Moving From Conflict to Coherence: Practitioners and Funders on Reconciliation, Art and Evaluation

/ Analysis

Analysis of the interviews has made clear the need to develop greater coherence between the intentions of funders and the experiences of artists in the sector.

Policy makers have often touted the value of culture and creativity in producing desirable social and economic outcomes (Campbell, 2018). From the 1970s onward, cultural policy shifted from the needs of artists to the consumer (Reinelt, 2014). Public subsidy should serve the political and economic betterment of the public as a whole, rather than a narrow section of society. Increasingly, social benefit was measured in terms of the economic contribution of the arts and, particularly under New Labour, this also meant ensuring equality of access as a means of maximising art’s capacity to contribute to the ‘regeneration’ of deprived communities. On the surface, this seemed a worthy attempt to unpick those notions of taste that served to entrench the social power of the bourgeoise (Bourdieu, 1996). No longer was access to culture to be based on social status and freedom from economic necessity; no longer would notions of high culture be used to entrench the power of elite groups. In order to combat such a situation, hierarchies of taste were replaced with supposedly impersonal metrics (economic impact, the generation of employment, the broadening of participation) that could easily be quantified and compared. This solution sidestepped aesthetic questions in favour of a regime of targets that rendered cultural production both predictable and comparable (Hewison, 2014). In order to be funded, projects would have to meet the targets set by funders and, once complete, practitioners would be expected to provide evidence of their various social impacts. However, as we explore in our project, the expansion of this model of cultural policy into the field of peace building has produced several areas of tension between funders and artists, tensions that obscure and inhibit the unique contribution of art to reconciliation.

Existing studies have identified broader issues with existing funding models that, though not specific to art for reconciliation, are nevertheless illuminating. As pointed out by David Grant, a contradiction has emerged between a discourse of creativity that lauds the benefits of artistic independence and freedom and the experiences of artists who feel themselves increasingly beholden to burdensome regimes of funding management. Troubling questions remain as to whether quantitative and outcomes-oriented methods of evaluation truly capture precisely what art, as a specific order of social practice and experience (Williams, 2005: pp.47-9), brings to the problems it is expected to address (see Holden, 2004). Here the problem is not the instrumentalisation of art per se, but that existing funding regimes are set up in a way that works against the shared aims of both artist and funders; that is, the harnessing of art’s particular resources to achieve positive social outcomes.

The way out of this contradiction is not for artists to retreat, with Aristotelian aloofness, to simple assertions of art’s intrinsic value (see O’Connor, 2016); neither is it advisable that funders continue to sidestep aesthetic questions by reducing the specificity of creative processes and experience to general conceptions of efficacy and impact (Knell & Taylor, 2011). Instead, what our project seeks to do is understand how artists conceive of the role of their work and the conditions under which they are expected to deliver it. By foregrounding the voices of artists as well as funders we can apprehend points of conflict and coherence concerning the challenges of apprehending the value of arts, and the affordances of diverse aesthetic forms, for reconciliation. In doing so we can think of ways to reshape funding and assessment to capture and materially support the arts as a set of distinctive and formally diverse reconciliatory practices.

Purpose and scope of the interviews

In order to establish how art for reconciliation (AfR) is understood and located in the wider context of peace and reconciliation activity, we conducted 40 in-depth interviews with funders and funded practitioners operating in Northern Ireland. These interviews were designed to give us a better sense of the challenges for AfR that arise out of the nexus of policy, funding structures and artistic practice. Funder perspectives reflected a variety of funding agencies and roles within the broader landscape, including CEOs, administrative managers, project officers and those that work closely with practitioners in deliver their work. Practitioner perspectives ranged across the arts sector, from community-based groups to professional arts organisations, and included those working with performance, moving image, visual culture and music. Our questions aimed to explore the intentions and understanding of AfR amongst practitioners and funders; they sought to grasp art’s particular contribution to reconciliation, especially where that contribution is inadequately captured within existing evaluation methods.

The data we collected can adequately be divided into points of convergence and points of conflict. Crucially, we found that funders and practitioners agree on a variety of existing problems, including the lack of coherence regarding what reconciliation means, the specific role art plays in peace-making, and the limitations of existing evaluation processes. But significant disjunctures emerged between funders and practitioners around issues such as the impact of funding scarcity on long-term capacity building, the specific formal mechanisms by which the arts contribute to reconciliation, and the adequacy, intention and contribution of evaluation in supporting effective AfR practice.

The short-termism of contemporary funding regimes

Convergence: Practitioners and funders agree that reconciliation is “not an event”, but consists of an accumulation of “small, multi-level activities” that together incrementally transform community relations. Across the interviews, there is a feeling that reconciliation would never be initiated if its outcomes had to be defined narrowly in advance. As one performance practitioner observes: “the assumption that you can point towards as a reconciliation event, or an event which promotes reconciliation, that would be very off-putting I would think.” A willingness to reconcile, enabled by the ambiguity in conceptualising reconciliation as a process-driven, might provide the basis for a more flexible and less coercive approach.

