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How to make arts policy parochial but in a good way – reflections on Faster but Slower, Slower but Faster by Dr Abigail Gilmore


Dr Abigail Gilmore from the University of Manchester reflects on learning from Creative People and Places

No Way Back Frantic Assembly. Made in Corby. Photo Scott Graham

How to make arts policy parochial but in a good way – Dr Abigail Gilmore reflects on Faster but Slower, Slower but Faster, a summary of learning and insights from the Creative People and Places programme

How do we ensure that the funded arts and cultural sector is relevant to, and presents public value to, people in all communities and places in their everyday lives? What are the processes and practices which introduce greater cultural democracy into the forms and opportunities for participation in the arts? These are questions raised by the Creative People and Places programme, which are also of great interest to a broader landscape of researchers, practitioners and organisations involved in cultural value and arts policy.

This second report on CPP summarises learning from the programme to date, through analysis of the wealth of commissioned research, blogposts and opinion pieces. This is no mean feat, given the range of activities and different partnership configurations across the 21 locales, and also the lack of unifying evaluation framework for the programme (as noted within the report). It begins by presenting a route map for readers which signposts ‘ways in’ to the learning it contains. It is loosely based on the theme of going faster or slower – the pace of and timescales for change that CPP projects may be producing in their places.

Despite the diversity of activities there are a number of common themes emerging. CPP projects all involve consortia of multiple partners – housing associations, small community organisations, groups and spaces, local authorities, commercial arts providers and individual producers and practitioners – who may not have worked together before or have not had access to funding for such a sustained period. Community leadership is important to successful coordination, and patience, trust, sensitivity and transparency are needed when working across these broad partnerships. Projects benefit from having plenty of time to talk about and debate ‘the arts’ with ‘non-arts’ partners, to provide space for different perspectives, values and experiences to be expressed and for assumptions about prior knowledge or practices to be overcome. Sensitivity to vernacular practices and language rooted in place is crucial.

This deference to ‘the local’ is, for me, the most compelling aspect of CPP, and is articulated clearly in this report. It reveals how CPP affectively rejects the ‘deficit model’ (Miles & Sullivan, 2010, p. 26; Miles & Sullivan, 2012) which was implied in the use of Active People data to rank places in terms of their ‘low engagement’ and select those eligible for CPP funding. Instead the report emphasises the “many ‘lived’ places” where people can have parallel but divergent experiences and interests.  It finds that some sites for arts participation are themselves active in establishing the terms of engagement, and in some cases they present barriers. The fine grain of people’s perceptions of and attachments to the places where they live is central: sites which offer familiarity work well, whereas town and city centres can be off-putting and outside of everyday experience. This echoes other research, including my own and others working on Understanding Everyday Participation on the situated nature of participation (Gilmore, 2013; Miles & Gibson, 2016). Places comprise overlapping affordances, histories and values, or ‘structures of feeling’ (Williams, 1977). These can be drawn on (sensitively) within projects, informing a form of potentially self-sufficient ‘positive parochialism’. Sites where people have greater freedom in the times and uses of space, such as parks and other open, public spaces, can bring more attachment of meaning and value to the participation practices within them. As the report suggests, taking arts activities to where people already assemble has worked well in CPP, although there seem to be contradictory findings about whether indoor or outdoor spaces present different outcomes.

Another common theme is co-creation. This is presented as an antidote to the lack of ‘need’ or ‘relevance’ of the arts when they are imposed on communities. CPP has clearly provided R&D time for methods of co-creation and co-commissioning that have worked well across CPP programmes. These have included deliberative decision-making led by and including communities, such as local panels and community budgeting, along with other new practices devised and trialled in CPP locales, such as ‘Pay what you can or think’, or local arts endowments. In the conclusion, these are tentatively summarised as factors within formulae for arts engagement that could form a new “mathematics of expression” (on page 18).

The report’s final conclusion and recommendations for further research hint at how arts policy might be influenced by the action research findings; these, I feel, could be significantly more ambitious and assured. Its findings raise fundamental questions about how people participate in arts, cultural and creative activities within their communities, which draw on and contribute to resources available locally, through commercial or self-organised routes, as well as publicly-funded arts venues. There is plenty of evidence for the busy-ness of participation and its value within contemporary everyday life, outside of the ‘mainstream’ arts (see Taylor, 2016a, 2016b; Miles & Gibson, 2016). CPP offers the means through which publicly funded arts provision can more effectively intersect with the situated practices of everyday participation. The challenge will be how these mechanisms can be more systematically incorporated within mainstream arts policy so that the value of arts engagement is more equitably distributed and resourced in localities.

Gilmore, A. (2013) Cold spots, crap towns and cultural deserts: The role of place and geography in cultural participation and creative place-making, Cultural Trends, 22:2, pp86-96, DOI: 10.1080/09548963.2013.783174
Miles, A. & Gibson, L. (2016) Everyday participation and cultural value, Cultural Trends 25:3, pp151-157 DOI: 10.1080/09548963.2016.1204043
Miles, A. & Sullivan, A (2010) Understanding the Relationship between Taste and Value in Culture and Sport, London: DCMS
Miles, A. & Sullivan, A. (2012) Understanding participation in culture and sport: Mixing methods, reordering knowledges, Cultural Trends, Vol 21/4 pp. 312-324 DOI:10.1080/09548963.2012.726795
Taylor, M. (2016a) Using, analysing and writing about Taking Part, presentation to Department for Culture, Media and Sport Taking Part user event, 20 October 2016
Taylor, M. (2016b) Nonparticipation or different styles of participation? Alternative interpretations from Taking Part, Cultural Trends, 25:2 pp169-181 DOI: 10.1080/09548963.2016.1204051
Williams, R. (1977). Marxism and literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dr. Abigail Gilmore is Senior Lecturer in Arts Management and Cultural Policy at University of Manchester, and Co-Investigator on Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values’ research project -

This is one of a series of guest blogs. You can read other blog responses to Faster but Slower, Slower but Faster on the links below: