Culture on purpose: inclusive growth opportunities for culture

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

This page and the following five linked at the bottom are adapted from a chapter we wrote for British Council/Nordicity as part of their work on Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth. It draws on a series of interviews conducted with leaders and influencers across the cultural sector, and an extensive analysis of evaluation meta-analyses and public data sources..

Culture on purpose

Culture is who we are – what we have become together – it is born out of our humanity. Fish and amoeba have cultures too, and perhaps fish and amoeba would feel lost without their cultures. Certainly, we would feel lost without ours, or at least up-rooted – those roots lie in cultural heritage. If culture is who we are, then cultural heritage is what we have been and how we got to where we are now.

Culture has always been central to humans as social beings. But culture and cultural heritage are not just about the past. They are about the present and the future. In this chapter, I argue that, indeed, culture can have a greater opportunity in the future than in the past for the sector to work with our human nature and draw on our cultural heritage to realise social, economic, cultural and environmental opportunities – future opportunities for culture.

Central to this is not so much a culture which emerges, but a culture which is deployed and harnessed, often deliberately, and on purpose – culture on purpose.

Asking good questions

Much of the analysis and discussion around the utility, impact and value of culture, and indeed cultural heritage, focusses on the intrinsic—instrumental axis. On the one hand are the intrinsic benefits, say of cultural experiences enriching the inner world of their visitors; on the other are the instrumental – benefits or impacts essentially outside the sphere of those experiences themselves, such as how they fed a paint industry or allowed a community to reflect through the cultural assets on their shared identity.

This axis has proved highly contentious. On the one hand, it upsets the purists: even recently, a respected colleague tells me, senior figures in culture funders have admitted privately that they see pursuing the ‘instrumental’ benefits of culture as a compromise (of purism) in the interests of safeguarding vulnerable culture funding.

Whatever your perspective, there is truth, at least, in the fact that much of the analysis and evaluation of the instrumental impacts of culture has been so as to secure additional funding. The point about culture resourcing and funding is a very important one because, throughout much of history, funding and patronage for culture has been hard fought-for and hard won.

For some, the Covid-19 pandemic has manifested unmistakeably the vulnerability of our inter-connected, just-in-time supply chains, and it has also given us a taste of what a lower-carbon lifestyle might be like. A few years ago, I was involved in producing what was at the time possibly the most comprehensive history of the sustainable development movement and one of the interesting findings was the important role that huge disasters have in effecting necessary paradigm shifts, and there are whole research institutions dedicated to studying disasters. Hopefully we can obviate the need for a catastrophe in culture to justify sustaining its resourcing. Culture should not wait for its own disaster but show its value in the current ones. And the prevailing current approach to justifying culture funding – in which the (predominantly) instrumental impacts of one cultural intervention are evaluated so as to provide a case for why a subsequent intervention should be supported – suffers from various problems:

  • it means evaluations’ objectivity is often clouded to some extent towards funding and affirmation;
  • which weakens not only those evaluations’ credibility but also feeds an impression of sectoral ‘over-claiming’ from other sectors;
  • and it assumes that cultural practice, or at least its impact, is transferable: that the impact of one intervention in one context can be repeated by another in another context.

Purpose: unlocking the value of culture

Standing back, though, the greater weakness of the intrinsic vs. instrumental question is that it remains a question asked from the perspective of those concerned for cultural sphere – those in the cultural sphere – it’s a cultural question, and one that is very often rooted to some extent in the sub-text of how continued support for a cultural activity can be secured. It comes from decades of looking at culture and its impacts on society, which has included observing some very significant instrumental and intrinsic benefits that are now much better understood as a result, and deriving evidence to create a case for cultural funding that would otherwise have been lacking. But it is still looking at culture, and indeed at culture as a relatively discrete object so that it can be looked at at all.

The key to unlocking the greatest opportunities for culture, cultural heritage and inclusive growth, I suggest, is to ask not, ‘what are the impacts of culture’, but ‘what are the challenges and opportunities in the world, and what help, if any, could culture provide in responding to those challenges and opportunities?’ Sometimes that help will draw on culture’s instrumental impacts, and sometimes on its intrinsic ones, but the question is now one of purpose, and now culture can become one instrument of many in an orchestra of purpose.

The key to being part of that orchestra, rather than being a busker holding a cap to keep playing the violin, is to be round the table when the approaches to challenges and opportunities are designed and developed: culture needs to aim to be in the front desk (maybe of the cellos), rather than fourth flute. It is true that to get around the table in the first place will require some evidence of culture’s extra-cultural value, but the focus of getting the evidence could be more about winning a seat at the table, more of which later, and less about winning further funding: they might be related, but are not the same.

This chapter looks, in broad brush strokes at what culture and cultural heritage are, and at some of the things they can achieve, before moving on to look at some the future opportunities for culture and cultural heritage in inclusive growth, and what might help unlock them. But first, true to form, it looks at some of the challenges and opportunities, outside the cultural sector.