• A large and emerging literature on the topic of wellbeing has a lot to teach us about the arts’ role in society.
  • Wellbeing is a way of grouping the various components of individual and societal health under a single conceptual umbrella. This is important because it opens up the possibility of understanding the relative value or benefit of those components as part of an integrated whole instead of treating them as completely separate.
  • A number of large-scale international economic and social policy initiatives are grounded in wellbeing, including much of the global development work undertaken by the United Nations.
  • Most wellbeing definitions do not explicitly include culture, but some do. In particular, a variation of a wellbeing framework called the capability approach recognizes the capacity for imagination and play as critical components of human wellbeing.
  • Describing the benefits and costs of arts ecosystem outcomes in the language of wellbeing could earn the field a proper seat at the table in conversations about human progress without downplaying the so-called “intrinsic” benefits of the arts.

* * *


Photo by Flickr user Tim Jordan. Creative Commons license.

Quick! What’s the most important issue in the arts? Is it declining audiences? The fact that it’s so hard to make a living as an artist? Changing demographics and cultural equity? Unsustainable business models? New technologies? Government funding? Arts education? Gentrification? Creative placemaking? Where I can go to figure out what the heck I’m doing this Friday night?

Spend any time reading up on arts policy and philanthropy or attending conferences in the arts, and you’ll see plenty of attention devoted to all of these topics and more. To be sure, all of them have implications for the future of arts and culture in the United States, not to mention the rest of the world. The challenge is, with so many issues to track, and no way of comparing them to each other, we can’t know how to prioritize our limited energies in the areas that are going to make the most difference. We can’t even be sure that the biggest problems or opportunities in the sector are on our collective radar at all. What if the most impactful thing we could do is something that no one’s talking about?

At Createquity, we are trying to tackle that conundrum head-on by framing our work in terms of the broad language of social good and human progress. In this way we sometimes think of ourselves as a cause-specific analogue to the effective altruism movement, which tries to identify the highest-leverage opportunities to do the most good with the resources available to us, whatever they might be. Accordingly, when we developed our definition of a healthy arts ecosystem, we declared that all of the conditions and outcomes named in that definition should be understood in the broader context of “improving people’s lives in concrete and meaningful ways.” While that names a single yardstick of “life improvement” to measure every success against, without further elaborating on what it actually means to improve someone’s life, the concept is not very useful in practice. Fortunately, many smart people have been grappling with the same problem and have made significant strides towards adding specificity around such terms in recent decades. Our investigation of their work has led us to an exciting and emerging literature on the topic of wellbeing, a literature with roots in multiple fields outside of the arts.


Logo of the World Health Organization by United States Mission Geneva. Creative Commons license.


While no consensus definition of wellbeing exists, broadly speaking, it is a way of holistically grouping the many components of individual and societal health under a single conceptual umbrella. The intellectual origins of wellbeing date back more than half a century to 1948, when the World Health Organization framed its definition of health not only in terms of the absence of troublesome physical symptoms, but also in terms of the presence of certain attributes that suggested “physical, mental, and social well-being.” This was a departure from the prevalent medical conception of health at the time, which narrowly focused on the presence or absence of disease and categories of ailments in individuals.

Before long, this holistic perspective began to infiltrate the study of whole communities and societies. An early theoretical work on “social indicators” in the United States was undertaken by Harvard Business School professor Raymond Bauer in the mid-1960s and sponsored (surprisingly enough) by NASA. With a large and visible public investment to protect, the space agency asked Bauer to quantify its effects on American life, but the professor concluded that the effort would not get far without an established way to quantify improvements to social conditions. To bridge that gap, Bauer and his co-authors pioneered the idea and early methods of developing statistical measures of social values and goals.

Bauer’s work coincided with a growing backlash against the then-commonplace use of economic measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure social progress in the national and international policy arena. While GDP is a broadly accepted way to measure the size of an economy, it is at best a flawed proxy for the outcomes that really signify how well societies are faring. In one of the more remarkable developments in the history of political economy, the teenage King Jigme Wangchuk of the small nation of Bhutan coined the term “Gross National Happiness” as a replacement for GDP in 1972. (Decades later, a fleshed-out version of GNH is in active use in the country and enshrined in its Constitution.) Around the same time, Richard Easterlin’s research on happiness levels in post-war Europe in suggested that increased material abundance did not necessarily yield increased happiness, which helped launch the field of happiness economics. By 2008, when the French government brought together a star-studded international panel of economists led by Nobel Prize winners Joseph E. Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to try to move beyond GDP once and for all, wellbeing was rapidly establishing itself as the dominant theoretical foundation of the global policy arena. The resulting Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission report is considered a major watershed in the mainstreaming of wellbeing.

