NCAR Fellow Kate Levin on the Biggest Obstacle for Arts Organizations

Jun, 16 2015 / In /

"If you can't measure it, you can't manage it" is a fundamental truth underlying successful organizations. But it poses a stark challenge in the arts.

After all, culture is revered for offering ineffable experiences. It’s often illogical; it’s beautiful; it’s transforming; it’s inspiring. Measurement seems contrary to everything art stands for.

And yet the competition for resources – and specifically, for funding – increasingly relies on the capacity to identify and assess results. As other parts of the nonprofit world, from education to public health, grow more sophisticated at demonstrating return on investment, the cultural field’s resistance to measurement is causing it to be marginalized.

The biggest obstacle for arts organizations has been a pervasive distrust that counting will meaningfully capture the breadth and impact of nonprofit activities. For example, a central metric that New York City’s 40 commercial Broadway theaters use is their box office receipts combined with aggregate local spending. In the 2012-13 season, Broadway contributed $11.9 billion to the city’s economy and attracted over 11 million attendees.

In that same season, New York’s 350 off-Broadway theaters contributed an estimated $265 million to the economy and attracted nearly 9 million attendees, according to impact data from the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York. It would therefore be mathematically accurate to say that the economic impact of nonprofit theaters was a mere 2% of their commercial counterparts. However, that conclusion doesn’t begin to capture the former’s value.

For nonprofits, box office receipts and path-breaking art are not always synonymous. These data points don’t begin to reflect the significance of nonprofit theaters in nurturing talent and innovation in areas ranging from writing and acting to directing and design – in essence, shaping the performing arts nationwide. And while the purchasing power may not match up, it is worth noting that the relationship between nonprofit and for-profit culture is notoriously porous: 16 out of the 26 Tony-nominated productions in the 2012-13 season originated at nonprofit theaters.

Economic arguments will always be the low-hanging fruit in this area because they include dollars and cents. The urgent opportunity is to develop metrics that get closer to what is profoundly valuable about the arts.

Making the case for culture is often particularly complex because there are so many cases to be made. The problem isn’t just that the impact of the arts can be hard to quantify. The problem is that cultural organizations span a spectrum of achievement, and a single totalizing form of measurement – like economic impact – doesn’t properly reflect the significance of the entire field.

Too often, this becomes a source of internal conflict in which the cultural community is fragmented by competing visions of what is most important, rather than acknowledging value across a continuum of practices.

So, for example, organizations that provide human services and embrace social justice missions are pitted against those that focus on aesthetic achievement;

… or organizations and individuals who have a distinctive physical presence in neighborhoods are often held responsible for gentrification – of which they are often prime victims;

… or advocates for access and participation face resistance from those troubled by the notion of acknowledging amateur art-making alongside the work of professionals.

On this last point, new research offers some insight into a more inclusive understanding of cultural value.

The National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) has recently shown evidence that higher median age and higher socioeconomic level in a community lead to lower arts participation – following years of reports detailing the opposite. Lead researcher Zannie Voss explains these findings by saying, “When we think of arts and culture … we have a tendency … to think about opera, symphony – instead of thinking about the broader spectrum of nature and science museums. You’ve got community-based organizations and arts education.”

I’m not suggesting that we move from one hierarchy of cultural value to another – for example, abandoning opera and symphony in favor of science museums and arts education. And I’m certainly not suggesting that the development of content be dictated by what can be favorably measured.

But more creative accounting is sorely needed. One option that may be promising is a formulation about culture’s multiple “bottom line.” Espoused by Tim Jones of Artscape in Toronto, and more recently by Beth Tuttle, president of the Cultural Data Project, national arts consultant Anne Bergeron and others, the argument is that the arts deliver at least three simultaneous benefits: a diverse, dynamic cultural environment; a strengthened local economy; and a richer, inclusive social fabric. SMU’s M.A./M.B.A. program in arts management is developing a new generation of leaders who embrace evidence-based insights as a tool for delivering these benefits most effectively.

This kind of thought leadership – and the nuanced, rigorous work being generated by NCAR – hold the promise of developing a multivalent way of expressing the value of culture. We need to encourage these efforts so that the uniqueness at the core of creativity doesn’t limit recognition of its importance.

Kate D. Levin
Cultural Assets Management Principal,
Bloomberg Associates and Inaugural Nasher