Published by Arts Council England (ACE) on 14 March, The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society presents a rapid review of instrumental impacts of arts engagement. The result is a poorly founded and lugubrious conclusion that there is little evidence of causal links between arts engagement and individual/social benefit.

It is an assessment drawn from around 90 research reports identified through web search without expert recommendation, and used as a basis for making ‘the holistic case’ for arts and culture. Although the reports selected are arbitrarily restricted to publication post-2009, thereby overlooking some key studies of the last decade, this is still ACE’s first serious review of socially-engaged arts since 2007. It attempts yet again to reconcile the excellence versus utility rationales that have dogged the organisation since its formation.

The pendulum swing back to examining a social agenda for the arts was not necessarily where ACE was heading with its 2013 strategy Great Art and Culture for Everyone – a title that unfortunately suggests culture is something to be provided rather than supported to evolve. It may be a sign of its newly-extended responsibilities for museums and libraries that ACE needs to maintain a cumbersome reference throughout the review to ‘arts and culture’. One can also sense the burden of added responsibility in austere times in which more is less – it must be rather like having wished for a train set for Xmas and getting the National Railway Museum.

Cursory assessments of evidence

Putting evidence-based cultural value perspectives into the strategy is a big belated task and the review’s methodology is hampered at the outset by removing the intrinsic value arguments to the back-burner. Instead, it focuses on instrumental impacts as potboilers that have no meaningful connection with the age-old value of the arts in shaping people’s world view and principles. This overlooks some of the strongest evidence of arts-fuelled change. The arts intervention that, for example, persuades a troubled teen to focus on a career in the arts is not just an instrumental impact; it is potentially a life-changing event. Maybe we need an evidence review that adds another category beyond the intrinsic and the instrumental: the life-changing.

Although there is acknowledgement early on in the document that ‘each benefit relates to a cluster of other benefits’, the grain of evidence accumulated in the review process gets siloed into dumpers headed Economy, Health & Wellbeing, Society, and Education. Taking Health & Wellbeing as an example, cursory assessments of the evidence are made on a largely project-by-project basis. These overlook how cross-cutting themes can evolve that are distinctive of the practice of arts in health, where it can also be bound up with education, citizenship and inclusion.

Furthermore, when obliged to include some aesthetic considerations, the review notes that although some research ‘confirms that beauty has an impact on wellbeing, it raises questions about the direct impact that public arts interventions with a perceived quality of beauty can have on wellbeing’. The nature and degree of engagement surely has some bearing on the perceived beauty of the artifact or activity? This observation also fails to differentiate between public art that is only viewed and participatory art that expresses a collective creativity that is conscious of quality and empowerment.

Temporal transformations

The strangest assertion set out in the ground rules for this review is that ‘benefits are “instrumental” because arts and culture can be a means to achieve ends beyond the immediate intrinsic experience and value of the art itself’. So is the value of arts engagement really just an instant gratification of ‘immediate intrinsic experience’? What about the resonance of an arts experience and temporal transformations? It is not just what happens but how and for how long, and we should take into account the manner of the artist’s engagement, not just the technique applied.

It is disappointing that consideration of the artist in the research reviewed is largely about wealth creation and earnings. What about the development of practice in society and how resourcefully and relevantly it may be applied in both healthcare and community settings? This, I believe, has to be at the core of delivering cultural value when the work relies on relationship-based practice.

ACE’s review at least acknowledges that there are significant gaps in our knowledge and hints at funding partnerships to come with higher education – which makes me wistfully recall that it cut all its grant-aid connections with research centres in 2005. Now ACE sees that obtaining a better understanding through longitudinal study of the experiential or intrinsic aspects of arts engagement is vital to addressing the evidence gaps that arise by focusing primarily on instrumental impacts.

In coming full circle like this, however, ACE has underestimated and undervalued the existing evidence base, has probably demoralised the emergent hybrid research partnerships that are happening despite the erstwhile disinterest of the arts funding sector, and has concluded with revelations based on what practitioners have said to it for years. This is hardly the best baseline from which to articulate ‘the holistic case’ for arts and culture.

Originally published by Centre for Medical Humanities, Durham University.

Download pdf of the ACE report here.

More on

Use the Tag search for more cultural_value stories on on a-n News.

Cultural value: why money isn’t everything and public support matters – Three Johns and Shelagh report from the first of the Warwick Commission’s ‘provocation events’.

The Art of Living Dangerously – Provocation urging those working with arts and culture to rethink their contribution to a vision of sustainable development that benefits the whole of society.

Engaged practice – guides and profiles exploring how artist work within community, social and enviromental contexts.

Ladders for development and Realising the value – Dany Louise on likely and actual effects of cuts in 2011 to small-scale, practice-led organisations.