Culture can change people's lives but measuring how much is not straightforward - Ben Walmlsey

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As the countdown to Leeds 2023 continues, Ben Walmsley from the Centre for Cultural Value explores the challenges that arise when trying to measure the impact of major cultural events.

When the term ‘legacy’ is used in relation to a year of culture or major cultural festival or celebration, it’s often defined by the economic impact, the number of visitors, how many jobs were created, how much money was spent by people attending events. But is that a genuine analysis of the influence culture has on people and places?

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What about how seeing an incredible piece of artwork or experiencing an expressive dance performance made you feel? And continued to make you feel long after it ended. How are different communities in a town or city affected by culture and do they engage with the work and see their stories and experiences reflected?

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Ben Walmsley is part of the Centre for Cultural Value based at the University of Leeds.Ben Walmsley is part of the Centre for Cultural Value based at the University of Leeds.
Ben Walmsley is part of the Centre for Cultural Value based at the University of Leeds.

These are the questions our team at the Centre for Cultural Value are asking as part of our research to enable us to really put a value on culture and build a shared understanding of the differences that arts, culture, heritage and screen make to people’s lives and to society.

We’re a national research centre based at the University of Leeds, working in partnership with The Audience Agency – a world leader in the field of audience engagement data – as well as a number of universities in cities around the UK including Liverpool, Sheffield and Queen Margaret’s, Edinburgh.

Set up in 2019, our remit is to support the cultural sector to develop skills in research, evaluation and reflective practice and in turn, help shape future cultural policy and practice to be based on evidence of what works and what needs to change.

We’ve recently been commissioned by Leeds 2023, the city’s year-long celebration of culture, to explore how the programme impacts the varied and diverse communities of the city.

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It's an incredible opportunity to delve deep into the change culture can have on people’s lives and how it affects their mental and physical wellbeing as well as their attitudes to arts, culture, heritage and sport.

It will build on the pioneering work we’ve undertaken over the last year to explore the impact Covid-19 is having on cultural organisations, the cultural sector workforce, and audiences.

The first study of its kind, due to be published early next year, involved hundreds of interviews with cultural sector workers across every artform, from major cultural venues to grassroots creatives alongside a national consortium of academic researchers to understand the implications for how and what policy decisions are made in response to the crisis in the hope it will influence future decisions.

Over the next 12 months, we’ll be working alongside The Audience Agency and the Leeds 2023 team to embed our new Evaluation Principles and create a robust framework for evaluation, really getting under the skin of their desired outcomes, including their ambition for every person in Leeds to benefit from the year of culture.

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Over the course of the year itself, we’ll be undertaking a whole range of qualitative research working with artists, audiences and on the ground in communities, to understand the impact the programme has across the city region – and rolling out a new online platform where people can upload their own stories, pictures and videos.

This will not only give us an insight into how people have engaged with events, but it will give a voice to cultural participants and create a hyperlocal digital archive of Leeds 2023.

It’s fantastic that Leeds City Council has a genuine interest in culture and how it can make a difference to the lives of its citizens.

I hope this work will continue to demonstrate the huge benefits felt by communities where policy makers really understand how cultural activities play a major role in shaping people’s identities and in animating and breathing new life into towns and cities.

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The Centre for Cultural Value is funded by the UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council, Arts Council England and Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

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