Hurdles and recommendations for realising opportunities for culture on purpose

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

For these opportunities for culture to contribute to be realised, there are hurdles in the implementation – practical and systemic – which will be encountered and which will need to be overcome. This final section looks at some of these hurdles and makes recommendations for overcoming or circumnavigating them.

Can the culture sector thrive and survive?

If you work in the cultural sector, you are unlikely to miss this hurdle: it is perhaps as perennial as the impetus to create overwhelming the economy of scale to recreate. It is not, though a subject to dwell on for this chapter, other than to point out that the chapter is focussed on opportunities for culture, although not with the primary intention of sustaining the sector itself.

Does the culture sector see itself as part of sustainable development – does it want to make a social impact on purpose?

If pushed, and the situation is changing positively, I would venture that many – perhaps a significant majority in my own experience – of those working in the culture sector would honestly answer ‘not really’ to these questions, at least beyond the social impact that as perhaps an added benefit of cultural activity. For a variety of reasons, many of them positive and understandable, much of the attention and focus in the cultural sector is relatively introspective and contributing as a priority to external agendas is not the main emphasis. UNESCO, the UK Heritage Lottery Foundation and the British Council have worked hard for some time to champion the role of culture in sustainable development agendas, but they are not always joined by their counterparts and colleagues elsewhere in the culture sector.

Many have a good understanding of the instrumental value of their sector, as well as its intrinsic value, but perhaps less understanding of how it could be harnessed on purpose beyond its primary sphere of activity.

There are those that voice this more strongly and see many cultural figures, including high-level decision-makers and influencers in arts, culture and heritage, as indifferent to or uninterested in the role that this sector can play in contributing to social impact and sustainable development. It is no surprise, then, that there are plenty that see that culture sector as snobbish, superior, and too concerned with high artistic values and heritage preservation.

Closely related to this are the sets of values and understanding of excellence that hold great sway in the cultural sector. Often in culture and cultural education the distinction between values by which others are judged professionally and personal tastes is very grey. In our work at World Pencil, we advocate that the excellence of the past and present should be used to inspire the future, but not to dictate its goals and aspirations: the past has already been created – move on.

Related too are questions of power shifts. Often inclusive approaches to culture generally, including culture for inclusive growth, involve some shifting of power (e.g. decision-making power) from recognised authorities and experts to communities, who may have less of the same recognised expertise. Sometimes this shift is welcomed by those in power, sometimes not, for a variety of reasons.

This set of issues is the first hurdle. There are many recommendations to its resolution.

The first is providing inspiration: showing cultural organisations and individuals what they do already achieve, and could do in the future, in terms of social impact and sustainable development, can be the mirror glass door that opens up a future of potential.

The second is for cultural organisations to effective a shift of focus from a cultural purpose to a social or sustainable development purpose: if a cultural organisation is pursuing a largely cultural agenda or purpose, it is likely to be harder for to embrace inclusive working, or to harness its cultural asset for social impact, than if it is focussing on a social or broader sustainability agenda, alongside other stakeholders.

A third recommendation comes in the form of the influence that can be exerted by funders and policy makers – asking, requiring or ensuring that cultural policy and investment is focussed in at least some part on social impact and sustainable development – focussed instrumental value where it is needed.

A fourth is about building a visible strength in numbers. As a change-maker colleague once said to me, 'if you want to change what people do, just have more fun than them and make sure that they know about it.’ There will always be those that are more socially and communally minded than others, just as there will be early adopters and laggards in any adoption curve. So, the culture sector should continue to make a noise about how powerful and impactful it can be (without being sanctimonious and whilst making sure it isn’t over-claiming) and continue being an integral and celebrated part of the wider society from which it is born.

Developing the right expertise

The second hurdle in harnessing culture for social impact and sustainable development is actually being able to do it, and do it well.

‘A perennial challenge for education is that everyone has had one and therefore thinks they’re an expert in it.’ It is not so true, perhaps that every cellist or curator thinks themselves equipped to tackle community cohesion but it sometimes surprisingly true that the skills and expertise for harnessing culture for sustainable development are not the same as the skills and expertise for doing or developing culture itself, neither, like teaching, are they obvious or necessarily intuitive.

The solutions to this are not surprising though. The first is professional and organisational development: equipping people and organisations (through training, experiences, reflection, mentoring, strategy development, etc.) to develop new social impact capacities to harness their existing cultural capacities.

The range of skills and specialisms to harness culture for inclusive growth well is extensive, including collaboration, leadership for collaboration, inclusion, growth, economic development, economic policy, impact assessment, individual-needs specialist knowledge, communication, sustainable development understanding etc. – more specialisms than it makes sense for most organisations or individuals to develop themselves.

Therefore, the second solution is partnership and collaboration – working alongside specialists in the fields that you need but don’t specialise yourself. And in many cases, collaboration is the preferable solution to capacity development (and often the best approach for it). AESOP have found, for example, with Dance to Health that co-design and co-development – close working between dance and health professionals – is essential to success, partly because the backgrounds, skills and perspectives of the two disciplines are often so different and partly because they need to be: although there is a needs for arts-and-health training, in many cases artists need to be valued and supported as artists, and health practitioners as health practitioners. Synergy can be more powerful than synthesis.

Collaboration with other sectors can also have the advantage of dissipating and indeed harnessing the competitiveness and individuation that are common in the cultural sector (and often essential for survival within it): there can be only one person who’s the best cellist in the world, but as many exceptional cello-harnessing-social-impact-change-makers as there are needs for social impact that can be met with a cello.

