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a keynote by Andrew Taylor, Director
Bolz Center for Arts Administration
author of The Artful Manager
CAPACOA Conference: ”Culture Counts: Measuring the Value of the Arts”
November 5, 2005, Ottawa, Ontario
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[Thanks and acknowledgements went here…I was
[Personal introduction went here, which I needn’t bore you with.]
This convening focuses on how to measure what we value. So, I thought I should begin by defining what
value in professional convenings like this. We are all here for a few days (I mean here at this conference, not here on earth). And while many of us attend many such convenings, the opportunities they provide are extremely rare.
Certainly, many of you communicate on-line and by phone, as fellow professionals in a common industry. You happen upon each other at community galas or opening nights. But here we are, all together, all focusing on a common theme. It’s easy to forget how extraordinary this is.
This is what performance analysts in the corporate world call ”face time” — real people in real space in real time. And you might be shocked by the energy spent, especially in large corporations, optimizing ”face time” for their salespeople, their support staff, and their chief executives (sometimes to encourage more, sometimes to urge less). Many of us in this room are
in the business of ”face time.” Audiences, artists, donors, trustees, and volunteers commit this rare resource into our care. It’s an awesome responsibility, and a glorious gift. We’ll get to that soon.
Such convenings, therefore, deserve respect and clarity. In deference to both, I’ll express out loud what I value in these rare moments:
Face-to-face, we have an extraordinarily rich communication opportunity. I see you, you see me. There’s content, of course, but the context surrounding it is rich and full of meaning and nuance. In technology terms, this is
high bandwidth. We can forge meaning and understanding here better than anywhere. We should make every opportunity to talk back and forth.
With so much knowledge, experience, and perspective in one place, at the bandwidth I just described, there’s an astounding opportunity for discovery — finding a new way of saying something we implicitly knew but couldn’t express; hearing an angular view of something we only saw in one dimension; listening to what one of my colleagues calls our ”inner conference” — that interior dialogue that’s running within each of us right now, triggered by the conversations around us, perhaps, but running independently. It’s a powerful part of how conferences work, and I encourage you to honor both the outer and inner conferences now underway.
You all are part of a densely connected network, which has gained in power and intensity through the on-line world. But there’s even more power in having pieces of that network together in space and time. You can hear about a project or concern of a colleague, and instantly connect them to
colleague that is on a similar path — not just with an e-mail, but in person. It’s like ”speed dating” for the isolated arts warrior in all of us. High touch. High bandwidth. High context.
Finally, to take full advantage of the opportunities above, I also suggest a fourth element that makes all of them more likely and more profound:
Boldness & Humility
All productive conversations I’ve experienced balance the values of boldness and humility:
to say out loud what you believe to be true, or to express honestly what you don’t understand;
to accept that you are likely wrong, as all of us are, if not in fact then by degree. This delicate dialectic is crushed by posturing and politics. I hope we make space for it here.
I’m sure you have other things you value about these convenings. And I encourage you to voice them to your inner conference as we progress. But let’s begin with these. Plus, I’m the one with the microphone, so I get to pick for now.
Discourse, discovery, connection, boldness, humility. I say these things out loud so you can hold me accountable, and so that you can help me stay true to what I claim to be important. You’re all smart enough to know when someone states a core value and then violates it with their actions. Heaven knows your audiences and communities are smart enough, too.
When you call a customer service center, for example, and a recorded message tells you how much they value your call, you know they
value your call quite enough to answer it.
When a speaker says they value discourse and then continues with a monologue, you know that their wires are crossed. In fact, if I’m still talking at 10:25, someone in the back should waive at me. That will be an indicator to me that I’m not serving the things I value. I want to leave time to talk together.
Beyond someone waiving at 10:25, I’ll need some other indicators to help me define what I value with increasing clarity, and determine if my actions actually serve what I say I value. And, since I’m a busy person who is easily distracted, my indicators need to have a few basic qualities: they should be spontaneously generated, easily observable, and reasonably connected to the value I have in mind. In a perfect world, my indicators should also be participatory, so other people can carry some of the burden and have an active voice in the process.
