Cultural value vs culture’s value

Julian Meyrick (School of Humanities and Creative Arts, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia)
Tully Barnett (School of Humanities and Creative Arts, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia)

International Journal of Event and Festival Management

ISSN: 1758-2954

Article publication date: 15 June 2015



Meyrick, J. and Barnett, T. (2015), "Cultural value vs culture’s value", International Journal of Event and Festival Management, Vol. 6 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Cultural value vs culture’s value

Article Type: Guest editorial From: International Journal of Event and Festival Management, Volume 6, Issue 2.

The problem of culture’s value is assayed by David Throsby (2001) in his seminal book Economics and Culture when he puts forward the proposition “the economic impulse is individualistic, the cultural impulse is collective”:

This proposition asserts, first, that there is behaviour which can be termed “economic” which reflects individual goals and which is portrayed in the standard model of an economy comprising self-interested individual consumers seeking to maximise their utility and self-interested producers seeking to maximise their profits […] secondly, that there is behaviour, distinguishable from economic behaviour […] which can be termed “cultural”; such behaviour reflects collective as distinct from individualistic goals, and derives from the nature of culture as expressing the beliefs, aspirations and identification of a group as defined above. Thus the cultural impulse can be seen as a desire for group experience or for collective production or consumption that cannot be fully factored out to the individuals comprising the group […] Whatever the artistic products produced and consumed, the processes of producing and consuming them can be seen not only as individual enterprise, but also as expressions of a collective will which transcends that of the individual participants involved (pp. 13-14).

If culture is viewed in this way, the gap between our individual preferences on the one hand and our collective desires on the other defines the problem of culture’s value – for an economist – is an instance of “market failure”. We shall say “culture’s value” rather than “cultural value” because the latter is too often treated as a subcategory in a wider “disaggregation of value” exercise. The notion that the “cultural” aspects of culture are ascribable to just one part of its value proposition, rather than being coterminous with the whole of its occurrence, exemplifies Throsby’s (2001) warning that “in the many-sided debate about culture in contemporary economic settings, the tendency [is] for an economic interpretation of the world to dominate, deriving from the ubiquity and power of the modern economic paradigm” (p. 41). Changing the way we refer to things should not be confused with changing things themselves. Nevertheless, the rephrasing makes clear that the questions asked about culture’s value today are ones arising between and not within different methods of accounting for it. This does not exclude economics or calculations of economic impact. But it does not put them front and centre in the way that the value debate has thus far tended to presume.

Loosening the identification between economics and culture is also important if culture’s value is to be seen as a problem rather than an adjunct to established knowledge, a technical issue, which better and more assiduous measurement methods will one day render uncontentious. This was the tone (if not the intention) of Eric Jensen’s contribution to Warwick University’s Cultural Value Initiative blog last year. In a post critical of the often-specious quantification of cultural impacts, Jensen nevertheless promoted the virtues of “the latest technologies to enable to the design of evaluation systems that could be fully automated so they could be used by institutions [and] practitioners without any skills in social scientific analysis required […] The goal [is] to build a high quality open source system that [can] be used by arts and cultural institutions across the UK with a bare minimum of customisation required to deliver automated evaluation results” (Jensen, 2014). This kind of thinking reduces value to impact, and impact to numbers. It replaces the careful assessment of cultural activity in situ with an analysis of frequency tables and bell curves. The relationship between empirical referents and quantitative data is a problem for philosophers, an epistemological problem (see Tal, 2013, for example). The relationship between culture and statistics is a problem for arts practitioners and culture workers, fraught with the controversial issue of where culture’s value “really” lies. With producers? With users? With non-users? With future users? With something like, or approaching, history’s judgement? In other words, it is irreducibly a political issue, and has to be dealt with as such, and not banished to an imagined neutral zone of measurement. Like it or not, researchers interested in culture’s value are implicated in a field that is at once complex, heterogeneous, and divided. They are participants, not outside observers, because as a problem, culture has to be subjectively experienced and processed to be perceivable at all.

