Counting what counts

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we define success in our performing arts industry. At the forefront it may seem like a simple answer of whether or not your organization is fulfilling its mission. However, what tools and measurements are we using in order to see if mission fulfillment is actually taking place? Too often, we measure our mission with market-driven metrics that are rooted in economic growth and butts in seats. We count the success of a show based on it’s box office gross, our educational programs on how many youth participated in it, our development on how efficiently we met our fundraising goals.

Yet, there’s so much more benefit to the arts than our economic well-being. What draws people to the arts is not the hope that the experience will make them smarter or more self-disciplined. Instead, it is the expectation that encountering a work of art can be a rewarding experience, one that offers them pleasure and emotional stimulation and meaning.

How can we, as arts leaders, quantify those effects that are inherent in the arts experience itself?

We are very comfortable talking with audience members about their experience of the art, but are, by and large, deeply uncomfortable with the idea of translating that experience into something numeric. There’s a fear that by tracking some amount of the artistic experience an individual has through graphs and charts, we are somehow reducing that experience to something “less than.” We have a tendency to be overly protective in the U.S. nonprofit arts sector because we know, or at least suspect in our gut, that if we start measuring intrinsic impact—testing our assumptions about the impact of the art we make— we might uncover there is greater intrinsic impact from watching an episode of This Is Us than going to any kind of live theatre. Or we may find that small-scale productions in bars or coffee shops are just as impactful (or more so) than large-scale professional productions in traditional theatre spaces. Are we prepared, if we find this sort of evidence, to change the way we behave in light of it?


Knowledge provides us with power. Knowing what our audiences are valuing opens the door for us to confirm, to distill, to imagine, to change, depending on who we are and what we hear. Furthermore, if we are able to translate qualitative data, such as audience testimonials, critic’s reviews, survey comments into measurable data it allows us to determine rates of change.  In order to reap the benefits of that knowledge I conducted research to learn what types of value frameworks for arts assessment exist.

Kevin F. McCarthy, et al. shares in Gift of the Muse six intrinsic values that range from the individual to societal.

Intrinsic Values Chart- McCarthy

Alan Brown, in grappling with Gifts of the Muse, developed this graphic (see below), to articulate the impact of an arts experience not only on ephemeral level, but also from individual to public, which he called the “Value System for Arts Experience.”

ABrown Value Framework

Kim Dunphy offers a method of representing evaluation findings across three elements of change: perspectives of change (who perceived and experienced the change); dimensions of change (what type of change occurred); and degree of change (how much change occurred), to arrive at an overall assessment of project outcomes. Dunphy offers six categories for the model seen below.

Dunphy Holistic Value Framework

These six categories are then divided into seven subsets, which cover the major types of change that might be expected from the arts experience in each area. Users can choose which ones are a best fit for their particular needs. The subsets can then be posed as questions along with a likert scale to gain a numeric representation. For example in the Social domain a question such as, “How much were your eyes opened to an idea or point of view you hadn’t considered before?” is reflective of social bridging.


What’s the takeaway? 

Not only does it enable us to curate our programming based on the types of impact our audiences are craving. But it enables us to nurture their well-being and ability to critically reflect upon their experience. Thereby creating alignment between the artist and our audience. Because we are developing a language for feedback based on values rather than box office net & dollars contributed.  Additionally, it allow us to strategically think about what type of programming we are planning so that we aim to represent a holistic approach (in that there’s a little something for everyone) or we can focus our energies on pursuing a specified selection intrinsic impact. Overall, it provides us with the knowledge and metrics to be counting what counts in defining our success.

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1 Response to Counting what counts

  1. This is a unique topic, not many people talk about this because assessing art in numbers is something beyond imagination. Yes, but it is important to understand the exact impact. Still thinking if art is all about experience and talent or it can really be assessed in numbers. Great post though!

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