Can we change our definition & measures of success? Do we really want to?

preacher-pulpit2Happy New Year a week late. I picked up a book at the university library a few days ago called Morals and Markets and have read a few chapters, which have been tumbling around in my mind with an excellent New Year’s essay by Polly Carl on the measures of an individual playwright’s success, a New York Times op-ed on trying to measure the impact of social media using “yardsticks” of traditional marketing, and a much cited New Year’s prediction for the arts by Rick Lester at Target Resource Group that appeared on Thomas Cott’s Year End Predictions issue. These provocative texts have me thinking about the process of changing measures of success.

Part I: A short story about life insurance:

Morals and Markets is an academic text written in 1979 by sociologist Viviana Zelizer about “the development of life insurance in the US.”  Zelizer recounts that while the first life insurance company was established in the US in 1759 it was not until the 1840s that sales of life insurance began to take off. Then, within a relatively short period of time, life insurance policy sales grew at an astonishing rate. Why had life insurance failed to get off the ground in the late 18th and early 19th centuries? And why, in the mid-19th century did it eventually become adopted with such fervor? While most historical accounts, written by economists, laid the sudden success at more aggressive advertising and sales techniques (most notably the introduction of the charismatic life insurance missionary/salesman), Zelizer felt something else was going on. She ultimately argues that it was cultural factors at play, among them religious beliefs. She writes on pages 150-151:

In the first place, the development of the insurance industry reflected the struggle between fundamentalist and modernist religious outlooks that worked itself out in the nineteenth century. … The cultural incompatibility of life insurance with literalist and fundamentalist beliefs hindered its development during the first part of the century. In opposition, the emerging liberal theology tended to make the enterprise legitimate. … The history of life insurance helps us understand the problem of establishing monetary equivalents for relations or processes which are defined as being beyond material concerns … With life insurance, money and man, the sacred and the profane, were thrown together; the value of man became measurable by money. …  Life insurance threatened the sanctity of life by pricing it. … By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the economic  definition of the value of death finally became more acceptable, legitimating the life insurance enterprise. However, the monetary evaluation of death did not de-sacralize it; far from ‘profaning’ life and death, money became sacralized by its association with them. Life insurance took on symbolic values quite distinct from its utilitarian function, emerging as a new form of ritual with which to face death and a process of the dead by those kin left behind.

Another cultural factor explored in the book is initial resistance that stemmed from perceptions of life insurance as a form of “betting on lives.” That resistance waned after the 1870s, however, when certain financial practices which had theretofore been perceived by a “traditional economic morality” to be “deviant speculative ventures” became legitimized by a new entrepreneurial ethos. Changing views on life insurance reflected this general shift in attitudes about economic risk taking.

In the last paragraph of the book Zelizer writes (p. 153):

America was, and remains, a land of economic magic. In the case of life insurance the trick was to sell futures—pessimistic futures. The task of selling a commodity to a materialist civilization is relatively simple. The task of converting human life and death into commodities, however, was highly complex. The universe of believers and theologians became involved with another universe of hard-headed businessmen. Out of this interaction emerged a compromise credo which was a far cry from the vulgar marketplace linkages and at the same time a giant step beyond simplified heavenly rewards. Theology yielded to the capitalist ethos–but not without compelling the latter to disguise its materialist mission in spiritual garb.

Part II: Redefining Success

In a post on the measures of success in her own life and the lives of artists, Polly Carl describes what has become the “tired trajectory of success for playwrights”:

Theater artist gets trained >Theater artist emerges >Theater artist gets small gigs in small theaters >Theater artist gets big gigs in small theaters >Theater artist gets small gigs in big theaters >Theater artist gets big gigs in big theaters.

She then observes that this journey is problematic because it suggests that success is linear, that we can and should define what success looks like ahead of time, and that success can be measured in terms of economic growth (bigger house, bigger paycheck, etc.). Within hours of reading her post I was sent a link to the NY Times op-ed mentioned above, Can Social Media Sell Soap? on the problem of attempting to calculate the ROI of social media using traditional marketing media measures. The two pieces got me thinking about the yardsticks of success that we now use in the nonprofit arts.

