This interactive blog seeks to stimulate discussion across the cultural sector on the very idea of measuring cultural value. Dr Claire Donovan is an academic working at DCMS to write a report on this issue, and wants to know what you think. Can the value of culture be measured by government in monetary (or other) terms, or is it ‘priceless’?
LORD DARLINGTON: What cynics you fellows are!
CECIL GRAHAM: What is a cynic?
LORD DARLINGTON: A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
CECIL GRAHAM: And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market price of a single thing.
[Oscar Wilde (1893) Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act III]
Building on Phase One of this research, I am adopting a ‘cynical-sentimental’ approach that attempts to balance the need to account for spending public money with a broad vision of the public value that the cultural sector creates.
Why an interactive blog?
The aim of this interactive blog is to consult widely with the cultural sector on issues and concerns surrounding ‘measuring cultural value’, especially the public value of the arts, heritage, libraries and museums.
There will be themed discussions over the coming weeks, covering hot topics such as the very idea of measuring cultural value, the difference between public and private value, and whether different rules should apply to cultural sector funding decisions. I am sure you will let me know of other important issues this blog can discuss.
Your views will help to guide the direction of my research. I hope that this blog will provide a novel, ‘cynical-sentimental’ slant on these issues.
Topic One: On the very idea of measuring cultural value
To get the ball rolling, what are your views on the very idea of measuring cultural value? Is ‘measure’ the right word? What is ‘culture’ anyway? And what does ‘value’ mean and to whom?
DCMS has a finite budget, and not everything can be funded, so how should DMCS go about deciding what to support with public money? Is the economic case the bottom line?
Also, what measures does your organisation use? What measures do you think DCMS should use (or not use)? Is anything important being missed?
Now, over to you …
Use the comment section below to share your views on these questions or other aspects of measuring cultural value.
Dr Claire Donovan is a Reader in the Health Economics Research Group at Brunel University, London. ‘Measuring Cultural Value (Phase 2)’ is jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Members of the public have a few ideas about “what is being missed” by DCMS with regard to the Public Library Service. Alas, such views have to date been ignored.
Do you anticipate that the Secretary of State, the Minister, or senior people in the Civil Service will read your Blog and the comments thereon ? Is that the point of the exercise ?
Dear Claire Donovan,
Welcome to the Valuing Culture debate, which began in 2003 when the then Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, attended a conference organised by the National Theatre, the National Gallery, Demos and AEA Associates.
I wonder if you are hoping to reinvent the wheel. Demos has published a series of pamphlets and reports on this issue, by John Holden and myself which might be of interest.They are available as a free downlaod at http://www.demos.co.uk.
It is excellent to have another contributor to the field, but it may difficult to get very far when Phase One of your project has already sold the pass by saying that the only way forward is by the Treasury Green Book.
If you set out to measure cultural value you tend to end up with objective indicators which assess the relative economic impact of each organisation’s slice of public funding – the extent to which an organisation is efficient in terms of jobs, GVA, matching funding leveraged etc.
A much more interesting enquiry is about cultural impact. For this you are free to use subjective measures – you can ask participants, audiences and the public what they think and feel about culture in general and/or an organisation in particular and then you can track their opinion over time. Handled correctly, this can become a tool for self-improvement for DCMS, for the organisations themselves and even potentially for the audiences/participants.
I’ve recently been looking at this issue from the angle of arts activities with and for children.
For example, one idea is to look at Child A and Child B. Child A performs well at school, goes through Higher Education, leads a crime-free life of full employment, paying taxes and making a purposeful contribution to society as a whole.
Child B under-achieves at school, leaves education at 16 and spends most of their adult life on benefits, in prison for extended periods, unemployed and generally rejecting (and being rejected by) society.
