Can you measure the value of culture by numbers?

Julian Meyrick, the Strategic Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, argues that our addiction to measuring things has replaced evaluating things – including creativity. So how do you measure cultural activities whose purpose, meaning and hope are ends in themselves?


A few weeks ago Angelita Teo, the director of the National Museum of Singapore gave a speech at the Singapore Leadership Forum in Adelaide, an event organised by the newly-instituted Australia-Singapore Arts Group. She managed to nail in a few, simple sentences a truth that currently seems to elude the cleverest cultural policy advisers:

Good (cultural) policy should guide and encourage, and have a long-term view, sometimes with limited near-term payback… sometimes requiring entire generations to grow up before we see the benefits. Much of the work that this entails is beyond policy, is simply about tenacity – having the grit to try something new, let it fail, and try again. But this approach also exemplifies the values that we hope to inculcate in our audiences – that it is okay to fail sometimes, or to not like something. It is more important to have an opinion, as that informs our future choices and decisions. Creativity is about diversity in all its forms, and good (cultural) policy allows for such behaviours and values to form in its own time.

What is the value of the joke? How much is a good laugh worth? And if it can be costed, what would we accept by way of monetary compensation to never laugh in our lives again?

Teo talked about creating a “values-based conversation” for different audiences. Her comments echoed those of my own research team, Laboratory Adelaide. We have been looking at the confused, conflicted and compromised space that is so-called cultural value measurement for three years now. The difference between that phrase “value measurement” and Teo’s “values-based conversation” is the letter “s”, and it is significant. One is a pluralistic conception of value that can cope with diversity, incommensurability, and long-term return. The other is reductive and obsessed with unitary scales and benchmarks.

Describing some of the quantitative methods in the cultural value area to a friend who is in recovery, he said: “it sounds like addiction; like you are dealing with addictive behaviour”. I think he’s right. As with many addictions, moderate amounts are manageable, even beneficial. Once you go beyond a point, they are harmful, eventually fatal. The issue in the debate over the value of culture is not, and has never been, ‘to measure or not to measure’. The issue is under what circumstances is it appropriate to measure, what can we tell from our measurements, and when should we stop measuring and do something else.

Perhaps the most important question to ask is ‘value of what?’ Of our house? Of our mother? Of the book that changed our lives when we were 15? Of a really great meal? Of a really healthy meal? Of the Great Barrier Reef that our great grandchildren will probably never see?

What about the value of a joke? Here’s my best joke: what’s orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot. That cost me 20c. Twenty years ago, a man was selling jokes in Lygon Street at 5 for $1. That was one of them. I’ve used it countless times since, so perhaps I should amortise the cost of purchase over its repetition, imposing a discount rate to reflect its decreasing utility as a source of mirth.

Measuring things has replaced evaluating things.

Will that tell me the value of the joke? How much is a good laugh worth? And if it can be costed, what would we accept by way of monetary compensation to never laugh in our lives again?

We’re trapped in a labyrinth of measurement that gets madder the more precisely it claims to calibrate and quantify. At Laboratory Adelaide we feel that as a society we are measuring ourselves to death. We are not being metaphorical. Measuring things has replaced evaluating things, and that’s a problem not because measurement is antithetical to evaluation, but because it is a servant that has usurped its master – the common good. Private interest is served when government spending on public services is constrained, and is redistributed in the form of private return.

That, in a nutshell, is the prime motivating force behind the accountability agenda in Australia, and other Western countries, for the last 50 years, what Michael Powers has called “the audit explosion”, the global extension of a managerial ethos and the rise of a hyper-instrumentalism. All of which is enabled, if not politically abetted, by quantitative methods, with their deracinating, context-less, algorithmic appearance, their facile equivalential thinking.

Another example, this time from the gallery world. An exhibition of Old Masters versus a showing of new talent. The former is the presentation of works of known style and importance. Its value is in its appearance, so to speak, and doesn’t need confirming by numerical measurement. If people don’t turn up for a hang of Rembrandt or Monet, more fool them.

Actually, perhaps the exhibition contains only a few great works, but is padded out with lesser-known artists of the era. But does that matter? If people think they are seeing an exhibition of great paintings, is that its value regardless of the number of great paintings in it? The showing of new talent, by contrast, is less about achievement, than promise and potential. By definition, the value of it is will be uncertain, and may upend the categories of creative practice with which value in painting is typically identified.

Let’s imagine these two exhibitions – the kinds of people who go to them, the reasons they go, the conversations they have. Let’s hold in our heads the two bodies of work, as whole cultural experiences. Now let’s imagine turning them into a number. Any number: the number of people who buy tickets, or the number of people who post a ‘like’ on your Facebook page, or, somehow, the quality of the paintings themselves.

How do we tackle this imbalance, our stupid addiction to less-than-meaningful numbers?