Notwithstanding the past four years where the definition of success seemed to have been temporarily replaced by the more essential goal of simply finishing the year without a life-threatening deficit, it seems that, by-and-large, the sector is and has been for some time now measuring its success primarily in economic terms: butts in seats, increased revenues, budgetary growth, inches of press, and (how could we ever forget) economic impact.

I would extend Polly’s observation of a success-definition-rut among artists, to arts organizations. Lately I keep hearing admonitions to arts groups to shift their focus from “surviving” to “thriving” but how, as a sector, are we defining this thriving?

Has the recession helped us to interpret “thriving” to mean something deeper or outside of the realm of economic measures? Or (despite all the buzz about intrinsic impacts) are we really only comfortable in our skin if we can flash our numbers (and not just any numbers … butts in seats, budgetary growth, inches of press, economic impact).

I get it.

Believe me, after walking away from a great job that I loved (actually two decades of jobs in the arts that I loved and that defined my success pretty handily) I have spent many sleepless nights these past 2 1/2 years wondering how the heck to define success or, put another way, assess my value. Candidly, most days I feel like an under-performing and illegitimate scholar (as all practitioner-turned-academics will understand); a frustratingly sporadic blogger (sorry!);  a hapless stepparent and homemaker; a too-distant and out-of-touch friend, daughter and sister; and a headstrong and difficult spouse.  What I would give for a job that I “was born to do” and through which my value in this life would be immediately recognizable.

But wouldn’t it be even better if I could redefine success so that my life has value even if I don’t have a great job?

Of course it would.

But still. Would anyone in the world buy into my definition, I wonder? I mean, my mom would probably be proud of me no matter what. But it takes a lot of courage to do what Polly is proposing. To live by your own definition of success—a definition that may be illegitimate in the world we live in.

Part III: Big Data

So we are in this pickle. The value of the arts and culture sector in the US has been declining in recent decades (at least by our cornerstone measure of success: butts in seats). It would seem that we either need to get more people to show up or we need some new measures that can tell people that we’re valuable even if the old metrics don’t look so great. I suspect that Rick Lester at TRG would probably comfort us with the knowledge that we are now in the era of “big data”— which shall enable us to embrace a customer orientation and, “armed with facts,” make better decisions about what to program, who to target, with what product, at what price, on what day, etc.  And others (Alan Brown and Clay Lord, most notably) might suggest that big data could also help us make the case for our value beyond butts in seats—that is, for our intrinsic impacts.

It strikes me that these two uses pull us in different directions. (More on that a bit further on.)

I love data more with every passing day, but I can’t help but think that if we make an analogy with Zelizer’s story of life insurance (and the role of cultural factors in legitimizing it as a key determinant of its adoption), that big data (while an important factor) is probably not going to solve our success/valuation problems. Increasing arts participation and redefining success are less dependent on data than on the values and ideologies that underpin our sector and society-at-large.

We may be able to use data to do better marketing but if kids heading off to college in 2030 still have little-to-no exposure to the arts by their parents or at schools is there anything we could target them with in 2040 that would get them to walk in the door of an opera house producing Don Giovanni or a traditional regional theater doing a production of the Death of a Salesman? And if the data tell us we probably could get them in the door if we radically changed programming, would it matter if those leading and funding arts organizations the next twenty years are unwilling to consider such shifts because they consider them to be immoral?

We may be able to use Twitter to, for instance, understand the social impact of a professional theater piece on a given neighborhood; but will it matter if most boards, government agencies, and funders do not consider the impact of a conversation on Twitter to be as or more important than how many people bought tickets and whether income targets were achieved? We may be able to collect data on the social and cultural impact of amateur groups but does it matter if the training programs and the professional arts sector continues to dismiss such contributions as illegitimate?

We may have the possibility of new data, but we seem to be stuck with the same old values and yardsticks.

Part IV: Time to look in the mirror:

Like Polly, I think it’s time to dig deeper. We can start trying to solve our problems with data, but like a prescription of Paxil, it’s not going to be nearly as effective if we’re not willing to acknowledge the disconnect between some of our fundamental values and ideologies and those of society. Moreover, once acknowledged, we are unlikely to make progress by simply bemoaning our circumstances and calling ourselves victims of a philistine society or simply abandoning the social purposes we were formed to uphold and taking the for-profit route because it’s just too damned hard to fight the good fight anymore.

We are, without a doubt, a sector with conflicting values: excellence versus equity (among others). And as the lines have blurred with the commercial and amateur worlds our identity and the values we stand for (conflicting though they may be) seem to be eroding to the point where it feels like we stand for everything (which is arguably the same as standing for nothing).

No doubt society has changed. The alternative ideals that supported the massive growth of the nonprofit arts sector in the mid-twentieth century were out of favor by the 80s and with it, so were we. But we’ve changed too. Perhaps we have been unsuccessful with getting American society to value what we do not simply because their values changed but because ours have. Is it clear what we stand for? It might be clear to the 70-year-old who takes-for-granted that we stand for something important and good because we once did; but is it clear to the 20-year-old? And if we shout, ‘We stand for something important and good!” does that 20-year-old believe us? Based on what evidence?

I’m not advocating a monolithic conception of the sector, but I am (like Polly, I think, if I interpret her essay correctly) advocating for some honesty and transparency about the core, enduring, distinctive identity and values that we do stand for and, with them, our definition of success.

But as we see in Zelizer’s accout, from there begins the hard work of advancing these ideals and values and measures of success.  What changed the religious fundamentalists that initially rejected life insurance? Among other factors, other more entrepreneurial clergymen, who saw the value of life insurance and began to preach about it from the pulpit.

What caused nonprofit arts organizations to adopt marketing practices? Among other influences, corporate boards and trade associations that encouraged and expected them. Marketing, like life insurance, was an idea that was initially downright distasteful to people working in the arts.

Part V: Can we change the measures of success? Do we really want to?

The arts (like life insurance) long ago became a commodity (having previously operated in the realm of the gift economy), though (also like life insurance) one with values (social, cultural, and symbolic) beyond utility. We came up with our own “compromise credo.” As I observe the heated debates on cultural blogs (including, for instance, the dueling that happened in the comments section of my recent post on the arts cliff), I wonder if this compromise position is becoming untenable and, moreover, as a sector we are deeply divided on how to resolve the tension.

It feels to me like we’ve got big data in our corner and we don’t know whether to stand at the bully pulpit and (A) use the data to get really good at selling our commodity and to make the case that we count in this extended era of economic rationalization (a glance at AFTA’s National Arts Index is but one indication that we’ve actually gotten pretty darned good at that); or (B) use the data to make the case that the measure of success in this world should not be limited to growth in the economy and to identify and measure the something else that matters as much or more.

As I wrote in the executive summary of In the Intersection (a report on partnerships between commercial producers and nonprofit theaters), “Recognizing that the metrics of success and the values of nonprofits have changed is one thing. Changing them back is quite another.”

It wouldn’t be easy to pursue path B. We would have to organize and work together and invest resources in creating and living by such alternative definitions and measures of success. We would have to argue against many of the moves we’ve made the past 30 years.

We would have to use our pulpits.

We would have to believe these other things matter.

As I look across the nonprofit arts and culture sector landscape I see some who believe but I perceive that way too many of us have lost faith.

My wish for us in 2013 … that we can find, keep, and spread the faith.

PS I resolved at the end of the year that I would start posting on Jumper more frequently (weekly at least) and failed in the first week. It’s still a goal. Although after reading this, my longest post-to-date, you may be grateful that I’m not posting with much regularity. Congratulations and thanks to any who manage to stick with it to the end. :-)

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  1. says

    Thanks for the post, Diane, really interesting to read as always. I have been wondering whether there is any point at all even talking about the ‘value’ of the arts. It is impossible to agree a definition fo what ‘art’ is, let alone what it is worth. In the end it is entirely subjective and, since we humans work in groups, a cultural thing (no pun intended) which is another way of saying ‘group-subjective’. I enjoy the debates around what is and isn’t art and why it (they) are valuable but we only think the question is important because it relates to public funding. In other words, we big up our value to get money from the politicians and the taxpayers. If it weren’t for government money we would simply leave the debate and decision to individuals who choose for themselves whether to spend time and money on an artform, or event, or organisation, as audiences or as participants.
    Religious organisations generally don’t get public subsidy (although many of their projects may) despite the fact that faith is also thought to bring moral benefits which cannot be measured, just like the arts. But in secular societies like ours faith is held to be a personal sphere. Maybe that is where the debate about the ‘value’ of the arts also rightly belongs.

