Obligations in Contemporary Theatre and Performance Practices - a postgraduate and early career researcher conference at the University of Exeter, 31 January, 2014
Artists Independent Auditing Creating Value was borne from curiosity around how those involved in the arts might quantify what they through measurable outcomes.
I (independent/artist/auditor Megan Garrett-Jones) gave a ‘lecture performance’ at the University of Exeter Obligations in Contemporary Theatre and Performance Practices Conference centred on a response to this article: ‘Arts Funding, Austerity and The Big Society’. Co-published by the Arts Council England and ‘21st Century Enlightenment’ organisation RSA, the paper attempts to pave the way for how the arts sector may bolster the “rich story” of how they create value to increase resilience in light of government austerity and the linked Big Society policies. The question posed is, how can the arts continue to justify their demand on public funds? Its authors John Knell and Matthew Taylor write,“If the arts wish to make a serious case about their value, they will have to become more serious about measurement” (pg. 21). Arts organisations have long been smartening up to their potential social instrumentalisation, and in doing so adopting auditing frameworks such as Social Return On Investment (SROI), which converts so-called unquantifiable social and environmental benefits into monetary terms. Chief Executive of the SROI Network Jeremy Nicholls makes some interesting points about how a standardised language of returns can help a ‘public’ more effectively commission change and address the big problems of our time.*
Of course, not all art must produce explicit social returns; this would be the death of art as a unique field. For Knell and Taylor there will be such a thing as artistic instrumentalisation, but, again we must get serious about measuring value here. They suggest that systems that translate the value gained by those involved into a monetary figure such as Willingness to Pay (WTP) and Contingent Value (CV) might be helpful (pg. 19). Still something about this seems at odds with the way art might seek to exist alternatively to the weight of market forces, to even challenge the state of austerity or Big Society (that art critic Claire Bishop has described as a “thinly veiled opportunistic mask: asking wageless volunteers to pick up where the government cuts back, meanwhile privatising services crucial to education, welfare and culture”), and generally with the way that artists work. Nonetheless, Taylor and Knell provide a provocation that’s hard to resist: “if political discourse invites questions about individual wellbeing and good society, surely artists should have the confidence to engage” (pg. 27). They also allow that establishing value is something to be resolved only through practice.
The implications of art conforming to a systematised economic approach aside, one embarking on a process of evaluation may soon stumble upon a ‘crisis in measurement’, particularly upon a cursory reading of contemporary debates within social sciences. Data is variably unstable, dirty, dehumanising, performative, exploding in its excess, and entangled with its processes of collection and interpretation. From such debates we can take that valuation is an action: “understood in the sense of a process, a form of mediation, of something that happens in practice, something that is done to something else” (Fabien Muniesa, 2012, 32). Also, we may be unnerved at processes of research creating value out of life itself. For Ana Gross, part of such a process is the anonymisation of subjects, understood as erasing attachment, “facilitating new appropriations and reconfigurations of vital emissions aiding in the process of making the vital emissions more thing-like and thus more amenable to ownership” (2012, 120) or exchange, we might add.
The performance staged as part of this presentation had duel aims of taking the forms or measurement as poetic form, and allowing the discussion of value to come from the voices of arts practitioners themselves. I committed the cardinal sin of not recording it. In the previous posts (below) are some remnants of the process and I am hoping to re-stage the performance for the purpose of recording soon.
Knell, Matthew and Taylor, John, Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society: remaking the case for the arts? 2011, RSA pamphlets, here
Muniesa, Fabien ‘A flank movement in the understanding of valuation’ from The Sociological Review: Measure and Value, ed Adkins and Lury, 2012 here
Gross, Anna ‘The economy of social data: exploring research ethics as device’ from The Sociological Review: Measure and Value, ed Adkins and Lury, 2012 here
* Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for converting social benefits into a monetary symbol if it means being able to interject into the single track, economy-is-all mentality of some of those in power.