To kick start the current Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations, King’s College London were commissioned to a take thorough look at all the relevant published literature. It took us in all sorts of disciplinary directions: through geography, economics, sociology, arts practice and many others. We also looked at studies from all over the world. This blog post focusses on one particular aspect of the review: the research challenge of studying a phenomenon that is frequently ill-defined and the subject of numerous non-overlapping academic disciplines.

Defining civic role

A real challenge at the heart of this work is defining precisely what is meant by ‘civic role’. It brings to mind politics, community, rights and responsibilities. The arts can be used to provoke, to catalyse, to enable and inhibit the way that people engage with the world around them. After reviewing the relevant literature we have taken the civic role of arts organisations to mean: The ways in which arts organisations animate, enhance and enable processes by which people exercise their rights and responsibilities as members of communities. Overall, the literature on the civic role of arts organisations tackles a variety of themes that are broadly grouped under two main headings: the effect of arts organisations on places and on people.

Difference disciplinary approaches

Much of the work we do here for at King’s draws upon a vibrant mix of disciplines. This review was no different. A cultural studies approach emphasises the subjective experience of art upon people. Urban planning, human geography and cultural economics bring another set of perspectives. These disciplines attempt to capture what is characteristic of a place (for example, what are the attributes of places) whilst also capturing data on activity that happens therein. A sociological perspective is built upon the recognition that the phenomena being studied are culturally specific and contested, and that there are hierarchies in society that may not be immediately identifiable. Finally an arts-based approach considers art as a manifestation of people’s engagement with the world and seeks to understand it on those terms. We sought to draw from all of these perspectives in our literature review.

The need for evaluation, a theory of change, and the “literature gap”

We found that two fundamental shortcomings hamper attempts to evaluate the civic role of arts organisations. The first of these is the methodological difficulties that dog all evaluations seeking to understand the impact of these interventions: the impacts can be diffuse, the means to collect data can be intrusive or inappropriate, and the resource (in terms of people and money) to do it properly can be prohibitive. The second shortcoming is the lack of well-considered theories of change. These shortcomings are further compounded by a “literature gap”: either great work is taking place that is not being sufficiently evaluated, or there is energy and enthusiasm expended on projects that have no measurable benefit. The Gulbenkian Foundation’s Inquiry will need to keep all of this in mind when formulating any experiments and interventions. There are clear lessons to be drawn from the literature.

Download the executive summary of the literature review.

Download the full literature review.

Words by Dr James Doeser, Research Associate, Culture, King’s College London.