    By the way, like you I have also vowed to post more in 2013 on my blogsite The most recent post is about ethics in our working lives.

  2. says

    Great post, Diane, and well worth the wait.

    I’m a staunch data advocate but I don’t believe that data will change the culture. I do think it will enable us to be more efficient in attracting whatever audiences might be left to attract, however. In this respect it’s like fracking – the practice of extracting extra gas and oil from tapped wells. Fracking doesn’t increase the amount of fossil fuels beneath the surface; it merely uses sophisticated scientific techniques to collect what’s left. In both cases the resources are finite and diminishing.

    As for using data to evangelize, I don’t think data alone can do it. Ralph Reed tried to use data to deliver the evangelical Christian “values” vote for Mitt Romney last November and it didn’t work. He amassed and exploited the largest, most sophisticated database of Christian voters in history, but his data wasn’t powerful enough to overcome broader cultural forces. Ironically, the problem evangelical Christians have is that they can’t attract enough younger, more culturally diverse participants to maintain their relevance.

    I know we data advocates sometimes sound faithless, but I have a lot of faith in the human impulse to engage in creative expression, to participate in collaborative creative rites, to consume the products that result from the creativity of others and to benefit personally and culturally from such endeavors. But don’t think we’ll ever be able to measure the “success” of our efforts to nurture these impulses by counting the number of tickets we sell to Death of a Salesman or Don Giovanni. The value of art lives in the people who make and consume it – in whatever form it happens to take – not in the temporal institutions and artifacts that we work so hard to maintain.

  3. rafaeldeacha says

    As always, Dianne, a terrific posting and, I may add, a poignantly candid one. I’m going to save it on my facebook page and ponder its contents long and hard. Sobering stuff, my friend!

  4. Margy Waller says

    Like you, Diane – I’ve been thinking about redefining success. Exploring the work of Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, made me think about the arts (and my career too!). Peñalosa redefined the measure of success for his city:

    “If we in the Third World measure our success or failure as a society in terms of income, we would have to classify ourselves as losers until the end of time. With our limited resources, we have to invent other ways to measure success.”

    Instead of GDP or rates of poverty, he focused on a kind of equality of quality of life ~ seeking to create a city of joyfulness for everyone, saying:

    “Economics, urban planning, ecology are only the means. Happiness is the goal.”

    Suppose we did the same in the arts? Instead of the dollars and cents of economic impact, or the old butt in seats case — what if we focus on happiness?

    For those readers who may not have heard — this is a serious (economic and sociological) area of research.

    We know from reporting by Clayton Lord, that the Mappiness Project out of the London School of Economics found that 4 of the top 6 happiness-producing activities for participants were arts activities: theatre/dance/concert, singing/performing, exhibition/museum/library, and hobbies/arts/crafts. (I used the app back when it previewed — it’s a great way to learn about your own happiness, btw.)

    Other research examines the qualities of cities with happy residents, finding:

    “Cities that provide easy access to convenient public transportation and to cultural and leisure amenities promote happiness…. We suggest that such places foster the types of social connections that can improve happiness….” (My emphasis.)

    If we redefine success in the arts and ways of measuring it, what is the goal? If it is (as I read your post, Diane, as well as the many debates about new measures around the web) a broader sense that the arts are a valued public good – worthy of support from all, then perhaps pursuing some happiness-related measures is a way to go.

    It doesn’t seem that we would have to persuade people that the arts are a factor in creating places that make us happy — places that create memories we cherish and where people are more connected. People already believe that the arts create these benefits, even if they aren’t yet the first things people think about when they hear the word “arts.”