Today, a large and growing field of study is devoted to wellbeing and its measurement, with its own peer-reviewed journals, leading experts, and esoteric controversies. Given that wellbeing scholars operate at the intersection of a number of different fields, it’s not surprising that the lexicon can sometimes get messy, with terms such as quality of life, standard of living, and livability variously standing in for the idea of a holistic measure of individual and community health. One of the more notable debates has centered around objective vs. subjective ways of conceptualizing wellbeing. Historically, a Scandinavian school of thought relied on living conditions such as income and physical health that can be observed directly, while an American “quality of life” approach focused on “subjective wellbeing” (i.e., asking people about their happiness, agency, and satisfaction with life). Advocates of the latter argue that subjective wellbeing is the most direct measure of an individual’s lived experience. Defining wellbeing solely in subjective terms may not tell the whole story, however, since people’s expectations for their own wellbeing may be affected by their context and past experiences. For example, individuals in societies with relative deprivation may rate their subjective wellbeing higher because their basis for comparison is different than people in relatively well-off societies, or a drug addict might report being very happy in the moment despite not leading a healthy life overall. These days, there is widespread agreement that a mix of objective and subjective measures is likely to provide the best understanding of wellbeing.


The insight that neither objective nor subjective measures fully describe wellbeing on their own raises an important question: how does one account for people’s differing abilities or desires to make use of the resources provided them? Beginning in the 1980s, economist Amartya Sen began addressing this dilemma in earnest. His capability approach, refined in subsequent decades with philosopher Martha Nussbaum, frames wellbeing through the lens of social justice, taking the unique circumstances and choices of individuals into account. Among other things, the capability approach notes that:


Amartya Sen. Photo by Flickr user Stefano Corso. Creative Commons license.

  • Individuals draw varying levels of benefit from the same resources. As a result, assessing wellbeing is much more complex than considering whether and how resources are distributed. It’s one thing to say, for example, that food is available to a particular population; it’s quite another to consider whether that food can actually nourish and sustain a pregnant woman or someone who is allergic to some of its core ingredients. As a result, the capability approach pays more attention to specific states of being (e.g., being nourished) and activities (e.g., learning) than to external inputs.
  • Having the freedom to make choices matters. Whether or not people take advantage of the opportunities they have, their ability to make decisions about how they pursue their lives is vital to wellbeing. The physical state of a person who is starving may be similar to that of someone who is fasting, but the right of the latter to choose his/her condition in an informed manner is crucial. Through this lens, all human beings must have the knowledge, skills, and opportunity to lead a meaningful life — beyond mere survival, a life “that they have reason to value.” Having the “capability” to achieve various states is therefore more significant than whether or not one actually achieves them.

Economists and international development scholars were quick to seize on Sen’s capability approach in their quest to break from an over-reliance on the GDP. As disillusioned as they were with standard macroeconomic measures, they knew that alternative metrics were needed in order for wellbeing to serve as a viable replacement. This gap led to a demand for new indicator systems that researchers and policymakers could use to translate quality of life into something that could be measured. Indicators, as they saw it, were necessary for wellbeing to move beyond a theoretical construct into something with practical significance. Beyond providing a means to count whether certain conditions are present, indicators could inform judgments about the success or failure of particular policy decisions, be used to hold people in power accountable to the impact of their work, and provide a common vocabulary by which nations, regions, or specific groups of people can track how they are faring.

In 1990, the United Nations Development Programme (UDNP), led by Pakistani scholar Mahbub ul Haq, began producing Human Development Reports meant to “shift the focus of development economics from national income accounting to people-centered policies.” In the process, they worked on a numerical index that could capture non-economic elements of wellbeing. Amartya Sen was involved; while he initially fretted that the capability approach was too complex to be boiled down to numbers, Haq and others eventually convinced him that policymakers would only take the capability approach seriously if a single index number was provided. Thus, the Human Development Index (HDI) was born.


The HDI is relatively simple. Its three dimensions are “a long and healthy life,” “being knowledgeable,” and a “decent standard of living.” The indicators are life expectancy at birth, mean years of schooling for adults over 25 and expected years of schooling for young children (calculated via a mix of UNESCO statistics and actual enrollment figures), and gross national income per capita. The geometric mean of numerical scores from these four indicators comprise the final HDI index score for any particular country.

