Friday, April 29, 2011

Ooohs and Aaaahs, or Dollars and Cents – Which is a better measure?

Year after year, thousands of us gather to watch the 4th of July fireworks.

Why do we do it? What benefit do we gain, and how should we measure it?

Would analyzing the economic impact on nearby shops, restaurants, and hotels be the way to go? Or should we focus on what the fireworks make us feel and think about – like pride and patriotism, awe at the beauty of the spectacle, closeness to family and community, and connection to history?

Which is the better, more real measure of the benefit?

Measuring the intrinsic benefits of public expenditures on things like fireworks shows and public art installations has long been viewed as a very difficult and costly -- even unachievable -- undertaking. Consequently, researchers and arts advocates have primarily focused on economic benefits and quantifiable exposure (e.g., number of attendees or passersby), which can be much more easily measured.

For decades of U.S. history, the public value of the arts was a given – it wasn’t until the “culture wars” of the 1990s that this public value was strongly scrutinized and pressure grew to demonstrate concrete impact. According to a 2004 Rand Corporation study, “Their response was to emphasize the instrumental benefits of the arts: They said the arts promote important, measurable benefits, such as economic growth and student learning, and thus are of value to all Americans, not just those involved in the arts.” (For example, Americans for the Arts provides this calculator to figure economic impact.)

And yet, it is the intrinsic benefits that are the main reason why people participate in and appreciate the arts. Recently, there have been significant strides made in measurement of intrinsic benefits and impact of the arts which may prove to be broadly applicable to other types of public goods with intrinsic benefits, such as parks and downtown beautification efforts.

Qualitative research methods, including pre- and post-interaction interviews conducted by Alan Brown of WolfBrown as part of a 2007 study show a way forward for this sort of measurement, focusing on five “value clusters” including Economic and Social Benefit, Communal Meaning, Human Interaction, Imprint of the Arts Experience and Personal Development.

And the Rand report includes this framework for analyzing instrumental and intrinsic benefits of the arts:

In a November 2010 speech, Brown encouraged arts advocates and researchers to continue to be innovative and to push their thinking, stating “If you can describe something, you can measure it.”

Simultaneously chiding and encouraging his research colleagues, Brown went on to say, “We can’t just throw our hands in the air and say we can’t ever measure this. We need to work harder!”

In these difficult economic times when cities from Scottsdale, AZ to Ann Arbor, MI are struggling to continue longstanding financial commitment to public art, now is the time for researchers to redouble their efforts in finding cost-effective ways to measure the full range of benefits the arts can bring to individuals and to the public good.

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