Culture by the numbers
DCA director-general Duncan Ord. Picture: Lincoln Baker

How do you measure the public value of the arts? How do you nail jelly to a wall? How do you weigh the human soul beyond the 21 grams expelled with a person's final breath?

How many roads must an artist go down before you can call him or her a data-processor painting by numbers?

The answer may not be blowing in the wind but the questions are blowing through the corridors of arts organisations on four continents due to groundbreaking research by the WA Department of Culture and Arts.

CultureCounts is an attempt to crunch nebulous, intangible philosophical, political, cultural, ideological and aesthetic questions into numbers that can be measured and understood equally by Treasury hardheads, corporate sponsors, artists and the public at large.

The ambitious four-year project is seeking to distil the essence of good art and bad art, at least as far as its public value is concerned, by applying the "volume, velocity, variety" principles of digital big-data collecting.

Plenty of statistics measure the economic, educational and health impact of the arts. For example, the WA cultural and creative sector employs more than 42,000 people and contributes $4.6 billion to the economy.

But there is a yawning gap in measuring the feel-good factor of expectations and satisfaction levels on a large scale.

CultureCounts has emerged as the first serious opportunity for artists and other stakeholders to test their results against their intentions through real-time responses before and after a show on a user-friendly mobile app.

The research project began in 2010 as a way to gather evidence to justify arts funding, improve audience-artist feedback and quantify the economic, cultural and community impact of the arts. Since then, it has generated significant interest across Australia, in Singapore, the US and Britain where a system has been developed and tested with arts organisations in Manchester and at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Britain's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts has even devoted $500,000 to pay for the DCA's work with project partners Pracsys in WA and the Intelligence Agency in the UK.

The Royal Opera House, Royal Shakespeare Company, Halle Symphony Orchestra and six WA arts organisations are among the companies involved in the trial, with more set to follow this month ahead of the release of an app for mobile devices within a year.

As purse strings tighten around the world, all have recognised the potential of collecting such data as ammunition in the ongoing fight to explain why arts and culture is important to a community. In the US, the Lincoln Centre, Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic have expressed interest.

CultureCounts builds on the appetite for social-media arts interactivity, which sees audience members tweeting their opinions from the stalls.

"It's democratising the arts," recently appointed DCA director-general Duncan Ord says.

Mr Ord says the data will help inform policymaking and programming as more powers are devolved from the DCA to give agency boards and chief executives more autonomy.

The $428 million new museum project is one example where such data could be used as the WA Museum develops its exhibition program, its interactive experiences with scientists and curators and its retail area.

CultureCounts can give the public more "ownership" of arts and culture, according to Mr Ord. "We want to get a lot more people engaged in cultural activity and feeling that their input is valued and their sensitivities and responses are understood," he says.

The Giants, the Perth International Arts Festival's big free public event next February, looms as the first local test of CultureCounts, given the scale of the public-private investment in the project.

"Having a tool that can pick up a sample and encourage the community to give an emotional response to the work is terrific," he says.

The system has similarities to the QALY "quality of life" index used to assess the subsidy on drugs under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

DCA strategic development manager Colin Walker says researchers working here and abroad have boiled CultureCounts down to a handful of key measures of quality and reach: relevance, captivation, originality, risk, rigour and excellence.

"If you can get some standardisation about what quality is and what people's expectations are, and if that can be scaled in anyway, then you can start to build a real purpose around why the arts matter and who they matter to," Mr Walker says.

The app would double as a what's-on guide for audiences and provide almost immediate results for arts companies struggling to organise burdensome, time-consuming and often expensive market surveys and focus groups.

And what about concerns that such big-data feedback might lead to a painting-by-numbers or theatre-by- committee approach as seen in the way some Hollywood films are reworked after audience screen tests?

Mr Walker says that all depends on the artist's intentions and the freedom they have been given to pursue them.

"It gives an opportunity to test whether you were risky or not as an artist," he says.

"You could decide you want a poor response because you want to challenge the audience, make them feel uncomfortable and in some way not take a positive experience away."

CultureCounts also can test profitability against quality, Mr Walker says. "To know whether it really does count to put risky work on and is that more expensive or not is something we just don't know - boards and funds and everybody don't know because data has never been collected in this way."

Artists would be better informed in deciding whether to comply or to buck the results, he says.

"We don't want it seen in any way trying to compromise the artistic process. It has got to help the artistic process. It has got to support the artist in trying to get as near to the core of what they want as they possibly can and to allow the audience into that world."

Black Swan State Theatre Company, one of six WA organisations in the first stages of the trial, believes Culture Counts will be a valuable tool in helping assess audience reactions and how they perceive the arts in WA.

"We don't operate in a bubble and without an understanding of how the public perceives the arts and what they value most we could easily lose touch with our audiences," Black Swan general manager Natalie Jenkins says.

The West Australian

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