Cultural Participation, Stories of success, histories of failure (Failspace)



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 and suggests that the failure to change the data may be a failure of policy and not a failure of participation.

This research is founded on theories about the value of recognising and understanding such 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 seeks to develop a framework to test the value of identifying, acknowledge and learn from failure.

In so doing the study seeks 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 began with participatory workshops and textual analysis in order to identify the most common stories that are told about cultural participation projects.

The research progressed to in-depth qualitative interviews with policy makers, cultural practitioners and participants and an anonymous online data survey. This stage explored attitudes to failure in the cultural sector.

What we found in the early stages of research was the extent to which a culture of mistrust, blame and fear between artists, organisations, funders and the public has resulted in a policy environment that engenders overstated aims, accepts poor quality evaluations, encourages narratives of success and is devoid of meaningful critical reflection.  

In our academic research outputs we argue that this absence of transparency and honesty limits the potential for "social learning" (May, 1992) which is necessary for greater understanding about the social construction of policy problems, something which is a precondition to any radical change in policy.

We offer suggestions as to how failure might be better acknowledged, learnt from, and acted upon by policy makers, funders and art organisations and have developed frameworks and tools which are intended to be of practical use to those working within the cultural sector, in particular those involved in policymaking and grant distribution, but also to evaluators and managers of participatory programmes.  


By employing participatory research approaches during our earlier research process and co-creating knowledge with our research participants, we have given policy makers and practitioners a real stake in our research.

As a result there is a strong appetite from the cultural sector to test our research findings in practice.

In the final stage of our research we are therefore working in collaboration with industry, to;

  • develop a team of champions from the cultural sector to extend the reach of our research by facilitating opportunities for their networks to discuss failures openly, 
  • partner with a number of funding organisations to embed our approach in application and evaluation forms they give to funded organsiaotns as well as how they reivew their own 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 provides a mechanism to better inform decision making in the arena of cultural policy by listening to a wider range of voices.
  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 develop mechanisms for cultural policy makers to engage in more reflective learning from past failures.
    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. The participatory methodologies used in this research provide a space for shared learning within cultural practitioners.
    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.


Publications and outputs

  • Jancovich and Stevenson 2019, The “problem” of participation in cultural policy forthcoming In Cultures of Participation. Editors: Eriksson B, Stage C, Valtysson B . London, Routledge 
  • Leila Jancovich & David Stevenson (2021) Failure seems to be the hardest word to say, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 27:7, 967-981, DOI: 10.1080/10286632.2021.1879798 
  • Jancovich and Stevenson (eds) 2020 Failures in Cultural Participation, special edition of Conjunctions, Transdisciplinary Journal of Cultural Participation  
  • Jancovich and Stevenson (2022) Failures of Participation, London, Palgrave 
  • Wright L (2020, Welcome to the Culutral Desert (art book) 
  • Project website:
  • Project online resources: 
  • Four press aritcles in Arts Professional