Over an extended period of time, their differential impacts on society and on the economy are clearly very considerable and are also (up to a point) measurable (ie quantifiable in terms of value). If it can be demonstrated that certain arts-centred interventions have a high likelihood of diverting ‘high-risk’ children away from the Child B trajectory towards the Child A trajectory (and we believe our own programmes, as well as those of some other organisations, have the ability to do this), then the return on investment in such programmes is potentially very significant (and again, very importantly, is measurable as ‘cultural value’).
The DCMS has a finite budget – but it doesn’t fund libraries anyway, this is down to local authorities (as it is keen to point out on its libraries page), therefore if any measures on cultural value of libraries are provided, what would be the purpose?
Thank you for your comments so far, and for getting the discussion started. One theme emerging is the difference in the kind of cultural value that it seems quantitative or qualitative approaches capture. Which is best, or can both be used together? Do you have any good examples of measures of cultural value? Over to you…
And in response to individual comments:
@Shirley Burnham – To open up the discussion about measuring cultural value, do you have some thoughts about the most effective way to articulate the value of public libraries?
@Shirley Burhnam – The purpose of the ‘Priceless?’ blog is to hear the views from people across the cultural sector on approaches to measuring public value, and these opinions will inform my research. I would hope that my final report will be considered seriously by DCMS.
@Robert Hewison – Thank you for your welcoming words! Yes, I know about your work with John Holden (especially the ‘value triangle’), and I am so pleased that such a notable contributor to the cultural value debate has joined in the ‘Priceless?’ blog discussion. I would not say that I was hoping to reinvent the wheel. Rather, from my point of view the cultural value debate remains polarised and so I hope that a novel ‘cynical-sentimental’ approach will provide a new evidence-based lens to move the discussion forward. So maybe substitute wheel for jetpack!
@Robert Hewison – Phase 2 of ‘Measuring Cultural Value’ is not limited by the conclusions of Phase 1. Rather, Phase 2 considers the importance of cost-benefit analysis in particular contexts, and also the significance of qualitative and narrative approaches in other situations. Again, it’s the ‘cynical-sentimental idea’, which the ‘Priceless?’ blog will discuss from various perspectives over the coming weeks. I hope you will join in!
@Nick Ewbank – I think you do a good job in highlighting the different kinds of data produced by quantitative and qualitative approaches to measuring cultural value. It would be great for the ‘Priceless?’ blog to hear about some successful examples of subjective measures, as not so much is known about them.
@Jeremy Newton – Thanks for that interesting example of the potential value of culture of an individual’s life-course. It would be great if you could give the ‘Priceless?’ blog examples of measures that have been used to demonstrate this cultural value.
@Daren Kearl – DCMS does oversee national library policy and also sponsors the British Library (see http://www.culture.gov.uk/what_we_do/libraries/default.aspx) and so the idea of measuring cultural value is still very relevant for the libraries sector.
‘Priceless’ is an excellent name for the blog. It recalls Nietzsche’s discussion of the value of life. To paraphrase, he claims that the value of life cannot be estimated, since life is that against which all other things are measured. In that sense, any absolute standard of measurement is itself invaluable.
If I may take my leave with a final provocation: which is a more fundamental question — the monetary value of culture or the cultural value of money?
The question is why measure culture? I find different people have very different reasons.
This was very clear at, for example, the recent Cultural Trends conference. Some genuinely want to know what works best so they can run their organisations better (or fund orgnaisations better) and have a better impact. That’s worthwhile and amenable to proper research.
Others are more interested in making the case for public spending on culture. That rapidly drifts into advocacy, and flawed research.
I hope we can concentrate on the former – measurement in order to use our limited resources to best effect.
However I recognise that we also endlessly need to make the case for public funds. The important thing is probably not to confuse the two.
This is much appreciated. The way to ensure it doesn’t reinvent wheels is to be more rigorous than previous ‘wheels’.
I want to help answer your question, ‘what is culture anyway?’ This needs to be the very first question of the enquiry.
You have to define what you are valuing, then seek measures to value it, then seek evidence of value from people using it. Also you need to be very broad in where you look for that evidence, including past/future generations and non-human beneficiaries (as cultural activity contributes to conservation & environmental) sustainability).
