Other people’s metrics


SOURCE: Flickr user Sterlic

I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about metrics and measurement in the arts — the various ways we look for evidence that we’re making progress on mission, or making a difference in some area of our community. And for many I speak with, metrics are a matter of concern and frustration: Why must I shift my focus from the work to measure the impact of the work? Or, why must I bend my artistic vision to achieve some external measure?

My response is becoming increasingly consistent: You DON’T have to do those things…as long as you stop asking for other people’s money.

As soon as you take someone else’s dollar — whether a donor or a foundation or a ticket buyer or a taxpayer (via a public agency) — you are suddenly subject to their metrics of success…particularly if you want ANOTHER dollar after the one you just received.

Of course, their metrics might include joy and creation and escape and wonder. Or their metrics might include employment statistics, property values, public education, and success of surrounding retail. Your job as a cultural leader is to understand the various expectations that came with the money or time or attention, and to show you’re meeting those expectations (while still staying true to your artistic or community mission).

You may not like that job. But you accepted that job when you accepted that dollar.

I’m constantly attempting to define the boundaries of the industry I study and serve. The ‘nonprofit arts’ isn’t quite right, as it’s too narrow. Nor is the ‘arts and culture industries’ sufficient, as it seems too broad. My current working definition is this:

Artistic enterprises that require more than one person to accomplish, that claim human expression as a primary purpose, and that cannot recapture their complete costs from the audience they seek to serve.

Those enterprises REQUIRE other people’s money. And other people’s money comes bundled with other people’s metrics.


  1. Michael Wilkerson says

    Metrics seem the emphasis du jour imposed on arts organizations by those who would grant, donate or lend resources. This is the era of “accountability.” The rise of “alternative metrics” that go beyond tickets sold and dollars generated and SAT scores improved is a big help to the sector. I’m not sure people in the arts are against metrics — isn’t the objection more to the point of not having enough people-power to keep the organization going and being required to add a rather rigorous and daunting task of producing and explaining viable metrics that prove the worth of something that ought to be relatively obvious to those who are reasonably knowledgeable about it?

    Which is not to be anti-metric but to advocate proportionality in the incessant demands of “proof” that the arts are valuable.

    • says

      Thanks Mike. And yes, the burden of rigorous metrics on an already resource-strapped endeavor is certainly part of the concern…and a rather valid one, at that. But I also get resistance on even the general request for evidence that an organization is fulfilling its promise. For that resistance, I tend to say: ‘tough’. It’s part of the arts manager’s job to negotiate the evidence-side of any contract, and ensure that their organization is not overpromising, or entering an agreement it cannot fulfill.

      And, most donors can be convinced that the majority of the dollar they’re giving should go to the program or purpose they’ve decided to support (rather than to a measurement machine). But that convincing is ALSO part of the arts manager’s job, if the donor isn’t already there.

      • Paul Botts says

        “But I also get resistance on even the general request for evidence that an organization is fulfilling its promise.” I’ve had that same experience, in particular my few years working on the funder side were eye-opening in this regard. It was shocking to realize that some in the arts think that they don’t owe society or anyone else any evidence of, or even interest in, whether they are actually accomplishing what _they_ proudly claim that they are. As if just having declared ourselves to be artists and attempted something artistic “should be enough”! (That’s a direct quote from a veteran artistic director and she was far from alone in the sentiment.)

        So now when deciding which arts non-profits to get involved with, as a musician or a volunteer or a donor, one of my first screens is “do they take seriously some basic accountability for the effectiveness of their efforts as artists and as an arts organization?” I’ve no big preconceptions about how anybody should go about assessing results, or even to whom it has to be reported; just that a genuine interest in the question is a basic ethical imperative.

  2. Sherburne Laughlin says

    I agree, Mike. It is much more interesting to measure something when you have enough time (and permission) to really debate what you are going to measure and make it useful to the organization or relevant purpose. I have been much more willing to measure when I have enough hands on deck, mental space and money to do it. But there who ever has truly enough of those things? Yet, I still love those metrics. There is a great note on “measuring joy” by my old buddy Debbie Bedwell that always gives me hope.

  3. Sarah Lutman says

    Andrew – in your definition of artistic enterprises you characterize them as not able to “recapture their complete costs from the audiences they intend to serve.” I’m wondering who you are including in “the audience.” Aren’t corporations, foundations, and others who may give but not participate also the audience for an enterprise? I think they are.

    In public broadcasting there is a concept called “listener sensitive revenue” and this is not just revenue FROM audiences but BECAUSE of audiences. It’s not only membership support (directly from listeners) but from underwriters and sponsors (because of listeners).

    So, do foundations and corporate giving programs view themselves as third-party payers who make the arts possible on behalf of/because of an audience or community? In that case the arts enterprise defines its metrics and the grantor decides to provide support or not. Or don’t some grantmakers themselves as the audience, they alone define the metrics, and the enterprise must meet them? It’s a tendency toward this second practice that I think folks are finding so confounding.