The United States fares quite well under this system, ranking fifth out of 187 nations in 2012-13. UNDP’s Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), however, tells a different story. It adjusts the HDI score based on the extent to which resources are more available to certain segments of the population than to others. (It uses a long list of surveys, including a few distributed by the World Bank and European Union, to do this.) A country with perfect equality would have identical HDI and IHDI scores. Across all countries in the survey, however, scores are adjusted by an average of 22%. Under IHDI, the United States’s ranking falls by more than twenty, while the remaining countries in the top five either hold their spots or shift by one or two.

The Human Development Index is just one example of a number of impressive, large-scale wellbeing indicator systems that have been developed in recent years. Below are a few of the more interesting and/or well-known efforts:


Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index

Claiming to be the “most proven, mature, and comprehensive measure of well-being in the world,” the Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index was unveiled in 2008 as a high-profile partnership between an international health care provider and arguably the best-known public opinion polling firm in the United States. Dubbed the “Dow Jones of health,” the index has a national and international version. The former measures life evaluation, physical health, emotional health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access via a 55-question survey distributed to 1,000 Americans per day. Its ultimate ambitions are to be “a daily measure determining the correlation between the places where people work and the communities in which they live, and how that and other factors impact their well-being.” The international edition is more modest, measuring five factors (purpose, social, financial, community, and physical) via ten specific questions included in Gallup’s World Poll, a monster survey that claims to represent 95% of the global population. Its reliance on self-reported perceptions of wellbeing sets it apart from other wellbeing indicators, and the impact of this difference in approach is notable: top Gallup-Healthways performers include a number of Latin American nations and territories such as Panama, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Belize, Chile, and Guatemala that don’t tend to rank highly in the other indices.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 6.49.44 PM

Social Progress Index
The Social Progress Imperative

Billed as a “holistic, 21st century assessment of the health of society,” the Social Progress Imperative was launched six years ago by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Philanthropy and Social Investing with the goal of “spur[ring] competition between nations to improve the environment for social innovation in the way the [Global Competitiveness Index] has done for enablers of economic growth.” With seed funding from Fundación Avina and the Skoll Foundation, it launched its first research project, the Social Progress Index (SPI), in 2013. The SPI examines a whopping 54 environmental and and social indicators that fall under three broad dimensions: “basic human needs,” “foundations of wellbeing,” and “opportunity.” Unlike the HDI, the index does not take economic indicators like income into account, and also privileges outcomes (like the number of people who have access to clean water) over inputs (like policies aimed at increasing that access). Each dimension has four components that all have equal weight in determining the country’s overall score. Components include nutrition and medical care, access to knowledge, information, communications, and personal rights and freedoms. The Social Progress Imperative’s website breaks down each score with colors that indicate areas of relative strength and weakness when compared with other nations with similar GDP.


OECD Better Life Index
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

In contrast to the previous examples with their fixed metric definitions and weights, OECD’s Better Life Index allows website visitors to manipulate the data on the agency’s 34 member nations according to their own personal definition of wellbeing. The Better Life index was launched in 2011 to put decisions about the most important aspects of wellbeing into the hands of the public. It’s not an entire free-for-all; the Better Life Index has eleven discrete topics taken from OECD’s other work on wellbeing indicators, split between material living conditions (including housing, income, and jobs), and the more nebulous quality of life (which in this case includes measures of community, education, environment, governance, health, life satisfaction, safety and work/life balance). Each topic is measured in turn by anywhere from one to four indicators, which run the gamut of statistics from the chance of workers losing their jobs in the last year to self-reported life satisfaction. Wellbeing scores can be broken out by gender, and each user can save his/her personal index and compare it with those of others.

Other examples of wellbeing and quality of life indicator systems include the Mercer Quality of Living Survey and two products from the Economist Intelligence Unit: the Global Liveability Survey and the Where-to-be-Born Index. The last of these, which is based on life satisfaction, is notable for its use of regression analysis to determine the relative weights of the 11 factors that make up the index, in contrast to the equal or user-determined weighting seen elsewhere. The Mercer and Global Liveability surveys rank quality of life in individual cities rather than entire nations; Vienna and Melbourne, respectively, take the top spots.


These and other wellbeing indicator systems typically break down the general concepts of wellbeing or quality of life into a number of discrete domains like economic prosperity, education, or health. The domains are most often developed by experts working from theoretical conceptions of wellbeing, though a few cases draw heavily from definitions generated by the population being studied. There are a number of variations in the details, but a review of more than 20 indicator systems by a group of researchers led by Michael R. Hagerty identified seven domains that are common across nearly all instances:

  • relationships with family and friends
  • emotional wellbeing
  • material wellbeing
  • health
  • work and productive activity
  • feeling a part of one’s local community
  • personal safety

You’ll note the absence of arts and culture from this list. In part, that’s because different societies have dramatically different ideas about what those words mean, and internationally comparable data sources relevant to culture are all but nonexistent. Robert Prescott-Allen, who in 2001 published a book detailing his own indicator system with an emphasis on the environmental impact of countries, originally set out to include culture as a top-level domain. Ultimately, he abandoned the idea, finding he could not identify cultural indicators that were consistent across a majority of nations included in his project.

Prescott-Allen is not alone; most indicator systems and other initiatives rooted in wellbeing have historically overlooked the role of arts and culture, and continue to do so. A recent advocacy campaign to integrate an explicit goal of cultural sustainability into the next iteration of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals appears to have failed, despite support from UNESCO itself and significant investment on the part of that agency in an indicator system to track culture’s role in sustainable development. Despite not achieving its primary objective, the advocacy campaign has yielded a useful set of ways to think about culture’s indirect contribution to wellbeing through priorities such as poverty reduction, education, and good governance.

Even so, a handful of individual countries have developed indices of wellbeing that include culture as a top-level concern. The aforementioned Gross National Happiness index adopted by the government of Bhutan is one example. The “Cultural Diversity and Resilience” domain of the index includes measures such as fluency in one of the regional dialects of Bhutan, expertise in one of thirteen traditional Bhutanese crafts (e.g. weaving, embroidery, blacksmithing, bamboo works, paper making, etc.), and knowledge of DriglamNamzha (the “expected behaviour [of consuming, clothing, moving] especially in formal occasions and in formal spaces”). In North America, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing includes the broad category of culture and leisure, which includes measures of leisure time as well as participation in activities such as camping, sports, or performing arts.

Another notable exception comes from the capability approach, or at least one particular version of it. Although Amartya Sen refuses to endorse “one pre-determined canonical list of capabilities” for the capability approach, his partner in crime, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, has had no such compunctions — and her definition includes multiple nods to arts and culture. [1]

In 2000, Nussbaum published a list of “central human capabilities” as follows:

      • Life
      • Bodily Health
      • Bodily Integrity
      • Senses, Imagination, and Thought
      • Emotions
      • Practical Reason
      • Affiliation
        • living with and towards others
        • social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation
      • Other Species
      • Play
      • Control Over One’s Environment
        • Political
        • Material

In her explanation of this list, Nussbaum draws the clearest ties to arts and culture through the two principles of “Senses, Imagination, and Thought” and “Play.” The former includes “being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth,” and the latter refers to “being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.”


“Imagination” by Flickr user Thomas Hawk. Creative Commons license.


Examining the connection between wellbeing and the arts [2] promises to move Createquity’s work forward in two respects. First, it adds some clarity and definition to our rather vague notion of the “concrete and meaningful ways” in which the arts improve people’s lives. And second, it connects the ideas embedded in our healthy arts ecosystem definition to a rich and rapidly expanding body of literature, lending added legitimacy to our work and opening the door to a broader cross-sectoral dialogue. The former of these benefits comes into play whenever we find ourselves having to compare different problems, interventions, or opportunities within the arts ecosystem. Our previous framework of “improving lives in concrete and meaningful ways” was on the right track, but weak in that it left “improving” and “meaningful” undefined. While not completely solving that problem, jumping on the wellbeing bandwagon does allow us to hone in on a range of likely definitions for those terms. Put another way, this new lens clarifies that the conditions and outcomes generated by a healthy arts ecosystem must increase the net wellbeing of society in order to constitute meaningful improvement in people’s lives.

The second benefit is perhaps even more important than the first. Scholars, philanthropists, policymakers, and others have long struggled to articulate how arts and culture fit into a broader conception of public goods and charitable aims, with the result that social innovation initiatives frequently treat the arts by different standards or ignore them entirely. Newer philanthropic movements such as effective altruism have sometimes demonstrated outright hostility to the arts, associating them with headline-grabbing capital or endowment gifts to major universities and large museums. Naturally, that prompts angry and defensive responses from the arts world in turn. Crucially, this distrust and lack of understanding on both sides arises from the absence of a common language with which to judge the value and success of initiatives across sectors. If we can describe the benefits and costs of arts ecosystem outcomes using the language of wellbeing in a way that celebrates rather than subsumes the unique things that make the arts special, that would lay the groundwork for a dialogue about the role of arts and culture in human progress in which all sides have a genuine stake.

