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Indicator Measurements, Wherefore Art Thou?

Last week, I was catching up with economic news by listening to American Public Media’s Marketplace, and was introduced to journalist David Brancaccio’s blog and column titled Economy 4.0. I was struck by the plethora of indicators trying to measure community health and happiness. Most interesting were the Happy Planet Index, which measures countries’ environmental footprints, and the Genuine Progress Index, which incorporates metrics like the costs of crime and commuting. Other favorites include the Well Being Index and the World Values Survey. The purpose of these indices is to inform policy and advocacy work at the national, regional, and congressional district level.

Arts and culture, however, play only a minor role in determining the overall state of community health in many of these indices.  However, there are a number of other indicators and indices that focus on the the arts and its potential impacts, such the Urban Institute’s Cultural Vitality Indicators (they have also compiled a number of resources and other examples of measurements related to this work). Also, Americans for the Arts is now developing a community-level assessment based on its National Arts Index.  But these measurement tools have yet to play a significant role in broader measurements of health, economy and social capital.

In the podcast I listened to, Brancaccio quoted economist Joseph Stiglitz: “What you measure affects what you do. If you don’t measure the right thing, you don’t do the right thing.” What do we want to do, and then how do we go about finding the right measurement in order to do it? What can these social and economic indicators suggest for current and future arts and culture evaluation? Should we advocate for arts and culture to represent a more significant component of emotional health? Of life satisfaction? If so, how? Conversely, how can we incorporate these alternative metrics into specific arts and culture indicators?


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