Cultural intermediation: connecting communities in the creative urban economy

Paul Long, Birmingham City University

This is a large project involving multiple stakeholders and a variety of parallel activities. It involves researchers from University of Birmingham, Salford University, City University, London, Liverpool John Moores University and Birmingham City University. Click here for further details of the researchers involved.

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of its Connected Communities programme.

Disciplinary background(s) Team members on the project come from a range of specialisms including geography, sociology, policy studies and art history. Paul Long, the author of this case study, is Reader in Media and Cultural History, BCU. Without collaboration between the different researchers in the project from their different disciplinary positions, the investigation of cultural intermediation would be somewhat two-dimensional and would have much less academic impact. Interdisciplinary working and collaboration are therefore key to the project management and form an object of study in its own right!

When will the research take place? This is a 4-year project that commenced in 2012. The approaches described here are to commence from January 2014.

Aims of research 

The aims of the project concern histories, policies and practicalities of cultural intermediation. As is stated on the project blog: ‘cultural intermediation is a process which connects different kinds of communities into the creative economy and wider society. It plays a critical role in raising aspirations, upskilling and building confidence, all of which are vital to allow people to engage with and benefit from one of the most dynamic sectors of the contemporary UK economy.

Individual artists, professional networks, events, festivals, commissioning bodies, creative businesses, arts and cultural organisations both large and small can all play intermediary roles.  Some of the most exciting opportunities for research in this area are occurring in the city regions. In part this is because of their size and multiplicity of cultural resources, but also because these areas have large concentrations of communities suffering multiple deprivation who are being left behind by the post-industrial creative economy.’

The particular focus of this blog concerns two work packages (the community experience of intermediation and creative interventions), the aims of which are:

  1. to explore how intermediation connects communities into the creative economy and how this can be enhanced to break down the tension between hard-to-reach communities and inaccessible cultural resources;
  2. to design and deliver practice-based interventions with local stakeholder panels of academics, policy-makers, community groups and artists to improve the effectiveness of cultural intermediation.

Description of creative research method

Many arts and cultural funding streams under the New Labour administrations were tied to activities targeting ‘hard to reach’ groups. Nonetheless, many communities remain ‘invisible’ to intermediaries and, conversely, many manifestations of the creative economy remain ‘invisible’ to different communities. This paradox requires investigation and ties directly to how we seek ways to measure the value of different intermediation activities within the communities nominally targeted by them.

An important, and under researched, concept here is that of cultural learning. This is about the use of cultural means to allow individuals and communities to develop memories, behaviours, skills, values or knowledge (Holden 2008). While this may not directly represent instrumental training in skills necessary to build creative capacities, cultural learning is a valuable theoretical tool for examining the most effective ways of engaging communities with different aspects of the creative economy.

A critical analysis of cultural learning processes fostered by cultural intermediation brings some rigour to common sense assumptions that arts are ‘good’ for people (Belfiore & Bennet, 2007). Work here therefore examines how formal processes of cultural intermediation have engaged with different communities, particularly those that have been hard-to-reach. The extent to which these activities have served to facilitate the connection of these communities into the creative economy can therefore be critically evaluated.

Our case studies emerge from earlier work undertaken with creative organisations and individuals in Birmingham and Salford in order to connect what different institutions think is happening to how intermediation activity is experienced on the ground.

The methods used will be primarily ethnographic, deploying shadowing activities, with up to 80 walked and conventional interviews, focus groups and participatory events. The ethnographic approach will seek to capture ‘vernacular’ appraisals and articulations of intermediation practice in the context of the lived cultural spaces of participant communities. Drawing upon the interpretative methods and traditions of cultural studies for instance, research will engage with textual artefacts, symbols, meanings and interpretations produced in the process of intermediation with community members, encouraging participants to articulate their own conceptual sense and critical review of these processes and outcomes. In evaluating the impact and legacies of intermediations, the ethnography will explore methodological innovations; for instance, through collating the cultural production of community members and narratives of space and place. Crucial to this work is the engagement of community researchers, drawn from the sites we intend to explore in detail in Birmingham (Balsall Heath) and Salford/Manchester (Ordsall/Hulme).

This work informs what will happen with our idea of ‘creative interventions’: There is a rich tradition of action research with an emphasis on participatory approaches and co-construction of knowledge with communities and stakeholders (Brydon-Miller et al., 2003). If work to produce better forms of intermediation is to have any meaning, then it must take a practice-centred approach, working in collaboration with stakeholders to ‘learn through doing’.

Local panels will be established in Birmingham and Manchester comprising academics, practitioners and community members in order to commission new intermediation activities. Those intermediaries commissioned to undertake these projects will design their interventions drawing on the work undertaken in the different work packages and informed directly by communities themselves.

Why did you choose to use this method? 

The research outlined here places different kinds of residential community at the heart of the project, not as objects of study, but as co-constructors of knowledge examining the connections between communities and intermediation activity.

What did you learn from the research process? 

We’ll keep you posted!


Belfiore, E. & Bennett, O. (2007) ‘Rethinking the social impacts of the arts’. International Journal of Cultural Policy 13(2), 135-151.

Bevir, M. & Rhodes, R. (2006) Governance stories. Routledge: London.

Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London.

Brydon-Miller, M., Greenwood, D. & Maguire, P. (2003) ‘Why action research?’. Action Research 1(1), 9-28.

Costa, A. & Kallick, B. (1993) ‘Through the lens of a critical friend’. Educational Leadership 51(2), 49-51.

De Propris, L., Chapain, C., Cooke, P., MacNeill, S. & Mateos-Garcia, J. (2009) The geography of creativity. NESTA: London.

Florida, R. (2004) Cities and the creative class. Routledge: London.

Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. (1967) The discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research. Aldine de Gruyter: New York.

Hall, P. (2000) ‘Creative cities and economic development’. Urban Studies 37(4), 639-649.

Holden, J. (2008) Culture and learning: towards a new agenda. Demos Consultation Paper: London.

Layard, A. (2011) Cultures of knowledge production: a review of interdisciplinarity/reflexivity. Scoping paper produced as part of AHRC Connected Communities Development Grant. PDF document [accessed 30/6/11]

Miller, D. (2003) ‘The virtual moment’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9(1), 57-75.

O’Brien, D., Wilson, K. & Cambell, P. (2011) The role of cultural intermediaries. Scoping paper produced as part of AHRC Connected Communities Development Grant. PDF document [accessed 30/6/11]

Further information

The project is ‘live’ and the communities work package will commence in January 2014 with commissions for interventions developing throughout the following 18 months or so. Those interested in tracking how creative methods develop in this process (or how creative the methods are), may follow the blog here or contact Paul Long directly: