Plans are afoot for a new centre for cultural research – but what should it investigate? James Doeser has some ideas of his own about how new ideas and data should inform theatrical practice
You probably won’t have noticed, but in recent months small groups of academics have been huddling in quiet corners, plotting and planning how they might convince a coalition of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the Arts Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council to give them £2.5 million to run a Centre for Cultural Value.
The purpose of this grant is to establish a central point of coordination for all the research activity that’s interesting and useful to advocates, practitioners and policymakers in the cultural sector. Ideally, its work will influence funding and policy decisions, guide the investments that companies make in new techniques or technologies, and generally increase everybody’s understanding of how to best serve audiences and communities across the UK.
The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value (2013-15) and subsequently the AHRC’s Cultural Value Project (2012-16) mapped out the “state of the nation” in terms of cultural policy and practice, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the sector, and how it benefits (quite unequally) the people of the UK. Much of that work remains directly relevant to theatre folk, and I’d encourage you to dive into the many reports that were generated.
Conventionally, the performing arts provide researchers with an enticing laboratory in which to observe people. You can see why: after making a transaction, people take a specific seat in a dedicated space, for a set amount of time, without outside distraction or influence, they then receive a defined dose of theatre, and afterwards they’re available to be interrogated about what just happened.
There have been many studies that take advantage of this process, and they bulk out much of the academic literature on the impact and value of the arts. The build-up to this new centre has revealed a critical mass of scholars and artists who have an appetite (and now the opportunity) to do things a bit smarter, with nuance and sensitivity to the richness of cultural experience, that doesn’t simply reduce cultural experiences to mathematical equations.
It’s highly unlikely that the new centre will have dedicated research strands for individual art forms. But I think it’s worth sketching out a research agenda for theatre in 2018. Thanks to dedicated inquiry since at least the 1980s there’s a huge amount we know about the performing arts sector, but also plenty of unanswered questions left to explore.
Overall, I’d divide my research agenda into three parts.
Act I is a definitive and continual mapping exercise: giving us a picture of what theatre is underway, who is making it, and the makeup of the audience and workforce, both amateur and professional.
Act II is what impact all this work is having on individuals and communities, thereby revealing some of the value it generates.
Act III would be about ways and means: how does theatre take advantage of emergent trends in theory and practice, and how does it utilise new technologies to be more impactful upon more people?
Let’s start with Act I. I’d want this centre to produce and maintain an easily accessible basket of dashboard data sets for us to play around with. Picture something resembling the screens at NASA Mission Control. The experts could pre-populate the interface with material they know we need to keep in mind, while being responsive to what sector practitioners indicate they want to see. By continually tracking the constitution of people working in the sector and audiences seeing work, the debates around equity, diversity and access would be infused with some reliable and incontrovertible stats.
Policy-savvy people instinctively turn to whatever will help them argue for increased funding
Ask policy-savvy people in the sector what research they need, and they instinctively turn to whatever will help them argue for continued or increased funding. There is a clamouring for anything that scientifically demonstrates how brilliant and impactful they are. Whether that impact is on tourism, health or social cohesion depends on which way the political wind is blowing.
There is already a mountain of research out there for arts advocates to mine. Perhaps it doesn’t validate the niche programme you’ve devised via your unique method for a specific community, but with a bit of imagination and logic it’s often the case that funders and policymakers can appreciate the likely impact of your work from equivalent or related studies. All this is to say that the centre’s attitude to impact measurement, the meaty topic of my suggested Act II, needs to be one of synthesis and dissemination of existing work, rather than setting a thousand new studies in train.
Most exciting of all is how such a centre would propel theatre practice with the injection of new ideas and data, drawn from all manner of disciplines. There’s often a lot of social science in the mix (economics, sociology, etc), which is put to work answering questions about the role of culture in the world. This neglects the potential of using such centres to actually develop the art that we produce.
In order that it not become an aloof fortress of geeky technocrats, I’d love to see it address some relevant questions of arts practice and engagement. You will have your shortlist. Here is a flavour of mine: What are the formats and technologies that will excite audiences of the future? How do we prepare to cast robots alongside human actors, and other consequences of the AI revolution? What needs to happen to all these old buildings we currently use to produce and perform theatre?
In future, archaeologists will be able to sift through the dusty ruins of many a cultural hub, observatory, centre or institute. These things come and go with successive political cycles. When regionalism was all the rage under New Labour there were regional cultural observatories. Now, with public funding in short supply, it’s universities that stand out as a last fragment of intact infrastructure. We can probably expect the centre to be hosted by one or more of them, it’s just a matter of which of the plotters is successful with the bids, which were delivered to the troika of funders last week.
But the critical thing will be keeping this centre alive, so that it doesn’t end up going the way of its predecessors. We’ll find out in February who has been chosen to host it. They will have their agenda – and let’s wait to see if it bears any resemblance to mine.