact on you.


I wanted to hear from other people about the things that had had an impact on them. Part of this is learning about how others define impact, as well as hearing about the types of things that have caused that impact.

I opened the notebook – as I did for each in the series – with an example from my own experience. Here I told of a day-trip to London when I was studying for my A-levels, and my encounter with an installation in a squat in Mile End.

The last paragraph:

I think this was my first encounter with installation art, so probably what set me off on the track that led to what I do now.


Here are some really distilled versions of what the other contributors shared:

Psychosis 4:48 – Sarah Kane

Being completely absorbed >> opening up of an idea >> affecting the artwork they make now


This Variation – Tino Sehgal

Surprise >> tears >> feeling a part of something >> feeling welcome and needed


A painting by Picasso

Got a bit hooked on Cubism >> totally inspired me >> seeing the real thing and it was tiny >> learning idea usually better than reality


Pulse Room – Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Stumbled across it >> felt really moved >> realising our hearbeats were all up there together


Rebecca’s Riots – Pentabus

Theatre in a small village hall >> close-up and personal >> powerful >> smell, touch and taste the drama


a painting at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

With friends >> seeing ourselves in the painting >> appreciating the moment very deeply >> three different people connected and came closer


installation by Donald Judd

Couldn’t understand the point >> annoyed at people forcing them to move >> moment of realisation that can be applied to life >> I need to move to change my perspective to see different angles of the same thing


It’s heartwarming to see examples of how artworks had meaningful effects on people. And effects that were then applied out to wider contexts – they weren’t just contained in Art World, but entered everyday life too.

I think there’s a certain amount of filtering going on because of the notebook format – only impacts that had a lasting effect after the encounter are remembered to be written down – so I’m curious about short-term impacts as well.

Do you think it’s possible to design for impacts like these, or are they so unique and unpredictable that that would be an impossible task?

Should the strategy instead be to expose people to as many artworks (or contrivances that could be artworks) as possible on the basis that at some point one will trigger something meaningful?