The cultural value in what goes around comes around

Mike White writes…

An Arts Council England publication which appeared recently, The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society, presents a rapid review of instrumental impacts of arts engagement, concluding 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, but to be used as a basis for making ‘the holistic case’ for arts and culture. Although the reports selected are restricted to publication post-2009, thereby overlooking some key studies of the last decade, this is still the Arts Council's first serious review of socially engaged arts since 2007, attempting yet again to reconcile the excellence versus utility rationales that have dogged it since its formation. 


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 in order to focus 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. 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’, cursory assessments of the evidence are made on a largely project-by-project basis and overlook how cross-cutting themes can evolve that are distinctive of the practice of arts in health where it may be bound up also with education, citizenship and inclusion. Furthermore, when obliged to include some aesthetic considerations, the review raises questions about ‘the direct impact that public arts interventions with a perceived quality of beauty can have on wellbeing’. This fails, however, to differentiate between public art that is only viewed and participatory art that is conscious of quality and empowerment.


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

The Arts Council review at least acknowledges that there are significant gaps in our knowledge and hints at funding partnerships to come with higher education. In coming full circle like this, however, the Arts Council 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. 


Mike White is a Research Fellow in Arts in Health at the Centre for Medical Humanities and St. Chad's College, Durham University. He has twenty five years’ experience of research, project management and training in arts and health and is the author of Arts Development in Community Health: a social tonic (Radcliffe, 2009). A full text of this blog post can be accessed at


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