Art by the Numbers

Art by the Numbers

Recently I read about the upcoming nationwide roll out of the Quality Metrics Framework. For those of you who don’t know, The Quality Metrics are a selection of statements presented to audiences to help arts organisations understand the qualities of the work that they programme. It’s meant to create a standardised pool of evidence on massive scale that is universal recognised throughout the sector in order to make sound decisions on programming and evidence strategies. Sounds great right?  And yet, as I researched in more in more detail, I started to feel uneasy but I just couldn’t understand why.

Having worked with metrics I already knew how useful they can be when forming grand strategies. I am in total agreement that basing a piece of work’s value solely on footfall or turnover is a mistake. Trying to understanding your audience is one of the most complex things any creator has to do and a system that makes the conversation easier is surely a good thing? With these metrics creators and organisations can look at real audience data rather than tearing their hair out trying to work out what the hell their audiences might be thinking.

Creators are always looking to push the limits of their medium, to push themselves and to create something unique. Artists are excellent at subverting normality and challenging our established views of the world. In other words, they are always relentlessly pushing forwards. Yet, despite the brilliance of our country’s creative industries, the sector is still required to somehow prove its worth. Our leaders have to shout from the roof tops, brandishing reports and spreadsheet and screenshots Facebook and Twitter, screaming that culture is important and that the sector is worthy of the position it holds.

Maybe it’s just me being a naïve 24 year old with far too many opinions and not enough knowledge but should art need to be evidenced? There are concepts that can’t simply be quantified or put into words and it is these concepts that often  make for great artistic moments. They exceed the limits of personal expression on the part of the audience and can only exist in the hearts of those who experience them. And it’s the fact the culture sector is constantly exceeding its own limits that causes me to feel uneasy about the Quality Metrics Framework.

In general, metrics can only look backwards. How an organisation uses said metrics to look forward themselves depends of the organisation but the actually data collected can only come from work that has already been plonked in front of an audience. Due to the sector’s manic efforts to prove itself (a mind-set imposed on it by those who have little knowledge or interest in the cultural sector in the first place) I fear that mass adoption of metrics in the arts and using them to determine the quality and therefore value work may lead to two things; Programming by Data & Metric Based Work.

We’re about to enter the world of pure speculation so buckle up.

Innovation, risk and failure are critical ingredients in great art and you can’t use metrics to support these ideals. It is through the very real exploration of ideas and concepts that we  learn, grow and influence the tastes of our audiences. Our arts and cultural organisations are hubs of knowledge, creativity and experimental risk taking. They provide a gateway into the world of the artist, acting as our guide as we traverse the landscape. And they are able to do so by delivering the most engaging and interesting set of experiences possible.  I support smart programming and using shared knowledge to develop an organisations season. What I fear seeing is organisations, scared of stepping outside of their data fortress, programming work that is okay for everyone and outstanding for no one. Maybe I’m selling the work of our nations programmers short, but it is something to consider. Beige belongs on the walls of my spare room, not in the season guides of some of the country’s best venues.

Maintaining our country’s rich and diversity cultural landscape is so important and exposing established and emerging artists to such work is a key tool is doing so. I’m so lucky to live in a city with such an amazing variety of cultural experience where the only down side is not having enough hours in the days to drink it all in. Creators are driven by an internal desire to make art, to move their audiences and do the thing that brings them joy. Could an over dependence of the metrics framework on the part of venues and funders cause new artists to question their own reasons for doing what they do? Will it cause a decline in the amount of innovatively coming out of this county? Will artist begin to create work, not from an internal longing to do so but, based on what popular at the time? All I can say is I really don’t want to end up with a stagnant and bloated culture sector full of as many cheap knock pieces of work as the App Store has clones of Candy Crush or Clash of Clans.

I’m not trying to say that adopting metrics will destroy the creative industries. I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t shout about the great work that the sector does and argue for its continued support and status. The sector is worth fighting for. However, I do believe that we must be wary. Basing our entire sector’s creative vision on metric based data is risky in itself.  Art comes from a very organic place and we must treasure this. We must use this excellent resource as a add-on, a plug-in to support the sector, not override it. It’s a piece of a larger picture and can be used to enhance the precious human element within the creative process. And maybe, if the reporting, number crunching and spreadsheet fiddling bit of the industry can be made easy maybe the cultural sector can focus more energy on the really important stuff; producing great art and culture.

-Phil ♦

-Spare Room, Lancaster, UK ♦



14 thoughts on “Art by the Numbers

    1. From my research it’s based on a similar system being used in Australia. If you’re finding this interesting, check out Arts Professional’s recent article on the matter. They do an excellent job on discussing the topic and the sector’s response.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Really interesting piece. Yes, the Arts like everything else seem subject to far too much number-crunching and – from the funders at least, too little intelligent evaluation from the heart.


    1. Agreed. If you’ve found this interesting you should check out Arts Professional’s recent recent article. They do a great job of discussing the topic and the response of the system from the sector ^_^

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Can you even trust people, when asked, to tell you the truth about what they see, or will they tell you what they think they should be saying? In other words – we going to end up enshrining The Emperor’s New Clothes as part of the arts funding process?


    1. That is one of the key things I think. Experiencing art is such a personal thing, it can be difficult to express. If you’ve found this interesting you should check out ARts Professional’s recent article on the topic. They do a great job of discuss the sector’s response to the QMF. ^_^

      Liked by 1 person

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