Measuring the arts. Again. And again. And again….

Many of us in the arts and creative industries have gotten used to measuring our work and talking about it in terms of value, value added, gross value added and all those signals which try to suggest that we’re doing more for the world than simply making great art.

We keep a keen eye on our financial outputs through annual accounts, box office returns, projections and bottom lines as if we’re talking about the arts as a golden goose which is going to keep laying us lots of lovely Faberge nest eggs for our future retirement; we use a whole systems of Heath Robinson-esque paraphernalia to measure personal growth, family change and social wellbeing if we’re using the arts instrumentally to affect people’s health, mindfulness and general absence of psychotic tendencies; and we’re in thrall to audience engagement tools which help us understand who came to an event, why they came, which bit of Beethoven’s 5th they most enjoyed, which bit they least enjoyed and whether they’re more likely to return if we just play them the best bits over and over and over again.

This fetish for measurement never stops and there’s always someone somewhere who wants to measure it again. And again. And again. In different ways, with different criteria, with different emphases and with different toolboxes. All in their own way to prove, beyond incontrovertible doubt that there is more to great art than just great art. That is has other benefits which are more measurable and definable, and that if we could only understand what they were, the arts world – our world, your world – everyone’s world would be a damn sight happier place.

The trouble is, this desire to measure everything within an inch of its life is having precious little effect on the political movers and shakers and critical opinion makers who will listen to what they want to listen to, irrespective of the evidence of all that measurement.

For example, the case for the economic importance of the arts has been made ad nauseum since the 1980s and yet it seems to have little influence on the key politicians and decision makers of anyone’s generation. Every 6 months or so it seems there’s another arts funding crisis which uses the same rhetoric as 5, 10 and 20 years ago. For all the measurement that’s been going on, and for all the cases that have been made that the arts are good for the nation’s bank balance, its mental health and its artistic sophistication, there’s been remarkably little effect on the politicians who instruct the bean counters to change their thinking to any great degree. The only study that seems to be missing is the one which measures the effect that measuring the arts has on the measurers.

Perhaps one day we’ll recognise the futility of the measurement paradigm and accept that great art is just that – great in its own right, impossible to quantify, pin down and stick in a butterfly cabinet.

Author: drnicko

Awarded an MBE for services to arts-based businesses, I am passionate about generating inspiring, socially engaging, creative practice within educational contexts both nationally and internationally.

5 thoughts on “Measuring the arts. Again. And again. And again….”

  1. This is definitely a frustrating situation! We have been conducting research on artistic interventions in organizations in France, Spain, Sweden and Germany since 2008 in order to try to change the discourse away from the imposition of standard business measurements on the arts. We have been highlighting what the participants value in the interaction, giving voice to the artists, the employees, and the project owners/managers responsible for them.
    Research program:

    1. Hello Ariane – its good to hear from you and especially good to hear about the work you are doing. I have read your links with a lot of interest and will be looking forward to hearing more about you. If you are interested in making links in the UK and who I am currently working with, please have a look here: or feel free to drop me an email at Thanks again for your comments!

      1. Hi Nick, I enjoyed the video introducing the Creative Quarter in Nottingham–the space reminds me a bit of Bushwick in NYC. I’d love to visit, if I can arrange it at some point.

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