Let’s run those requirements again:
that is, not generated by me, but by the natural progression of the world, the residue of action or activity
as I said, I’m busy and easily distracted, if an indicator is overly complex to extract or observe, I won’t use it
if I can’t readily explain how the indicator is relevant to my stated values, it’s probably time to find another
If indicators are available and obvious to a distributed group of people — especially those who have a stake in the value at work — I can have a bunch of eyes watching on my behalf, and again, keeping me honest. My eyes are biased, after all, as are all of our individual views of the world.
What might those indicators look like? Here’s a first shot that I’ll be using today:
If I deliver a keynote consistent with my stated values:
- At least one of you will publicly disagree with me (respectfully, of course).
- At least three of you will feel compelled to send me a related link or resource that you connected to some element of my speech (tell me directly, hand me a note, send me an e-mail, post a comment to my weblog, whatever).
- At least two panelists or speakers will echo a phrase or concept from my conversation, or your response, over the course of this event — again, either agreeing with it, or disagreeing…don’t care which.
- I will change my mind on at least two conclusions I make today before I get on the airplane home.
- In six months, I’ll find some evidence that we had this conversation at all (in my teaching, in some on-line conversation, in a chance meeting with one of you somewhere else, in a fresh link to this speech on the web).
Are these perfect measures? Of course not. They are horribly flawed and imperfect. But they are
to me. And if I use them more than once, I can make them slightly more useful each time.
While you’re considering those indicators, also consider this: Now that you know what I’m measuring, will you behave differently? Does the attention to an indicator change how we behave together? It’s another topic for your inner conference, which we’ll get to later.
By now, many of you are likely saying to yourselves: ”Get on with it, already! Stop talking about how you’re going to talk, and actually talk about something!”
Others might have figured out that I’ve been talking about our conference subject all along the way. Our subject, in a nutshell, is this:
If culture counts, how do we count it?
Or, to say the same thing in far more words:
If cultural experience and expression offer uniquely powerful value to our lives, our relationships, our communities, and our world, where do we find the residue of that value in a form that’s useful to us and compelling to others?
If we follow the process of the beginning of my speech, it doesn’t seem all that difficult to do:
- State what you value out loud;
- find observable indicators of those values;
- watch for them to appear or accrete over time; and
- change your measures as you must.
As cultural professionals, we should be particularly good at this, since we’re all in the
of creating meaning, discerning excellence and worth, and conveying both to a wider audience. Better yet, we have thousands of willing helpers to keep us current and keep us honest. We have audiences, volunteers, friends, critics, and supporters.
This should be cake.
But, of course, it’s not cake. It’s more like soufflé — a process prone to consternation, frustration, and even resentment. Why is this so vexing and so awkward? There are a few obvious answers that we might as well get out of the way:
First, cultural expression is, itself, a ”way of knowing.” It exists alongside scientific inquiry, the social sciences, and other defined disciplines precisely because it does things that other modes of expression and discovery cannot. As Elvis Costello (or Steve Martin, or Clara Schumann…it’s hard to know) once said: ”Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Any attempt to measure the value of art in some other form (whether scientific measure, social research, economics, and the like) is therefore silly. While this is absolutely true, I’ll suggest that we should just move on from this particular point. It’s a dead end. It’s a conversational sand trap.
The second challenge is that we don’t get to pick the essential values
indicators for our community. Our communities have their own values and indicators, thank you very much, and we’re left to retrofit them as best we can: educational attainment, for example, or economic development, or social welfare, or civic engagement. These are the values and measures our constituents understand, especially those who decide how to allocate resources and power. While it’s nice to dream about defining our own values and indicators, some might say, they wouldn’t be useful in the world we live in. True? We’ll get to this in a minute.
The third barrier to the conversation just struck me last week as I was preparing for our discussion today. Perhaps we are emerging from an era when arts and cultural activity
an indicator, itself. During the great global competition among socio-political systems, the arts were one of the boasting points lobbed from dignitary to dignitary. Great societies have great art, went the argument. So great art was an
that your chosen political system was great. Communism and capitalism certainly used that indicator a lot, along with Olympic sport. But I’d suggest that nationalism and boosterism had some significant role to play in the growth of cultural infrastructures around the world, as well—in China, in Europe, and yes, in Canada, too.
