April 11, 2014 6:43 pm

The plural of anecdote is not data

‘Research may disprove what we think we know but artists are used to living with risk’

I’ve been an avid listener to BBC radio news for most of my adult life but it was only when I joined King’s College London after 30 years in the performing arts that I noticed how much of its content is, in fact, the findings of academic research.

As my ears became attuned to a different set of reference points, I realised that, between the news summaries and the bouts of politician-grilling, stories that began “researchers have found” and “new evidence shows” were all, by and large, a journalist’s take on academic publications.

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Of the £3bn the UK invests each year in its seven research councils, the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) receives about £100m – a fraction of the funds that science, engineering or medicine have to spend on the generation of new knowledge. If research outcomes really do make up so much of the news agenda, perhaps it’s not surprising that arts and culture so rarely make the headlines.

So when I turned on my radio last week and heard Wayne McGregor’s plans to make a ballet based on Virginia Woolf among the lead stories at nine o’clock, I was stunned: genuine arts news on the news. Perhaps director-general Tony Hall’s ambition to see arts and culture emerge from specialist channels and be embedded throughout the BBC – announced on the day that The One Show featured an item on Holbein – is already having an effect.

I’m glad that Lord Hall has picked up on the potential for the subliminal impact of art in unexpected places. It has always seemed to me to be a missed trick. In a scene memorable for its rarity, a character in EastEnders years ago casually remarked that she was “going up west” to the Festival Hall. With viewing figures of many millions per episode, that single reference probably reached more people than the venue could accommodate in 10 years.

Hall has also promised to offer viewers front-row seats at the nation’s great theatres, galleries and museums, as it does at Wimbledon and Wembley. This raises an interesting question. Does the BBC’s commitment to impartiality, so vigorously defended in news, extend across all its coverage? Sports pundits have no compunction in telling us when a team is struggling or a player is off form, but should we expect arts presenters, post-show, to let us know if the performance was below par, or the interpretation lacking in distinction?

The thrill of live performance is, to some extent, in the inherent risk: it might rank among those memorable, life-changing experiences or it might be one of those occasions that, by the law of averages is, well, average.

If we’re to see more live performance on television, statistics surely dictate that some of it will be middling-to-good rather than great. Would it raise the level of debate, understanding and excitement about arts and culture if this risk were acknowledged as integral to the experience, as it is in sport?

It was unfortunate, to say the least, that, in the same week that the BBC’s new arts strategy was announced, the only show in which this honest, critical appraisal regularly took place – The Review Show (which began weekly as BBC2’s Late Review, merged with Newsnight, then migrated to a monthly outing on BBC4) – was axed.

Impartiality has been much on my mind of late. Sitting as I do at the interface between academia and culture, I’m aware of an unprecedented appetite among artists and arts organisations for evidence about the impact and value of what they do. The AHRC’s Cultural Value Project and the Warwick Commission are each addressing this, and the Cultural Institute at London’s King’s College is about to launch CultureCase, a web resource that will put academic-standard research in the hands of the cultural sector, where it can inform decision-making and help build compelling cases for investment.

The evidence is out there – Professor Stephen Clift’s work at the Sidney de Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health is just one place to look – but, given the time and money required to undertake robust research and the finite resources available, no one would argue that the case in its entirety has yet been made. Arts Council England’s recently announced intention to collaborate with Higher Education on new research to develop this evidence base is timely, and welcome.

Like everyone who works in the arts, I have powerful stories to tell about the role arts and culture can play in enhancing the lives of individuals and communities. But I’m vividly aware that advocacy and evidence are not one and the same: in that wonderful-yet-impossible-to-source phrase, the plural of anecdote is not data.

The stories will only add up to hard and useful evidence through the rigour and impartiality of academic research. It may sometimes disprove what we think we know but artists are used to living with risk. Research is like live performance: it can change your worldview but it might not always turn out the way you expected.

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Deborah Bull is director, cultural partnerships, at King’s College London.

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