Rethinking the Cultural Value of Evaluation by Alison Rooke


Art and creativity are increasingly used to solve urban problems such as job creation, area regeneration, social inclusion and community cohesion. Today creative and cultural strategies are the familiar handmaiden to rapid regeneration and creeping gentrification. Artists and other precarious creative sector workers have become a necessary part of capitalist production. As the cultural theorist George Yudice’s points out, ‘Art has completely folded into an expanded conception of culture that can solve problems, including job creation. Its purpose is to lend a hand in the reduction of expenditures and at the same time help maintain a level of state intervention for the stability of capitalism. (Yudice 2004: 12)

Focussing on the city, urban commentators and theorists have examined the complex relationship between art and urban change. ((Loretta Lees, Slater, and Wyly 2007)) examining the instrumental uses of art and culture as part of a wider critique of governmentality. Zukin’s 1977 study of the symbolic economy examined the ways in which New York artists were unintentionally the ‘pilot fish’ of gentrification (Zukin 1989). The presence of studios and galleries is attractive to local and global property speculation. (During some recent research in a Post-Olympic borough we were informed that the opening of a high street gallery close to a tube station immediately adds eight thousand pounds to local property values). The consequences of this are rising property values and the displacement of existing residents unable to afford rising rents and property prices. This is of course so often followed by artists’ own displacement as corporate interest and speculative investors move in to extract maximum value from the areas increased attractiveness to investors in search of the ‘edgy’ or ‘bohemian’ parts of the city. (see e.g. Bowler and McBurney, 1991; (Deutsche 1998) , (Zukin 1996)).

Artist and arts organisations occupy a problematic position as agents of urban renewal. Artists working with participatory or community art, ‘social practice’, often find themselves commissioned to produce spaces of community participation, delivering social and cultural interventions. Frequently social practice and ‘art education’ is aimed at publics, or ‘communities’ who do not frequent institutions of ‘high culture’ such as galleries and museums. In spite of good intentions, artists are often deployed in these processes to produce socio–economic change and social cohesion (L. Lees and Melhuish 2013). They are intermediaries in potential social conflicts and but also significant actors in consequent social fragmentation. These interventions therefore raise interesting questions about the value of cultural activity and the values of cultural institutions delivering opportunities for active participation.

This complex socio-economic and cultural context raises the question of how to evaluate these interventions. Evaluative research is intrinsically enmeshed in the question of cultural value and values: What counts as ‘culture’ amongst creative industry professionals? How can we understand the value of cultural participation? What are the cultural values of those bodies that require evaluative research? Who is evaluation for? Is it for funders? Should it be useful to those taking part in it? What should it look like? Can it only ever be a report? Where should it go? Will it just sit on a shelf gathering dust? Or can it be more ‘lively’ and ‘inventive’.

I recently received two AHRC awards to run Cultural Value Expert Workshops. The AHRC’s Cultural Value Project1 seeks to establish a framework that will advance the ways that we understand the value of cultural engagement and the methods by which we evaluate that value. It takes as its starting point “the actual experience of culture and the arts rather than the ancillary effects of this experience” and thus seeks to challenge some of the economic valuations of culture (see for example O’Brien 2010, and the subsequent HMS Treasury ‘Green Book’. which overlook the experiential and phenomenological characteristics of cultural activity. Debates over the terms through which evaluation should be conducted reflect a political and economic climate which emphasises the need for empirical justification for monies spent on the arts in a context of substantial cuts and fiscal austerity. Evaluative research is often an exercise in ‘cost benefit analysis’ and providing evidence of a Social Return on Investment, bolstering the case for ‘evidence-based policy making’.

Evaluation methodologies are an indicator of the epistemological values of those concerned with measuring and evidencing ‘value’. However, for many organisations receiving public and private funding to deliver arts and cultural interventions, evaluation has become a technocratic hoop to jump through in an endless mutual narrative driven by cultural policy shaped by instrumentality and accountability to funders. CUCR have been involved in the evaluation of urban cultural interventions as well as debates about how this work should be evaluated for two decades. (In April this year, CUCR’s ‘Has the Tide Turned?’ event marked 20 years since CUCR was established when we embarked on the evaluation of Deptford City Challenge Regeneration Programme in the mid-1990s. At this point the re-narration of Deptford as a cultural quarter was merely a local manifestation of a national policy which sought to draw on the cultural industries to drive investment in deprived post industrial locations).

