Just before Christmas, two very different but significant arts research events took place: the first, led by the Arts Council and Pathfinder Research in Smock Alley Theatre and the second, led by Arts Audiences in association with the Arts Council in Dublin Castle.
The Smock Alley event shared the findings of qualitative research undertaken by Pathfinder Research on behalf of the Arts Council, with the original remit to explore the Council’s brand and identity. What emerged in the course of their research was so much richer and revealing of attitudes to the arts, and to the Arts Council in Ireland, that the Council felt compelled to share its findings.
The Pathfinder research comprised of desk research and six focus groups, conducted nationwide with a mix of social classes and arts engagement levels among interviewees. In these focus groups, Pathfinder asked a series of questions, such as ‘How do you view the Arts Council? How do you view the arts? What kind of value are you looking for?’ And ‘What is art?” (to this some people responded ‘hurling’ or ‘maybe Beyonce?’) and Pathfinder enquired into what was perceived as barriers to participating in, or attending, the arts (responses included not enough time, financial constraints, psychological exclusion, amongst others).
Three consistent themes emerged in the course of the findings: Firstly, when asked ‘What kind of economic recovery or situation do you see yourself in?’ the imagined future was not about the latest commodity purchase, but a life that was sustainable and they saw the arts as part of this and as a counterbalance to material success.
Secondly, individuals considered creativity as a separate concept to art, and saw it as distinct from what they termed ‘art art’. The researchers found that a lot of people were getting in touch with personal well-being through creativity and that the more people got involved in things, the more they are inclined to become involved in creativity and artistic activities. They also found that the younger these individuals are, their sense of what ‘art’ is was more expansive in its definition and included graffiti, rap music, attending food festival and ‘doing things with sushi’ – a much broader palette than that which has been traditionally considered.
Thirdly, they found that people were increasingly using ‘third spaces’ or ‘ in between’ places to engage with art. These spaces exist between the formal and informal spaces that would have traditionally been considered ‘legitimate venues’ for art such as galleries and museums or festivals.
What became overwhelming apparent in the Pathfinder research is that people’s relationship with art and with creativity is an embedded and valued aspect of their existence. Their responses signify how each individual relates to the arts, and to creativity, and how this relationship is articulated in a myriad of different ways. Some individuals felt that in understanding art, we understand ourselves; others viewed creativity and art as a valuable and embedded aspect of the Irish identity; some participants cited the individual, intellectual benefits, others emphasized the social and connected value that arts and creativity bring. And finally, the global impact of Irish arts and creativity was also articulated as well as recognition of the place Irish arts and creativity hold in Ireland’s economic growth.
A couple of days later, Arts Audiences in conjunction with the Arts Council, presented a day long ‘Focus on Audiences’. This Dublin Castle event not only comprised of presentations on audience development research in various art forms but also included information on how to use social media as well as how to get the most from the mapping your audience tool.
Of key significance was the presentation of highlights from the ‘The Arts in Irish Life’ report (AIL) by Christopher Larmour of Kantar Media (UK) Ltd. Recently released (January 2015), this report is a market research study commissioned by Arts Audiences for the Arts Council. With new questions inserted into the TGI questionnaire (from which Arts Audiences gather their annual report information) the AIL report is an attempt to gather more diverse findings and to go deeper into the place of arts in Irish life.
Sadly, it fails in this context and while the AIL is broader in its research scope as well as its reach, it unfortunately remains not much more than an audience development tool and a market research report, rendering its title more than a little bit of a misnomer. This report does tell us who goes to the arts and how these attendances have shifted since the 2006 Public and the Arts report, and in what ways they have shifted- like a bigger Arts Audiences report. However, it tells us little about the place, meaning and value of the arts to people in Irish society. If it works as a tool for the Arts Council to bolster their lobbying of government to consolidate and progress arts funding – great – but as to research which claims to be a report on the arts in Irish life, it doesn’t leave first base.
This is a sorely missed opportunity to make connections, to deepen arguments, to change the terms of the debate and endeavour to connect the arts with other cultural activities and broader social sphere by enquiring into the relationship between arts participation (and attendance) and sports, or libraries, or education or other leisure activities.
Sadly, we have very little of this kind of research and very little of the information that Pathfinder stumbled across in their enquiry into the Arts Council’s brand value. What the Pathfinder research tells us that there is a personal definitional shift in what the ‘arts’ are to people today and that these definitions have become more expansive with the traditional definitions of what constitutes ‘art’ increasingly blurred. This research also tells us that arts activity and participation does not necessarily, and only, take place in ‘legitimate venues’ but increasingly exists in third and liminal spaces which aren’t necessarily captured in arts marketing data. The kind of richness that the Pathfinder research throws up, helps us in our understanding of the crucial role that arts and creativity hold within the economic, social and cultural life of Irish people.
The NCFA Colloquia Report argues the need for multi dimensional research to capture this information and for connectivity in research with other disciplines such as health, education and sport. This would help us in our excavation of meaning and in the bolstering of arguments to satisfy overly managerialist and instrumentalist government agendas. And could go a long way to providing insights into the kind of issues that the Constitutional Convention might face when they meet to consider how Ireland meets the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
So we need a definitional shift and we need to change the terms of the debate. And we need to begin to make small steps to address this lack of information – steps which don’t require massive funding but do require a little bit of imagination, some vision, and a good dose of commitment to changing the terms of the debate in order to gain a proper understanding of the arts in Irish society.