Deciding where to draw the line: Defining arts and culture

By Rachel Tait 6 March 2019

What is art? Most arts and culture charities don’t have time to wrestle with a question that has baffled philosophers for years. They’re busy delivering their activities. But there are some situations when defining what we mean by arts and culture is worth doing.

I’m part of a team trying to understand what works in engaging more young people in arts and culture. So I need to put some parameters around what ‘arts and culture’ means in our research, not least so that I can explain the project to other people and know what words to search for in Google and academic journals.

And in the case of charities who are trying to engage young people, defining arts and culture matters because they need to make programming and marketing decisions that mean something to young people. And alongside that question, charities have to figure out how to describe young people’s engagement (or access or participation or progression… you can see the challenge!) so that they can set goals and evaluate their progress.

There are no universally accepted definitions, but we need to make some decisions in our research. Here’s what we found so far from our desk research and roundtable discussions with people who work in arts and culture.

What charities and funders mean by ‘arts’ and ‘culture’

There are plenty of people out there arguing for what art is or isn’t. So rather than start with theory, it makes sense to start with the most common categories actually used by charities and funders to describe the areas they work in. They are:

  • Arts: performing arts (music, opera, theatre, dance); visual arts (painting, sculpture, drawing, ceramics, photography, film); creative writing (literature, poetry, prose, drama); digital arts/media; crafts; multidisciplinary/combined arts (eg, spoken word which bridges performing arts and creative writing).
  • Culture: building and monuments; community heritage/culture/memories; museums and galleries; libraries and archives.
  • Applied arts: architecture; furniture; fashion; textiles and design.

I took two interesting findings from our roundtables. Firstly, there’s a different approach between organisations who focus on one form of arts and culture (eg, a visual arts gallery) and those who focus on creativity more broadly (eg, a general community arts venue). One must draw a boundary, while the other may have a broad interpretation.

Secondly, while organisations might use these labels, young people may not think about their own creativity in these terms. This raises questions: Does using different language from young people matter? Could it put them off getting involved in some sort of arts and culture? And could we miss interesting examples in our research if we don’t look outside the terms above?

Charities describe their work with young people in many different ways

We explored ‘outreach’, ‘access’, ‘participation’ and ‘engagement’, because we found they were often used together. Some organisations explicitly describe parts of their work as ‘outreach activities’, ‘audience development’, ‘learning and engagement work’ or ‘opportunities for young people to participate’, and some don’t distinguish that activity as a specific strand of work—they see increasing participation as part of everything they do.

‘Outreach’ was a contentious word at our roundtables. Many no longer use it, describing it as outdated and having implications of ‘those people out there’. The dictionary definition of outreach is ‘an organisation’s involvement with or influence in the community’ and ‘an effort to bring services or information to people where they live or spend time’. Most people agreed that this definition reflected some of their work, but people told us that words like ‘inclusion’, ‘participation’, ‘engagement’, ‘learning’, and ‘empowerment’ feel more reflective of their values and approaches. Although, just to demonstrate that everyone brings their own meaning to words, we didn’t find a word that everyone liked using.

We also discussed ‘access’, particularly with organisations who have physical spaces and venues. It’s easy to think of ‘access’ in terms of physical facilities that help people to enter and move around a space and participate in activities. But our roundtables got me thinking about the intangible aspects of ‘access’—Do people feel welcome? Do they feel like they belong? One attendee told us, “The doors may be open but young people might not see the venue as a home”.

Definitions: A necessary evil?

We’re interested in what works in engaging more young people in arts and culture. So we inevitably come at the questions of ‘what is arts and culture?’ and ‘what is engagement?’ in a practical way. I hope that our findings will offer specific insight into different approaches while reflecting the breadth of practice in the arts and culture sector.

We’ve still got a way to go in our research, so what do you think? How would you define ‘arts’ and ‘culture’? How do you describe your work with young people? Is there anything we’ve missed?

Get it touch and let me know: rachel.tait@thinknpc.org, @racheltait


We’re grateful to all the people from arts and culture organisations who attended our recent roundtable events in Birmingham, London and Manchester and shared their insight about their work with young people. We will share more learning from the roundtables in the next few weeks, as well as further findings from our literature review and research with young people.