The minefield of cultural measurement

First published at artsHub, 14 August 2013

Arts strategist Julianne Schultz says we need to start measuring the value of culture, an important but risky venture.

In a speech as part of the Currency House Art and Public Life series in Sydney today, Professor Schulz called on the arts sector to be more ambitious in measuring the intrinsic value of the work produced by artists.

Schultz, who chaired the Reference Group on the National Cultural Policy, said the arts should take advantage of new measuring tools.

For very good reasons we have been diffident about measuring the value of culture. It feels wrong in many ways. We have accepted as a mantra that there are some things that are so intrinsically valuable that they defy quantification. I am not unsympathetic to that view. Robert Kennedy expressed it with great eloquence many years ago, when he decried that we know measure the value of everything except that which is most valuable. In the intervening years new ways of measuring some of these things of value have been created – and that is important. In the arts and culture sector we have opted for a proxy measurement of value, the number of tickets sold, the number of visitors and their multipliers, the profitability of organisations and so on. These are important tools, but not sufficient to capture the public value that accrues from engagement in cultural activities. Thirty years ago environmental value was not something that was measured, now it is. We have to be more ambitious and smarter in finding a way to measure the public value of culture. We know it exists, but we have not yet found the right way to measure it. We have to be more ambitious in measuring the intrinsi’c value of the work produced by artists and the costs that fall disproportionately on them and their families because their work is not properly valued; the institutional in terms of a national ethos which draws visitors or inspires productive innovation; the instrumental value, like the well documented legacy for children of exposure and involvement in arts and culture to successful and engaged lives, and the commercial value which is contributing more to the national economy than many other sectors.

 

It’s not easy being an arts policy nerd. As policy fields go, the area is a lot smaller and less influential than key political battlegrounds like economics, climate change or asylum seekers. Public intellectuals with clout in the field are few in number, and there is no high profile think-tank with easy access to media outlets, like a Climate Institute or an Institute for Public Affairs. Even the vested interests are not particularly organized: industry bodies such as APRA or SPAA don’t strike quite the same fear into a minister’s heart as the Minerals Council of Australia, the Pharmacy Guild or the AI Group.

The thin and patchy nature of cultural policy debate has a number of consequences. One is that discussion tends to languish for long periods. The fitful progress of the national cultural policy towards its eventual outcome in Creative Australia is a good example. First mooted by Peter Garrett as opposition Arts spokesman in 2006, the policy was finally delivered this year.

But the threadbare nature of the cultural policy discussion can have positive consequences too. One is that prominent artists and intellectuals have an unusually strong influence. While the big debates about economic policy are fiercely contested by powerful players, and correspondingly crowded with talking heads, cultural policy is comparatively empty. The few players of significance that do take the field have unusual freedom to move.

Amongst this small coterie, one figure has reached an unquestionable position of influence: Julianne Schultz. From her seemingly peripheral position as the editor of a small but respected magazine, Schultz has spun a web of influence that places her firmly at the centre of the Australian artistic and cultural debate. A key consultant to a succession of Labor arts ministers, Schultz co-chaired the creative stream of the 2020 Summit and went on to lead the reference group for the Creative Australia policy. She’s on the board of the ABC and the Grattan Institute, chairs the Australian Film Television and Radio School, as well as wearing a haberdashery of other hats. When The Australian’s Matt Westwood profiled her last year, she described her intellectual background as ‘broadly cultural, but … from a journalism-media background.’

This breadth of interests and networks makes Schultz a voice worth listening to, especially when, as she did this morning, she advances a bold new policy agenda to build on Creative Australia.

The take-home message of Schultz’ speech this morning concerns the need for an expanded Ministry of Culture. This new super-department would bring together existing federal programs and agencies in a cabinet-level Department. The precedents are strong for such a body overseas: France’s Socialist government of the 1980s was famous for its swashbuckling culture minister, Jack Lang. As Schultz observed today:

At the moment not even all the national collecting institutions answer to the same minister, heritage is in environment, cultural diplomacy and UNESCO are in DFAT, industry assistance for the creative industries is in innovation and climate change, tourism and sport are elsewhere, trade is not linked in any consistent way, broadcasting is in broadband and the digital economy, there are programs in education and health, and regional affairs funds the building facilities and gives prizes for regional arts.

[…]

Such a department would be able to address the cultural sector as a whole, bring a fresh and critical perspective to the sustainability of the component parts with rigorous economic analysis by taking the lead on developing the tools to measure public value.  Its ethos would be sympathetic to cultural potential. It would complement not replicate agencies, like the Australia Council and Screen Australia that allocate funds – so that the arm’s length relationship between cultural production and government, which is so highly valued would be maintained.

Schultz’s proposal is both bold and sensible, and echoes my thinking on the subject; in 2010, I proposed a similarly structured portfolio.

Other aspects of Schultz’ speech are just as interesting, though they will perhaps receive less attention. One argument she makes that could potentially be a game-changer is the need for a much broader and deeper set of cultural statistics and indicators.

‘Thirty years ago environmental value was not something that was measured,’ she points out. ‘Now it is.’

‘We have to be more ambitious and smarter in finding a way to measure the public value of culture. We know it exists, but we have not yet found the right way to measure it.’

There’s no doubt that measurement drives public policy, as the long-running evidence-based policy debate inside the public service amply demonstrates. The ‘poor cousin’ status of the arts and culture within government agencies stems, in part, from the fact that it remains very hard to measure the community value of a beautiful artwork or a provocative documentary. As former top bureaucrats like Leigh Tabrett have told us, the all-powerful central agencies of government – especially Treasury and Finance – are still highly skeptical of the value of the arts and culture, seeing it as warm and fuzzy window-dressing compared to the serious stuff of roads, schools and hospitals.

Echoing an important stream of the academic debate about measuring culture, Schultz says there should be much more effort devoted to measuring the so-called ‘intrinsic’ value of the arts, for instance by using sophisticated tools from economics to measure the ‘contingent valuation’ of the arts by ordinary citizens. So, for instance, the public could be polled and asked what they would be willing to pay for a new art gallery in a regional city, or whether they’d like to spend more on public broadcasting than the ABC’s famous “eight cents a day’. When such exercises have been tried I other countries, they have consistently yielded answers in excess of current government funding levels.

Schultz also says there are a range of other measurements that could better capture the value of the arts, including instrumental value, ‘like the well documented legacy for children of exposure and involvement in arts and culture to successful and engaged lives,’ as well as economic factors, ‘which is contributing more to the national economy than many other sectors’.

It all sounds very useful, and arts advocates would no doubt love extra arguments with which to persuade skeptical razor gangs in Finance and Treasury. But by stepping into the minefield of cultural measurement, Schultz – and Australian culture in general – will need to tread carefully. The most recent attempt to develop such measures in the UK, for instance, developed detailed proposals to measure the value of the arts in Britain using contingent valuation [pdf]. Sadly, they were little help when faced with George Osborne’s austerity drive.

Not all metrics are created equal. Just yesterday, for instance, Essential Research released an opinion poll in which those surveyed said they were unhappy about Australia’s ongoing budget deficit, and would like to see cuts to arts funding to help pay for it. And if there’s one measurement every politician understands, it’s a poll.

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One thought on “The minefield of cultural measurement

  1. Pingback: Around the Horn: Marian McPartland edition | Createquity.

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