Negotiating a shared language of value in the arts

Conceptualising value is an uncomfortable—perhaps insolvable—yet essential problem inherent in the creative industries. A conversation about value in the arts and humanities is quickly destabilised by the question “But, what does ‘value’ mean?”

Value in the creative industries is associated with the worth, benefit or impact of an object, action or practice. In the early decades of the technologically transformed 21st century, value has become linked with a managerial approach which, seeking to collect data that can be translated into metrics, evaluates and reports on the performance of funded arts companies. This approach creates forces more concerned with short-term value conversion than long-term value creation. And so, the sector finds itself debating the merits of metric-based, and technology-driven, evaluative approaches that reduce the essence of creativity to a series of descriptions on a ‘scorecard’. Within this managerial paradigm, value is a human, fragile and contestable condition of survival.

The collection of cultural metrics is big business, as evidenced by the controversial export of the West Australian-designed Culture Counts[1] currently being trialled—as Quality Metrics—for wider implementation across the arts sector by Arts Council England. A survey of the public debate about the future implementation of this program reveals two important themes applicable to the Australian context. First, the UK creative industries sector recognises the necessary relationship between funding, accountability and value, and is not arguing against measurement or evaluation. Rather, the sector seeks to replace the crude tool of metrics with bespoke approaches. Second, the sector recognises the importance of the relationship between the public (audiences and supporters), the arts producers (artists and companies) and the sector (peers), acknowledging that recent evaluation models based around self-assessment and peer review are flawed. The co-existence and interdependency of these three layers is recognised as the essential sustaining network in which small-to-medium arts organisations must thrive. Thus, few stakeholders argue the public’s right to be involved in the evaluation process, particularly when balanced by self-assessment and peer review.

Sadly, the new approach to cultural metrics, while seeking to bridge quantitative and qualitative evaluation, inadequately addresses the opening question, what does value mean? Furthermore, by engaging in a debate about evaluation tools, we overlook a more significant issue. The discussion about cultural metrics ignores the absence of a universally-understood and agreed language of value capable of recognising and respecting the different dialects spoken by all stakeholders. Thus, as sector representatives, we need to resist reductive managerial approaches by developing a refined activated language that affirms, protects and furthers the value of the arts and humanities. To survive, we need to better understand how value is conceived and communicated in order to achieve what Meyrick, Maltby, Phiddian and Barnett call a ‘new approach’ to achieving a language of advocacy.[2] We need a more nuanced shared understanding of what we actually value.

Where might the process of developing a universally-understood and agreed language of value commence? A starting point is, perhaps, to accept that the cultural sector is not a simple service industry. Value—worth, benefit and impact—is not measured simply through an economic exchange between service provider and customer. To reference Pierre Bourdieu,[3] art is a social phenomenon. The creative industries act as a nexus between the artwork and society, with value co-constructed by all participants involved in what is essentially a social action (practice). Value is located in new knowledge and practices, both social and artistic. Spaces of discourse in which artwork, artists, audience and public participate in a reiterative feedback cycle through which knowledge and practices are exchanged and co-created. This is the starting point to understand the value of the arts and humanities.[4] The recognition of the prime value of the unique relationships activated in the act of creative practice.

The arts and creative industries offer more than a space of entertainment. They offer a space of social discourse. A space in which ideas and values critical to our ever-evolving culture and society are discussed and negotiated. Thus, we propose that value be recast as contribution to social discourse, with digital evaluative technologies used to enhance and energise this process. Any approach to determine the tools by which value is measured starts with a belief in the power of art as a social phenomenon.

Erin Manning, drawing on Nietzsche and Deleuze to argue the danger of using metrics to measure value, proposes that the value of an artwork is its action as the ‘incipient activating force through which the work-world nexus emerges. By prescribing an evaluative apparatus as a grid of explanation, you’ve killed the relation, imposed the final constraints, ended the process.’[5]

Practitioners, organisations and companies require a peripheral awareness of metrics. Arts and culture funding agencies and the government departments with which they interact are deeply steeped in the use of metrics for resource distribution. To the sector practitioners, metrics can be useful for comparative exercises, as part of critical evaluation or as a means to understand scale: how many people came? How many shows did we do? However, problems arise when metrics become the main event and stand-in for ideas, experiences and other descriptors of qualitative value.

For organisations, the task of creating and capturing value is complicated by two interconnected issues: data and imposed operational models. Modern managerial structures emphasise data as metrics rather than content, with small to medium arts organisations required to produce measurable data for funding agencies, who then use these abstracted metrics to measure the organisation’s performance. In academia, Orr and Orr note that the overuse of metrics leads to ‘The use of formal quantitative analytics rather than human judgment in evaluating the worth of individuals and actions’[6] with Gittins making similar criticisms of KPIs in business.[7] Within the arts, we might ask: What is the value of this data to the company, artists and management, and whose interest and agenda does it serve? With criteria pre-determined through the growing number of evaluative tools, how do new ideas, responses or criteria emerge for creative work?

[1] “Culture Counts”, Culture Counts, accessed 19 March, 2019,

[2] Julian Meyrick, Richard Maltby, Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett, “Why a scorecard of quality in the arts is a very bad idea,” October 12, 2016, in The Conversation, accessed 1 March, 2018,

[3] Johan Söderman, Pamela Burnard, and Ylva Hofvander Trulsson, “Contextualizing Bourdieu in the field of music and music education,” Bourdieu and the sociology of music education (2016).

[4] Greg Hearn, Simon Roodhouse, Julie Blakey, “From value chain to value creating ecology: implications for creative industries development policy,” International Journal of Cultural Policy, 13:4, (2007): 422.

[5] Erin Manning, “Creative Propositions for Thought in Motion,” 1 Inflexions, 1:1 (May 2008)

[6] Yancey Orr and Raymond Orr, “The death of socrates,” Australian Universities’ Review, The 58, no. 2 (2016): 15.

[7] Ross Gittens, “Metrics obsessed managers should be careful what they wish for unlike the banks,” August 23, 2017, in The Age, accessed 27 August, 2017,

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