You can see immediately the falsity of equating a digital scale with the worth of those cultural experiences. Here is a solid truth: you cannot work back from a measurement index to a sense of value. There is no metric that will tell us how to choose between exhibiting an artist who’s just left college and one who has been dead for 400 years. Achievement and potential are not commensurate qualities that can be expressed as trade-offs on an indifference curve. Their nature is entirely different, and any exercise in comparative evaluation is going to require a truly staggering amount of curatorial discrimination.

I don’t know how many articles and books have been written on measuring culture’s value – hundreds, probably thousands. I can readily guess how many have been written on the role of judgement in discerning it: very few. Yet judgements of value are ubiquitous to the whole way the cultural sector works. It is the key ingredient in peer assessment, for competitive grant funding. It is crucial to artistic programming, to choosing one kind of cultural experience rather than another. And it is essential to our collective expectations of culture as society, what we want it to be and do, which is enshrined in national cultural policy.

How do we tackle this imbalance, our stupid addiction to less-than-meaningful numbers? Methodologically it’s relatively straightforward: well-shaped, carefully constructed, grounded research that addresses the inherent qualities of culture and not just its economic and social effects. This means projects that speak to purpose, meaning and hope. Value is about these three things. It is about purpose because value is active and engaged, and cultural activities reflect a broad sense of mission that is socially agreed and never just economically derived. It is about meaning, because culture has values which are ends in themselves and which can only be spoken about in the language of experience, personal and collective. And it is about hope, because culture is a long game, and its ultimate value plays out over years, if not generations, and is as much about the things it enables and inspires, as a particular activity itself.

If currently we reduce questions of value down to ones of efficiency and financial return, then that says more about us than about culture.

But the problem of culture’s value is not a methodological one. In fact, it’s not really a problem. It’s a tension in society, an open question that is for us to answer differently as we change and develop. If currently we reduce questions of value down to ones of efficiency and financial return, then that says more about us than about culture.

At Laboratory Adelaide we spend a lot of time looking at narratives and how they function, how they can be used to mitigate the endless spew of digits chucked at us from morning to night – a spew to which we are expected to endlessly contribute.

Here’s one thing we ask artists and cultural organisations: when they talk about the value of what their organisation does, what is the first thing that comes out of their mouths, the first thing they say? In any narrative, information provided early frames information coming later. Do they want numbers to be the first thing that people learn about what they do?

A narrative isn’t a neutral container of facts. It is a hierarchy of knowledge. A narrative is a device for creating sense out of otherwise senseless details, and the problem for a society, like ours, living in an age of data overload, is that constructing narratives is challenging because there is so much information to select from. The chances of omission, or skew, or simple dishonesty are high. As more information becomes available, finding sense and meaning in it gets harder, not easier.

What’s the story we want to tell about the great culture we are a part of? That includes the bits we don’t get to see, even the bits we don’t want to see, even the bits that haven’t happened yet? If we could identify that narrative it would go a long way to saying why we think it is of value.

Compliance in a system where the basic assumptions are wrong is a doomed course of action. My colleagues at Laboratory Adelaide are the opposite of revolutionary zealots. We preach not resistance, nor even opposition. We preach critical awareness. Every measurement index, every demand for information, every ranking or rating process, needs to be scrutinised and held to the bar of “purpose, meaning and hope” to see if it actually does say anything of value about the value of what we do.

If it doesn’t, then we need to find a better way. That’s a big task, but a real one. But perhaps the search for a new way of talking about the value of culture is part of the story we need to tell.

This is a version of a speech to the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Historical Societies (GLAM) sector peak body on 20 October, 2017.


Image: A scene from the Simon Stephens’ play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time based on the Mark Haddon novel of the same name. Source: the 2015 Tony Awards presentation.

3 responses to “Can you measure the value of culture by numbers?

  1. Hmmm! Culture as artifact, product, process, commodity, entertainment, distraction ! We might spend some better time considering Aboriginal understandings of culture to break out of restrictive economic valuations even over extended time frames. Certainly art and its production develops potentially useful creative capacities. Apart from the natural world (and potentially even including that) everything we think, have and do was or is imagined first. Within Aboriginal life it seems to me culture is integrated with law, language, country and relationships to encourage learning, resolve conflicts, develop the individual, assign responsibililties, develop discipline, encourage harmony, promote egalitariiarism, share resources, enable and empower the individual within their responsibilities to their kin, tribe, nation and country.

  2. It seems impossible to isolate any human activity from its historical socio-economic environment.
    Living, as we do, in a world dominated by materialistic thinking, it was inevitable that
    culture itself would be subjected to the superficial criteria which the author so rightly deplores.
    Thus his commendable focus on “projects that speak to purpose, meaning and hope”
    needs to be viewed as being undervalued, possibly misunderstood in such a world.
    Culture today is just another commodity; good, worthy projects may not get the financial and critical
    support which they’d get in a former, more humane world,
    I write because I understand the author’s disappointment; and his thoughts resonate with my own. I sincerely hope he can draw a little comfort from what I have tried to express.


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