We’re living in a world that is obsessed by big data but that doesn’t relate to the rural areas of Lancashire. We can’t manage the arts using big data

Rob on stage with Kathy McArdle, Christine Cort, Wayne Hemingway, Paula Akpan &  Dawinder Bansal

Rob on stage with Kathy McArdle, Christine Cort, Wayne Hemingway, Paula Akpan & Dawinder Bansal

Last weekend I was invited onto to a panel at the National Festival of Making as part of their talks programme co-ordinated by Creative Lancashire. I was also asked to write an article for thee talks brochure which I’ve reproduced below. 

Is a festival the answer to fixing a broken and divided nation in a post Brexit, Trumpian age?

If it is then how on earth do we honestly evaluate that? We live in an age of bean counters where nothing can happen without postcodes being collected and people being asked about the colour of their socks. We can work out who attended but how do we truthfully work out the long term social or economic impact of festivals? Without empirical evidence, it’s difficult to convince public sector investors, whose core business is increasingly financial management and data gathering, to stump up the cash. Unfortunately that empirical evidence is often flawed and sometimes downright dishonest.

Not all cultural policy is based on empirical research. It can be based on assumptions, tradition or ideology. Half-truths and misleading headlines often influence policy in this post Brexit, Trumpian age. Flawed and misinterpreted research has led to a myriad of poor decisions. Richard Florida has recently conceded that his arguments on the importance of the Creative Class, backed up by empirical research,were flawed. These influenced cultural policy in cities across the world in the nineties and noughties.

Evaluative research is often framed to endorse a current policy or activity without exploring alternatives. Not all researchers are objective. Many will have an agenda, from consultants seeking to please their paymaster to festival organisers seeking to justify their funding.

Some will argue that validity only comes with independent, academic, empirical research but inconsistency, bias and abuse of the sacred peer review system have all been evidenced. Sometimes the methodology is just flawed and uninformed. A city considering an application to be a European City of Culture may well consider the peer reviewed findings of Steiner, Frey, and Holz (2015) on life satisfaction in previous host cities. This research is based on regional data completely ignoring the fact that some EU NUTS Regions are vast. Their conclusion that traffic disruption may cause dissatisfaction in a region where some of the population live 400 miles away from a host city is not helping anyone develop a cultural festival policy.

I don’t know if a programme of festivals can heal a divided post Brexit nation. I do know, from experience, that a well run festival is likely to have a positive impact on people and places. What data and statistics reveal can be informative but what they don’t record – laughter, conversations, shared experiences, a buzz on the high street, wonder, inspiration, energy and positivity are vital. These are the things that have a long term impact on bringing people together, health and wellbeing, place and economic vitality.  

I am not arguing that we shouldn’t evaluate but we need to recognise that data only tells half the story. At the same time we need to learn to put our trust back into the creative experts. When planning and looking at the potential worth of a festival,  let’s get back to valuing professional observations, common sense and informed instinct and take some of the statistical analysis with a large pinch of salt.