LGTBI+ Dance Club and The Coming Back Out Ball (2018) All the Queens Men, Melbourne, Photo: Bryony Jackson
In 2017, I was approached by Tristan Meecham, artistic director of All The Queens Men, to provide an independent assessment of The Coming Back Out Ball -a spectacular social dance program that engaged and celebrated Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) older people, aged 65+, in Victoria. The Ball, and the Dance Club delivered in the lead up, was created in response to recent research on the social isolation and culturally specific needs of the aging community. Our participatory evaluation aimed to to understand the meaning and significance of CBOB with LGTBI elders, their families and friends, artists and partner organisations. This included long visits about what the Dance Club and Ball meant to participants; students with shared lived experience involved in data collection and analysis; public discussions at MPavilion and participatory planning for the future; reporting back findings in advance of publication; translating impacts & learnings to policy for City of Melbourne, The Seniors Festival and Victorian Government.
Indigenous Traditional Dance Project, (2015) Artback NT, Borroloola, Northern
Territory, Photo: Benjamin Warrlingundu Ellis Bayliss
In 2015, I was invited to undertake the evaluation of a dance festival that supported Indigenous Elders to keep their culture strong in a remote community of the Northern Territory. With aims of community wellbeing, intercultural learning, and cultural maintenance through performing arts for remote communities, Artback NT’s Indigenous Traditional Dance Program (ITDP) culminated in the annual DanceSite Festival in Borroloola. This was a unique event embedded in a three-year community arts and cultural development (CACD) process. By paying careful attention to the expression of local knowledge by Elders and the tacit experience of CACD practitioners alongside community members, this evaluation primarily focused on ‘process evaluation’. This meant that we focused on ‘how it worked’ as well as ‘the impact’ it created. While procedural lessons and limited focus on short term ‘outputs’ can assist with reporting mechanisms, this process-focused approach aimed to empower the community to critically reflect on the significance of the programme to highlight local ownership, self-determination, and to imagine future delivery in Borroloola and elsewhere.
At RMIT University in Melbourne, I have built The Cultural Value and Impact Network with colleagues Prof Kit Wise, Dr Bronwyn Coate and Dr Gretchen Coombs to grow capacity, expertise in interdisciplinary collaboration and inventive methods for articulating, measuring, evaluating cultural value and social impact. With practitioners and academics from across the University, we are building strong creative teams that use new interdisciplinary methods attuned to cultural complexity and diverse communities to enable high impact research partnerships with the arts and cultural sectors, government and NGO community. (Art, Economics, Education, Finance and Marketing, Global Urban Studies, Media and Communication, Design, and Architecture).
The Cultural Value Debates and the Politics of Cultural Measurement
The concept of cultural value can be understood as the set of core principles which inform a particular way of life, including how the culture of a community is practised through its local customs, traditions and rituals and, as importantly, the beliefs which inform these practices (Throsby, 2001). In contrast to this, neo-liberalist framing of cultural value has been articulated as the economic wealth achieved through monetising outputs of creative industry as related to GDP and other comparable measures (Bakhshi, Freeman, & Hitchen, 2009). I have argued this latter frame limits opportunities to contribute meaningfully to our understanding of cultural nuance and collective, including our capacity to articulate the significance and meaning of cultural practice (Badham, 2019).
In recent years, the topic of value has been met with strong resistance from the arts and cultural sector, with advocates arguing against the politics of cultural measurement by way of institutional critique (Badham, 2015). Our capacity to render the outcomes that can ensue from activities and initiatives inherent to community connectedness and cultural value, such as creativity, empowerment, social mobility, wellbeing and kindness, do not lend themselves to being easily quantified (Jackson, 2013). Critics argue that valuing arts and culture in economic terms is detrimental to articulating cultural value, and that a focus on technical measures has obscured the political questions at the heart of cultural value (Belfiore & Bennett, 2008).
As MacDowall and Badham have argued, “…despite some techniques of evaluation offering a seemingly value-free source of data and evidence that might elevate arts and culture beyond debate, questions about value are necessarily political” (2013, p. 6). This inability to register the complexities of culture and difference is not a technical issue and points to concerns in which the dominance of mainstream culture remains unquestioned. More sophisticated approaches are emerging that insist on the specificity of culture and its complex relationship to identity and site-specificity. Despite all of these limitations in the counting of culture, a framework for cultural value has rich potential to be utilised as a powerful system to better understand qualities inherent to the cultural practices of communities’ societies. Such frameworks can then be deployed to describe not only individual activities and experiences through indicators and measures, but when considered as a system together, we propose they can be understood as a powerful set interrelated cultural ecology of knowledge production.
How can the process of evaluation function more effectively? Instead of simply reporting to funders, can it assist us in bettering practice? In what ways can evaluation become a productive exchange of ‘value’ and ‘values’ between collaborators? What methods might help us pay better attention to forms of negative value and the potential for harm? How might these processes become integrated in practice and strengthen both social and artistic outcomes? A feature of my community based research practice is a focus on cultural value and values partnerships in the arts sector. I am often invited to work in communities not my own - these consultancies typically shift from expectations of the 'external evaluator measuring impact and writing a report for funders' to a deep relational practice and participatory collaboration with community supporting artists and communities to articulate 'meaning and significance' of of their cultural practice on their own terms. I receive regular invitations for evaluation and research for projects that are made up of complex partnerships in which creative projects can achieve a range of varied outcomes for multi-stakeholder interests.
Badham, M., Wise, K., and MacDonald, A., (2020) ‘Mona’s 24 Carrot Gardens: seeding an ecology of cultural value’, Exploring cultural value: Contemporary issues for theory and practice, Lehman, K., Fillis, I., and Wickham, M. (eds), Bingley, UK: Emerald.
Badham, M., (2019) ‘Spectres of Evaluation: Inter-determinancy and the negotiation of value(s) in socially engaged art', in Co-creation Practices, Preston, M. & Poulin, C. (eds) Empire Edition co- édition CAC, Brétigny/Mac Val/Paris 8: 205 - 217.
Badham, M. and Bourke, L. (2018) ‘Reflections on the Coming Back Out Ball, a dialogic evaluation for the LGBTI+ elder community through dance’, The Coming Back Out Ball, All the Queens Men, Melbourne, Australia.
Badham, M. (2015) Evaluation report for the Indigenous Traditional Dance Project, Borroloola Northern Territory, Artback NT, Darwin.
Badham, M., (2015) ‘Democratising Cultural Indicators: developing a shared sense of progress’, in MacDowall, L., Badham, M. Blomkamp, E. Dunphy, K. (eds) Making Cultural Count: the politics of cultural measurement, London: Springer.
MacDowall L. and Badham, M., (2013) Spectres of Evaluation (discussion paper), University of Melbourne, Australia.
Bakhshi, H., Freeman, A., & Hitchen, G. (2009). Measuring intrinsic value–how to stop worrying and love economics.
Belfiore, E., & Bennett, O. (2008). The social impact of the arts. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jackson, E. T. (2013). Evaluating social impact bonds: Questions, challenges, innovations, and possibilities in measuring outcomes in impact investing. Community Development, 44(5), 608–616.
Throsby, D. (2001). Economics and culture. Cambridge University Press.