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In the age of big data, arts are a refuge for idiosyncrasy

Colin Dabkowski

At this point, I can almost write the stories with my eyes closed:

According to a new report from (insert name of government agency or nonprofit here), arts and cultural organizations contributed (insert astoundingly high dollar figure here) to the (local/national/global) economy last year.

The recent barrage of cultural economic impact studies, increasingly employed as weapons against politicians who would de-fund arts nonprofits, is in many ways heartening. It shows evidence of historically cloutless arts groups learning to speak the language of politics and business, the better to prove what worthwhile investments they are.

But cultural groups and institutions should be careful about just how fluent they become in these severe and unforgiving idioms, and how much they allow the terms and tactics of Wall Street, Washington and Silicon Valley to infect their humanistic missions.

The most important functions of arts organizations – to educate, inspire and foster empathy across cultures and experiences – have been and always will be unquantifiable.

There are no yardsticks for those crucial functions, only anecdotes and trends that arise months or sometimes years after the experience itself. And yet, as Leon Wieseltier wrote recently in a remarkable essay in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are ‘metrics’ for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured.”

What numerical standard of measurement, for instance, might you apply to a great performance of “Hamlet?”

What’s the return on investment of that series of graceful pirouettes you just witnessed?

How far is the “organic reach” of Shark Girl?

Obligatory Shark Girl shot. (John Hickey/Buffalo News file photo)

Obligatory Shark Girl shot. (John Hickey/Buffalo News file photo)

At what exact point in “Clybourne Park” does a white student from the suburbs finally understand the life of a black man from the East Side?

These are, of course, absurd questions. But what’s incredible is that they sound less absurd today than they did five years ago, when the world was just falling into its swoon over the promise of big data.

To be sure, the current mania over data-driven thinking and its seemingly limitless applications to journalism, education and all aspects of government has huge upsides that are themselves incalculable. By assembling enormous data sets, zooming out as far as possible and pulling trends out of the ether, stories that were once merely anecdotal take on greater weight and are able to move the needle farther on important issues.

And none of this is to say that organizations should not be able to in some way demonstrate their educational impact, or prove that they can keep their books balanced and raise money effectively. (Erie County groups, in particular, have become very good at that.) But in focusing too heavily on economic multiplier effects and other such pieces of data, we risk standardizing cultural experiences to meet those fantasy numbers in the same way education has been standardized to achieve acceptable test scores.

If it sounds like I’m wringing my hands over this issue a little prematurely, maybe I am. But I have some company.

Focusing too much on the ancillary benefits of arts and culture, especially their economic effect, has been a professed concern of Tod A. Kniazuk, the executive director of the Arts Services Initiative, who has warned against tying the success of groups too closely to their effect on GDP. In the introduction to ASI’s own economic impact study, Kniazuk made sure to note that the study shows “only one of many impacts” and went on to list eight more, including education and service to the community. And good luck putting a number on those.

ASI's Tod Kniazuk warns against tying a cultural group's success with its finances. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

ASI's Tod Kniazuk warns against tying a cultural group's success with its finances. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

Art is, or ought to be, a reliable refuge for idiosyncrasy in a society that increasingly views the idiosyncratic with suspicion. It is a space that, in order to achieve its highest function, requires built-in protections against the results of dubious deep data dives and granular analytics.

If cultural institutions in America allow themselves to be reduced to an economic percentage, they become indistinguishable from grain futures, gross exports or housing starts: something thing we only care about in relation to the bottom line.

As we fall ever more deeply in thrall to the siren song of big data, the future of arts and culture could benefit or suffer depending on the pose it adopts. There are more than a few options, but death by a thousand data points shouldn’t be one of them.


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