In some small corners of the world, this arts-as-indicator mindset is still in active play. In a fabulous news article out of Havana just last week,
Fidel Castro was congratulating a new class of arts educators, and boasting about the arts instructors now present in
of his island’s 4800 schools. Here, in the very first sentence, is an example of the arts as an indicator:
The conviction that our people have sown the seeds of a better society was shared by President Fidel Castro with the 3,092 arts instructors of the second national graduation in this specialty.
And I can’t let that article go by without highlighting Castro’s charge to the graduates, which has immediately become the motto of our MBA program in Arts Administration:
”Forward, valiant standard bearers of culture and humanism! A life of glory awaits you!”
an indicator is a glorious thing. You don’t need evidence to prove your value because you are a
for value. You are the goal. You are the absolute good. Just look to Gross National Product as the golden child of modern indicators, or the Nikkei Stock Average in Japan. Whether or not they are the
indicators of social or economic health, they are the measures that are now anointed, and we manage our societies to improve them. Cultural infrastructure, at least in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, benefited from that indicator status, and perhaps it was in those years that our industry established its persistent sense of self.
But somewhere in the collapse of communism, the national posturing around cultural achievement became less essential (except in Cuba, perhaps). The health and vitality of public and nonprofit arts wasn’t an indicator anymore, and slowly arts organizations came to
indicators to prove their public worth by public measures. I suggest that transition began during the 1980s, and continues to ripple around the world today. Whether guised in conversations about privatization of public cultural institutions, allocation of increasingly scarce public funds, or the tension between serving social needs and serving the muse, the discussion challenges our collective sense of self. We shouldn’t
indicators, we should
In the movie
Big Night, one of my favorite films about cultural management (yes, there are films about cultural management), two Italian-born brothers struggle to keep their family restaurant afloat in 1950s New Jersey. One brother, Primo (Tony Shalhoub), is a consummate artist in the kitchen, a creative genius of cuisine. The other, Secundo (Stanley Tucci), is trapped between the uncompromising artistry of his brother, and the practical reality of running a business: Customers that dare to demand a side of pasta with their risotto and competitors that pander with spaghetti, meatballs, and cheap Chianti. In one wrenching scene for any of us in the arts, Primo says to Secundo: ”People should come just for the food.” Secundo replies, ”I know, but they don’t.”
It’s the same truth for the perceived public value of arts and culture. Public value is not an entitlement. It’s a glacial conversation that crosses borders and decades, and we can’t sit aside and wait for the glacier to ooze back in our direction.
Finally, I’ll suggest a
barrier to our conversations about measuring value. To my mind, it’s the biggest and realest of them all: Indicators are a dangerous game. Indicators, measurements, and metrics can often take on a life of their own. If they’re not grounded in or resonant with what we believe to be important, they can pull us and our organizations far off course.
As sustainability advocate and systems guru Donella Meadows wrote:
"We try to measure what we value. We come to value what we measure. The feedback process is common, inevitable, useful, and full of pitfalls."
If we lack a ”north star” to keep us on course, what we value and what we measure can blend together, and we can lose our way in the world.
Take, for example, the common metric of
as a universal indicator of success — more audiences every year, more productions, more exhibits, more endowment, more facilities, more programs, more revenue, more staff. Growth certainly offers us easy indicators to observe over time — headcounts, production days, fund balances, square footage, net revenue, staff rosters. If one or more of these indicators goes up, we must be doing well. If some or all go down, we must be doing poorly.
Of course, that’s nuts.
Or, take, for example, the metrics of
we’ve come to embrace as an industry over the past decade. Arts for economic impact. Arts for social good. Arts for educational attainment. Arts for personal health. Since contemporary society is riddled with vexing and complex problems, it makes sense to position the arts as problem-solvers. Again, the indicators for these values are measurable — dollars spent and spent again (that glorious multiplier effect), pro-social behavior among at-risk populations, standardized test scores, years of productive life. And they make an effective argument with decision-leaders, especially if we ignore all
activities that might produce similar or even bigger results.