The scramble to systematically measure the value of the arts and culture raises questions about ‘the social life of methods’ (Savage 2013) specifically, the ways that research methods are implicated in an intellectual differentiation between scientific and humanities expertise. Attending to the social life of methods draws our attention to the histories of and motivations for evaluation and the ethics and aesthetics of these sociological entanglements. Within the academic community, evaluation is often looked upon as insufficiently critical field of research, falling between a rock and a hard place; criticised as complicit with neoliberal governmentality and methodologically shaky and insufficiently robust. The systematic ‘framework’ and ‘toolkit’ approach to evaluation has been critiqued by a number of theorists as ‘excessive simplification’ (Belfiore 2010) excessive instrumentalisation (Tusa 2002, 2007, Hytner 2003) too ideologically biased and a form of advocacy (Selwood 2002, Belfiore, 2002).

In conversation with Dr. Sophie Hope at Birkbeck and working with Imogen Slater, Dr. Alex Rhys Taylor and an ever evolving team of skilled and capable researchers at CUCR we have been carrying out evaluative research which seeks to challenge the orthodoxies of ‘external evaluation’. Our work is driven by a desire to open up evaluation as an opportunity for critical and collaborative research. We recognize that evaluation is an instrument of governmentality. Evaluation is usually a requirement of funding, and to a greater or lesser extent imposed on those delivering participatory and socially engaged art practice. However, it can also offer organisations and individuals a valuable opportunity to reflect on their engagements with the social, learn lessons and provide a platform to debate the value of art and participation with wider publics, funders and policy makers. We see critical and collaborative evaluative research as a significant form of public sociology, bringing sociological understanding of social life and creative interventions into social life to a “thick vibrant, active and diverse public’ ((Clawson et al. 2007: 5).


CUCR’s evaluative research offers a critical and reflexive perspective on the ‘norms’ and ‘forms’ of evaluation and points towards the affordances and capacities which are mobilized in and through social research methods.Opening up evaluation as a space to interrogate cultural value, instead of evidencing value raises uncomfortable questions: what happens when criticality is ‘allowed? Can it meet a desire to learn from and improve the effectiveness and reach of arts-based social interventions? Can it connect research and creative practice to wider a project of critical thinking, reflection and knowledge production. Conducting evaluation places academic researchers in interesting uncomfortable positions ((Jones 2013). When working with third sector and smaller arts organisations, universities are often the larger and more affluent players in these partnerships. However, within the wider context of the cultural value of UK university research this kind of work is not considered an indicator of esteem, unlike large grants from research councils. Although this kind of research is often labelled ‘consultancy’ or ‘enterprise’, this language merely reflects its position in the university economy, rather than the relationship of partnership which depends on teamwork, co-production and trust, and so often, good will between the academy, its publics and institutional neighbours. Rather than evaluation being a case of methodological simplification, it is in effect a form of action research, which requires negotiating complexity, working in partnership with an ethical commitment to criticality and collaboration and change. This means that researchers, like ethnographers, navigate a path between ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ (Headland, 1990) perspectives, simultaneously making sense of the extrinsic and intrinsic cultural values of a project. Evaluative research is a significant site where struggles over recognition and cultural value between and among professionals and participants become apparent. It is the skilled work of the researcher which produces an account of a project which is not merely about identifying ‘success and ‘good practice’ but is one of holding up a mirror, communicating complexity whilst making space for individual and organisational learning and reflection.

