How do you solve a problem like making the arts more objective? It’s a question frequently asked (usually safely away from the pretence of a precarious Sound of Music reference), rarely answered, and currently facing a huge amount of controversy.
If bums on seats are anything to go by, We Will Rock You was probably more of a success than even the most prolific of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and if the opinion of critics is a signpost for legacy then Les Mis certainly shouldn’t have celebrated its 31st anniversary in 2016, nor should Harold Pinter’s name be synonymous with the very best of British writing. Subjectivity in the arts is arguably what has helped frame and define a diverse and fast-paced industry. Is it really possible to pit a social commentary against a comedy, and can a musical ever be compared to a piece of mime?
Interestingly, Arts Council England believe it can. And, perhaps more relevant for the digital industry, it’s through big data that they’ve decided to do it. In a new initiative titled ‘Quality Metrics’, the organisation is working with pan Australian/UK-based organisation Culture Counts to introduce a numerical grading system that measures the artistic worth of work produced by organisations it funds; asking participants from the industry and general public alike to rate pieces alongside a set of qualitative statements to see how good they believe each is.
From 2018, the scheme will be compulsory for all NPOs receiving more than £250,000 in funding, though ACE has hinted that those offered less than this will also be encouraged to participate. It’s being launched ‘officially’ after a year of testing on 150 member organisations and museums, but there are reservations from those who have participated after an independent review.
Consultancy firm Nordicity unearthed major concerns from some in the sector - particularly around the concept of “metricising an attribute such as quality”. One arts specialist involved in the Culture Counts trial told Arts Professional “I would be concerned with reducing artistic quality to a statistic - it is an important measurement but one that is often personal. To evaluate quality of experience requires a deep understanding of the context of the work. I would hope that the diversity of the audience is taken into account”.
Interestingly more pertinent an issue, however, was the digital prowess of staff within trial organisations, with many reporting a lack of “familiarity and ability to effectively understand and exploit data”. From social media conversations to sales data, and analytics to seating records - there’s a huge amount of information on offer that can direct and define a company’s marketing and business strategy. Investments undoubtedly need to be made in digital transformation for staff and equipment for them to use before the industry can start considering insights of that level and scope.
Big data’s had a funny relationship with marketing since it moved from future possibility to buzzword favourite; it’s only recently that insights have arguably turned into action, and organisations are establishing set ways to filter through an abundance of content, facts and figures. As arts professionals, data has helped transform the way we understand our business and its needs; be it in understanding booking behaviours, or working out the optimum method for announcing a show. Where it takes us next remains to be seen; could ACE’s move be one more theatres adopt to decide schedules, or are creativity and statistics too different to combine? While we won't know for a while, one thing that remains certain is that it currently isn't one of many creatives' favourite things. And the industry still has a way to go, both in terms of data training and refining how we measure quality, before objectivity truly is a possibility in the arts.