Do art museums create social value? Prove it.

social value of art museums

Brandeis University and the National Academy Museum’s plans to sell art assets as a way to survive the economic downturn have sparked furious debate about the propriety of museum “deaccessioning.”  But what social value does art create, and how do we know it’s being created?

Arguments over deaccessioning turn mostly on high-level principles: critics see art sales as undermining the core purpose of a museum, a betrayal of the public interest, and a slippery-slope practice that endangers cultural centers worldwide; defenders see a practical option for ensuring an institution’s survival, enabling it to continue delivering on its mission using remaining assets.

But what’s largely missing from these discussions—and, for that matter, how museums and their sponsors tend to manage general operations—is attention to specific performance measurement.   And that means going beyond common measures like number of shows, amount of foot traffic, and size of membership (all outputs), and focusing on outcomes.

So, what is the purpose of showing art?  What value does it create?  Art can be entertaining, enlightening, provocative and emotional.  It can bring fulfillment through immediate consumption, and through the creativity, expression, and scholarship it inspires.  It, like any useful good or service, can improve quality of life.

Any evaluation of museum performance should therefore include an assessment of how well it enables the public to engage with its art and realize those benefits.  That is, not only how many people are served, but the result of the experience.  Surveys can, for example, capture changes in appreciation, understanding, or even “resonance and wonder.”  Over time they can also capture longer-term ripple effects of enlightenment and creativity, if you have the resources for a longitudinal study.  If you don’t have such resources, try to find existing research to extrapolate the ripple effects.  (Same for economic ripple effects.)  As long as you are clear about your sources and assumptions, and the research is truly relevant, then your estimates will be credible.

Yes, most people will agree that art is valuable – just as most will agree that education, philanthropy, healthcare, and endless other categories of goods and services are valuable.  But whether a particular institution is effective at delivering that value is a separate question.  As always, outcome measurement will tell you the answer.

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