The agoras in our midst

This is a blog by Melissa HenryCommon Cause Foundation Director.

What is the role of arts and cultural organisations in society?

What can they do to engage communities and bring people together? What can they do to promote social justice and encourage action on climate change? What role can they play in building more compassionate and caring communities, and in inspiring volunteering and other civic participation?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

Whether a museum, a theatre, an arts centre or a gallery, arts and cultural organisations offer places and spaces that can reach out to, and attract people from, all parts of their communities. Almost uniquely in our hyper-connected world, where we can all too often live in virtual bubbles mixing and sharing with people we agree with, these organisations can create and curate physical space and host diverse gatherings of citizens – a 21st century agora, if you will.

And in their role as host is the opportunity to embrace, and work with, positive values and play a key role in building a community of engaged and active citizens. Why is this necessary? Our research has shown that most of us (74 per cent in the UK) attach greater importance to ‘compassionate’ values such as ‘broadmindedness’, ‘social justice’, ‘helpfulness’ and ‘honesty’ than to ‘self-interest’ values such as ‘wealth’, ‘public image’ and ‘success’. Yet 77 per cent of us believe that typical fellow citizens hold ‘self-interest’ values to be more important and ‘compassionate’ values to be less important than is actually the case.

In short, we underestimate each other. And this perception gap matters. Those of us who misjudge others in this way – the large majority of us, in other words – feel less connected to our communities and less concerned about social or environmental issues. We are also more likely to experience social alienation and we are less likely to be engaged in community activities, volunteering or voting.

Arts and cultural organisations have a particular opportunity to work with values and to contribute to closing this perception gap. Because of their ability to bring people together, places like museums can champion ‘compassionate’ values by providing opportunities for visitors to hear and see what matters most to fellow citizens. Through how they curate and programme events, they can stimulate a more open and explicit reflection and conversation about our shared values.

That’s why we’re delighted to have had the opportunity to work with Manchester Museum over the last year. Together we have developed practical and interesting ways of showing ‘compassionate’ values in action, of acting on the assumption that ‘compassionate’ values are more important to most people, and of facilitating visitors’ exploration of each other’s values.

Our learning from this project is now available in our Discover and Share Guide in which we explore ways to promote positive values in arts and cultural settings. And all that we have achieved with the museum has relevance to other settings. The more museums, businesses, universities, media outlets, councils, indeed all organisations, act on the basis that most of us prioritise ‘compassionate’ over ‘self-interest’ values, the more likely we are to build movements of people. In turn these citizens, in full knowledge of their shared ‘compassionate’ values, are likely to want, even demand, action to achieve a more inclusive, just and sustainable world.

You can find out more about the Common Cause Foundation team, and a short video on the opportunities for promoting positive values in arts and cultural settings, here. 

It’s incredibly valuable for us to hear how different people and organisations engage with the work of values. If you have any stories to share of how you’re enacting this work, or if you’d like to learn more about our insights or partnering with us, please get in touch. info[at]

Emily HowgateThe agoras in our midst

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  • Nicholas Gruen - December 9, 2017 reply

    My hunch is that this divergence of expectations of others with the reality has widened over time. I’d be fascinated if anyone can point to any evidence as to whether that’s true and what’s driving it. (I have my own hunch.)

  • Tom Crompton - January 3, 2018 reply

    Hi Nicholas! Thanks for this. So far as I know, there is little research on people’s perceptions of others’ values aside from that we have conducted with academic collaborators in the UK and US. So I know of no ‘longitudinal’ studies that would be needed to reveal the kinds of trends you anticipate.

    I agree, though, that there seem to be good reasons to propose that this divergence could be widening. It’s perhaps the case, for example, that, relative to other contexts in which we mingle with strangers, we’re increasingly likely to encounter people we don’t know in large commercial environments (shopping centres, supermarkets etc). These are environments which we also know tend to ‘cue’ self-interest values. So this could have the effect of widening the ‘perception gap’.

    There may be other reasons, too – we discuss some of these in the report “Perceptions Matter”, which you’ll find in the download section of this website.

    But we’d love to hear more about your hunch – what is it?!

  • Nicholas Gruen - January 5, 2018 reply

    Thanks for your reply.

    My hunch is that the way we do politics is scrambling our brains towards hostility and polarisation. If it sounds to you that politics necessarily has to be that way, well it kind of does under a competitive system which is what elections are. You can’t become a politician (can’t get elected) without beating others for the privilege. This, revved up by the mainstream and social media revs up a democratic culture of road rage. I elaborate on some of these things here with a full constitutional model here.

    There is another way of representing the people, which we use in our legal system. Selection by lot into representative groups. We need a mix of this and elections in our democracy – and we need it desperately. And we should start by using selection by lot as a means of democratic activism as I argued here.

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