Why Assess Impact?

May 22, 2014
Sean Fenton

How are people transformed by arts and cultural experiences? This question cuts to the core of both policy and practice in the cultural sector. Yet, aside from talking to audience members at intermission or watching visitors as they move through an exhibition at a museum, the sector lacks an established means of assessing non-financial outcomes.

While much has been written about the economic, social and other instrumental benefits of arts programs (i.e., the arts as an instrument of achieving some other end), the intrinsic benefits of cultural programmes have not been investigated with much regularity. One might argue, however, that without intrinsic impact, other benefits cannot occur. In other words, if the experience itself is unremarkable and does not create meaning, it is quickly forgotten and little benefit accrues.

We assume that audiences and visitors are different, somehow, after an arts program than they were when they first walked in the door. But, how are they different? Is it possible to measure what happens to people in their seats in a theatre or concert hall, or as they stroll through a museum or gallery? Do different kinds of cultural experiences create different impacts? The answers to these questions could shed new light on how arts and cultural organizations create public value, and could profoundly influence both policy and practice. We encourage you to take part in the international movement to explore intrinsic impact and change the conversation about the benefits of the arts.