    • says

      Great comments, Sarah. Thanks!

      And I’d agree that you could consider corporations, foundations, and ‘others who may give but not participate’ as audiences for the enterprise. But I think we’d both agree that they’re not the SAME audience as those who choose to participate. As a different audience, they likely have different goals and expectations. Sometimes (perhaps even most of the time) they are buying the service on behalf of an audience or community. Sometimes (and I imagine this is true for public radio sponsors or funders), they have an alternate outcome in mind — brand enhancement, more or different kinds of programming, larger public goals.

      It’s a really interesting question about whether funders are third-party payers, and their purchase decision is an endorsement of the enterprise’s core value. Or whether they are seeking other outcomes that they perceive the enterprise might deliver through its work, and they expect some bending toward that goal upon receipt of the contribution.

      And it’s a rather essential difference for the cultural manager, and the way they decide to do their work.

      I would LOVE to explore this more.

  4. Stephen Soderberg says

    With all due respect. I’ve tried to remain silent, but, as much as I respect some of you, you are all making me tear my hair out and run screaming from the room. The game is hardball & we’re all about to find out what it’s like to play in the big leagues, whether we’re ready or not.

    I have watched with interest and, yes, admiration over the past 10 to 15 years as the arts management field has exploded into an academic sub-discipline in the now ubiquitous (but also relatively recent) field of professional management and business administration. Most interesting to me has been the accelerating accumulation of jargon making it easier for professionals to distinguish immediately who is and who is not one of them.

    In a sense I admire the idea behind this development, that the arts need highly skilled middle men & women to negotiate the tricky ground between doing art and paying for art. But there comes a time when theory has to prove itself. So how has that worked out?

    At the same time that arts management came into its own, the economy in general went south, taking much of the floor of support for the arts with it. This would have been a perfect opportunity for professionals in this field to show their mettle. But instead, in my opinion, as orchestras crashed all around they just kept attending conferences, chairing panels, congratulating one another, inventing more new jargon, and generally confusing their jargon for new thinking.

    Now, I am obviously not in this fraternity, nor do I want to be. But two things: I recognize the necessity for its existence in this age and I, even as an outsider, can recognize systemic failure when I see it, even while I know that I don’t have the knowledge or position to do anything about it directly. So this is my indirect attempt to at least point to the next, much more ominous threat that’s forming – a threat you all seem to be oblivious to. Or perhaps you do see it and you are choosing to remain in denial.

    The most visible problem that all are quite properly wringing their hands over right now is the fate of NEA. This has been the target of the right for a long time, and Romney has named it as one of the first programs he woud axe. But even if Obama should win, face it, his support for the arts hasn’t gone far beyond lip service at a few great honors parties at the White House & the left has not provided the strongest support for NEA lately. But focusing solely on the fate of NEA has the effect of making it a red herring with respect to the real threat posed by the next congressional session.

    Anyone who watched the debate last night heard the words “tax code” and “entitlement” adjustment and so on. The tax code is ground zero whomever the winners and losers are in November. And right now the arts-support-as-we-know-it crowd apparently hasn’t the foggiest clue that 501(c)(3) is considered one of those “entitlements” that will be bargaining table.

    I am not trying to tell anyone here that I am a player in your league, nor do I have any solutions to offer (at least none that I could sell to the arts community right now). I’m simply begging you all to stop thinking about butts in seats long enough to get your own butts in gear – forget the clever jargon and start thinking creatively about coming up with a Plan B (and C and D) that don’t posit 501(c)(3) as a basis for your “business plans.” A good way to start would be by pretending, ahead of time, that 501(c)(3) has been redefined in such a way that, purposely or not, it excludes or severely limits coverage of the non-profit arts world.

    I’ve tried to draw attention to this crisis before, when it was not as believable – ridiculous to consider even. This effort was kindly reprinted recently by David Beem on his blog:


    Bit I’m hoping you will all consider this possibility as something now much closer to reality and more worth your consideration at this point – just weeks before the election and a new congress hungry to attack the debt.

    — Steve Soderberg

    • Paul Botts says

      There is zero chance that federal tax-exemption status or the charitable deduction will be “on the bargaining table” in any serious way in DC. Though as a progressive I could offer a decent argument why the latter, at least, should be.

      Regarding the NEA: while pigs will fly south for the winter before I vote for the likes of Mitt Romney, his idea of killing that silly agency is the best favor anyone could do for the arts. The NEA after all isn’t even a large fraction of _federal_ arts funding, never mind of all public arts funding, never mind of all funding for the professional arts in this society. Its deletion would change the arts funding landscape by not even a large fraction of one percent and would meanwhile free up the arts community to invest its political capital and effort into something which actually matters. If this here arts lover and non-profit-sector lifer was made king, the NEA would be on my gone-by-noon-the-first-day list.