The papers in this special issue all wrestle with the methodological conundrum this involves. Julian Meyrick’s keynote address to the 2014 Global Event Congress lays out culture’s value in its widest extension, and argues for a “disarticulation” of its different social domains to match any “disaggregation” of its internal elements. The separating out of the definition, measurement, and reporting of culture is vital because they each operationalise quite differently. It is possible to define aspects of culture which can’t be measured, and measure aspects which are not materially significant. At the other end of the spectrum, it is hard to report on aspects which cannot be defined or measured, and this presents a series of difficulties for cultural organisations and events that may have an intuitive understanding of the benefits they generate, but lack reliable proxies for assessing it. The “Total Cultural Value” model put forward is less a method than an early best-practice reporting model. It addresses the never-ending task of capturing and communicating to distant authorities all the benefits a cultural activity provides by “aligning” different proofs of worth in such a way that their overall evidentiary impact is maximised. Meyrick calls this process “allocutionary”. It is a speaking to the evidence rather than an expectation the evidence will speak for itself. In the area of culture, which in the end is an agglomeration of singular occurrences rather than (or as well as) a collective field, evidence only becomes evidence when it is set in a narrative frame that makes sense of it. Here we see, and not for the last time, that words and numbers do not stand in opposition to each other, but exist in necessary, if abrasive, relation. Quantitative data and the “stories” of cultural organisations and events co-figure each other. Meyrick puts forward the notion of a “conferral” of value, a result that emerges out of dialogue between different stake-holders. Culture’s value is not something that can be read off like an electrical meter. It emerges out of a conversation, however fractious, a public accreditation of outcomes. This is why it is so important to get the conversation right, to ensure that all parties concerned with the assessment of culture’s value are in rough congruence, if not accord. He concludes:

Valuation processes are comparative processes. They involve benchmarking, standardization, unitization and ranking. Cultural activities have an incommensurable aspect that makes them resist this kind of assessment and not infrequently make a nonsense of it. This makes it difficult for policy-makers to choose between them from a resource perspective. No new proof of worth is going to change this fundamental characteristic of culture. In the end, a Total Cultural Value exercise […] helps cultural programs “make a case” based on best use of the available data and a meta-cognitive appreciation of the biases different proofs of worth involve. It does not supply objective reasons for choosing one kind of activity over another. It is against the myth of single numbers, even as it promotes a “best use” of quantitative data. It is fundamentally dialogic in approach. It assumes talk, the need for talk, and the need for the right kind of talk […] Part of of every cultural experience lies beyond rational articulation but this does not invalidate the value conferral conversation.

Katya Johanson and Jodie George look at particular instances of value-generation, problems within the problem of culture’s value. Johanson examines the role and functioning of public space, a major issue within “the commons” at present. With the world’s population both expanding and shifting from rural to urban environments, pressure has increased on our use of public space. The on-line forums that social media make available offset this “space squeeze” to an extent. But the on-line world and the real one are too easily regarded as substitutes when in practice – in cultural practice – they are actually complements. As never before, people seek out public space as a setting for culture, and the value of these activities is both instantiated and enhanced by the specific locations where they take place. Johanson discusses this in terms of what she calls the “transitory arts”:

[The] use of transitory arts (performing arts and temporary exhibitions) in our everyday public spaces is a relatively recent phenomenon; public places were not the traditional focus of arts and cultural policy nor of performing and visual arts in the mid-to-late twentieth century […] [They] are to be encountered in our daily routine and public spaces, and in becoming at once both ubiquitous and quotidian, they now play a role as a commons.

Johanson gives an example, looking at the use of a Vancouver Parks Board’s pilot project which turned 13 park facilities in public parks across the city into artist studios. It is an example, rather than an illustration, showing how the accrual of value is always multi-attributional, tricky and often contentious. Once again, there is no simple way of understanding culture’s value, however confidently certain ways of measuring it present.

Jodie George examines the phenomenon of regional festivals, which have become such a significant feature of Australian cultural life over the last two decades. Regional tourism combines with a growing interest in hedonic activities (in South Australia, food and wine especially) to presage new kinds of cultural events. The benefits of regional festivals may be felt in many different areas, far outstripping the simple economic notion of “externalities”. They can impact on civic identity, social cohesion and fiscal viability, as well as promoting images of what is acceptable and desirable as “culture”. The way these play out on the ground, however, can be complex and the paper examines:

[…] how concepts and celebrations of “rurality” and the “rural idyll” may be presented for consumption by different festival events and their associated communities, and how these reflect either a creative destruction, in which different aspects of/contributors to the event are deemed not as valuable based on stakeholder preferences, or whether existing and emerging organisations and events related to a particular festival may co-exist and why. In this way, we [can] understand what may be valued as the “rural” within a neo-liberal context that seemingly requires the commodification of place to ensure economic viability of communities, what influence what is valued, and who decides?