Certainly, creative expression and cultural experience have utility to social and personal issues. They
change lives. They
shape communities. They
refocus economic activity…to a point. But utility as an indicator is
the same as utility as a core value.
As Frank Zappa said:
"I wrote a song about dental floss but did anyone’s teeth get cleaner?"
Audiences don’t engage in cultural experience because they seek to refocus economic activity in the urban core. At-risk youth don’t stay in theater programs to encourage their pro-social behavior. Students don’t play in a school orchestra because they want better spatial reasoning. All these things are
of the true value in what we do. As I said in another speech I gave, they are the footprints, not the giant.
want to be useful. Where’s the distortion or distraction in wanting our cultural efforts to be useful, as well?
Consider this: What if it is that moment of connection between audience and artist, between artist and art, between a young performer and their performance that is the engine of all utility? What if it is the accumulation of thousands of such moments — moments of awakening, of identity, of discovery, of connection, of meaning — that constitutes the public value of our work?
If that’s the case, then turning our attention from that moment to be more useful would actually dissipate our usefulness. And growing to extend our circle just because we think growth is good might leave us hollow at the core.
Indicators are a dangerous game, to be sure. We can lose ourselves and what we value when we measure things around us. But it’s not like we have a choice. We are all constantly measuring, whether explicitly or implicitly. It’s how we engage our world. Our only choice here is to choose to do so with intention, or without it — in the daylight or in the darkness.
So, how does this all shape the conversation of the next few days? You have the resources and the extraordinary ”face time” to shape it any way you like. But as we discuss what value we create with our work, I’d like to suggest some framing statements that might help keep us all honest and on track:
First, value is
a co-construction. It is not something delivered and received, produced and consumed, it is created in the moment it is experienced.
Second, value is
the product of multiple experiences, never just one. That moment of connection may seem like a sudden flash, but it’s really the product of an entire lifetime, if not two. The philosopher John Dewey has a wonderful metaphor for this fact in the experience of a lightening flash in an open field.
The lightening may have suddenly illuminated our view, he says, but it was our previous life experience that let us recognize the elements of the landscape that were illuminated. Without that previous experience, the flash would have no meaning.
This fact is essential to our measures of value, since no single organization has the power or capacity to generate that value. They can only do so as part of a continuum of experience, and an ecology of opportunity.
Third, we must always remember that future experience has a present value. Preserving the opportunity of cultural experience for those not yet born has an important place in our calculus.
measures are subjective. How we select what to measure, how we measure it, and how we interpret what we find are matters of human perspective and human limits. The physicist Werner Heisenberg had a wonderful way of expressing this fact for his peers in the sciences:
"…what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language we possess."
Of course, we should strive to design around our biases and blind spots — especially by inviting others to participate in the cause. But we should never assume we are being completely objective, and we should hold an honored space for blatantly subjective measures in the mix.
Finally, regardless of our indicators or our metrics, value is where we begin and where we end this conversation. It recalls a stanza from T.S. Eliot that I think perfectly describes the journey we’re all traveling together in this glorious ”face time” we have together:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
It’s a circular journey I truly look forward to. And I thank you again for your precious time.
Now, let’s talk.
Laurent Lapierre, Leadership Professor at HEC Montréal, used this wonderfully in a keynote of his own.
For more, see
Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit
by Laura Penny
The quote is actually attributed to many different individuals, from Steve Martin to Frank Zappa to Laurie Anderson. For those that care to know, there’s a long treatise about the attribution here: http://home.pacifier.com/~ascott/they/tamildaa.htm
Granma International, English Edition, October 29, 2005, available on-line at:
Thanks to my student Derek Kwan for the link!
”Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development,” Sustainability Institute, 1998
Werner Heisenberg, quoted in
Physics and Philosophy: Encounters and Conversations, Harper, 1958.
From T.S. Eliot, ”The Four Quartets”