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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]commoncausefoundation.org

Emily HowgateThe agoras in our midst

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