George cites three case studies: the large-scale Port Lincoln Tunarama Festival, the newly arrived McLaren Vale Gorgeous Festival, and the upmarket Kangaroo Island Art Feast. As she points out, each is a cultural celebration of local industry and identity, yet each constructs their region differently. Even within a single festival a number of competing ideas of value may be identified – as is evidenced by the interviews she draws on to add emotional depth to her descriptions.

These two papers can be said to share a similar preoccupation with one aspect of the problem of culture’s value: context. The use of quantitative data, particularly financial data, to “benchmark” cultural organisations and events and provide KPIs to monitor their performance has created the issue of the meaningful interpretation of aggregate statistics. And, as Throsby points out, their dominance. The last paper in this issue, by Steve Brown, Donald Getz, Robert Pettersson and Martin Wallstam, grapples with the issue from the perspective of event evaluation. They note that the problem of value is magnetically drawn towards two unhelpful polarities: on the one hand advocacy, on the other economic impact assessment. In putting forward their paradigm of event evaluation, they raise the notion of a “triple bottom line” which, like the idea of “total cultural value” is a useful heuristic in articulating the different kinds of benefits cultural activities generate. They raise the crucial point that assessment is different from evaluation; that evaluation necessarily involves the appraisal of the different parts of a cultural event, including its qualitative ones. As cultural events continue to proliferate, and as they cluster into “portfolios” and “populations”, the matter of accurate – and nuanced – evaluation becomes more urgent. Their call for “a general model of event evaluation; a conceptual overview of evaluation paradigms, contexts, purposes, methods, measures, and uses” is timely. 3.5 per cent of Australia’s GDP is now generated by cultural activities of one kind of another. By contrast, agriculture – traditionally a mainstay of the country’s economy – is only 3.9 per cent (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008). Yet official assessment of the operation of the cultural sector feels ad hoc. A single methodological approach to the problem of value does not help the situation much. Brown et al. note:

At a minimum, events and event-development agencies must now demonstrate value in a multi-stakeholder context, and take a longer-term perspective on outcomes and legacy. As [our] paradigm gains acceptance at the political, corporate and event operational levels, it will also lead to growing attention to long-term, cumulative impacts, resolution of stakeholder conflicts, the meaning and management of a “healthy” portfolio and population of events, and the synergistic effects arising from many actors pursuing event-related strategies and programs.

One thing we can say about the problem of culture’s value for certain: it is not getting any simpler.

A final inclusion in the Special Issue are notes from an industry forum held at the 2014 Global Events Congress at which a number of Adelaide cultural leaders appeared as panellists. Adelaide is blessed with a cultural environment that is at once robust and benign. The self-proclaimed “Festival State” identified with culture early in its history, and this came to fruition during the so-called “Dunstan Era” in the 1970s when many of Adelaide’s major cultural organisations were founded or grew significantly. A full transcript of the conversation is not available. But the notes indicate the major issues as they appear from the cultural practitioner’s point of view. These are not just other opinions, still less objects of research analysis. They are important subject positions, freighting important core responses. Culture’s value is not an objective mark, however “hard” the proxies we agree to measure it by. It is an in-the-body experience, something that is felt, or not felt, or felt one way rather than another. This does not make it a relative matter. But it must be manifested at the level of lived experience in the first and last instance of its occurrence, as all these papers suggest one way or another.

Professor Julian Meyrick and Dr Tully Barnett - School of Humanities and Creative Arts, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia


Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008), “Arts and culture in Australia: a statistical overview 2008”, available at: (accessed 27 May 2015)

Jensen, E. (2014), “Questioning the specious quantification of cultural impacts”, The Cultural Value Initiative, 28 April, available at: (accessed 27 May 2015)

Tal, E. (2013), “Old and new problems in philosophy of measurement”, Philosophy Compass, Vol. 8 No. 12, pp. 1159-1173

Throsby D. (2001), Economics and Culture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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