Critical reflections on performing arts impact evaluations

By Dr Heather Skinner and Dr Nicola Williams-Burnett

As the world eases itself out of a global recession, while remaining in an era of government austerity measures and public sector funding cuts, many arts organisations find themselves increasingly focused on proving their worth and value to funders. All too often the proof that is sought when evaluating an arts or cultural project tends to be a quantitative assessment of its impact, judged in terms of hard measures enumerating number of attendees or participants, or ticket receipts against expenditure. Especially when considering arts and cultural organisations that are publicly funded, it is not only the funders that seek such evidence of the value of such projects, but also other groups that may perceive they are competing with arts and cultural organisations for limited funds, and the public who may feel other initiatives such as health or social care more are worthy of funding in times of economic constraints.

Evaluations can focus on either the core service that is provided (a performance, for example, evaluated in terms of its content and technical aspects), or the more peripheral services associated with the venue in which a project takes place (parking, cloakroom refreshment services etc). However, this stresses the primacy of the satisfaction of the consumer, i.e. the participant or audience member, and such evaluation focus therefore also inherently marketises the arts.

We do not disagree with the inherent assumption that, especially publicly funded, arts and cultural initiatives should be evaluated, what we are concerned about is how should these evaluations be undertaken. We argue that accountability for public funding of the arts should not focus only on ‘accounting’ and counting. Yes, those responsible for using public funds should be accountable for the way these funds are used. Yes, we believe that the worth and value of arts and cultural projects should be evaluated, but that such evaluation should not be undertaken in only (or even) quantitative ways.

Common forms of assessing impact tend to take into account a measurement of inputs, outputs and outcomes, attributing a causal relationship between these elements. However, we believe that a more appropriate way of evaluating such projects is through soft qualitative means. The problem that is then faced however is that it is often easier to measure and count what we can, than to evaluate qualitatively what we should.

If we are too far down the road to turn back from a marketised customer focused world where user ratings reign supreme, perhaps we should not only re-think how we can better focus attention on being evaluated on elements that we should be, rather than being measured for what we can be.

Evaluations can focus on either the core service that is provided (a performance, for example, evaluated in terms of its content and technical aspects), or the more peripheral services associated with the venue in which a project takes place (parking, cloakroom refreshment services etc). However, this stresses the primacy of the satisfaction of the consumer, i.e. the participant or audience member, and such evaluation focus therefore also inherently marketizes the arts. Yet, should this be a main (or sometimes only) focus for an appropriate evaluation? Higher education service providers have been grappling with similar concerns over the marketization of education, and the focus on treating students as consumers, with student satisfaction levels not only assuming primacy, but also leading to a platform for judging and evaluating one HEI against its peers (or in market terms, its competitors).

Should we therefore publicly fund only those arts and cultural projects and organisations that serve popular appeal?

When arts and cultural projects can have a massive positive effect in so many realms, including aiding engagement with learning in educational contexts, as a vehicle for social change, and to combat social exclusion, is it even appropriate to consider evaluating impact solely on hard quantitative measures?

If we are too far down the road to turn back from a marketised customer-focused world where user ratings reign supreme, perhaps we should not only re-think how we can better focus attention on being evaluated on elements that we should be, rather than being measured for what we can be. Perhaps we need a re-think of what type of marketisation we can live with, and re-shape that away from the more commercial product-based approaches, towards one where customer / audience / participant / funder / public satisfaction with our efforts is evaluated through our very acts of addressing wider social issues through the projects we lead.

For a full consideration of these issues see: Williams-Burnett, N.J. and Skinner, H. (2017) ‘Critical reflections on performing arts impact evaluations’, Arts and the Market, 7(1), pp.32-50.


National Teaching Fellow Dr Heather Skinner, PhD, MSc, DipM, FHEA, SFIPM, has published widely on many services marketing issues, mainly those relating to the non-profit sector. Most recently her main research area is in place marketing and place branding. Her current research interest is in the changing nature and changing representations of places, including representations of places: Through their culture and heritage, through song, and through media representations. Heather chairs the annual Corfu Symposium on Managing and Marketing Places, is Chair of the Institute of Place Management’s Visiting Places Special Interest Group, and Co-Chair of the Academy of Marketing’s Place Marketing and Branding Special Interest Group.

 

Dr Nicola Williams-Burnett PhD, MSc, BA (Hons) FHEA, is a senior lecturer in Marketing and programme director at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Her research field focuses on two different areas, firstly and primarily the leisure industry concentrating on health and fitness with a focus on female participation in physical activity, Health and Fitness marketing and Social Marketing. Her current research project is implementing a Community Based Social Marketing project within deprived areas and running female exercise classes in the community, Nicola is also a fully qualified and part time fitness instructor. Her second research is place marketing and how place identity is created and consumed