My interest in research grew from my work in community arts during the 1980s and 1990s. I saw that people gained in many ways from participating in arts activity but academia showed little interest in community art or its social potential at the time. My first research work was done in 1989: evaluations of projects for the Social Services Inspectorate and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. In 1994, research became a major part of my work when I joined Comedia. Three years later, published ‘Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts’, the first major study of its kind. Drawing on in depth case studies and my past experience in community arts, it was well received by people working in the field. Its concepts and approach have influenced subsequent developments and it is still widely referenced in the growing literature on cultural impact and value.
Research into aspects of community cultural life remains a cornerstone of my work. In doing that work outside the framework of a university, I argue that democracy depends on knowledge being produced from many sources. The insights that come from my practice is also different from that which academic distance offers. The work I’ve done through Regular Marvels is part of that attempt to investigate, think and report in fresh ways.
Recently completed research
2015 – ‘The Pinning Stones’, commissioned by Aberdeenshire Council
‘The traces are everywhere. There are obvious ones, like the stone circles, tombs and monuments, vitri ed forts and hill towns, symbol stones, kirks, abbeys and chapels, castles, manses and great houses, gardens and parks, Royal Burghs and planned towns, distilleries and warehouses, colleges and academies, village halls, institutes and so much more.’
2015 – ‘Stories and Fables’ Commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise
- ‘This study is unusual in two ways. First, because it tries to trace what has happened in a community’s cultural life over a long period of time: the natural starting point – the late 1970s, when both the St Magnus Festival and the Pier Arts Centre were established – is a time when James Callaghan was Prime Minister. Secondly, it is unusual in its focus with why things happened in the ways that they did: in seeking explanations for the distinctive successes of Orcadian cultural development.’
Some older research projects
- Arts development in North Liverpool, (LARC, 2010)
- Research and consultation on arts in rural areas (Arts Council England 2005)
- Study of arts touring in rural England and Wales (NRTF 2004)
- Study of community dance work (English National Ballet 1998)
- Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts (Comedia, 1997)
- Community arts in Belfast (Making Belfast Work & Arts Council of Northern Ireland 1995-98)
Research or evaluation?
Where cultural activity is concerned, research and evaluation have much in common, especially when it is commissioned rather than emerging from the researcher’s own interests. For me, the main difference is the kind of questions that are being asked. Evaluations are naturally tied to the aims of specific programmes, while research – as in the projects mentioned above – can address much more open questions. That said, much of the work listed on the Evaluation page can be seen as a focused kind of research.