Emma McDowell

I worked in arts marketing for 10 years before starting my PhD. I increasingly felt there was a gap between the sector and academia, in particular how we capture what live performance means to people. I wanted to contribute to that discussion.

My research is about arts marketing and unpicking the term ‘cultural value’. I’m looking at ways of evaluating culture, not in terms of money and resources but how we make meaning through our interaction with the work, the environment and other people. My area of research is person-centred, I think people are endlessly fascinating.

There’s already a lot of research about how the arts can enrich people’s lives and combat social isolation. My research sits within that, but I’m more interested in meaning creation – how we use theatre to interact in a different way to reading a book or watching a film. Different people come and sit in the same space and have not the same experience, but have an experience that is communal in some way. My research is looking at the breadth and depth of those different experiences and how we talk about that.

I’ve recruited a group of 30 people, with very different levels of theatre experience. We watch three shows together and they feed back to me about their experiences. They’re generating the data with me – they’re my co-researchers! 

I didn’t realise how much of yourself you put into your research – how your own personality influences both what you research and how you design your research project.

I couldn’t have chosen a better place for my subject. The University is the home to the new Centre for Cultural Value and one of my supervisors is the Director. The Centre is about exploring the impact that the arts and culture have on people and on society. It’s a partnership across the UK – with researchers, academics, arts organisations and sector support organisations and funders. That demonstrates how the University doesn’t just work in a research ivory tower. It’s a place where people are always coming together to talk. Artistically and culturally there's a lot of energy coming out of the cities of Leeds and Bradford too.

The academics I work with bring in experts from the sector to teach and to work alongside, and some have their own companies too. They aren’t just reading about art, they’re experiencing it.

The University has its own theatre complex, stage@leeds, which is an exceptional facility. You’ve got state-of-the-art facilities, with shows by students and emerging artists, right in the centre of campus. It brings people together, having a space like that in a school.

I’ve not just stayed in my school though. There are opportunities for discussion and collaboration across faculties. Leeds Doctoral College is really good at bringing researchers together. There’s a lot of exciting, ground-breaking research going on at this University that is really inspiring.

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