Taking Arts & Culture’s Measure

I have been cautioning the non-profit arts community about citing the economic value of the arts for over a decade now. The first time was in 2007. I wrote about it a few times in the interim, but I didn’t really start to devote time and space to the idea until the last 2-3 years.

However, if you don’t put stock in my arguments, perhaps you will find statements by celebrities with English accents to be compelling. Check out the following videos from an Arts Emergency Service convening at the Oxford Literary Festival where author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series) makes the same point cited in just about every piece I discussed in previous posts:

“Keep clear of economic justifications for the arts. If you do that, if you try that, you hand a weapon to the other side because they can always find ways of proving that you are wrong about it, you’ve got the figures wrong. You invite them to measure everything in terms of economic gain. My advice would be to ignore economic arguments altogether.”

Noted graphic novelist Alan Moore chimed in about “…the ridiculousness of, sort of, having to have impact. To appoint words like that to the arts, its criminal, its ridiculous.”

Pullman makes another statement that aligns with the assertions by Carter Gillies I often cite that just because something can be measured, doesn’t mean the measurement is relevant. (Diane Ragsdale also wrote a piece along these lines.)

“The government, you see, asks us to do something and then gives us the wrong tools to do it. [unintelligible] says, ‘Look I want you to measure this piece of wood. And here’s a tool for you.’ And gives you a grindstone. And one thing you can say is, ‘Why do you want to measure this wood anyway? This is firewood, I’ll burn it to keep myself warm.’ Questions arise from that. What is the right tool for measuring the arts and do we need to measure them anyway? What are we measuring them for?”

There is another video on the Arts Emergency page where the panel, which includes Arts Emergency co-founder, Josie Long, discuss the false dichotomy between art and science that is worth checking out.

As I was looking back at all the posts I made on this subject, I found the following tweet I had linked to many years ago.  It struck me that if you can’t entirely control the language your advocates use, request they make this one small change in terminology can help start to shift the “economic benefit” mindset. (Though perhaps not something to use in the context of immigration discussions.)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Taking Arts & Culture’s Measure”

  1. Our culture is in this odd predicament where we have lost sight of the many forms of value. We have lost sight of the variety. There is only one example that stands out for us, and that simply obscures all other ways that value manifests in our lives. Practically the only value we can understand and explain any longer is value that comes as the result of being measured.

    Measuring is an extremely useful and undoubtedly vital source for marking out value in our lives and in the world, but we have become hypnotized by an exaggeration. We have tragically let this impressiveness displace all sources of value that are not arrived at in a measured way. Measuring is so useful to, so much a part of our modern lives that we cannot help but value it. And we are right to value it so highly. The problem is simply that we have lost track of any forms of value besides that which ought to be, or rather, can be, measured…..

    It is a cultural obsession, the need to value only what can be measured and only value according to the measurements made. But obsession has a notorious downside. It simplifies things that otherwise might be considered with greater nuance. Obsession blinds us to whatever doesn’t fit. So the question we should be asking is not whether measuring is a good way of finding value (it is), but what else we are missing from the picture.

    For instance, any measurement takes place in a system, and there are at minimum three distinct parts: There is a thing to be measured, there is something we use to measure with, and there is the relation between them. We take for granted that once we have conducted a measurement all value has been accounted for.

    But here’s the question, we have measured this thing for value, but not everything involved has been equally measured. Did we in some way also measure our measures? Have we measured the system of measurement itself? Whatever the measure of those things, did we measure them as well? And so on and so forth. There seemingly is an infinite regress of measures we ought to take to secure value once and for all…..

    But I’m not trying to sow seeds of doubt, because the better question to ask would be “Did we need to?” The presumption that measuring is the ONLY source of value threatens to leave our measures themselves without value. As if they could only be salvaged through being measured. The presumption that we NEED to have things measured for value is exactly what is holding us back. Rather, the picture I am painting is that value is MORE than simply the one form of being arrived at *through* measurement, an empirical operation. One value clearly IS measured, but another and entirely different kind of value is the measure itself, something non-empirical.

    People in the arts don’t need to measure the arts for value, because the arts for us ALREADY ARE VALUABLE. Its just that they are not valuable *as* *the* *result* of having been measured. Instead, the arts are, for us, *the* *measure* itself. The arts are the value we bring TO the world. The arts are how we measure the value out there and in our lives. The value of the arts are not derivative, they are CONSTITUTIVE.

    And until we get clear on the distinction we will continue undermining the arts by treating them as if their only significant property was that of a things subject to doubts and subject to measurement.

  2. The “I’m a citizen” suggestion is a worrisome one in the current political environment. It tells immigrants who have not yet attained citizenship that they are not worth listening to. My mother was a “resident alien” for over 50 years before becoming a naturalized citizen. She was a taxpayer, but not a citizen—she was worth listening to on many matters.


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