Conflict: Practitioners tend to stress the need to situate the agency of AfR work within the broader political and economic context of the peace process. Though funders acknowledge that cuts to funding for the arts have required practitioners to “do less with more”, funding recipient interviewees offer a more sophisticated understanding of the effect of scarcity on the transformative capacity of AfR. They note, for example, that competition over resources results in more money and effort being diverted to the bidding process. A number of practitioners described how projects often require multiple sources of funding to reach completion. The bureaucracy involved in this process becomes “a massive juggle”. Many also point out that the piecemeal funding of single projects, as opposed to core funding, marginalises those outcomes that cannot readily be achieved within a short programme period, and stymies the ability of practitioners to refine and embed AfR methods within their organisations. Many feel that the scarcity of resources and project-based evaluation produces a short-termism that works against the notion of reconciliation as an incremental process.

The pitfalls of evaluation

Convergence: Interviewees tend to agree that evaluation is necessary to communicate the cultural value of AfR to the outside world and some practitioners note that funding bodies can provide useful, critical feedback to support specific projects and longer term work. Many funders and practitioners also admit the limitations of the information elicited in evaluations.

Conflict: Though funders use a range of methods of evaluation, there is widespread skepticism amongst practitioners regarding the ability of these methods to capture positive social impacts. In order to secure funding they feel pressured to “play the game” of demonstrating that they have achieved the targets set out in their grants. Moreover, practitioners express doubts whether the quantitative measures (participation numbers, religious affiliation statistics, “cross-community” contact time &c.) used by funders adequately captures the unique strategies art uses to enhance reconciliation and the complex experiences of participants and spectators. As one interviewee remarked: “the more [funders] moved towards social impact and those sorts of outcomes, the less interested in art they became.” This exacerbates the feeling that existing evaluation methods impose unnecessary financial and administrative burdens upon practitioners for little meaningful return. Overall, practitioners express a desire to complement quantitative methods such as surveys with qualitative methods, site visits and video feedback, and argue that this material needs to be preserved beyond the life of the assessment period in order to inform future work.

Missing the role of the arts

Convergence: Both funders and practitioners agree that AfR is “qualitatively different from other types of reconciliation projects” and aver, with varying degrees of precision, the unique capacity of the arts to assist alternatives to verbal expression. Many practitioners emphasise that participating in the arts is “a joyful kind of activity” that can circumvent divisive cultural practices and habituated modes of communication to anticipate a better, less painful, future.

Conflict: Despite this, there is a general lack of coherence between funders and practitioners concerning the precise mechanisms art uses to enhance reconciliation. Whereas funders talk only in vague terms about art’s transformative power, practitioners identify a range of AfR activities, including work that enhances cross-community contact/dialogue, gives voice to marginalised perspectives, offers an non-sectarian forms of political contestation/expression, develops inclusive spaces/places, and offers symbolic reparation to those affected by the conflict. Many discuss the capacity of the arts to offer participants and spectators an enabling distance from the experience or topic under consideration. As one interviewee notes: “The best way to bring a neighbourhood together is to take them somewhere else.” Estrangement provides space for meta-cognition: prompting participants to reflect upon the way they habitually embody and think about and think about identity, conflict, and political claims.

Developing Coherence

Analysis of the interviews has made clear the need to develop greater coherence between the intentions of funders and the experiences of artists in the sector. Despite there being coherence between funders and practitioners on the long term nature of reconciliation in Northern Ireland, practitioners feel that the proliferation of targets, when coupled with inadequate methods of evaluation and project based grant allocation, inhibits the efficacy and sustainability of their work. Competition and ‘targetology’ incentivises positive bias, inhibits the development of long term projects, and hinders the sharing of knowledge between arts organisations. If creativity is truly to be harnessed for reconciliation, we need to reshape grant allocation and assessment to better support the embedding of artistic expertise and practices in communities emerging from conflict. In order to move beyond “playing the game”, these methods must expand upon quantitative metrics to include qualitative analysis of the way participants and audiences interpret and make meaning from AfR (see Sedgman). This task will require researchers, funders and practitioners to work together and co-produce case studies that deploy a multitude of methods derived from the humanities and social sciences.


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Reinelt, Janelle. ‘What UK Spectators Know: Understanding How We Come to Value Theatre’. Theatre Journal 66, no. 3 (2014): 337–61.

Sedgman, Kirsty. ‘On Rigour in Theatre Audience Research’. Contemporary Theatre Review 29, no. 4 (2 October 2019): 462–79.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays. Verso, 2005.

Dr Alex Coupe is Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Institute of Irish Studies working on ‘The Art of Reconciliation: Do reconciliation-funded arts projects transform conflict?’ a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. He is a specialist in contemporary theatre and performance, with a particular interest in Northern Ireland. His PhD, undertaken at Goldsmiths, University of London, examined the gender politics of performance after the Good Friday Agreement, uncovering a strand of artistic and theatrical practice that challenged the (neo)liberal peace by emphasising those states of interdependency, forms of solidarity and practices of care denied within patriarchal nationalism and androcentric individualism. Before undertaking his doctoral studies, Alex obtained an MA from Birkbeck, University of London and a BA from the University of Oxford. As an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths, he taught courses on modern Irish drama and philosophies of the body, and has been published in Études irlandaises and the Irish Times.

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