The Art of Valuing

The Flemish-Dutch House deBuren (“the neighbors”) presents beauty and wisdom of the Low Countries, and offers a platform for debate about culture, science, politics and the society, not only in Flanders and The Netherlands but also in Europe and the world. It is a place where artists, journalists, academics and politicians get the opportunity to voice their thoughts through panel talks and debates, lectures, book launches, film screenings, concerts, and more.

deBuren, Leopoldstraat

Gate-crashing a Brussels event aimed at Arts Councils and Culture Ministries is to physically visit what is normally a virtual world. This is the land of European Cultural Policy: a place with its own language (policy-speak), its own currency (creativity), and – like much of Europe – a struggling economy. Its religion, naturally, is Culture, whose earthly embodiment is an uneasy trinity of Art, Audience and Sector. There is a great deal of debate as to whether Culture itself, the object of veneration, can be directly approached by the masses or only by initiates. Much time is spent unravelling a mystery called ‘engagement’, which seems to be much like transubstantiation but without the red wine. Finally, there is the sacred quest of ‘evaluation’, which is either a holy grail brimming with eternal funding, or an attempt to look on the face of God and doomed to end in madness (depending on your individual belief and/or job title).

I only made it to the second and final day of “The art of valuing”, a seminar organised by IETM, the European theatre network, and hosted by deBuren, an elegant Flemish cultural centre situated in the heart of Brussels. However, in the week when the UK’s Warwick Commission published its report on cultural value, this was enough to gain several insights into current approaches to evaluation of the arts internationally, and to begin questioning some assumptions.

Arts Councils are the inevitable missionaries of evaluation, not necessarily as a product of deep-seated institutional conviction, but as a consequence of their relationship to government and public money. They simply have to be able to translate the achievements of their sector into words and numbers to justify its continuing support. The question is whether this translation can be done without losing all significant meaning in the process. Rather than measuring what is valuable, institutions often seem to value what can be measured. A common assumption of artists and arts organisations is that their funders are satisfied with this. The discussions at this event showed otherwise, and significant energy is being invested in developing new models in diverse countries (we heard case studies from Australia, Germany and the Netherlands). In each case a need to separate ‘evaluation’ (learning) from ‘assessment’ (success) was identified.


Photo: IETM

Wendy Were (Australia Council for the Arts) presented an evaluation approach that, strikingly, attempts to assess not the social or economic impact of art, but artistic impact. This “artistic vibrancy” approach is based on the deceptively simple idea that forms of measurement should match an organisation’s mission. This suggests, on the one hand, that funded organisations should be evaluated according to their own aims rather than those of the funder, and, on the other, that Arts Councils should themselves be measured by the extent to which they create conditions for artistic vibrancy. The requirement to produce individual, social and economic effects is no longer placed centre stage. Fundamentally, the validity of evaluating as if it is possible to trace a direct cause and effect relationship between agency policies and this type of impact is rejected. Were proposed that organisations begin their evaluation not from a reduction to numbers but from the stark question of “would people miss us if we went?” From this a voluntary 360 degree evaluation model has been developed, taking both internal and external views on an organisation.

Europe, conceptually and pragmatically, is a bizarre mix of commonality and diversity. Much current critical theory, notably Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonism, responds to an over-emphasis on ‘consensus’ in the early European project and recognises that real respect for difference requires the discomfort of its embrace rather than the convenience of its erasure. Culture – articulated consciously through the arts, but also through language, outlook, attitude and assumption – is a key medium for this encounter. Flemish sociologist Pascal Gielen, the keynote speaker for this conference, builds on this position, drawing out the political implications of the value judgements made through cultural processes. I missed his first day contribution, but it resonated in conversations on day two, as a good keynote should. His newest book asserts that without culture, there can in fact be no Europe. This is an obviously popular rallying cry for a gathering of arts and culture professionals in eternal search of funding justification and political raison d’être – but it’s also a profound point in a world of contested values and ideological violence. Europe has to exist as an idea to stand for, a way of being in the world, or it can have no meaningful or durable identity. It is useless simply as a geographical delineation – this does not sustain a collective political project. We exist through culture, and the beauty of culture is its capacity to express difference and discomfort as eloquently as it can articulate identity and collective belief. Only through culture can we negotiate our individual and community existences. Only through culture can meaning emerge from conflict.


Photo: IETM

For Gielen, measurement never simply extracts knowledge, but imposes sense. Possible answers are shaped and constrained by the terms provided by the questions, so measurement produces its own values. The resonant part of the keynote was a metaphor of love and sex, suggesting that when standard modes of assessing ‘outcomes’ in the arts reduce value to function, it is like reducing sex to reproduction. Too often, research measures by counting the number of kids. Feelings, trust, pleasure – and love – disappear. Profane values, perhaps, are as mysterious as the sacred. The implication of this is that if culture’s value is in sense making, then we should pay much more attention to cognitive processes when scrutinising its effects. Gielen provides a theoretical background to Were’s call for evaluation of culture in its own terms.

EuroHowever enlightened funding agencies might become, they will always have difficulties convincing clients of their motives. In one break out session delegates grappled with the issue of getting funded arts organisations to buy into evaluation and provide meaningful reports. This boiled down to asking how honest evaluation can be encouraged in a climate where admission of failure may lead to financial penalty. I found myself wondering if funders could help by asking for new proposals to be based on the learning produced by previous evaluation. How about, instead of trying to prove whether a project has been done well or badly, evaluation asks how the experience will influence what we do next? Also questioned was the assumption, frequently encountered amongst funding assessors, that external evaluation – being objective – is necessarily more valuable than an internal process. In fact, there is a risk that this contracts out the reflective process and inhibits development of a learning culture amongst practitioners. And where do we start with what is meant by objectivity?

The end of the event leaves many mysteries intact but, miraculously, a supply of red wine appears. The potential for another such session is discussed, possibly to include arts organisations. However, I find myself thinking that a day like this specifically for funders has particular importance. Most arts professionals have many opportunities to mix with their peers, to encounter different ideas and practices. But there are few opportunities for national funders to step out of their contexts, to find other ways of doing things, to become aware of their assumptions and review the relevance of their work. Through encounter with difference we discover our values.

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