But before you get to that, you need to be both categorical and inclusive about what you mean by culture. Thinking about the remit of DCMS, there are cultural impacts of Media and Sport, so those should be included, but leaving that aside for now, you need to be clear about the intersections and distinctions between Arts, MLAs (collections) and Heritage (sites). If your focus is on asking audiences how they value the arts, your enquiry will be flawed, you’ll reinvent a shiny but cranky wheel for a unicycle.
This post has more about the definition of culture and how we might value it: http://bridgetmckenzie.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/defining-terms-of-arts-and-culture/
As I work as an economist in environmental valuation I’ve thought about the valuation of the “cultural” and “existence” elements of “ecosystem services”.
I haven’t seen any good literature on the difficulties of pursuing methodological individualism when the significance of something is that it reflects or modifies shared values but the upshot is that these services often aren’t valued.
And of course ethical commitments play a large role in valuation too.
Figuring out the “right” way to go about valuation probably isn’t possible, but finding a way for the cynic and the sentimentalist to talk to each other, might be.
Bryan Norton lays out a pretty robust pragmatic and pluralist framework in Sustainability that might have relevance for communities concerned with cultural values.
I’ll be very interested to see where this discussion goes!
I’ve recently started a PhD looking into how cities use culture and cultural events, and the ways in which the value of culture is expressed and measured will certainly form a part of that.
I’m by no means an expert, but my gut instinct has always been that there has to be more to be considered than the more traditional economic indicators. How you can ‘measure’ the less tangible elements that help to make up the value of culture may be a question that has been asked for a long time, but it seems that it’s a long way from being ansered.
Business and financial people often value their time in monetary terms and entreprenuers are encouraged to work out what their time is ‘worth’.
Since time is valuable I would rather the arts & culture were regarded in terms of whether it is worth time being spent on them rather than measuring a specific monetary figure.
As previous comments have asserted, ‘worth’ can cover so much more over a lifetime. And after all money is only there to enable life not the other way around.
The other way of ‘measuring’ would be to try and assess what life would be like if artistic and cultural endeavour were eliminated – i.e. you know the value of something when you no longer have it.
This is a timely and interesting discussion to have a phase two of the debate on cultural value.
The arts and cultural sector has too long been tied to the cultural economics agenda (and I understand why) but now there is an opportunity to think more widely about culture.
Is it the value of culture or cultural value we should be interested in?
Value absolutely exists in the cultural industries, and thus we need to take account of the triple bottom line, but as some have suggested maybe the quadruple bottom line should be considered now. This should include the social impact of culture on individuals, industry and society.
I think trying to measure cultural impact and the concomitant indicators assigned to this is well debated (by some commentators here). Perhaps we should be trying to capture Cultural value instead of just measuring it. Thus, taking account of social, well-being, lifestyle benefits, etc., to towns and cities by investing in Culture. You invest in people, places, infrastructure and attract inward investment, international recognition, stop brain drain to other areas, and lastly create a leverage through cultural planning that lasts well beyond the initial investments.
Thus, is it possible to create a model of Capturing Cultural Value, that looks at social indicators and social capital from a qualitative perspective and takes us beyond the Treasury’s Green Book template? Over to you.
Several correspondents have asked about ways of measuring cultural value.
I lead an AHRC-funded project which aims to assess the impact that Channel 4 has had on British film culture since 1982. The late-lamented UK Film Council (perhaps in anticipation of its own end) commissioned two reports on the cultural and economic value of film in Britain. The debates generated by these studies have been pursued by the BFI since it assumed the Film Council’s role later last year, with its own market research.
The ‘cynical-sentimental’ dualism, invoked by Claire Donovan, has dogged the British film industry throughout its history, and the reception of Lord Smith’s review (published on Monday) reveals that not much has changed.
http://www.bfi.org.uk/publications/openingoureyes/ http://ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/culturalimpactseminars http://ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/filmeconomy
Everyone (including the Master card advertisement) agrees that economic value cannot encompass the value of the arts. However, it is important to measure both and to be clear about the similarities as well as the differences between the two.
