Measuring cultural vitality

Lots of communities and consultants talk about ”cultural vitality,” and the benefits of achieving that status for their local economy, education system, creative workforce, and quality of life. But few have actually detailed what they mean by the term, or by what measures they would know that they had achieved their goal.

Cultural Vitality in CommunitiesA clear definition of ”cultural vitality” and specific measures for assessing that vitality are two of the goals of the Arts and Culture Indicators Project, a decade-long effort of the Urban Institute. The latest monograph emerging from that project, Cultural Vitality in Communities: Interpretation and Indicators, was released last month, and is available for download in PDF format.

The report defines ”cultural vitality” in a wide and inclusive way, encompassing professional arts venues, producers, and presenters, but also amateur, informal, educational, individual, and community elements:

Cultural vitality is the evidence of creating, disseminating, validating, and supporting arts and culture as a dimension of everyday life in communities.

Building on this definition, the report details the available data at national, regional, state, and local levels, recommending the most consistent and accessible to the task. The resulting indicators still favor the more formal nonprofit and commercial creative activities in any community, simply because they are tracked more reliably by government and related research projects (IRS data, charitable statistics, labor statistics, and so on). But the report points the way to building more rich and inclusive assessments of vitality on all levels.

Of particular interest are the case studies of cities already at work defining cultural vitality for themselves, and creating on-going efforts to measure their success. These include the Boston Indicators Project, the Metropolitan Chicago Information Center, and the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project, among others.

If you or your community are struggling to connect arts activity in your community in a more dynamic, integral, and accountable way, this report is worth a read.


  1. says

    One of the problems here in the UK is that although measurement is necessary, it has created a situation in which governmental funding for culture has become driven by the demands of other policy agenda (contribution to local economies, social inclusion and so forth).
    From what I understand, I know that in the US, funding is less centrally driven, so this could be a bit UK-centric. Nevertheless, it kind of chimes with, say, what the RAND foundation have written about and certainly with some of the conversations I had when visiting the US in July.
    This said, it is encouraging that in the UK, there is a growing awareness that funding demands must take into account more intrinsic values of culture. In other words, you’re not going to get too much of an economic effect if nobody likes the stuff in the first place. How, then, do you measure the intrinsic value of culture so that cultural practitioners have a reliable measure of performance and expectations are set around things accordingly?
    It’s something we’ve been working on:
    Hope that’s useful.

  2. Joan says

    It was quite a shock to me this year when I realized that the economic affect of culture has more to do with the market exchanges that occur as artists work than with ticket sales when they perform, or show. Whether the society likes what is being presented has less to do with actual economic activity. If a particular event bombs, or a company bombs or an artist’s work just doesn’t sell, those people still had to rent venues, buy scripts, materials, costumes, use sell and rent sheet music, sign recording contracts, use specially skilled tax prepareres, arts managers, contract teachers, pay school fees, buy arts books, arts agents and all the rest of the special services only the arts use, even the ones who will eventually bomb. That’s the arts economy really, and it’s that business that keeps cities and neighbourhoods hopping. The actual ticket sales are just the tip of the iceberg!