By Dawn

Cropped view of a pear and an apple side by side

Apples & Pears?

Is it possible that in the current economic environment smaller cultural institutions face the most uncertain futures?

There certainly seem to be a number of smaller arts organisations (turnover under £1m) that will have their public funding significantly or completely cut next financial year.

These tend to be organisations that have limited capacity to generate alternative funding streams. They do not have the tangible assets of their larger counterparts and are often unacknowledged for the research and development role they play.

Size Matters,’ the recent report by Common Practice and Sarah Thelwall of MyCake fame, attempts to surface some of these issues. I found it a good read. It is a well-considered and thoughtful piece that genuinely surfaces the concerns I have heard many smaller scale organisations raise. Issues that it seems to me are generally ignored.

There is a lot packed into its 41 pages, probably too much to do it justice in a single blog. It touches on:

  • The inability of many of the standard metrics around visitors, costs per head and earned income to capture the true value of these organisations
  • The misleading mismatch these metrics create in comparing large with small organisations
  • The lack of recognition of intangible assets
  • The lack of scope for development and growth
  • The poverty trap that many arts-workers in smaller organisations become caught in, and so on

Two things in particular caught my attention:

  •  The need to build a more sophisticated understanding of the concept of value
  • The notion of lifecycle assessment/investment

In developing a more nuanced understanding of value Size Matters suggests the need to consider: artistic; social; societal; and fiscal value. Opening up notions of value and measurement is something I very much support, as evidenced in my previous blog on Valuing Culture.

I do have a slight concern over the clarity of social as compared to societal value. I would offer sectoral rather than social, as it seems to refer to value created within the arts system itself. The report refers to this as an ecosystem but I find this metaphor can also be problematic, something for a later blog!

A number of examples are offered from Studio Voltaire, Chisenhale Gallery and Mute Publishing that illuminate the four interlinked values in practice.

“What we immediately see from these descriptions is that value accrues over the lifetime of an object or idea and that it does so in the four areas of artistic, social, societal and fiscal value in ways which are hard to separate out; indeed it is the fact that they are intertwined that is key to understanding how value accrues in an artwork.” (Size Matters: 26)

In laying out this approach to attributing value what follows is the challenging proposition (primarily for traditional funding sources) of deferred value. My understanding of this is that the four elements of value may be realised over different timescales, if at all in the case of fiscal value.

This is a particular challenge for the smaller organisations as they often serve as the catalyst for an artist or artwork but it is others in the system that then gain the full range of value. It is suggested that smaller organisations most often ‘forfeit two of the most measurable types of value created – the realisation of social value through the development of audiences and of fiscal value through sales via the art market.’ (Size Matters: 29)

While in some ways this seems obvious it is really refreshing to have it spelt out so clearly at a time when it definitely needs saying. My experience is that many of these smaller organisations need to build their confidence in order to take more control of how they are measured and understood.

The proposition for a move away from annual comparisons towards lifecycle-based assessments and investments carries with it significant challenges but I do find it persuasive. I hope Common Practice will pursue it further.

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