Advocates of the value of the arts have repeatedly produced figures quantifying the turnover and the return on investment and the ‘public-value’ of projects and organisations supported by DCMS. These accounts of the value of the arts have failed to satisfy critics.
On the one hand they seem to reduce value by excluding considerations of taste or impact and on the other they appear to overstate value by identifying a huge asset base that cannot realise or leverage its value in the form of income that might cover the costs of maintaining it.
This fundamental tension between use-value and exchange-value is far from new and constantly confuses attempts to evaluate non-rival goods whose value is not eliminated by being consumed (in the sense of being used up).
The value of non-rival goods (like the arts) can be measured by the number of people who make use of them but this measure of value would not address the inevitably economic questions of the relationship between that value and the investment of public funds.
A more robust system of measurement could identify (and celebrate) the market value of the non-rival assets and the activities of organisations and individuals that have been sustained and supported by the Arts Council. The most successful arts organisations and practitioners have shown extraordinary entrepreneurial skill (where the funding models have allowed) in leveraging the assets of their collections for income generating innovation that both enhances existing resources and creates new ones.
Understanding the relationship between artistic assets, public sector investment and income-generating return would provide a more dynamic as well as more transparent account of value. It would address the question of public good without entering the high disputatious territory of taste and social impact and connect the value of the arts as a resource to their capacity to sustain and enhance their continuing value.
Thank you for sharing your ideas – keep your comments coming!
It seems that two main themes have emerged today. Theme One is the idea of a duality between economic valuation vs. qualitative or narrative accounts of cultural value. But is there really a necessarily unbridgeable gulf between the two?
Theme Two is the duality of private or economic value vs. public or social value. Again, must this be an insuperable divide?
As many of you have asked, is ‘measure’ the right word to use when talking about cultural value, or will this predicate the kind of value we find?
It seems to me that these two themes are connected, and that a ‘cynical-sentimental’ approach might breathe new life into the discussion. But that’s what I think. Over to you …
@J Britt Holbrook – Well, that certainly is an enigmatic response. I was wondering who would be the first to bring Nietzsche in to this! Do you have any philosophical thoughts on the most fruitful approaches to measuring cultural value?
@Maurice Davis – I guess that the focus of the ‘Priceless?’ blog is not so much the broader policy case for spending on culture, but rather how the cultural sector – from small community-based projects through to large national institutions – can best articulate the value their activities generate for the public.
@Bridget McKenzie – Yes, it is essential to clearly define what we mean by ‘culture’, and thanks for posting the link to your helpful discussion of this. I would think that my research would follow your lead and say:
Culture = Arts (including practice) + Heritage (including museums and libraries)
At least that looks like a good starting point.
@Bridget McKenzie – In a couple of weeks the ‘Priceless?’ blog will ask about the difference between private and public value. I really hope that you will also contribute to that discussion.
@Christopher Moore – Thanks for pointing out parallels with the world of environmental valuation, and what the cultural sector might learn from this. And thanks for endorsing the ‘cynical-sentimental’ approach!
@Hannah Bayfield @Dorcas Walters @Gayle McPherson – Is ‘measure’ the right word to use in the cultural value debate? Or can a change of language and a different way of thinking about valuation make the supposedly intangible become tangible?
@Gayle McPherson – It does seem that plenty is known in the cultural sector about economic valuation, but that more work is needed to develop qualitative approaches to capturing cultural value.
@Justin Smith reminds us of the dualism of the rigour of economic valuation vs. the power of narrative accounts of the impact of British film on society’s own cultural values. The ‘Priceless?’ blog wants to know if these apparent extremes can be reconciled?
I am surprised that this still seems to be a subject for debate. Perhaps the DCMS is simply looking for a way to justify further cuts?
