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Cultural participation in UK & DK

Can we use participation to not only change the mind sets of the public but to redefine the cultural sector and its institutions? Leila Jancovich reflects on the challenges of cultural participation in UK and DK.

2016.12.22 | Dr Leila Jancovich

It was great to be invited to speak at the first meeting of the Take Part Network at the start of
December. My invite followed on from my earlier visit to Aarhus in May-June 2016, when I
undertook research into how "participation" is manifested in the cities planning for next years
capital of cultural programme.

Back in the UK I have been examining approaches to cultural participation in general and
participatory decision making in particular for a number of years (Jancovich 2011, 2013, 2015,
2015a). This led me to create a similar network which involves academics, policy makers and
practitioners debating issues around participation (www.participationandengagement-art.c.o.uk).
Starting small like the Take Part network it now has over 500 members and we hope to collaborate
together over the next few years.

My personal research focus is on the challenge the arts sector face in not only exploring how to
increase participation, which is a common policy discourse across Europe, (Bollo etal 2012), but in
relation to the politics of participation: how it is defined and the different objectives for different
agents. In my research and that of many colleagues in UK, there has been a growing interest in
encouraging the cultural sector to move beyond the deficit approach to participation, which sees the
"problem" of non participation as that of the individual, who needs to be brought into society and
encouraged to be a more active citizen. Instead I argue that there may be structural problems
within the culture sector (as well as in broader society) that may better be addressed by the public
sector having a deeper understanding of the needs of constituents. Better decisions may be also be
made by involving a wider range of voices in decision making.

It is clear both from my research and the discussions we had at Take Part that there are some
differences in cultural participation between UK and Denmark, with the latter having considerably
higher overall rates of taking part (DCMS, 2011, DAVIES, 2011). It is perhaps therefore not
surprising that while participation policy in the UK has focused on attracting the non user, many of
the people I have spoken to in Denmark favour engagement with existing users. As I stated in my
first reflections to the RethinkImpacts 2017 team while such practice "may be a valuable method for
understanding the user experience it does not investigate or remove barriers to engagement"
(Jancovich 2016a).

I would argue that this is problematic in a context where, despite the numbers who engage in
Denmark, there are still unequal rates between different sectors of the community and different art
forms. This largely replicates the UK where there is a clear correlation between rates of engagement
and socio-economic position, with the most wealthy and educated the most likely to be culturally
active. Similarly both countries demonstrate a predominance of funding for they very art forms
which demonstrate the lowest rates of participation. While this may be justifiable in terms of
addressing market failure it is challenging in terms of social justice.

I would argue that for the cultural sector to develop an understanding of not only the views of
current users, but also those who do not, requires more proactive approaches, what in the UK I
identified as a "street presence" beyond the doors of the arts building (Jancovich 2015b) and a
variety of methods, to both recruit and engage a wider range of voices in consultation and decision
making. Many of the projects I have worked with, both in the UK and Denmark, while
acknowledging the value of shared learning between organisation and public, also identify the
complexity of it. It is clearly time consuming and resource intensive which for some is a barrier to
processes that work in depth. But some felt that the demands of funders looking for quick wins and
high targets of numbers participating also encouraged organisations to define participation in terms
of numbers attending events, rather than involved in planning and decision making. It was further
acknowledged by many I interviewed in Denmark that a lack of confidence or competency on the
part of the cultural sector limited the ways with which they engaged with their publics.

The context of Aarhus 2017 was seen as a catalyst for the arts sector to "rethink" participation among other things. The Taking Part network extends that ambition beyond Aarhus. The challenge I would say is to use participation to not only change the mind sets of the public but of the cultural sector itself and in so doing to redefine the sector and its institutions.

  • BOLLO, A., DAL POZZOLO, L., DI FEDERICO, E. & GORDON, C. 2012. Measuring cultural participation. UNESCO Framework for Cultural Statistics Montreal: UNESCO.
  • DAVIES, T. 2011. Aarhus 2017 Candidate European Capital of Culture 2017. . Aarhus: Aarhus Kommune.
  • DCMS. 2011. Taking Part survey, the national survey of culture, leisure and sport [Online]. London DCMS Publications. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/taking-part-the-national-survey-of-culture-leisure-and-sport-january-december-2010 [Accessed 2/3/12.
  • Jancovich L (2016) Rethinking Participationin Aarhus 2017, Frist reflections. RethinkImpacts 2017 reports
  • Jancovich, L (2015a) The participation myth. International Journal of Cultural Policy. ISSN 1028-6632
  • Jancovich L (2015b) “Breaking down the fourth wall in arts management: The implications of engaging users in decision-making”, International Journal of Arts Management. 18.1: 14-28.
  • Jancovich L (2013) “Cultural policy in the public eye”, Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events.5.1: 95-98.
  • Jancovich L (2011) “Great art for everyone? Engagement and participation policy in the arts”, Cultural Trends.20.3-4: 271-279.

Dr. Leila Jancovich: Co-ordinator of knowledge exchange network on participation and engagement in the arts www.participationandengagement-art.c.o.uk