Monday 17 September 2012

On public value

Image taken from
There already exists extensive litterature regarding the value of the arts and culture. The issues related to its instrumentalization by governments or its intrinsic character have been on the agenda for many years now, especially in countries such as the US, the UK or Australia. There was a moment when, considering all the ‘proofs’ one had to give, I thought that culture professionals are exactly and only that: culture professionals. They are neither teachers nor therapists or doctors or priests or policemen... If their work has a positive impact on other areas, this impact must be registered e professionals in those areas, as well as their ‘users’, must become our ambassadors. More than any study on, for example, the impact of the cultural sector on a country´s economy (there are various, governments use them or ignore them), more than any argument we might present in defense of our cntribution to society, there is a need for the testimonies of those who are the ‘direct beneficiaries’ – even of ‘colateral’ benefits – of our work. And let´s not forget, these are the people who vote in elections.

Nevertheless, more than once I´ve expressed here my concern regarding the fact that culture professionals are keeping a distance from society, from the people. Whenever we debate the importance of culture, the reasons why it should be state funded, our arguments are only good enough for internal consumption. It´s us talking to our peers in defense of our ‘small corner’. We even give the idea that we are defending personal issues and not the common good.

People defend and support with their taxes the existence of public hospitals (even if hoping never to set foot in them, but because they recognize in their existence a common good). What needs to be done in order to think and talk in a similar way regarding culture? So that everyone, users and non-users, envisages it as a common, indispensable, good?

Approximately two years ago, I came across for the first time in my readings with the term ‘public value’, in a text by John Holden, dating from 2004, called Capturing Cultural Value: How culture has become a tool for government policy. In this text, ‘public value’ is defined as the value added by government and the public sector in its widest sense. It is the difference between what citizens give to and what they receive from public bodies. Citizens recognize value when they give something up in return (in culture that might be, for example, money – for buying tickets or in donations -, time, energy, voluntary work, etc.).

Last month, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) became news when it suceeded in convincing the residents of three counties in Michigan to vote for a new property tax which will benefit directly the museum. Thus, the DIA will be receiving $23 million per year for the next 10 years (91% of its annual budget), while at the same time it will try to raise $400 million for its endowment so that, after the 10 years pass, it can continue its operations. After the tax had passed, the museum offered free entry to all residents in the three counties.

In what concerns this event, Diane Ragsdale, author of the blog Jumper,  did an excellent analysis (read here), with links to more texts, where she raises sime extremely relevant questions: has the museum calculated the impact (in the sense of reduction) on citizens´s usual contributions (donations, admissions, membership, etc.); would it have been a more intelligent and ethical solution to try and support various institutions rather than only one; is the DIA putting itself in an awkward position, having to renegotiate its relationship with the community in ten years’ time; what motivated people to pass the tax and how mat those who voted ‘no’ be feeling; how should one interpret the tripling of attendance in the week after the tax was passed; and, finally, what will the impact of this quid pro quo deal will be in what concerns the benefits a community may (and will expect to) receive in return for its support to a cultural institution?

This last question takes me to another excellent text, by Nina Simon, author of the blog Museum 2.0, who focused on the public discussion during the museum´s campaign (read here). Nina analysed more than 300 comments in the Detroit Free Press Online and once again raised  questions regarding the way people perceive culture´s public value and the way these debates can and should be conducted by cultural institutions themselves. Nina quoted a very interesting study, The Arts Ripple Effect: A research-based strategy to build shared responsibility for the arts, which identifies, among others, three main assumptions regarding the arts: the arts are a private matter (they are about individual tastes, experiences and enrichment ans also about individual expression); the arts are a good to be purchased (thus, they should succeed or fail as any other product in the market); the arts are not a priority (even among those who value them). The study suggets that, knowing of these and other assumptions, it is possible to build arguments in defense of culture which may be understood by the majority of people, acknowledging its impact on their lives and that of their community. A common good requires a common language and a common frame, shared by all.

Rebecca Lamoin, Associate Director of Strategy at Queensland Performing Arts Centre and my colleague at the Kennedy Center, is currently working on a project about the public value of cultural institutions. As part of a two day forum, she is organising a national radio programme, open to the public. In this preparatory phase, she is inviting culture professionals from all over the world to make brief statements, answering the following questions:

What is the most important thing your organisation delivers to your community?
- Why do your communities love you?
What people in your city would miss if your organisation wasn’t there anymore?

I believe that trying to answer these questions, especially the last one, would be a good exercise for all of us. And it would also be interesting to know how many institutions in Portugal have already got the answers, because they actively collect and register these data. In the beginning of November, Rebecca Lamoin will be telling us in this blog of how things went in Australia.

Still in this blog:

More readings
Public Value and the Arts inEngland: Discussion and conclusions of the arts debate

Regarding other tax schemes benefitting cultural institutions in the US, do read this post by Ian David Moss on Createquity.

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