A very useful discussion of this topic appeared 28 years ago which I think stands the test of time well. This is William D Lipe’s ‘Value and Meaning in Cultural Resources’, in Cleere, H (ed) 1984, ‘Approaches to the Archaeological Heritage’. He offers the following list of values: Informational, aesthetic, economic,and associative/symbolic.
In the book I co-wrote with Mark Brisbane ‘A Future for Our Past?: An introduction to heritage studies’ (English Heritage 1996) we added ‘ecological’ to the above list.
I still feel that this general approach offers a useful way of looking at this but of course, whatever approach the DCMS decides to adopt will be culturally and above all, politically determined: there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers to this.
I was genuinely excited to come across your blog, since I have only recently completed a Masters dissertation on the measurement of ‘success’ in heritage projects.
In many ways my approach mirrored the ‘cynical-sentimental’ approach by accepting that some form of measurement was practically inevitable, particularly in the field of public heritage where the relative position of culture and heritage against other government spending cannot be ignored and, as other posters have already pointed out, is important to ensure limited resources are used to best effect.
My research took me into the complex world of the ‘value’ of heritage (and ultimately of culture) and concluded that ultimately the most important thing was not the measure but the ongoing nature of the debate. What society considers ‘of value’ is constantly changing and contingent on such a wide range of factors (social, political, economic, emotional, environmental, etc.). The most important thing is to have ongoing and constantly refreshed engagement, truly empowering the widest range of stakeholders in a discussion about what is ‘significant’ and ‘of value’ in their culture.
There are ways of measuring value in heritage/culture, but we must remember that they are not absolute and certainly not universal, innate or static. The tricky part is involving the right people in the debate (whose culture is it anyway?) and making practical sense of the outcome.
Thanks again for your thoughtful contributions to the ‘Priceless?’ blog.
The most recent posts have really managed to bring out the complexities and subtleties of attempts to capture cultural value to date.
@John Wood – I am an independent academic researcher, and so do not speak for DCMS. But my impression is that the ‘Measuring Cultural Value’ work is motivated by the desire to help the cultural sector make a stronger case for funding, especially given the current financial climate.
@Kate McLuskie @John Wood @Mike Bradley – Do you have any suggestions for ‘measures’ or approaches to capturing cultural value that have proven useful? If so, you could add these to this week’s new blog topic: ‘Bring out your measures!’
For a start, I think it’s great that you’re using an interactive blog to seek the views of the cultural community on this value debate, especially in these REF-conscious world of public impact (in itself worthy of a blog debate!).
I’ve been writing recently about the politics of evaluation and we can’t detach this debate from the wider political, economic and social context defined by a urban entrepreneurial narrative. The choice of research method, for example, is framed by the narrowly channelled policy options which flow from a commitment to the urban entrepreneurial model.
The epistemological judgement about what counts as knowledge remains skewed towards instrumental criteria of cultural value (economic return, tourism, audience numbers, media metrics) and this won’t change unless there is a greater appreciation of the incontestable merit of cultural activity for each segment of the population.
We know that cultural capital is unequally distributed and open to reproduction yet we continue to see the debate about ‘value’ taking place within the arts community and with academics. Few posts here from the wider public.
I’m very interested in how we get proper recognition for the impact that museums, libraries, cultural & heritage organisations have beyond all those things that can be pinned down and counted! (Libraries & museums are much more than ‘collections’.)
If we concentrate only on the ‘economic bottom line’ argument, then there are real dangers that the brilliant work being done by many organisations in providing or co-producing services with communities that are small in number, or who may have little ‘return’ for the organisation (looked-after children or refugees, for example) will be discontinued as ‘not being cost-effective’.
We need to continue to work towards social justice in the arts & cultural sector as elsewhere in the UK, and I think this means working outside the ‘mainstream’, often with small numbers and involving intensive input.
It’s not necessarily a practical approach, but I do like to turn the “value/measurement” argument on its head sometimes.
In a long-term historical context it is the health and success of cultural activity for which civilisations/nations are remembered.
