This theme explores the ways in which arts and cultural activities can help develop ideas of the good life beyond material consumption.

Photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 :: Dalio Photo / Flickr

Sustainability and prosperity have conventionally been conceived as predominantly technical or economic concerns. Our approach departs from this framing to consider explicitly the role of culture and the arts, not just in communicating sustainability but as an inherent component of prosperity itself. Theme A will develop the conceptual framework for this approach and explore the complex interactions between cultural prosperity, place and the quality (and availability) of employment, leisure and the rights to self-expression.

Our starting point is a familiarity with academic critiques of culturally-led ‘regeneration’ and economic development. The links between cultural investment, rising land prices and gentrification are very well demonstrated, while cultural economies themselves often develop labour markets that are marked by social stratification and patterns of exclusion as well as by exploitative or poorly paid work. We have chosen to work with arts and cultural organisations that are themselves challenging the narrow economically-focussed script of the ‘creative economy,’ in order to see if there is a role for cultural investments beyond this. The outcomes from these smaller-scale investments may not fit the requirements for economic gains that public policy has focused upon but require us to rethink the notion of regeneration itself.’ This can take a variety of forms from the cultural activism associated with demonstrations and occupations; to discursive resistance to chain stores and the loss of independent businesses; to performance-based interventions that have been used in planning processes to reveal different conceptions of what citizens might want from development.

We will work in three case study area throughout the life of the project, though other place-based and other cases studies may also be included as further partnerships develop.

These are

  • An urban high growth area (Islington, London): an area with the characteristics of hyper-gentrification and displacement, well-supplied with all manner of arts, cultural and leisure offerings. We will particularly be working around the Finsbury Park area.
  • An urban low growth area (Stoke on Trent): an area that has suffered hugely from deindustrialisation seeking to re-invent its economy around craft manufacturing and lifestyle businesses.
  • A rural area (Hay-on-Wye, Wales): a town that is renowned for its literary festival and bookshops. Hay and the surrounding areas are attracting incomers who are seeking a particular version of the ‘good life’.

A1 :: Culture in the Community

This project will explore the role of arts and cultural activities as co-producers of a set of meanings about the good life, communicating and elaborating on visions for living better and more sustainably.

The overall aim will be to explore what role cultural activities pay in understanding of the good life and in sense of place and identity. The research will involve focus groups, depth interviews and time-use diaries to investigate how cultural participation helps shapes people’s understanding of the ‘good life’ and particularly its relationship to sense of place. Alongside this, we will be tracking the connection between localised cultural economies (number of cultural businesses, cultural institutions, cultural investment and consumption and so on) and wider socio-economic trends within these local areas to examine issues of gentrification, displacement and culturally-led economic development.

A2 :: Culture as ‘good work’

One of the primary ways in which the arts contribute to sustainable prosperity is through the provision of meaningful work. Drawing on McIntyre’s work on practices (1981) – which understands various skilled, complex and collective activities as possessing their own ‘internal’ goods – and Hesmondhalgh and Baker’s (2011) work on culture as ‘good work,’ Project A.2 will examine the non-material benefits that artists draw from their work and how they balance this against material and other needs. We will also explore the various networks and organisational forms – such as co-ops, freelancing, portfolio working – which people adopt in order to negotiate the precarious nature of cultural work. The polarisation of the cultural workforce, and the increasing exclusion of working class, ethnic minority, female and disabled cultural workers is apparent in national statistics but we need to understand how these processes operate at the local level. In each of our case study areas, we will identify a group of young people (16-19 year olds) with aspirations to become professional cultural producers, and ’track’ their progress over four years, investigating how questions of work satisfaction, place and creative autonomy help shape their education, work experience (including internships) and decisions about paid work. In addition we will conduct a series of depth interviews with a variety of cultural workers at different stages in their working lives to investigate the trade-off that people make between income and more meaningful work, the constraints on these choices and the rewards they expect and achieve.

A3 :: Creativity in everyday life

Drawing on other recent academic research such as the AHRC’s Understanding Everyday Participation Project, this project will explore the role of creativity in everyday life. Using a case study approach it will examine the multiple forms that creativity takes in the lives of ordinary people from different socio-economic, cultural and geographical backgrounds. Project A.3 will draw data from the same case study areas as in A.1 and A.2, and through focus groups, depth interviews and participant observation, it will seek to understand the meanings that people attach to activities such as singing, writing, drama, crafts and online cultural production. It will consider how these activities help to locate people within particular communities (either geographic communities or communities of interest) and how this plays into understandings of the good life.

A4 :: Drama and the good life

The dramatic form has a long pedigree in elaborating contested visions of the good life. From Plato’s Dialogues to 1970s TV sitcom The Good Life, drama has been used to explore both moral and pragmatic dimensions of our ideas about prosperity. Indeed, it may be argued that this has been a central preoccupation of dramatists in the modern era, informing the work of Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekhov, Caryl Churchill, Michael Frayn, Polly Stenham and Tennessee Williams. Project A.4 will develop a professional radio drama drawing inspiration from the work of CUSP. Building on the PI’s own 25 year experience as a radio dramatist, and working closely with producer Rosie Boulton, the aim will be to develop either a short series of linked radio plays or a single play to be broadcast in the final year of the programme as part of our dissemination.