Indicators, evaluation and measurement

The third hurdle concerns developing an understanding of the impacts of culture and building a body of evidence that attests to this impact. This becomes a hurdle for many reasons, including:

  • Evaluating for impact is not always seen as a priority, in comparison to developing the cultural activity itself or, indeed, achieving the impact itself;
  • Some evaluation purposes require evaluation rigour or skills which are beyond the practical reach of those organising the activity;
  • Some things are hard to measure, and certainly harder than other things, so what can be measured can get the way of working out what should be measured;
  • Evaluation can be expensive – often much more expensive than the activity being evaluated;
  • Evaluation findings can be over-claimed: finding evidence to show that something works is not the same as finding evidence to see if something works.

We propose two sets of recommendations to this evaluation challenge. The first concerns ensuring that there is clarity of purpose behind any evaluation and clarity of the level of rigour required to meet that purpose. Purposes behind evaluation tend to be one of the following:

  1. Funder: to satisfy the requirements of a funder;
  2. Making the case: to build evidence to secure funding for future activity;
  3. Quality: to develop the quality of practice and refine future practices, approaches and strategies;
  4. Curiosity: to explore the impact of work, to test intuitions, to discover new things unknown

In particular, it is important that these purposes are not confused. And, as mentioned above, if culture is to realise its (much greater) potential outside the cultural sector, there needs to be less focus on purpose (2) oriented towards fundraising, and more towards earning a seat at the decision-making table (below).

The second set of recommendations concerns capacity and infrastructure for evaluation, including:

  • The development and deployment of common evaluation indicators for culture and sustainable development, which could sensibly build on or reference the Culture 2030 Indicators;
  • The support and encouragement of capacity building and collaboration for evaluation. In particular, in our experience, it is rare for the funding of an evaluation to be quite separate from the funding of the activity being evaluated, which quickly places a cloud above aspirations of impartiality;
  • Further initiatives to encourage and make accessible the sharing of approaches for evaluation and impact assessment, as well as their findings.

Earning a seat at the decision-making table – do other sectors see culture as part of the approach?

Throughout this chapter, if culture is to realise its sustainable development opportunities, we’ve advocated that cultural stakeholders should not so much advocate for continued support for their work so it can achieve its impacts but aim to be part of the design and development of collective strategies to achieve impact: not to seek funding but to seek a seat at the decision-making table. But this is not always easy at all.

Outlined above are several reasons why it can be a hurdle:

  • Culture is not always seen, or understood, to be viable player in the approach for a sustainable development challenge;
  • The evidence of its viability is often insufficient;
  • Sometimes cultural organisations are not proactively keen to be involved;
  • And sometimes they cannot access the opportunity to be involved.

In response to this hurdle, the first recommendation is a set of questions for cultural organisations seeking a place at the design and decision-making table that is developing a strategy in response to a particular challenge or opportunity:

  1. Capability: can you actually achieve an impact in support of this challenge or opportunity, and do it well, and do you have the resources and people and skills to do it, including at scale? Do you have at least enough financial viability to survive?
  2. Identity: can you be clearly recognised for what you do and how it’s of value? Are you known for 10 things, or 1?
  3. Convincing communication: do you have the stories, case studies and evidence to communicate your potential impact convincingly, and well-placed advocates to act on your behalf?
  4. Connectivity: can you get around the tables where decisions are made? Get you get introductions from others to that table? Can you raise brand value and general awareness so that the decision-makers find you themselves?
  5. Empathy: can you genuinely understand the perspective of the other people working in the context, circumstance or challenge, understand what they’re trying to do, talk their language, and understand that cultural heritage or cultural excellence might be of little significance to them? Are you aware of when you’re trying to pursue a cultural/heritage agenda and when you’re trying to pursue a different one? Which purpose is it?
  6. Utility: is your approach genuinely useful for a particular context, circumstance or challenge? How do you know? How can you evidence it?
  7. Plausibility: how realistically and viably can your approach be deployed? Have you got evidence of the level of rigour required to justify policy or spending decisions? Have you got or could you source the infrastructure and assets to operate at the required scale to be worth bothering with?

The second recommendation is that the British Council, UNESCO, English Heritage and others who have made strides in this area should work together, and bring others together, to develop insights and capacity for further establishing culture as an essential stakeholder for sustainable development strategies at every level.

Concluding comments and covid-19

It is true that quite often the people who are involved in producing cultural experiences, and those who visit or participate in them (often the same people), find great value in culture being a slightly removed part of life – being somewhat other. This is an important part of culture’s value, meaning and impact.

But in our opinion, this ‘otherness’ has got in the way of inclusive culture for too long and been one contributory factor of many to culture not being as central to sustainable development strategies as we believe it could be and should be.

This chapter has attempted to show why and how culture could be more centrally involved and indeed that now, perhaps more than ever before, there is a need and an opportunity to take this forward.

With regards to the Covid-19 pandemic, which is wreaking challenge across the world, including in the culture sector, we hope that it might have some positive consequences, such as:

  • A growth in the valuing of community, culture and participation in places where those values are thin;
  • A visibility of some of the challenges in society, sometimes close to home – sometimes far away, in places where they were hidden or overlooked;
  • A contribution of cultural practitioners to the pandemic’s challenges and those of society as a whole, from quarters where that contribution has been less communal;
  • An appreciation of cross-sectoral collaboration, in places where there was mistrust or focus on survival of the fittest;
  • A continuation of shared human development and progress, in places where the pandemic makes retrenchment and self-interest tempting;
  • A taste of what a more sustainable lifestyle might be like, in places where the status quo was too addictive and self-reinforcing.

Our fear is that these hopes will be inverted but we and many others are working hard to make sure that is not the case, and to realise the positive opportunities the pandemic provides. For culture on purpose, those opportunities are many.