Surely, a healthy cultural sector should be the metric against which we measure the success of our society? It’s just a thought that keeps me sane…
Measures, that is all we need. Measuring impact has taken many forms, currently every piece of income related to either government (local and national) or charitable donations to our organisation require substantiation. Attendance, development in well-being, learning, employment, income, economic impact, increase in audiences, crime, sexuality, age, environment, employability – I could go on.
So why after 30 years or so of general agreement that the arts changes lives, creates wealth, regenerates communities and so on (based on excellent research, publications, statistics), are we still talking about measures?
There is data coming out of our ears, Arts Council, Local Government and leading charity reviews have the evidence.
Maybe the question is not about value but about allocation of funds and who gets what. Participation and appreciation of the arts at any one time can mean many things to many people, for a visitor to Tate Modern it can mean one thing, to a member of our older people’s dance group in Peckham, it means another. One is life changing and involves an active involvement in the consumption and delivery of the product. Organisations who work consistently with marginalised or under-represented communities see these changes day after day. We have daughters of daughters of daughters who can confirm the benefits of the value of the interaction.
We know this, Government and its’ quangos know this; we know that the real choice is whether to support the work, the quiet consistent work of those organisations. The ‘unbridgeable gulf’ is in the political ideology of the nature of the question – whose culture it is for – that requires quite a different response.
Your comments keep on coming in – thank you all for your interest in the ‘Priceless?’ blog and for your thoughtful responses.
Recently, the discussion has focused on two key limitations of ‘measuring’ things that are easy to count: (a) that broader social value is most likely overlooked, and (b) that investment in culture benefits the public in myriad ways, so we need multiple lenses to understand its outcomes.
So how can we actually ‘measure’ or capture various aspects of this ‘non-instrumental’ strand of cultural value? If you have any ideas or know of good examples then please join in the discussion on the ‘Bring out your measures!’ thread, where some inspiration is needed.
@David McGillivray – Thank you for your observations, which I think really get to the heart of the matter when thinking about what the public value of government investment in the cultural sector. I am also delighted that you like the idea of the ‘Priceless?’ interactive blog!
@David McGillivray – You mention the blog in the context of the REF (Research Excellence Framework). I ought to explain to non-academic ‘Priceless?’ readers that university researchers have traditionally been externally assessed on the quality of their academic work, but from 2014 the UK REF will also judge academics on the broader impact of our research (which can include public engagement and policy engagement).
Traditionally, the broader public value of academic research in the arts and humanities was thought of only in terms that made sense for the ‘hard’ sciences (things that were easy to count, and detectable by industrial and economic valuation techniques), and so the whole evaluation process missed the broader social and cultural value of all research.
An important step in being able to gauge the value (or ‘impact’) arts and humanities research in a holistic way is the recent move from metrics-only approaches to narrative methods informed by robust quantitative and qualitative data.
I suspect that a similar move is needed to find a more holistic approach to ‘measuring’ or ‘capturing’ cultural value.
@David McGillivray @John Vincent @Kathy O’Brien – An interesting challenge that my research wants to address head on is to look not only at the ‘instrumental’ criteria of cultural value, but also at incorporating different ‘stakeholder’ (including public) perspectives in approaches to valuation.
@David McGillivray @John Vincent @Kathy O’Brien – David points out that there has not been any public engagement with the ‘Priceless?’ blog, and that this is very much a discussion representing various interests in the cultural sector. So far that is true.
But I hope that this research will empirically test how ‘measurement’, more broadly understood, can include a kaleidoscope of perspectives of what constitutes ‘culture’ and ‘value’ in a meaningful way to inform funding decisions. And it is likely that a narrative approach is the first step.
@Cathy Westbrook – It is very important that you have turned the spotlight back on the idea that culture, rather than being some kind of add-on to social and economic life, is something that underpins and constitutes all activities.
