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I've been writing poetry since I was a baffled teen, about forty years. I have published four books of poetry and have just completed my fifth collection, "The Invisible Library". I am also a culture worker, editor, and publisher (Hagios Press).

Thursday, 15 March 2012

A New Paradigm for Cultural Value: Musings on the work of John Holden

Has the dialogue surrounding arts policy and public funding of the arts become a closed conversation between politicians (policy makers) and arts professionals (leaders working in the arts and culture field)?  How might the dynamic of this conversation change should arts professionals and the organizations they work for were to actively seek and gain a mandate from the public based on the true value of the arts in our daily lives?
These salient questions have been advanced by John Holden, one of Britain’s most respected cultural thinkers and teachers. The ideas outlined in this paper are from two of Holden’s publications: Capturing Cultural Value: How culture has become a tool of government policy and Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy: Why culture needs a democratic mandate. Holden is writing about the arts and cultural sector in England, but since our arts agencies were modeled on those in Britain there are parallels to be found in our cultural sector.

Regarding his use of the word “culture” Holden says, “I will use a narrow characterization of ‘culture’ to mean the arts, and arts and cultural institutions and organizations that receive public funding.”

For instance, like in Britain there has been recently been an increased expectation on arts leaders and arts organizations to expend more resources to the justification of publicly funded grants. Organizations are increasingly being asked to explain how their efforts have contributed to broad policy objectives, which are undoubtedly different at each level of jurisdiction. Politicians and their policy makers are changing the way arts organizations articulate their mandates by compelling them to provide outcomes expressed in terms of efficiency, diversity, youth engagement, to name a few examples, rather than focusing on results in terms of artistic achievement.  

Holden describes this trend in England, which has been well established for two decades: “The funding bodies … have marshaled statistics on the social outcomes of the activities that they fund, and deployed arguments about how the arts and culture helps social integration, economic regeneration and health. The attempt to make the effects of culture transparent and manageable, in order to support it effectively, has somehow obscured the true nature of the activities and experiences themselves… In sum, the identifiable measures and ‘ancillary benefits’ that flow from culture have become more important than the cultural activity itself: the tail is wagging the dog.”

 Holden argues that publicly funded arts activity generates three types of value: intrinsic, instrumental and institutional. Holden maintains each of these values is problematic when attempting to assess or measure their impact on the public yet he feels that intrinsic values seem to be the most salient in the public’s engagement in arts and cultural activities.

Intrinsic values are those related to the experience of the arts, intellectually, emotionally and contemplatively. These values are not easy to measure but can be captured in personal testimonies, qualitative assessments, anecdotes, case studies and critical reviews.

Instrumental values are those related to the ancillary effects of the arts where arts activities are employed to achieve a social or economic purpose. They are most often expressed in figures, and are captured in terms of ‘output’, ‘outcome’ and ‘impact’.

Institutional values are related to the processes and techniques that organizations adopt in how they work to create value for the public. Institutional value is created (or destroyed) by how these organizations engage with their public by providing a context for sociability and the enjoyment of shared experiences. Institutional value sees the role of arts organizations as active agents in the creation or destruction of what the public values.

Explanation of Holden’s ‘The Relationship Triangle’

Holden suggests that when pared to its essentials the decision about funding for the arts operates  (particularly in England) works like this:

  1. The public elects politicians.Politicians shape legal and policy framework within which the arts operate including critical financial resources.
  2. Funders occupy the space between arts professionals and arts organizations and are often expected to lead the arts sector as well as speak on its behalf while distributing government funds in order to achieve government aims in addition to demonstrating the impact of government spending on the arts.
  3. Arts professionals and Arts Organizations do the work of engaging the public through the creation and dissemination of the arts and cultural products while at the same time must justify their activities in terms of evidence of the impact desired by government for government spending on the arts.

Holden suggests thatat this model no longer works. In way of explanation he looks at the changing nature of the public, politicians (policy makers & funding agencies) and Arts professionals & arts organizations and at the changed relationship between them.

The term ‘The Public’ embraces everyone; we are all citizens and we all have an interest in public life and its expression through arts and culture. Obviously “The Public” is not a unified field. This reality has become more profound in the 21st century as we increasingly see that ‘the public’ has many identities and many voices, as well as many new methods for express individual identities. Holden envisions the arts and culture as a force that is undergoing a fundamental shift.

“Through out the twentieth century we—the public—were defined by two things: our nationality and our work. In these circumstances culture was both a reassurance and a decoration. They were a reassurance because we lived in relatively homogenous societies with clear identities; the cultural markers were obvious and well understood. It was a decoration because it was offered as compensation for work, a leisure pursuit, something affordable after the serious business of the day was done.

“In the twenty-first century all that has changed, Our nation states are far from homogeneous; every individual citizen is now part of a minority; and we no longer define ourselves by our work…we the public, need culture more and more to make sense of our lives, and to construct our individual and collective identities.” 

Holden recognizes that within a globalized world that people have ‘fluid identities’ with access to multiple, diverse and interwoven arts and cultural activities, which could be translated as answers to essential questions: “Who am I?” and “Who are we?”.

 He underlines that this fluidity of self raises the stakes for the arts and culture: decisions to engage are no longer primarily financial, as choice now puts into play the participant’s sense of self-definition.

The upside of this shift says Holden may be the ways in which ‘the public’ values the arts and culture. The most profound value his research suggests is through intrinsic experience, “…all those wonderful, beautiful, uplifting, challenging, stimulating, thought-provoking, terrifying, disturbing, spiritual, witty experiences that shape and reflect their place in the world.”

Holden recognizes that arts and culture within a country or a community provide a sense of ‘rootedness’. “This can play out in two ways—in a sense of place and geographical location where cultural infrastructure can anchor local identities, and in a sense of belonging to a community, either a geographical community, or a cultural community of interest.”

Not unlike their expectations of other sectors Holden suggests that the public values, “being treated well and honestly, by the cultural organizations that they choose to engage with.“
Holden asserts there is much evidence to determine that politicians value arts and culture for what it can achieve for agendas beyond the cultural sector.

“Although there has been a recent shift towards recognizing that instrumental values do not tell the whole story, they continue to dominate political discourse… Politicians want measurable, tangible results that help deliver government policy predictably, cost-effectively and on a mass scale, because that is the job of politics.”

Holden argues that the divergence of value goals between politicians and professionals that, “…the question then becomes how to create mutual understanding and constructive engagement between the two groups. Two decades of supplying ‘evidence’ do not appear to have worked, but perhaps if both politicians and professionals understand each other’s value positions clearly, and recognize their respective legitimacy and limitations, we may move in the right direction.”

John Holden

Read Holden’s essays on Cultural Value at:  http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/culturallegitimacy

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