More about measuring outcomes of cultural activity

Governments at all levels are increasingly required to demonstrate value of their activity and investment for the communities they serve. Agencies supported by public funds are also receiving greater demands to demonstrate their value by measuring the impact of the work they lead or support. Those who fund and manage cultural development programs experience barriers in articulating outcomes of this work comprehensively and with clarity. Measuring outcomes of cultural engagement in a systematic way is a relatively new and challenging practice (NEA, 2014). Funding programs do not as yet offer schema that enable funders and recipients to trace benefits for grantees and their recipient communities through arts participation in an evidence-based way.

Challenges for measuring value of cultural activity include the fact that historically, arts and cultural organizations have counted only outputs, such as the numbers of arts products created, numbers of attendees or tickets sold, as metrics of success. This evaluation practice has operated on the assumption that attendance is beneficial, and that the greater the numbers of people attending, the greater are the benefits. Little regard has been given to the possibility of neutral or negative outcomes, or the relative benefit to costs of various options of arts participation.

A range of evaluation practices are emerging that consider the quality of the artwork made or experienced (Radbourne, Glow and Johanson 2010; CultureCounts 2014). These address some of the aspects we might wish to understand about the value of arts production. But they are not outcome measures: they do not assess what difference this work ultimately makes to those who receive it. Rather, such practices are measures of process: they assess the quality of what organisation is doing or the activity presented. A causal relationship might be expected, in that the quality of an arts product might be assumed to have a relationship with its likely impact, but this cannot be assumed.

When outcomes have been considered, they have often been categorised as either intrinsic or instrumental. Intrinsic outcomes, those seen as directly related to the cultural experience itself, are often perceived as problematic, because culture is considered an intangible concept and therefore difficult or impossible to measure. Thus, the cultural outcomes of cultural activities, presumably their major purpose, have largely not been measured, and almost never using a systematic and comprehensive schema of measures. Evaluation approaches have largely focussed on either social or economic outcomes, (often identified as instrumental outcomes), partly because outcome measures are better established in those domains, and also because economic outcomes are prioritised above others. Therefore economic and social outcomes of cultural activity have functioned as proxy measures of its value. Holistic perspectives, in which all aspects of human experience and the natural world are considered equally important and inter-connected, have not been a major feature of evaluation of arts engagement.