Measuring intangibles

Andrew Taylor, author of the Artful Manager blog, has posted a keynote address he gave at the recent CAPACOA Conference in Ottawa, Ontario. Taylor, who also heads the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin, delivered the talk "If Culture Counts, How Do We Count It?" It's worth reading in whole, but a couple of his points bear repeating. He begins the point I find most relevant by putting the recent craze of measuring the value of arts and culture programs in context. At one time, he says, arts were an indicator of success. As nations competed on the global stage, having the best of anything -- the arts included -- was a measure of superiority. As the Cold War ended, that was no longer the case. So, arts organziations needed their own indicators to prove they were worthwhile.

But measuring the value of the arts and culture is difficult. As Taylor says, you can talk about having more butts in seats (I paraphrase) or helping to spur the economy by enhancing quality of life, but those are subjective -- if not arbitrary -- measures. Perhaps we're looking at things in the wrong way, or certainly from the wrong end of the telescope. Usually, those measuring such things look for desired results and then ascribe a cause. However, he says:

"Audiences don't engage in cultural experience because they seek to refocus encomic activity in the urban core. At-risk youth don't stay in theater programs to encourage their pro-social behavior. Students don't play in a school orchestra because they want better spatial reasoning. All these things are byproducts of the true value in what we do."

In another post on his blog, Taylor writes about an initiative in Silicon Valley where arts and culture groups created a "creative community index." It's another good read, and a valuable report that ought to be emulated around the country. The group first determined what it wanted to measure, then did so, determining how well it was accomplishing what it set out to do. That would seem to keep the cart and horse in the proper order. That's important, because (getting back to Taylor's keynote) "value is always a co-construction. It is not something delivered and received, produced and consumed..." and "value is always the product of multiple experiences, never just one." Success is rarely an instantaneous creation, and successful projects never do exactly what the creator hopes they will in the way he hoped they would. It's a collaborative process, which is an important thing to keep in mind when trying to create all of those cool amenities to please young professionals. Let them be a part of the process, and allow things to evolve and improve over time.


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