Cultural Participation, Stories of success, histories of failure



Partners and collaborators

Queen Margarets University, Edinburgh


Data suggests that the number of those labeled as cultural participants across Europe is falling. This is despite a cultural policy focus, at national and EU level, on increasing rates of participation. Traditionally research has examined the levers and barriers to participation from an approach that assumes it is the participant who has a cultural deficit. More recent research, such as the Understanding Everyday Participation Project (UEP), has challenged this by examining the nature of activities that are sanctioned as cultural participation. This redirects the focus to understand the value of those that are not.

This research is founded on theories about the value of recognising and understanding failure. It posits that narratives of failure are largely overlooked in the dominant narratives about cultural participation policies and projects. It is argued that this absence reduces the capacity for learning and change. It further limits the impact that the evidence, generated by projects such as UEP, is able to have. By moving beyond the tendency to make the 'case for culture', which is prevalent both in academic and policy documents, this research will provide space for alternative voices and stories to be heard. In so doing the study will seek to disrupt the taken for granted assumptions upon which existing policy processes and practices are sustained and reproduced. It will present alternative stories of failure, with the intention to encourage new routes for future policy intervention intended to support cultural participation.

Working in stages, this research will begin participatory workshops and textual analysis in order to identify the most common stories that are told about cultural participation projects. It will map the dominant narrative structures upon which they rely. In stage 2 the research will progress to in-depth qualitative interviews and online data collection. This stage will explore the fidelity of the dominant narratives about the history of cultural participation policies and projects. Stage 3 of the research will see groups of artists, arts managers and policy makers brought together in workshops to discuss the alternative stories of cultural participation projects that the research project has identified. On the basis of the findings of Stage 1 & 2 an artistic output will be produced that will provide the central stimulus for this final stage. It will highlight the contrast between the dominant narratives and those that remain hidden. These workshops will explore reasons why such alternative stories remain silenced while others become the evidence that is used to maintain the status quo. The workshops will then identify concrete actions that could be taken in order to disrupt the existing policy processes.

A creative output, industry report and academic text will be created to facilitate discussion of failure beyond the life of the project with different stakeholders.

But both Stevenson (2016) and Jancovich (2014) have argued that the participation agenda has taken a performative turn that sees research used to legitimise rather than challenge the status quo. This research, therefore, seeks to disrupt the policymaking process. It focuses on cultural participation policies and projects through the lens of the stories that are told about them. It examines how the dominant narratives of such stories may contribute towards the calcification of cultural policy. In doing so the research will investigate why, despite an apparent failure to deliver any significant change in the patterns of participation, cultural policymakers appear wedded to the same methods, strategies and arguments about why observable patterns of cultural participation differ and how such differences should be reduced and removed. In short, the research seeks to address the question of why cultural policy appears so difficult to change, in spite of the weight of evidence indicating the necessity of such change.


The aim of this research is to disrupt “received wisdom” in cultural policy on the processes employed to increase participation by presenting alternative narratives that, rather than making the case for continuation of existing practices, speak to the challenges and failures of policy. 

The anticipated impact of this research may therefore be defined as follows

  1. Provide mechanism to better inform decision making in the arena of cultural policy by engaging a wider range of voices in the discourse - cultural research and policy making have been criticised for persistently speaking to a narrow “cultural elite”. By seeking out alternative narratives this research gives a voice to those who are currently unheard in most policy discourse. It is hard to quantify numbers of people who will be engaged in this research process but the focus of the sample will be on diversity of participants, from beyond those normally heard in such research.
  2. Develop mechanisms for cultural policy makers to learn through failure - the cultural sector, like other areas of public policy have been shown to use impact to measure success and thereby limit the potential to learn from failure.  This research will not only develop alternative narratives of failures but also develop tools with which cultural policy might better capture evidence and encourage reflective learning on the impact of their policy interventions. In terms of reach, while the numbers of dedicated staff working on participation may be at first glance small; each office of Arts Council England, Creative Scotland or local authority leisure departments may have only person with responsibility for participation for example, they generally work in a cross cutting way across all art form and strategic departments. As such the tools for learning developed through this research will impact across cultural policy and potentially elsewhere in public policy.
  3. Provide a space for shared learning within cultural practitioners - throughout the research participatory methodologies will be used to encourage interactive input, in the early stages this involves an interactive blog while the final stage includes facilitated workshops which will not only share findings but also interrogate them.   Participants for workshops will include cultural policy makers outlined in 2) above but will also be drawn from across the gamut of everyday creative practice, amateur and voluntary arts, community arts and socially engaged practice.
  4. Support the development of new creative approaches which seek to support everyday creativity - as the principles underpinning both this research and current UK cultural policy are to support “great art for everyone” this research will providing better understanding of the processes that help or hinder policy implementation which seeks to make the “everyone” less rhetorical and more a reality which, as the organisation 64million artists alludes to, has potential to impact on every person in the country by promoting more everyday creativity.

The outputs planned are not only academic but include industry focused recommendations and strategies to improve policy, disseminate learning and encourage more informed debate. The artistic output will be designed as a learning resource which may be used beyond the life of this research project. The more traditional text based outputs will also speak to methods for long term review of policy intervention.

Publications and outputs

  1. The “problem” of participation in cultural policy forthcoming In Cultures of Participation. Editors: Eriksson B, Stage C, Valtysson B . Routledge
  2. Project website
  3. Report for policymakers and the wider cultural sector
  4. Creative output accompanied by a framework for discussing failure
  5. Co-authored book

Project website