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The tricky notion of ‘value’ in the arts

How do we decide what art is worth – by the economic benefits it delivers or some notion of intrinsic value? fedee P

The tricky notion of ‘value’ in the arts

There’s plenty of discussion about arts funding in Australia – but are we ready to tackle tough questions around the “value” of the arts? That’s a challenge that will involve scrutinising the “benefits” delivered by arts programs and rethinking some of our ideas about impact.

Recently these questions have been framed in terms of measurement – a phenomenon that has to do with an increased emphasis on what is termed the “creative” or “cultural” industries.

Welcome to the arts industry

Governments and policy makers concerned with the allocation of scarce resources, and with the demise of traditional economic drivers for development, have turned to these sectors as areas of potential growth. The word “industry” nicely moves the whole area away from anything “non-productive”.

This framing of the arts as an industry has fuelled the sometimes strident debate over funding models for the arts, particularly when a funding cut has taken place.

Yet for better or worse, the arts and related cultural phenomena represent activities that now have value and benefits for government – so there will be policy delivered upon art producers regardless of the debate.

SebastianDooris

The key issues for all is defining and measuring all the possible permutations of value.

Intrinsic and instrumental benefits

Some clarification is possible if we separate instrumental benefits from intrinsic benefits.

Instrumental benefits are those that pertain to social, economic or policy outcomes. An outcome of a community-based theatre production might be to involve disadvantaged sectors of the community, thereby increasing social inclusion. Similarly, a sculpture trail might be established in an economically-depressed region, with the aim of increasing local employment.

Such benefits are increasingly cited in the conversations surrounding the impact of the arts.

The intrinsic benefits of the arts are less obvious. While not being ignored by arts organisations, and of interest to many artists, the “impact” of art on an individual, a community or on society is a nebulous concept. How did the art resonate with the viewer? Was the community intellectually stimulated? Did the art make a lasting impression? Did it increase social bonding?

How do we measure the social benefits of art? Maxey

Much of the policy work done on measuring intrinsic impact is done in the performing arts.

Theatre, opera and music companies have a particular interest in measuring intrinsic impact, as their revenue streams rely on a paying audience, and indeed one that returns for future performances. Intrinsic impact factors such as audience engagement and stimulation are part of the concept of “artistic vibrancy” that the Australia Council uses as a criterion in its Artistic Reflection Kit for arts organisations.

Did the art make a difference?

There is little to guide us in understanding such issues in a broader arts context.

Certainly museums and galleries, as well as major events such as the Biennale of Sydney undertake visitor surveys. But their findings are frequently framed in relation to audience development or marketing strategy. Engagement sometimes simply means: how many people went, and where were they from?

While this sort of information is vital in a world where competition for the cultural tourist is fierce, it does not assist us in understanding the basic question of whether the art, in whatever form, made a “difference” to those that viewed it (however that may be defined) and how that might be considered a “value”.

Of course, it can be argued such a question is irrelevant in an artistic sense.

Many see any measurement of artistic value as further evidence of the commodification of art. Art producers frequently reject the materialistic concept of “product” being applied to their creative output, and clearly consumer demand is not generally the primary driving force behind art and other cultural-based production.

Product-driven artists

Even so, artists do need to be product-driven. If they are not they risk their artistic integrity, the very thing that challenges their audiences. This means that conventional techniques to “sell” artistic production do not necessarily work.

For any exhibitor of challenging art this is a common problem. Do you keep churning out those room-filling blockbuster exhibitions – or curate something that your audience might potentially not actually like?

Is it possible to measure the impact of a work of art on the viewer? j-No

Perhaps splitting value into instrumental benefits and intrinsic benefits is actually unhelpful because it artificially separates the individual/ community/ emotional from the policy/ economic.

By this I mean that if a concert does not engage and resonate with visitors by having some intrinsic value, then any other subsequent instrumental benefit simply does not flow on. In other words, if the audience does not like the art, they will not “consume” it (buy, view, etc.).

Art for individuals and communities

For me, taking such an holistic view of artistic endeavours recognises that there is an interconnectedness between individual benefits and societal benefits that is indeed important. What benefits the individual may well benefit that individual’s community – and vice versa.

Does this make impact any easier to measure? Or value any easier to define? Perhaps not immediately.

But it does provide an alternative way of conceptualising value in the arts, one that may be used to reframe a debate that tends to be weighted toward measuring instrumental benefits.

It’s not just that funding bodies find it easier to measure instrumental benefits, it’s that the intrinsic value of art is, by its very nature, difficult to measure.

How do you measure intellectual stimulation? Emotional engagement? Joy? Sure, there is research conducted in these areas, but it is not finding its way into the debate over the value of the arts.

And until it does the arts will continue to be valued more for its role as a driver of economic development than as a cure for the soul – or worse still, not valued at all.

Further reading:
You’ve got $7 billion – so how will you fund the arts?

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