      • Stephen Soderberg says

        From the Chronicle of Philanthropy (http://philanthropy.com/article/Where-the-Presidential/134254/):

        “[President Obama] Would limit the value of itemized deductions, including those for charitable giving, for wealthy people. Would require people making more than $1-million to pay at least 30 percent in taxes but without ‘disadvantaging individuals who make large charitable contributions.’ Would maintain the estate tax after it is scheduled to expire at the end of this year and increase both the tax rate and the amount that is taxed from current levels.

        “[Governor Romney] Would limit tax deductions and exemptions for high-income people. Would work with Congress to determine how to set those limits, but ‘we want to maintain provisions that encourage housing, charitable contributions, and health care.’ Said one option could be to give everyone a $17,000 deduction, with taxpayers using their charitable deduction or other tax breaks to ‘fill that bucket.’ He added the number could be smaller for higher-income people. Expanded on that at the first presidential debate by saying, ‘Make up a number, $25,000, $50,000. Anybody can have deductions up to that amount. And then that number disappears for high-income people.’ Added that the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan could be another model. That plan calls for replacing the charitable deduction with a tax credit that would be available to people who donated a certain percentage of their income.”

        And that’s the presidential candidates BEFORE the election and BEFORE the next congress (remember … the ones who actually make the laws?) gets ahold of it.

        Please don’t tell me “There is zero chance that federal tax-exemption or the charitable deduction will be ‘on the bargaining table.'”

        The NEA’s 2011 budget was $155M. That’s what they call a rounding error in the federal budget & the only reason anyone would go after NEA at all is to take a scalp to present to the Tea Party to prove you’re a brave cultural warrior. On the other hand, according to Giving USA (http://philanthropy.com/article/How-Charitable-Causes-Are/132339/) in 2011 total charitable giving came to just shy of $300B with “arts, culture and humanities” taking $13B of that. You are no longer in chump change territory.

        501(c)(3) may or may not cease to exist as the holding place for the federal government to encourage charitable giving. But 501(c)(3) will certainly be on the bargaining table next year.

        • Paul Botts says

          I’m very familiar with the campaign verbiage you’ve quoted, and if you’re interested you can find plenty more along the same lines. Doesn’t change the practical politics which is that the charitable deduction will not be significantly altered anytime soon if ever. (You may notice that the Obama position as stated is logically incoherent while the Romney one is typically vague and rambling; those are indicators of the lack of seriousness about it on both their parts. That would forestall any real action even if there wasn’t strong Congressional opposition to any such alterations.)

          Meanwhile there isn’t even any discussion in DC about eliminating tax-exempt status let alone any chance of it actually happening during our lifetimes.

          Meanwhile my reason to eliminate the NEA, which I would quickly do if ever given such authority/influence (and granted that we’re back now to pigs flying), is that (a) in the context of this society’s financial support of the arts it absolutely is chump change but meanwhile (b) its existence is much more of a liability than an asset to the arts in this country.

  5. says

    As always, I enjoy your thoughts Andrew! As we discussed a while ago in NY, you know that I am particularly intrigued by the notion of our relevance in our communities. Your blog covers the reality of having to pay respect to those who believe in our work, and who show their support by investing in us. We owe them something, and if that something is a report of attendance, or a sustainability plan, or simply goosebumps – we need to honour the obligation we have when we enter into this relationship. We have become fairly good at measuring and reporting on these various matrix’s – albeit reluctantly!
    However, what I think we are NOT good at is to measure how much our very exisence matters to our communities. This is different from measuring attendance, or doing audience surveys. We need to KNOW that we truly matter, especially to those who NEVER make it into our attendance statistics. There are sadly MANY stories of great arts organizations that closed their doors, and the lack of public response is deafening! It does beg the very difficult question: how much did they REALLY matter? I do not mean this unkindly at all – I am simply trying to understand what this silence is telling us. How much social capital have we built up that can be drawn on during times of challenge?
    Over the past 30 years I have experienced some moments of clarity that may inform the answer, but I am not there yet! And as always, most of my learning came from colleagues in the field, so pray illuminate!

  6. says

    The Europeans have an extensive network of agencies called Music Information Centers where professional statisticians collect massive amounts of data about music. You can find exact amounts for the funding of music in all of Europe’s countries, and even wonderful topographical maps of things like opera houses and symphony orchestras. You can get info about attendance, ticket prices, number of recordins sold, break downs of attendance by style and genre, etc. Institutions hardly need to collect metrics themselves, since these agencies provide them. There is even a topographical map of the Music Information Centers here:


    That we do not have such an agency in the USA is just one more part of our backwardness – along with being the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding (on the Federal, State, and Municipal levels.) When are we going to wake up?