Reflections on Relative Values research – Caitlin Gleeson
Relative Values is an AHRC-funded research project which asks how we can measure and strengthen practices and policies that maximise the social and economic value of the arts. I worked with Contact and People’s Palace Projects as a Research Facilitator, delivering sessions with current and past participants from Contact’s projects to gather data from this research in an inclusive and accessible way, before transcribing it for economists at NECCULT, Brazil. At the Creative Economy Networks: research, policy and exchange seminar in May 2018, I presented the following talk on strengths and challenges of this methodology.
For the past couple of months I’ve been a Research Facilitator for Contact and People’s Palace Projects. I’ve spent a lot of time persuading people who’ve participated in Contact’s projects to fill in a questionnaire to gather data about the social and economic impact of Contact’s work. Today I’ll talk a little bit about what I’ve learnt from this role, but first I think it’s useful to introduce myself and provide a bit of context.
The first time I came across Contact was as an audience member, and then shortly afterwards I got a job working on the bar and ushering shows. Being in the building and fully immersed in the hive of activity going on there meant that I came across new opportunities, and so I started to become a participant on Contact’s projects. I took part in Re:Con, where as a young producer and programmer I worked with my peers to create Sensored, a festival themed around the senses and accessibility. I shadowed a couple of projects, took part in a few free workshops, and then joined Creative Experts, Contact’s pool of arts facilitators who are contracted by clients to deliver all sorts of work. I worked as an assistant director on The Siege of Christmas, a Contact Young Company show directed by Alan Lane of Slung Low. Then I applied for the Future Fires programme, which develops arts leaders through a year long programme of training in project management and support to run a project; I set up an arts and wellbeing project with young women in Gorton, in partnership with Sure Start centres.
These blurry boundaries between audience, staff and participant are typical of many young people’s experiences with Contact. Working on the bar directly led to me working full time in the arts; we often talk about young people going on a journey and I feel that this sheds light on Contact’s position within the arts ecology. Contact is for many young people their first engagement with the arts, but by allowing young people to decide what arts and social change is needed and supporting them to make it happen, this engagement often becomes longer and more meaningful. Ensuring that there is a visible and tangible journey ahead develops future leaders.
These experiences were further reflected in my work carrying out the Relative Values research. In the last couple of months I’ve been gathering data via a questionnaire from participants on all Contact’s projects, including the Agency,
Future Fires, CYC, Level Up, Monday Drop, Music Drop, Creative Experts, I:Con, Re:Con, and partner project Young Identity, although a huge proportion of people had taken part in more than one of these projects. While there was the option to fill in the questionnaire online, I visited regular workshops and ran additional sessions to make sure that enough people completed it with data that was useful for NECCULT.
In these sessions, the sense of a journey through Contact came up frequently, although many respondents to the questionnaire found it hard to ensure this came across as well as they would have liked. The questionnaire was long and not particularly accessible; it asked people to think about their experiences with Contact in terms that were new and often easily misinterpreted. It took me a while to get my head round at first. In the group sessions we spent time reflecting on projects and journeys in a non-directive way before beginning to think about our experiences in terms of social and economic impact, which often yielded richer data than questionnaires filled in independently; simply being on hand to explain questions was invaluable too. The time-sensitive nature of this research meant that this deeper engagement wasn’t possible with every participant.
There were other practical challenges to carrying out this research. Contact’s building is hugely important to its success and, pre-closing at the end of 2017, was used by participants for far more than programme engagement – for support, for socialising, for free wifi. An example that sticks in my mind is the 23rd May 2017, the day after the Manchester Arena bomb, when everyone turned up at Contact; around the city there was a horrible feeling of not knowing what to do, but having a place to just simply be together was crucial. But at the time of the Relative Values research, Contact was closed for refurbishment and had only recently set up camp at Moss Side Millenium Powerhouse. This impacted us much more than anticipated and getting people to come to Relative Values research sessions was difficult; there was no chance of easily coming across people in the same way as there would have been a few months earlier. But there was an easy solution to this: we bribed everyone with pizza.
It’s important to calculate the social and economic value of Contact’s work but it’s also crucial to remember that this value doesn’t tell the full story. Can we appreciate the full social and economic value within a short time frame, and can this value be fully communicated through data? There is an increasing need to evidence why arts participation is beneficial in wider contexts and we should evidence carefully. I’d like to echo Matt Fenton’s worry that the arts is becoming a sticking plaster in the context of austerity, where services for young people have been drastically cut in the last eight years. If arts projects demonstrate their success in improving the social economy and caring for young people that have fallen through the gaps, will it seem as though statutory services are no longer needed? How we evidence this social and economic value is vital. It’s important here to think about agency, and the core ways that Contact works: change is not just happening to young people but they are making it happen.