Carter Gillies shared the unabridged version of a piece he wrote for the Arts Professional UK on his website this weekend. As Carter is wont to do, he examined statements about quantifying and measuring the value of the arts made by Simon Mellor, the deputy chief executive for arts and culture at Arts Council England.
I was particularly drawn to Carter’s second entry where he addresses this statement by Mellor (my emphasis):
“At its heart, the Quality Metrics system is about enabling arts and cultural organisations to enter a structured conversation with audience members and peers about the quality of the work they are presenting. It allows them to capture valuable data that they can use to understand how their intentions for the work are aligning with the experiences of their audiences and peers and, hopefully, to use that information to plan future programmes and improve the quality of their work. It will also enable those organisations to provide more evidence to current and future funders about the quality of their work.
Let me first state that I don’t believe these metrics will really have any ability to measure the quality of the work done by the arts organisations. If you have read any of my previous posts on the matter you probably knew that already.
I was taken by the idea expressed in the bolded sentence above. One of the biggest challenges facing arts organizations in the last few years is the recognition that what they are doing might not align with the interests of the community. In surveys like Culture Track, people say they aren’t attending arts events because they don’t see themselves or their stories depicted on the stages, walls, and spaces. They don’t preceive what is happening in arts spaces to be relevant to them. Nina Simon wrote a whole book about making experiences relevant for people.
So if the Arts Council of England could actually deliver some real insight into how to make the experience more relevant for people, that would be a pretty valuable service.
However, as Carter points out later in that second entry, there are many examples of artists whose work was initially rejected before being lauded. Some died before others began to recognize the value in the work they missed before. We see this sort of thing happen all the time in our lives. Movies and shows that did poorly both critically and economically suddenly become cult classics.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show became immensely popular after it initially flopped. But it is also a good example of something whose value exploded after people were able to participate and take ownership of the experience.
Even if it is an accurate reflection of how people are receiving something, the research is only going to be valuable to a point.
The problem, however, with creating a metric is that often that metric becomes fetishized as the measure of value rather than one element among many that can help us understand how an art work and the experience surrounding it is received.
As Carter notes, quoting Oscar Wilde, even when we talk about a metric someone else is using, the meaning of that metric may not be shared by both parties. Thus the #NotMyMetric title of this post.
There is a reason bean counting number crunchers have so much authority in the arts, and mainly it is for the good. The arts are a business and need to function as such. But it is also important to not let that world view overreach itself. We need to be careful in not putting the cart before the horse. In many ways the arts are the exact opposite of what the counters are, and see, and value.
The ever impish and ironical Oscar Wilde understood this predicament:
“When Bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When Artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.”
There is a mutual interest, in other words, but neither does it mean a banker thinks of art as an artist does, values it for the same things in the same way, and equally true of artists’ attitude towards money, but especially that this does not mean they should be left in charge of one another’s concerns. A ‘dinner table’ acquaintance is insufficient for the real work that needs to be done.