Surviving Picasso – revisited

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By Jon

A couple of weeks ago I posted about an economic impact assessment commissioned by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). The report was produced by Chmura Economics and Analytics of Richmond into a Picasso exhibition run by the VMFA earlier this year. The report estimates the exhibition delivered benefits of $26.6m to Richmond, where the VMFA is based, and a further $3.4m to the rest of Virginia. These are seriously impressive numbers.

At the time, I wasn’t able to comment in detail on the report as I couldn’t locate it, but Geoffrey_Crayon was kind enough to provide me with a link.

So, here are some thoughts about the report and the analysis it contains.

  1. Sample size – There were 230,373 visitors in total to the exhibition, although it isn’t clear how the VMFA calculated the figure (it’s likely to be based primarily on ticket sales). The Chmura analysis is heavily predicated on a survey they undertook showing that 94% of those attending the exhibition cite it as their primary reason for visiting Richmond. But this is based on a sample of just 404 visitors, or 0.176% of the population.  This simply cannot be considered representative and renders speculative any conclusions drawn.
  2. Cost of the exhibition – Programmatic spend makes up around $4m of the total, but it is a weak measure of economic impact. You have to spend the money to put on the exhibition so even if no one visited or spent any money, there would be some sort of an economic impact. And the greater the cost of staging the exhibition, the greater the impact… The programme budget is an input – part of the cost of generating the outputs the analysis is trying to measure. The benefits to Richmond and Virginia will be greater if these costs can be minimised, since they free up resources to be spent elsewhere. Spend on employment is somewhat different, but it’s only really useful if jobs were created solely because the exhibition was on and for the period it ran. It’s also worth asking whether and where the fee for Chmura consultants’ services are included!
  3. Attribution – It’s not possible to say that there was a wider economic boost to the area as a result of the exhibition without ruling out any other possible revenue generating events at the same time in the same area. And even accepting that the primary reason for visiting was attendance at the exhibition doesn’t mean that all of the economic benefits of a visit can be attributed to the exhibition. The exhibition may simply have dictated the timing of a trip that would have happened anyway, or been the primary factor among several.
  4. Negative impact of the exhibition – This point is related to the second one, but any comprehensive assessment of the exhibition’s impact has to at least consider the possibility that there were negative effects. This might be reduced spend on the Richmond’s other amenities because residents bought tickets to the exhibition instead. Or the additional cost of cleaning up litter or mending the roads because of the number of visitors. Or take the comment, found deep in the appendix, that those whose primary reason for visiting Richmond was the exhibition spent less than those who had other motivations. It’s at least possible that the exhibition reduced the average amount visitors spent in the region.
  5. Negative fiscal impact – Another possibility is that tax income to the local and state governments was negatively affected. The VMFA does not charge an admission tax, but the analysis includes tax revenue from  other venues where the attendees primary reason for visiting Richmond was the exhibition. Well, there is also likely to be lost tax revenue for those who attend the Picasso exhibition instead of alternative venues.
  6. Opportunity cost – The initial Art Law blog reported that a fee paid to the Musee National Picasso for loaning the exhibit. One imagines it was sizeable, and such a fee could have been spent in myriad ways. Without knowing what alternative courses of action were considered, and what relative benefits they might have delivered, the $30m benefit quoted lacks real context.

I don’t mean to sound overly critical as the report is no better or worse than similar pieces of analysis and there may be sensible responses to the issues highlighted above.

But the really disappointing thing is, I’m sure that the exhibition was a massive success & brought all kinds of benefits to the region and those lucky enough to see it. Certainly, I would have loved to visit, although I probably wouldn’t travel Virginia from the UK primarily for that purpose.

By attempting to do an analysis of this kind but not doing it comprehensively, the real value of the exhibition gets lost amid the noise.

(Thanks to Leila Davids for her input on some of the finer points)


