A project initiated by

What is, and what should be the civic role of arts organisations?

Prof. Simeon Yates from the Institute of Cultural Capital, the Inquiry Research partner, writes about developing a definition of civic role for arts organisations.
Posted by Simeon Yates

There are two questions at the heart of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation program on the Civic role of Arts Organisations:

  • What is the Civic Role of Arts Organisations?
  • What should be the Civic Role of Arts Organisations?

The recent review for the Foundation by Kings College London has focused mainly on the second of these questions.  In doing so it has taken a broadly deductive approach working from a first principle definition of “civic role” and drawing on academic literature to develop a discussion of what this predominantly might be in the UK context.

We are taking a different but complementary approach in our work as the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s research partner.  The first part of our work has been to take a more inductive approach to the literature and to collect materials form a wider base of both academic and non-academic work.  We had hoped that we might be able to undertake a systematic review of evidence (data, case studies, surveys etc.) to provide a robust statement of what has been found to be the ‘civic role’ of Arts organisations (Blundell, 2013).  Unfortunately, the evidence base in terms of well documented case studies, surveys and evaluations specifically focused on this question are limited.

We have therefore take a narrative and semantic approach to the literature (Popay et al., 2006).  The narrative analysis is being undertaken by a team of four at the Institute of Cultural Capital (ICC) and is seeking to identify, quantify and detail the areas of work undertaken by arts organisations that they or commentators have defined as ‘civic’.  This has indicated that the majority of the literature defines work in the following domains as civic:

  • Political life of community/city/state
  • Educational provision
  • Citizens/Community members’ identities and personal lives
  • Communities and their development and maintenance

The semantic work, involving the use of software to identify how ideas around the civic are linked in the literature, has identified the following ways in which arts organisations are linked to the civic:

  • Engagement – however and often poorly defined – implying often ‘working with’
  • Dialogue – mainly in the context of public discussion of or with actors in the domains above
  • Arts practice – often public arts practice as being civic in and of itself, or through providing a route or location for engagement
  • Agency of the arts/arts organisations – the most common linking is through assertions that the everyday work of arts organisations has in and of itself civic agency – the descriptions of the processes by which it is implied to have agency being highly varied

We will be linking our narrative and semantic results so as to provide outline answers to what the academic and practitioner literature say are the answers to:

  • What is, and what should be the Civic Role of Arts Organisations?

The next step of the research will be to take these results and explore them in conversation with a panel of practitioner experts.  To ask: do these work as answers for you? Do these categories fit your experience?  Where is the evidence base? And, what do you think the civic role should and could be?


Blundell, M. (2013) ‘Understanding and synthesising numerical data’ in Boland, A., Cherry, G. and Dickson, R., eds, Doing a systematic review: A Student’s Guide. London: Sage.

Popay, J., Roberts, H., Sowden, A., Petticrew, M., Arai, L., Rodgers, M., Britten, N., Roen, K. and Duffy, S. ‘Guidance on the conduct of narrative synthesis in systematic reviews.’ ESRC methods programme, 15 (1), 047-71.


Leave a comment