    Evidence from the Arts Ripple Effect research shows that people (even people who don’t think of themselves as goers) value the way the arts change places, making streets and neighborhoods busier and more fun, and connecting people, allowing them to get to know each other better, and strengthening civic bonds. (A great summary of the research from a recent event in San Francisco is here.)

    At ArtsWave, we endeavored to illustrate these benefits with community events like Splash Dance, and Paint the Street. More recently, ArtsCincy has supported art in public places with a focus on joy.

    As you point out so well in your post, acknowledging and developing consensus about the why of change is very hard. But, I am encouraged (made happier?) by the growing number of people in the conversation — even though the debates can be difficult.

    • Linda Essig says

      Margy’s point is important. Should not happiness or “subjective well-being” as the economists talk about, be part of any success metric? I have colleagues here working on “happiness research” using all sorts of big data tools and complicated statistical models that I can’t decipher. Ultimately though, when it comes to happiness, it seems that an n of 1 is valid.

  5. says

    Thanks, Diane. Your muse and musings always provoke mine(even when my desk is piled high with logistical to-dos!). I continue to play with ways via language and logic and grammar to capture what it means to honor the artistic PROCESS and thereby the individual creative artist. A way that transcends product while not completely ignoring it. A way to value those artists who come here that transcends the marketplace (critical or commercial) but doesn’t ignore it. A way to explain the value of the residency dis-engagement via subsequent community engagement.

    Those of us at the headwaters where art is conceived, incubated and created–whose primary “audiences” are serial and in the single digits–need to have more formal acknowledgement and support in the cultural organization infrastructure. The worlds of science and sport have figured this out with their labs and gyms. Art is deliberately created by ARTISTS in a variety of art and literary petrie dishes. How do we measure success of the headwaters?

  6. HA Beasley says

    I’m in favor of using Big Data for many purposes as well, but Big Data comes at a price point that puts it out of the reach of new and emerging companies/ organizations. The end result of relying on Big Data in its current forms will be to further enforce the funding dominance of the large regional organizations that can a) afford access to the data and staff time to analyze it in the first place, and b) have the largest extant audiences and thus the most reliable sample size.

    I’d like to see the NEA offer funding to independent arts researchers to examine the feasibility of different administrative and production models at different organizational budget sizes, to encourage experimentation and planning across the sector, and to follow the government funding models for research and development work in other subject areas, not only the NSF and NIH but also the NEH in the humanities. My ideal (and sadly imaginary) grants would involve direct salary support for the researcher’s time, as well as cost coverage for the data tools needed to collect and perform substantive analysis over the research period.

    • Douglas Clayton says

      Excitingly, Big Data is becoming increasingly available to small and emerging organizations, actually. Target Resource Group’s community data co-ops, operating in almost 20 cities, are often free or very affordable, and give even the smallest group access to powerful data analysis tools. Other data tools, like PatronManagerCRM (built for arts orgs on Salesforce) and others, are becoming available for very low cost – even completely subsidized in some markets like Los Angeles, so small organizations can access Big Data for free.

      Of course, these organizations can run into a much trickier problem than financial cost – it takes training, thinking and understanding to know how to use Big Data, even when it’s dropped on your doorstep. And with high turnover in the industry, and ‘accidental administrators’ running arts organizations who don’t have strong managerial training, even the Biggest and Bestest of Data can go unused.

      Which speaks to your point about examining the feasibility of administrative models – it would be great to see an analysis done from that point of view, I agree.

  7. Douglas Clayton says

    Hi Diane! Always such chewy stuff!

    If I may take a slightly different tack… I find myself asking ‘Success for WHOM?’ (Or is it who… I always get confused…)

    Whose success are we evaluating? To explore only the tip of the iceberg…

    This speaks to the issue of arts as nonprofits to some extent. For those of us who are 501c3s, should not all of our evaluation of success be based on the community we are impacting/serving/supporting/improving? If so, then success would need to be about those elements you mention like community dialogue, or impact arts have on social/political/civic activity, or regional ‘happiness’ quotients, etc.

    But how much of the time are we really talking about that? How often are we really more concerned with the ‘success’ of the people who have dedicated their lives to the arts – the artists, the administrators, the organizations, the funders, etc – the ecosystem of the provider side?

