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Seminar Findings: ‘Cultural engagement in the UK and Japan: key findings from the SCF surveys’

by Professor Hye-Kyung Lee, Dr Sana Kim & Kirsty Warner

The first public seminar for the UKRI-JSPS Sustainable Cultural Futures project was held online on 2nd December 2022 and discussed key findings on cultural engagement from two public opinion surveys carried out in England and Japan in the summer of 2022. The seminar opened with remarks from Professor Nobuko Kawashima (Doshisha University, Japan) and continued with an overview of the project given by Professor Hye-Kyung Lee (King’s College London, UK).

First, Dr Sayaka Sakoda (Doshisha University, Japan) presented key findings from the Japanese survey, including that a large share of the Japanese public (approx. 40%) had not attended before the pandemic nor in 2022, and that these ‘non-participants’ had not attended when young (‘up to the age of 13’) either (approx. 40%). Income, unlike educational level, was determined to be a significant factor in attendance. According to the results, lower income brackets (Less than 1 million yen – 2-3 million yen) are less active in art and culture, whereas those with higher income (4-5 million yen – Over 15 million yen) are more interested in culture and art-related activities.

The survey results highlight that cultural experiences in childhood impact cultural engagement levels in adulthood. Professor Emi Kataoka (Komazawa University, Japan) responded to the findings suggesting that non-participants could be seen as culturally un-activated or culturally deprived and, therefore, denoted the contribution of the survey to understanding the reproduction of cultural capital. She noted that this survey provides an opportunity to rethink what habitus is for researchers and actors involved in cultural policy (e.g., their notion of art, culture, cultural engagement, etc.). Professor Kataoka suggested there may be different perceptions or definitions of culture between different social brackets that are not accounted for in the survey and so future research requires a more precise definition of culture and the arts that can be easily revisited.

Then Dr Sana Kim (King’s College London, UK) gave an overview of cultural engaged trends discovered by the survey in England. The presentation began by reviewing who is and is not interested in the arts through attendance and participation trends during childhood and adulthood, as well as before and after COVID-19. Finally, Dr Kim unpacked engagement trends specifically regarding local culture and arts. Some of the key findings included that the lack of interest in the arts is sticky (similarly to Japan’s conclusions), that interest in the arts correlates with the levels of social engagement, and that on average, money is the most significant barrier preventing the public from engaging in cultural activities locally. Still, a lack of interest is a more substantial barrier to those who are not interested in the arts, to the older population (65+), and to those without educational qualifications.

Andrew Mowlah, the Head of Research at Arts Council England, UK, responded to this presentation by discussing the Arts Council England’s 10-year strategy Let’s Create. After reviewing barriers preventing individuals from engaging in culture and the arts, Mr Mowlah contemplated the potential of digital technology to open the sector to more people and facilitate a greater mix of art forms and opportunities, especially among younger audiences. He also noted that this digital presence should not overshadow the physical spaces. According to Mr Mowlah, alongside digital improvements, the UK public should be able to access a wider choice of exceptional arts to share their creative opportunities on their doorstep, which is the reason for investment and redistribution across the country.

Before the seminar was closed, audience members posed some questions, including why sustainability had been used as a keyword in the project. Professor Lee explained that ‘sustainability’ is central to the project’s agenda (to realise a more viable cultural sector policy even beyond COVID-19) and that in this context, sustainability regards addressing fundamental and structural issues associated with the sector. Then followed a question regarding the usefulness of the survey findings for policymaking purposes.

For Japan, Dr Sakoda and Professor Kawashima highlighted how the findings conflict with a widespread assumption that regional differences impact participation. Interested people will attend and participate, and people who are not interested will not participate or engage with the arts, regardless of their region or educational level. Therefore, budget decisions should consider the lack of interest rather than location. For the UK, Dr Kim responded, highlighting differences between policymakers and the general public’s everyday understanding of terms/keywords such as culture, art and creativity, making policymaking difficult.

The Q&A session also yielded an illuminating discussion around the blurring of boundaries between high and low cultures in the digital era, denoting that one driving factor is the rise of cultural omnivores. Professor Kawashima suggested that there is not a single type of ‘cultural omnivore’, but three groupings. This adds complexity to understanding engagement but may indicate that in the digital era, this can provide a significant opportunity for people to acquire a sense of aesthetics. Finally, the seminar ended following an interesting discussion unpacking potential reasons for the low attendance and interest levels: are people not interested or not attending because cultural programming does not meet their needs? Professor Kawashima explained that in Japan, museums and art galleries tend to open at 9 am and close at 5 pm during the working week, which doesn’t fit Japan’s working style (most people work 9-5 and so would not be able to attend cultural venues). For the UK, there are some changing patterns in the cultural provision, for instance, Tate Moderns Late nights. Still, these events often require business sponsors, so enjoying exhibitions becomes connected to music and socialising with each other.

This seminar was very meaningful as it offered a rare opportunity to consider the public’s understanding of culture, their attitude towards the arts and their cultural engagement across the UK and Japan. The two surveys produced helpful findings, but they also raised many further questions, especially the meaning and scope of culture as an object of state cultural policy and subsidy, as well as the gaps between cultural policy and the public’s cultural life.

The link to the recording of the event will be given soon.

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