Emotional Impact of the Arts

The Long Read

Impact studies are generally conducted to assess – and prove – the value of a venue, event or festival, in economic and sometimes social terms. They measure the difference in hotel occupancy, average spend in local businesses and many other factors to show what would have happened if the festival hadn’t taken place or the venue didn’t exist.

When I was at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2009-2010, we participated in a somewhat different type of impact study, along with the 7 other arts organisations that formed the Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium at that time. The LARC team, working with consultants Baker Richards and WolfBrown, coordinated audience research across several museums (Tate Liverpool and National Museums Liverpool), theatres (Unity, Everyman & Playhouse), two multi-disciplinary arts centres (Bluecoat and FACT), an orchestra and programming venue (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) and an arts biennial (Liverpool Biennial) to assess the  emotional impact of the arts, asking audiences across all artforms and settings questions about “captivation, emotional resonance, spiritual value, intellectual stimulation, aesthetic growth and social bonding”.

The results of the Intrinsic Impacts pilot study are available for download on LARC’s website, and come with a warning: it’s an exploratory research, aimed at developing research protocols. The report itself is rather cautious, highlighting biases and issues, but concludes with a few assertions and ambitions:

“What is certain beyond a doubt is that audiences and visitors measurably benefit from attending the arts, in many ways. Intrinsic impact is at the core of the value system surrounding the arts. If the impact doesn’t occur at the time of the exchange between the art and the audience, then the economic, social and civic benefits associated with the arts can’t happen.  This is why the quality of the experience is so important, and why investments in artistic processes and creative programming endeavours can pay substantial dividends to individuals, families and the community.”  

“Focusing on intrinsic impact shifts attention to transformative outcomes in the economy of meaning, not just the economy of money, and provides civic and cultural leaders with a new vocabulary to describe the primary benefits of arts and culture, and their many contributions to civic engagement and quality of life.”

The Intrinsic Impacts pilot study investigates methods and tools to answer the report’s opening question: “How are people transformed by arts experiences?”. One of its avowed objectives is to help programmers and curators in understanding the consequences of their artistic choices,  a question at the heart of public art programming, audience development and engagement efforts. Perhaps this quote by John Dewey can provide, if not an answer, then at least an interesting take on cause and consequence:

“Works of art that are not remote from common life, that are widely enjoyed in a community, are signs of a unified collective life. But they are also marvelous aids in the creation of such a life.” – John Dewey, Art as Experience, 1934

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