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Evaluating Arts and Culture... an Oxymoron?

Having recently completed a postgrad in economic science, I'm fortunate (!) to have had significant schooling in the business of economic evaluation. It is a truly riveting subject, indeed, one which I have no doubt everyone would love to spend hours poring over. The reality, however, of policy investment - regardless of size or scope - is that every item of spending is subject to evaluation. Depending on the scale of investment, a programme, policy or intervention will require a simple evaluation, detailed analysis, a Cost-Benefit Analysis or a similar approach (such as Multi-Criteria Analysis).

Now, before you nod off, there's a reason for these validation tools - as in the context of welfare economics - every decision about public spending must follow a code of practice which centres on ensuring the best outcome for the scarce allocation of resources available to a public department. It follows logic, and let's be honest, it is important to ensure that there is a clear rationale for spending, whatever anyone's view of it may be. Computing, through a clear set of rules and processes, the costs and benefits of an investment or programme, should, not only offer the most straightforward and solid way for the public to understand where their tax is being spent, but also to interrogate and define a country's political value system.

However, that is where I depart from my schooling, somewhat. And I'm not the only one doing so. Economic evaluation does (and it has to) offer a concrete basis for decision-making, but it does so often without consideration of wider-reaching effects of a programme or intervention - to be fair, it would be hard to take account of every single impact - but in respect of arts and culture, this almost definitely needs more thought and deliberation. While evaluation often calibrates the 'intangible' by attributing an economic value to, for example, a positive externality (such as an improvement to scenery), I often wonder how much consideration or exploration takes place when it comes to arts and cultural investment. I hope I'll be pleasantly surprised when I undertake a thesis on the subject later this year, but it is probably fair to assume that there is room for improvement.

At the recent NCFA meeting on 'What's Next for the Arts', this was a theme which cropped up regularly - both in relation to public values and evaluating the arts. Suffice to say, there was much great debate about both issues. The one thing that was certain, however, was that many audience members present could clearly evidence and demonstrate the transformative power of the arts on many levels. I'm sure some cynics would say, well, they would say that, wouldn't they - after all, government policy affects their livelihood directly when funding is cut or departments are inappropriately reorganised.

This is where research on the subject not only shows the merit of those views proffered by the NCFA audience, but also elucidates the need and scope for more cohesive analysis and evaluation.

Last month, Professor Geoffrey Crossick, Vice Chancellor of the University of London, gave a superb insight into 'Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture' at TCD - based on the titular detailed report on the subject. To condense some of the key outputs of this comprehensive report into an evening seminar was no mean feat, but Professor Crossick offered salient considerations for practitioners, artists, academics and policy-makers alike.

Looking back on the observations I jotted down from the evening (particularly with my own thesis in my mind) one thing that is abundantly clear is the need for a less "one-size-fits-all" approach to evaluation. This is a factor cited early in 'Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture' - noting the necessity for less conventional, more cohesive, wider-scoping evaluation, which reflects 'the way that we discuss the value to individuals, and to society, of engagement with arts and culture, and to the ways in which we provide evidence in support of those discussions".

Undoubtedly, this type of approach would also fully embrace and acknowledge the cross-cutting, wide-ranging outcomes for individuals and society as a whole - from participatory experience which assists rehabilitation from illness, to engagement in institutions such as care homes and prisons, to education and social inclusion. Critically, as pointed to during the seminar, cultural engagement also contributes greatly to "enhanced reflectiveness and understanding of oneself as both a cognitive and affective agent". Perhaps a less straightforward construct to measure, but surely, an extremely worthy contribution to the wellbeing of individuals and society as a whole, not least of all, during times of considerable change?

In essence, evaluation as a form of measurement must go beyond conventional line items and look to the extraordinary enabling force the arts provides to society, to engage, educate, nurture and develop. This also means moving the narrative on from the role of investment and funding to the position the crucial role the arts plays in society. Full stop.

'If arts and culture offered us reassuring certainties we wouldn't need them, would we?'.

Professor Geoffrey Crossick, "Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture",

TCD Long Room Hub, 25th May 2016

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