Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Arts funding should not be a numbers game

  • 25 September 2018


In modern monarchies it is axiomatic that kings must spend their money responsibly. Even if they are set on not doing so, certain rituals of accountability need to be observed. In particular, commoners who propose projects requiring government funding must apply for it.

This means that applications and reports become quite an art form, all displaying the emblems of sustainability, innovation, job-creation or whatever is emblazoned on the latest royal coat of arms, and all resting on impressive statistical base. But commoners whisper that the king neither reads the reports nor attends to their statistical base, but distributes largesse at will.

In Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett's What Matters? the commoners strike back. They reflect on the experience of seeking cultural funding, but the relevance of their book extends beyond that. In asking what role quantitative measurement should have in applications for funding of artistic endeavours and their assessment, and how public accountability might be better achieved, they raise questions for other projects as well.

In their treatment of application processes, they recognise that our society privileges knowledge gained in the physical sciences over other knowledge, and is consequently tempted to reduce true knowledge and value to what can be counted. As it develops increasingly sophisticated mathematical tools to measure human behaviour and activity, it discounts aspects of humanity that cannot be measured.

As a result the value of human beings and of human creativity comes to be identified with their social function. People are valued for their economic output, and artistic works for the size of their audience or their critical reception. No space is left for recognising any inherent value that cannot be measured.

While recognising that quantitative data can provide helpful corroborative evidence in commending cultural projects, the authors insist that they cannot determine value. That always requires personal judgment. A violin sonata and a dramatic performance cannot be measured against one another.

Nor can the value of either be reduced to a numerical scale based, for example, on the size of the audience or the number of reviews. The significance even of these numbers depends on a judgment of what matters in identifying the value of the works. As the familiar aphorism declares, what counts cannot be counted, and what can be counted does not count.


"This argument does not bear only on culture but also on the value of other human enterprises where justice, honesty, health, trust and other human