The CUCR AHRC Expert Workshops examined two areas of policy where questions of value and values are contested to consider the work that evaluative research should do and to interrogate the tensions at the heart of arts –based social interventions. These were ‘Art and Mental Health’ and ‘Art and Regeneration’. The first workshop, entitled “Creative Collisions and Critical Conversations” brought together mental health and social care practitioners, artists, gallery arts education practitioners, funders, theorists, researchers and artists currently working at the interface between the arts and mental health to facilitate a much needed vibrant exchange. The idea for the workshop came about through CUCR’s ongoing evaluation of an innovative multi-agency partnership between arts education arm of South London Gallery and the South London and Maudsley’s (SLAM) Parental Mental Health Team. ‘Creative Families’ consists of a total of sixty art sessions for parents experiencing mental health problems and their children. The tensions which have arisen in this interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral encounter made the contrasting cultures and values of the arts education and health sectors apparent. There were tensions between the gallery’s desire to be inventive, responsive, indeterminate and a desire from health and care practitioners for a clear replicable model. There was also a tension between a model of working, (rooted participatory practice), which sought to flatten hierarchies between ’experts’ and ‘participants’ and a health sector’s desire for clear boundaries between professionals and service users. Uniquely, this interdisciplinary partnership combines two approaches to evaluation. CUCR are carrying out a formative evaluation of the projects as it develops, focusing on the partnership and the delivery of the project. Simultaneously Institute of Psychiatry is conducting a clinical outcomes assessment identifying on the impact on participants using quantitative measures. The combined evaluation of this project facilitated dialogue regarding these contrasting approaches to understanding and evidencing the affective, cognitive and aesthetic dimensions of art/mental health. These were at times difficult, but also intellectually productive. The discussions which have arisen out of this collaboration led to the idea for the Cultural Value workshop.


The second workshop ‘Curating Community’ brought together academics, educationalists and practitioners from community development and range of arts practices including socially engaged art practice, participatory theatre and participatory arts. This workshop examined the relational and agonistic dimensions of arts participation within the context of urban regeneration. (Kester 2004) (Bourriaud 1998), (Mouffe 2013) (Bishop 2012) (Bishop 2006). The evaluation of participatory projects that work with communities, or aim to bring communities together so often collapses the complex relational dimensions of these encounters into ‘individual impact’. In doing so such evaluations so often elide the relational and agonistic difficulties of these processes, passing over the tensions, difficulties, disagreements between those taking part on all levels. In this workshop Experts were encouraged to consider the value of antagonism and heterogeneity ((Laclau and Mouffe 2014) in participatory arts? Making apparent the conflicting positions of stakeholders in arts participation projects has consequences. It challenges the ways funders imagine the causal relationship between ‘action and impact’. However, this is a risky strategy for organisations that are reliant on charitable and public funders demanding evidence of ‘value for money’. Participants also discussed the relational and agonistic politics of evaluation itself. The demand for evaluation conducted by ‘external experts who are seen as ‘objective’ effectively outsources research expertise. In this process opportunities to increase the research capacity and reflective learning within an organisation are lost. Conversation focussed on alternatives to the current evaluation orthodoxy and pointed to some of the structural and institutional policy drivers which are barriers to change.

A more extensive account of the workshops will be available soon an the AHRC Cultural Value Blog at

Images taken as part of the SLG Creative Families with Davina Drummond and Lawrence Bradby’s project showing art work produced with parents and their children.

Dr Alison Rooke is co-Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research.

Belfiore, E. (2002) ‘Art as a Means towards Alleviating Social Exclusion: Does It Really Work? A Critique of Instrumental Cultural Policies and Social Impact Studies in the UK’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 91–106.

Belfiore, E. (2010) ‘Is it really all about the evidence? On the rhetorical aspect of cultural policy’, paper delivered at the 2010 edition of the International Conference on Cultural Policy Research, 24-27.

Bishop, Claire. 2006. Participation. London; Cambridge, Mass.: Whitechapel Art Gallery.

———. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London ; New York: Verso Books.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 1998. Relational Aesthetics. Les Presses Du Reel edition. Dijon: Les Presse Du Reel,Franc. Clawson, Dan, Robert Zussman, Joya Misra, Naomi Gerstel, Randall Stokes, Douglas L. Anderton, and Michael Burawoy. 2007. Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-First Century. 1 edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Jones, Hannah. 2013. Negotiating Cohesion, Inequality and Change: Uncomfortable Positions in Local Government. Policy Press.

Kester, Grant H. 2004. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. 2014. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. 2nd edition. London ; New York: Verso Books.

Lees, Loretta, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly. 2007. Gentrification. New Ed edition. New York: Routledge.

Mouffe, Chantal. 2013. Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. London ; New York: Verso Books.

O’Brien D. Measuring the value of Culture. Report to the Department of Culture Media and Sport. Available at [Accessed May2014].

Yudice, George. 2004. The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era. Durham: Duke University Press.

Zukin, Sharon. 1989. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. Reprint edition. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.


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