European inventory of
societal values of culture

Merli - Evaluating the social impact of participation in arts activities

Merli, P. (2002) Evaluating the social impact of participation in arts activities. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 8(1): 107-118.

In 1993 the independent research organisation Comedia, on behalf of the Arts Council of Great Britain, produced a discussion document on the social impact of the arts (Landry, C., Bianchini, F., Maguire, M. and Worpole, K. The Social Impact of the Arts: A Discussion Document, Comedia, Bournes Green, Stroud, 1993). The study was followed in 1995-1996 by an empirical research project focused on the social impact of participatory arts programmes, co-ordinated by François Matarasso for Comedia, producing the influential report Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts (Matarasso, 1997). The research programme included, among others, the working paper How the Arts Measure Up (Williams, 1997), an updating of a research project on the social impact of community arts (Creating Social Capital, 1996) carried out in Australia in 1994-1995 with support by the Australia Council for the Arts. Williams' study pioneered the methodology developed by Matarasso in his research.

While earlier publications on the social impact of the arts had attracted relatively little attention, Matarasso's study has played an important role in establishing a near-consensus in Britain among cultural policy-makers. The research was cited by the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, in speeches at the Fabian Society conference at the Playhouse Theatre, London, on 19th September 1997, and at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield on 14th January 1998 (Smith, 1998).

Matarasso's research has thus become politically important and worthy of critical analysis. It develops the complex theme of the social impact of the arts from a particular ideological perspective. This is partly due to the author's strong desire to be relevant and useful to the policy process and to contribute to decision-making, but such relevance seems to have been achieved to the detriment of the quality of the research work.
The first part of this paper concentrates on analysing the quality of Matarasso's research. The critique focuses on methodological issues and an effort is made to show that the research project is flawed in its design, execution and conceptual basis. Paper then deals with political issues such as whether using participatory arts as a form of governance, under the heading of promoting social cohesion, is actually worthwhile and desirable. Finally, some suggestions are put forward for possible future research.


Paola Merli “Evaluating the social impact of participation in arts activities”