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AD:uk Welsh National Seminar report: Evidencing the Impact of the Arts

 By: Steffan Jones-Hughes
The Evidencing the Impact of the Arts seminar took place on 21 November at St David’s Hall, Cardiff. Hosted by Arts Development UK and Arts Council Wales, the seminar looked at new ways of thinking and working in order to determine the difference the arts make. The arts sector in Wales, as elsewhere in the UK, is facing big challenges. It is more important than ever to show what benefits the arts can deliver. In England there is much anxious anticipation about what the next government spending review might bring for regional arts organisations in the face of local authority spending cuts such as those recently seen in Newcastle.

It’s clear from the media coverage that politicians continue to rely on quantitative evidence in the face of the significant qualitative evidence that shows how valuable the arts are. The Evidencing the Impact seminar, organised by Arts Development UK and Arts Council Wales, looked at new ways of thinking and working to help answer the crucial question: ‘What difference did we make?’

This seminar, the first of a series, looked at arts development issues from a Welsh perspective. By focusing on outcomes, organisations can move away from a traditional performance approach, where the emphasis is on the quantity of activity delivered, to an approach that measures the impact of the activity on customers and citizens. This all helps to prepare a case for the value of the arts.

It is acknowledged that within local authorities the aim is to increase participation in the arts, to encourage community engagement, to foster skills and creativity, while at the same time promoting social inclusion. By doing these things, communities are strengthened, economic development takes place and prosperity increases. In tandem with this, many local authorities are also working to a health and well-being agenda.

In his keynote speech, British Council Wales Director Simon Dancey shared a quote from Einstein: ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’ This has stayed with me. The arts are a huge, valuable, powerful beast of a thing, whose impact on different parts of our society is not always easily defined.

The seminar kept returning to results based accounting (RBA). In RBA you start with the ends and work backwards. What do we want? How will we recognize it? What will it take to get there? Organisations need to be clear and disciplined about how projects are defined. They need to use plain language, not exclusionary jargon, and results need to be measured in a more specific way.

Principles for collaborative working
Strinda Davies, Head of Cultural Services at Rhondda Cynon Taff County Borough Council, pointed to the Principles for Collaborative working identified in the Simpson Compact (Welsh Local Government Association), which all 22 local authorities in Wales are signed up to. Here the focus is on outcomes not organisations, and is accompanied by an openness to achieving effective, locally-responsive services through wider collaborations and public or third sector partners; ArtsConnect brings together a number of local authorities in South East Wales to create a regional shared arts service.

Reference was made to Geoff Crossick’s AHRC-funded Cultural Value Project, a two-year project that aims to make a major contribution to how we think about the value of arts and culture to individuals and society. It seeks to establish a framework that will advance the way in which we talk about the value of cultural engagement and the methods by which we evaluate this.

The group in Cardiff recognised the need to identify a clear and robust evaluation framework and identified themes: Raising Aspirations; Re-Engagement; Skills and Qualifications; Sustainable Partnerships. Arad Research gave a presentation on using data effectively and explained the methods they use for evaluation, ranging from video diaries to focus groups and analysis of additional funding secured. Arad were keen to say that social media can be used to provide feedback initially on activity, but that engagement face-to-face is essential to gain a clear understanding of the impact.

Eleanor Sellers, ArtWorks Researcher at Welsh National Opera (WNO), identified that the two most important things that make a project successful, according to research undertaken by WNO, is the personality of the artist, having artists who can work well with people, and working towards something new ­– trying things out, pushing the boundaries, challenging people. Successful projects will show that new skills were gained, that participants met new people and that their confidence increased as a result of taking part.

First published on 

A selection of presentations from the day are now also available in the Resources section of the website.