Every Little Helps

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By Tina

Tesco’s now infamous slogan essentially refers to the power of saving and collecting small amounts over a longer period of time, which can add up to a lot. Similarly, memberships and friends schemes for cultural organisations capitalise on the power of collective income at small levels but from many people, which likewise could amount to a substantial figure as a result.
But with increasingly limited resources, many organisations, particularly smaller ones, are not in a position to raise money through these means. And as policy has hitherto ignored this issue, technology is now trying to address it. Artists and cultural organisations alike are now turning to online crowdfunding to fill some of these gaps and fundraise in a more innovative, engaging, proactive and cost efficient way.
There are now a few dedicated websites to raising money for discrete cultural projects in the UK, most with a slightly different USP but still operating on the same principles – that of collating small sums of money from many people.
Crowdfunding essentially works on the assumption that interesting work, the kind that people will pay to see, will attract support regardless of how much government backing it’s got. At the heart of the proposition is that audiences need to be involved, engaged and empowered. It is therefore a market-driven and democratic process, which gives consumers the power to choose what to support and how – and it gives them something in return too. Funders are offered “rewards” in return for supporting projects, providing an additional incentive for giving, giving more or giving again. 
But crowdfunding always works best when it does indeed reach the ‘masses’, to cover a wide range of people and tastes and to therefore also increase the collective pot from which money can come from. After all, it is the possibility of extensive audience reach with relatively little effort and investment that is particularly attractive for those using crowdfunding to realise their projects. It therefore helps artists and cultural organisations save money on administration costs for marketing and fundraising, as the crowdfunding websites do the leg-work on their behalf – they set up and engage the community of donors so that all those asking for money need to do is tap into those individuals and attract their interest and donations.  
However, many against public cuts in the arts have argued that if we leave the sector to the tastes of the public, the material that will be supported and consequently produced will be pedestrian, cheap and/or bland and with little or no artistic value. But a quick look at two of the crowdfunding websites for cultural projects in the UK (WeFund and WeDidThis), show quite the opposite: from opera, to community arts, anyone can pitch for funding and stands a chance of receiving some. And a further look into the kind of organisations that are being supported and how much with, exemplifies that this approach could in fact be quite lucrative.
Over the other side of the Atlantic, where this trend started, we see that crowdfunding is still growing at an extraordinarily fast pace. And though I have blogged about the pitfalls of comparing with the US, just as a reference, Kickstarter has funnelled more than $70 million dollars to creative projects since 2009 – quite impressive! And looking back to the UK, in the last year or so, We Did This funnelled more than £35k across 17 projects and WeFund more than £175k – that’s a promising start!
That said, many projects don’t get put on the sites and others don’t reach their fundraising targets, as demand (projects in need of funding) is clearly high and supply (donations) less so. Caution must also be taken not to cannibalise and alienate audiences by inundating them with too many asks and from different websites. Another challenge will be to get current funders to climb up the giving ladder and increase their donations over time, and to constantly refresh and renew the ‘pool’ of donors so as to make this a sustainable and, to a certain extent, reliable form of funding.
The government should now take note and contribute in making crowdfunding more mainstream and sustainable for the sector. Pledging some of its matched funding budget towards it, would be a good first step, as the more incentives funders get and the more impact their donations make, the more likely they are to give.
And perhaps part of that pot of money can go towards “subsidising” the overheads of smaller organisations, which are less sexy and fun to raise money for, but essential for survival

Valuing Culture

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By Dawn

“…as a discussion in Clarke (2006:62) exemplifies, the need to fit the cultural sector’s understanding of value into central government’s standard framework for evaluating decisions is simply unavoidable. It is especially unavoidable given the increasing demands on decreasing resources expected across the public sector for the foreseeable future (Selwood 2010).”

I have wrestled with ‘Measuring the value of Culture: a report to the Department for Culture Media and Sport’ for several weeks now and I confess almost any distraction has taken me elsewhere. Having hit the above paragraph at the end of Chapter 3 ‘Values and Valuation’ I remained stuck there, initially too depressed to stroll any further. That is not to say it is a bad report. I think it is exactly what it set out to be a rigorous, multi-disciplinary literature review of methods for measuring the value of culture set within the context of HMT’s Green Book.

This probably locates it within a relatively specific readership, which is a shame because the challenge of measuring the value of culture really ought to be a sector wide debate. There is recognition that ‘culture is an intangible good that is hard to define’ but the report goes on to suggest that economic techniques have been applied to other intangibles such as environmental and transport policy making. Still I fight to get past the notion that this kind of measurement is unavoidable.

 I should probably show my hand at this point, if you haven’t already guessed it. I am a qualitative researcher and evaluator, issues of meaning making and experience are important to me. There is no doubt I, like others, apply a particular lens in looking at the matter of value and I recognise it has an impact. It does not mean, however, that I do not appreciate there are other approaches, many of which involve particular forms of measurement. I hope it makes me a constructive critic rather than an outright detractor.

 There is no doubt that Dave O’Brien has done his legwork, there are probably enough references here to feed my blogging for months to come. I find it a bit of a shame that the consultees don’t include any of the culture SMEs or micros that any development in this field is most likely to have an effect on, if nothing else to bring them into the debate. I am not suggesting it should have been a representative sample, let’s not get hung up on that one, just that I know of many good smaller culture organisations who are wrestling with these issues right now. And they too might have a view on why the cultural sector ‘is hindered by its failure to clearly articulate its value in a cohesive and meaningful way.’ (Scott, 2009: 198)

 At the moment, and this may change with further readings, the bit I find most perplexing comes on the second page of the introduction. I was encouraged when I started to read that while techniques from economics are the most useful for government decision makers who have to make judgements about cultural value, i.e. distribution of scarce resources (probably fair comment), ‘they must not be used in isolation’ (great, couldn’t agree more). The next sentence starts robustly, ‘first’, I am now primed for a valuable list of reasons why mixed methods are relevant here. However, only two emerge.

1.       There is a need to gain the support of the cultural sector

2.       The debate over economic valuation techniques being able to capture all dimensions of cultural value is on-going

 It seems to me these two issues are the crux of the matter, and they have been around for some time, it is good that they have been highlighted in the report though. It would have been even better to have them drawn out more in the recommendations.

 Overall, it is hard not to hear a message that suggests, ‘we’ve given you lot plenty of time to come up with your own methods and measures and you’ve failed to convince anybody, now let the grown-ups who can count take over.’ Or am I being too harsh/paranoid/cross/fluffy…?

$17 to $1 – economic benefits in Toronto

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By Jon

The first of an occasional series highlighting the varying claims about how much every £ or $ spent on cultural activity is said to be worth in economic activity / income / other benefits generated.

In Toronto, the benefit reported is $17 is to every $ spent, according to cultural advisor Jeff Malenson.

No source for the figure is presented.