It follows that a crucial question for all ‘Priceless?’ bloggers, is whether we can ‘measure’ or understand the value of culture in its own terms, or must this always be filtered through statistics about other social, educational or economic benefits?
If anyone has any ideas of suitable (or unsuitable) ‘measures’ or methodologies, then please add these to the list on the ‘Bring out your measures?’ thread!
Value is always difficult when considering culture, as everyone wants the output for their own devices (such as what @Maurice Davies says above).
However, sometimes its more useful to look outside of the system we work in to look at how others use the term. For instance, in a supermarket ‘value’ will refer to how a product can deliver a ‘similar’ output through a reduced input (cash in this instance), so your own brand beans are still beans, but may cost you less. And in this scenario, you may be happy to sacrifice some of the qualities you associate with beans for this cost reduction (so only achieve some of the associated outcomes).
When you consider the car market, a similar sceanrio exists. The ‘value’ model car, in the aesthetic sense, is pretty much the same as the more costly car, but again may lack some of the higher quality outcomes you might desire (such as a better sound system, more comfy seats, etc) And like our beans, the same system occurs – the amount of input is directly linked to the quality of output, and the users/customers ability to reach a desired outcome level.
I think you could go on and on with these similarities, but I won’t! What I would say is that in culture, surely in its simplest form we are comparing ‘like for like’ against the amount of input, to the quality of output, and the level of outcomes the user finally feels they have received (you might also call this ‘benefit’)
Now, nothing I have said here is new, but sometimes we do feel in the cultural world that what works for others, just isn’t good enough for us. The question then is: Why?
The difficulty of measuring the value of the arts arises from the fact that all measures are proxies for value but the value that they measure is never completely captured by them.
In commodity markets money is accepted as a proxy for value in that it can offer a calculable equivalence between costs (of production) and price (of consumption). Even in commodity markets, however, the inequivalence between value and money is recognised in phrases such as ‘good or bad value for money’ or in the intangible but essential value-added of branding.
In more complex markets where unit-price-and-cost is not a useful proxy for value, measures such as Return on Investment (ROI) or Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) are widely used. It would be worth exploring how well these methods would meet the requirements for a measure of the value of the arts.
An ROI measure for example could define Investment (I) as the total of the DCMS allocation to the arts and the Return (R) as the total of resources returned to the arts sector in the form of philanthropic bequests; income from exhibition or performance; new forms of activity such as commercial transfers, films, TV productions, etc., based on DCMS-supported arts-assets, and including the unpaid work of interns and volunteers who support the activities of the DCMS supported sector.
This account of ROI would not indicate resources directly returned to the Treasury: nor would it tell us about the artistic quality of the arts that generated that economic activity. It would undoubtedly over-value arts activity based on heritage collections and under-value new work. However it would provide a base-line from which to measure the effects of changes to investment levels, and return measures could be weighted to take account of policy priorities.
Above all, it would offer a more robustly measurable proxy for the return on arts investment than the more controversial CBA methods that attempt to find proxies for hard-to-capture benefits such as social cohesion or individual well being.
The practice of the arts itself can also offer a means of evaluation.
Following three years of delivering a positive action programme placing up to 35 individuals (Fellowships) in small and large scale arts organisations for 12 months each in England, Mojisola Adebayo was commissioned to carry out an ‘evaluative’ appraisal through delivery of a cultural product. Over 12 months she was given full access to the Fellows, arts managers, representatives of the relevant funding bodies and the nuts and bolts of the delivery of the programme. Working within this parameter and through the dynamics of ‘forum theatre’ as originated by Augusto Boal she created an interactive performance that toured the country.
The outcomes of the evaluation were experienced thus within a compelling narrative supported by an emotive construct (discrimination) and with an opportunity to interact, object or transform. In this case the programme objectives of identifying discriminatory practices, barriers to employment, prejudices relating to disability and so on were ‘measured’ and understood through the medium of culture in its own terms.
The emotive and political content offered a rare insight into the nature of discrimination and questioned the instrumental value of using individuals as a way to change the prejudices of society and thus hit home in a way that written documentation does not. The experience was felt as well as understood.