    To relate it to the for-profit business world – a widget maker doesn’t really need to care if their widgets don’t work well or make people’s lives better in any way, as long as people keep buying them, right? I’d hazard that many artists or arts organizations come from a similar, if less avaricious point of view. This leads to the usual ‘success’ measures of budgets, butts in seats, etc.

    But where I find it most interesting is where the definition of success combines with the blurring of the pro-am lines that are also happening. When someone is an amateur or a hobbyist with their activity, their sense of ‘success’ is nearly always based on the simple pleasure of access to pursue their hobby, and often a sense of togetherness-family-community that they feel when engaging with others who also pursue the hobby. They expect to ‘lose money’ doing it, because it is not their profession – it is something they do because they like it for intrinsic reasons.

    Conversely, ‘professionals’ nearly always put more value on financial renumeration and on prestige-position – both of which tend to be severely lacking in the arts in America for many very experienced and hardworking people.

    So are most of the people working in the arts in America amateurs or professionals? Does it make a difference to how they evaluate their own success? And is it merely a psychological game they’re playing with themselves? But then, isn’t evaluating ‘success’ just a psychological game anyway, either to address your own sense of self-accomplishment-self-worth or as a tool to convince someone else to do something (like fund you)?

    All delicious food for thought. I hear that Yale is doing some research on ‘professionalism’ in the American theatre that may speak to this soon. Maybe so.

  8. John Carnwath says

    Great post. Thanks.

    If the Economic Sociology literature (going back to Polanyi and certainly including Zelizer) has taught us anything, it’s that markets are not “natural” occurrences. Markets have to be created. Think of things like carbon credits and air rights. There’s nothing “natural” about being able to sell the empty space above a building or selling the right to emit carbon dioxide, but within a carefully designed social framework (called a market) it’s possible to buy and sell these rights as commodities. In these cases it is particularly clear how much effort went into designing regulations and procedures that allow these commodities to be traded, but the same is true of any market (though it may be less obvious).

    Similarly, there is nothing natural about “data.” It’s true that some things are more easily quantifiable than others—meaning simply that it’s easier to count the number of tickets sold than put a number on the level of audience engagement—but nothing counts itself. In response to Trevor O’Donnell’s comment above, I would therefore say: data won’t change the culture, data is part of the culture. Data is a cultural artifact. We adopted this culture (I think) because it gives us some flexibility. It allows us to determine what we measure instead of defaulting to the standard measure of value in our society: dollars and cents.

    While modern technology allows us to accumulate many sorts of data with relative ease, which can be very useful, I think it’s important to point out that our decision to rely on various kinds of qualitative data is voluntary (not voluntary for each individual perhaps, but voluntary for our society). We could equally well rely on some unquantified standard such as taste or religion to inform our decisions.

    I think our reliance on data results in part from the fact that many people who make arts funding decisions are not distributing their own money. They have been hired to distribute someone else’s money (a foundation’s or the tax payers’) and these employees have to show that they are doing their job responsibly and effectively. Even private donors who are giving away their own money and are thus in principle free to support any organization that suits their fancy are now persuaded that relying on their personal taste is foolish. The game has been recast so that the objective is no longer to support organizations that donors like, but to support organizations that are efficient. Data is then used to demonstrate such efficiency.

    This has the advantage of protecting arts organizations from the tastes and whims of wealthy donors (to some extent), but may also have drawbacks.

  9. says

    Great post, thanks Diane.

    I think you have captured what for many of us who have been in the business for a few decades have been pondering in recent years. While ‘big data’ is certainly one factor that cannot be ignored, it also provides a lot of philosophical ‘chaff’ when it comes down to promoting and advocating for any particular artistic discipline. For me, all art and culture is local – that is, no arts organization can possibly be successful unless it is aware of and addressing local needs and issues – whether they be artistic or social in nature. If big data can be helpful in supporting those efforts, great. But for some artists and institutions, it is just not a relative measurement of their validity and role in the community.

    Like others have said, I don’t believe this is a valid dichotomy between big data or the measurement of “something else.” Rather than an either-or situation, it is a continuum in which each organization and artist must recognize its proper place.


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