Culture looking to express its right value

The value of culture is an issue many cultural organisations are trying to define within their own modus operandi. Contemplating what value might be has set off a wide range of reactions and opinions on the relevance of culture.

The local relevance of culture has necessitated cultural organisations to look to the future and predict the needs of their stakeholders to better face challenges in the future and shape how they promote culture and its values.

A study recently published by McKinzey&Co (2013) on “How to Make a City Great” (McKinzey Cities Special Initiative) highlights that by 2030 60% of the world’s population will be living in urban centres. This statistic puts pressure on cultural institutions operating in urban contexts to redefine their purpose and mission. Notions of the values of culture have been central to this discussion.

Values seem to be linked primarily to three major aspects how culture may impact its surroundings. These values are: Cultural (artistic nature) of the programming of a cultural organization; Social related to the extent in which a cultural organisation involves, impacts and caters to communities and society at large; and finally economic considering the extent to which culture has a spillover effect on the economy at large and the work of the cultural organisations. In some cases this last value is also used as a basis for innovation within and outside culture as a domain.

(N.B. there are also other values relevant to consider beyond the above-mentioned taxonomy).

The challenge currently facing many cultural organisations has been to counteract the global economic crisis and the overall lack of funding for culture. This has practically meant finding new legitimacy for culture. Many organisations have therefore taken to talking of content from the point of view of value. Moreover, many organisations have had to practically articulate values by identifying and motivating systematic programming choices.

There has been a lot of criticism within the cultural domain, as to which values are key and urgent. We have seen that many organisations due to funding streams have resorted to social value though developing participative programming within their contents. Others have chosen cultural and artistic values (what many will argue is the true mission of cultural organisations generally) focusing on the artistic quality of the programming, which in some cases has meant dwindling numbers in visitors.

I have been intrigued by this discussion and the choices that cultural organisations pursue. It seems in many cases to be a matter reevaluating the core business and identity of a cultural organisation. Therefore my question, how are values optimised; and how could different values reinforce each other, not only for economic value purposes, but to amplify artistic merits and impact in society. There have been some great examples: think about Toneelgroep Amsterdam and their Roman Tragedies production (an interactive play where the audience is placed on the stage interacts with the plot and actors of the play); or the Opera Company of Philadelphia that performed several pieces outside a traditional setting, in the Reading Terminal Market in Philly (a campaign that came to be known as “Random Act of Culture” to create awareness among city dwellers of the value of culture).

Why did these succeed? And why do many others fail?