Many would agree that culture is what human beings create, and that human beings achieve their full potential only when they are creative. Human speech is a creative act, but human beings can create more than speech.
The converse of culture would then be drudgery. Perhaps illustrated by a factory worker forbidden to speak, doing soul-destroyingly repetitive tasks, and required to meet ever more demanding production targets.
Human language is a human invention, and one component of culture. One might query the value of language itself. Learned professors would then begin to list the uses of language: it allows people to discover the way to the nearest loo, it allows traders to trade, it allows disputes to arise and be resolved etc.
But none of those uses would fully capture the value of language. We delight in speaking human languages because we are human.
We encourage literacy not just to enable people to earn a living, but because illiteracy prevents the full flowering of a human being.
Culture, and particularly the ongoing creation of culture, is likewise an essential aspect of living a fully human life.
Why, then, does most of the population (social classes C1 and below) not support public funding of the arts? Probably because we have reduced the arts to something at which people gape, rather than something which people create. As soon as the arts become an instrument of exclusion, they invite public outrage and cuts. This holds good for the low-paid majority, regions outside London, the disabled, ethnic minorities, and any people from “the wrong side of the tracks”.
The Treasury would have the right, but also the duty, to cut public funding for “arts as titillation”. No low-paid worker in some soul-destroying job wants to pay taxes so that his managing director’s wife can have cheaper tickets to show off her jewels at some plush publicly-funded venue.
Conversely, the Treasury would have the duty of ensuring adequate funding for creativity as part of education. So that the children of low-paid workers can dare to think big, to eventually write plays like Billy Elliott or the Pitmen Painters, and generally to be fully human.
In a time of austerity, it is even more important that the exclusive aspects of public funding be curtailed, in favour of opportunity for the excluded.
These things are very hard to measure but when funding is involved measurement of some kind will always be needed.
All metrics are flawed, even in the domains that are supposedly easier to measure. But those other domains have recognized the need to define them, however flawed.
There is no perfect way forward but if we don’t, as a community, authoritatively propose & defend our own imperfect metrics then someone else will try to do it for us, and they’ll do it wrongly.
The narrative in our impacts must be far louder than the numbers; but with zero numbers our message will be a clanging cymbal.
The problem here is the application of scientific concepts and methods to questions for which they are not suited. One of the defining characteristics of scientific method is that the knowledge it produces can be tested by replication of the process through which it was originally created. This method works well in the natural sciences but can be misleading when applied to human activity and especially human experience.
Science cannot define, observe, quantify, compare or measure the taste of chocolate, the feeling of jealousy or the experience of hearing Mavis Staples. At best, it may be able to observe some physical symptoms of what people experience in these situations but it is an error to mistake symptoms for their causes.
Art – and culture more widely – is necessarily experiential. It exists only in the intertwined experience of creator (artist, performer, author, maker) and re-creator (audiences, readers, viewers and listeners). Art is ambiguous. It has no universal character, method, purpose, meaning or even existence. It can therefore have no universal value (good), unless one associates with a universal deity. Nor can it be measured against a universal scale.
Art is always culturally dependent, anchored in time and space and specific to actual people. No artist can predict, control or guarantee the effects of their work because the person experiencing it always remakes it. Culture’s effects cannot be tested or replicated, except in certain limited terms discussed below.
Therefore nothing about art – or culture – can be proven. Very little about it can be measured. If we stopped digging that particular hole we would be better placed to consider how to develop better knowledge about the operation and effects of culture in society today.
(This is an extract from a longer response to the ‘Priceless?’ Blog: the full article can be read here: http://parliamentofdreams.com/2012/01/20/on-the-very-idea-of-measuring-cultural-value/)
Francois Matarasso has thought this through very clearly in his work. He encourages us to ask why we are going round this circle again.
One way of measuring the value of the arts is to exclude it from economics (cynical/sentimental) and politics.