Last week I attended a high-caliber symposium co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the UK’s Cultural Value Project. They brought together a dizzying array of researchers (demographers, cognitive scientists, arts policy wonks, “recovering” academics, etc.) to discuss how we ought to measure participation in arts and culture on the local, regional, national and global scale.
“Participation” and “engagement” are key metrics for arts institutions and their funders. But the inquiry often ends right there. I think the vast majority of people in the arts – including artists and administrators – take it as a given that art has a beneficial effect on society. I happen to agree with them. Wholeheartedly. But many powerful people in this world – including those who hold the purse strings – are not necessarily convinced. Funding for the arts is paltry compared to expenditures on science, where, lo and behold, we have a lot of convincing evidence about the importance it holds for humanity.
But when we consider the arts – plays, ballet, opera, sculpture, literature, dance, painting – arts lovers often assume that there are no methods to measure with any precision the beneficial impact on individuals, communities or nations. As I’ve heard many people say over the years, “it’s impossible to measure a change in hearts and minds.” (This has been a particularly daunting problem for people in cultural diplomacy, where the instrumental possibilities of art and culture are more often demonstrated through anecdote than rigorous evaluation.)
I think that’s one reason you see a focus on measuring the economic impact of art: cultural institutions like museums and performing arts venues often justify their existence by pointing to the tourists they’re attracting and the hotel rooms they’re filling. Those things are easier to count.
Of course economic impact is important, but I believe we ought to pay serious attention to the profound impact that art can have on humans. We know that art can move us. But what, exactly, does it move us to do?
There are good reasons that arts institutions haven’t aggressively pursued this kind of research in the past. One of the biggest obstacles for arts and culture impact research is the issue of taste, or more technically, self-selection bias. You will rarely have a broad nationally representative sample of people who encounter a specific play, opera, concert, museum exhibition, or a book, film or TV show that doesn’t have blockbuster status. Harry Potter? Sure. Chimerica? Not so much.
I believe that the kind of research that we’ve been doing at the Lear Center – especially our recent research measuring the impact of documentary and narrative films – can be used to measure the impact of just about any artistic work – as long as we can find enough people who have encountered it.
One of my concerns about arts and cultural impact research is that we often confuse outputs with outcomes. We count butts in seats and collect turnstile data, but we shrug our shoulders when asked about the consequences of that participation. We may go so far as to find out whether audience members were absorbed by the work, but I would argue that we ought to go one step further and find out whether it affected things like knowledge levels, attitudes and even behavior. Armed with this evidence, we are on firmer ground when we ask for precious resources – particularly public funds – to be spent on the arts. If we can demonstrate the power of culture to educate and enlighten, we should have no shortage of funders who are looking for proven tools to do exactly that.
Check out the full report on the event: Measuring Cultural Engagement: A Quest for New Terms, Tools, and Techniques. Videos of the event are here. For some of the blow-by-blow, check out the Twitter hashtag #NEACVP.