Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Arts funding should not be a numbers game

1 Comment


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.

Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett's What Matters?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 values are at stake."


The writers argue that governments should not require applicants for cultural funding to justify the value of their work by quantitative criteria. This requires bad faith on the part of the applicants. They should rather be asked to commend modestly the inherent value of their projects. This is done best by telling simply and honestly the story of the project, its circumstances, its perceived value, and its real and potential relationship to the community. Numerical data should be used where they are helpful to illustrate the story.

This form of application will then encourage both in the artists and the funding trustees an open-ended conversation about value and about culture. Culture and value are enacted and revealed rather than defined in quantifiable terms.

The argument of this lucidly written and eirenic study may seem marginal to society, but it has a wider scope. This is as well, because in South Australia where the writers are based, the government seems to have given up even on numerical criteria, cutting funding and dispersing responsibility for its allocation. It seems to have concluded that culture has no value and does not matter.

The larger point of the study lies in its understanding that culture and value, while difficult to define, are inherent in the network of human relationships that compose society and humanity. The value of each human being is not created by individual choice, but is inherent. It is affirmed, expressed and celebrated in relationships to others and to the world. Cultural institutions, artefacts and compositions attest to the innate value of each human being and to the communities that shape them. They also measure social attitudes and practices by the respect given in society to human beings and their relationships with one another and their environment.

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 values are at stake.

In policies and projects dealing with health, the treatment of offenders, the support of people who are unemployed or have sought protection in Australia, governments display a similar tendency to reduce values to what is quantifiably measurable. Considerations of comparative cost, administrative efficiency, progress through defined stages etc. associated with projects are taken to define their value. To slice support for people who are disadvantaged into several modules, each managed by a different provider, for example, is regarded as more efficient and as yielding more accurate quantitative evidence of progress than projects based on longer term accompaniment.

The difficulty is that the quality of the relationships and human interactions involved in helping vulnerable people to connect with society is not taken into account. It does not lend itself to measurement. And what is measured is a reductionist version of human flourishing. What matters is limited to what can be manipulated.

The proposal of What Matters? that policy makers and applicants for government support of programs should begin by telling the story of their proposal, including their interaction with people affected by it and the way in which it serves a larger view of human flourishing, is persuasive.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian, Tully Barnett, What Matters?



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you for your perceptive comments on a situation/ system that is sorely in need of reform, or at least remediation.

Jena Woodhouse | 27 September 2018  

Similar Articles

Birthday ballot

  • David Atkinson
  • 01 October 2018

I am transported to the sappers. In a pitch-dark deluge like this, gun turrets and slush banish daydreams of beaches and cobalt rockpools. Recollections of the birthday ballot, tremble of black and white TV in the corner. My fingers drag a crested envelope from the letterbox, the breeze brings ironic coo of peaceful doves.


Here comes the man

  • John Cranmer
  • 24 September 2018

The one coming as king on the donkey-colt, declaring to the heart of the nation a way of universal peace, a way of confronting the powers of militarism and political compromise.