Overall, we find the capability approach to be the most effective bridge between our existing healthy ecosystem definition and the fast-growing scholarship on wellbeing. It is particularly worth noting that Martha Nussbaum’s take on the capability approach is the clearest example we’ve found of integrating what have been commonly understood as the “intrinsic” benefits of the arts, such as joy, captivation, etc., into a broader definition of wellbeing. [3] This approach allows us to think of the arts as influencing overall wellbeing both directly, through developing the capabilities of Play and Senses, Imagination, and Thought, and indirectly through, for example, their impact on the capability of Bodily Health. Such a framework improves on the traditional delineation of “intrinsic” and “instrumental” benefits of the arts by proposing a consistent way to value both.

The capability approach is particularly helpful for clarifying what we mean when when we say that human beings today and in the future have “opportunities” to engage in certain types of arts participation. (The same could be said for other efforts in the arts field to “improve access to” things like arts engagement or arts education.) Its emphasis on personal choice and freedoms rather than behaviors suggests that a narrow focus on things like participation rates in an arts class or attendance figures at a concert hall cannot tell us much about wellbeing. Choosing not to engage in a specific arts activity or a long-term aesthetic pursuit can be a well-informed decision that yields greater wellbeing than would otherwise be the case. Likewise, the capability approach reminds us that providing people with access to resources is not enough; they must have the necessary training, skills, and agency to make use of them. This latter insight is consistent with the position that proactive steps should be taken to provide basic arts education opportunities to all, even if not everyone will choose to engage with the arts throughout their whole lives. For all these reasons, although they have not been as widely adopted as the capability approach in general, Nussbaum’s central human capabilities arguably offer a more compelling theoretical rationale for arts and culture’s inclusion in wellbeing than simply slapping arts participation indicators on top of a wellbeing measurement index.


“Which way do we go?” by Flickr user yooperann. Creative Commons license.


It’s important to remember that as much progress as wellbeing has made since 1948, this is very much a field that is still finding its way. Even the effective altruist community, with its self-assured rhetoric of doing “the most good possible,” is home to raging debates about what exactly that means in practice. So it should come as no surprise that as promising as we feel this direction to be for the arts, we have some thorny questions of our own:

  • How does one weigh the benefits of art that is offensive to some people, but empowering to others? This is particularly tricky in cases when art is in direct dialogue — or conflict — with ideologies or belief systems that contribute to individuals’ subjective wellbeing. This push-pull appears particular to the field of arts and culture; it’s difficult to imagine how the health, social integration, or financial stability of one person could detract from that of another (beyond instances in which there aren’t enough resources to go around). In contrast, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a culturally important but challenging artistic work has a negative (if short-lived) impact on the subjective wellbeing of the majority of a population. Yet that work may ultimately have a positive impact on future generations, which leads us to a second question:
  • How does one account for changes in the value of arts and cultural products and experiences over time? This dilemma can play out both at the individual level, where cultural experiences that are not immediately pleasurable could nevertheless prove meaningful to the recipient later on; and at a societal level, where future generations may enjoy, appreciate, and/or use today’s cultural products in a very different way than their ancestors do. The latter situation is particularly vexing because there’s no defined time horizon for our definition of a healthy arts ecosystem, and thus a huge range of possibilities for how many people might be affected positively or negatively in the future by events taking place and decisions made in the present. Fortunately, that particular puzzle is mirrored in domains outside of the arts, and techniques such as discount rates have been established to deal with the issue, imperfect though they may be.
  • How should different elements of wellbeing be weighed against each other? In theory, the only way to answer our opening question of which problems and interventions should receive top priority is to have a clear sense of how the holistic notion of wellbeing relates to its component parts. Yet the actual wellbeing indicator systems that have been put into practice largely seem to avoid this challenge, either declining to offer an overall wellbeing score entirely or weighing each component of the index equally — which, as many have pointed out, comes with its own set of problems. More interesting and intellectually defensible ways of determining weights exist, including expert judgments, crowdsourcing the personal opinions of members of the population under study, and statistical methods such as principal component analysis, two-stage factor analysis, or conjoint analysis. We aren’t in a position at this point to recommend a specific weighting scheme, but it seems like an important area for someone to explore going forward.

For all our never-ending debates about how and whether to measure the impact of the arts, our field may be well poised to contribute to this complex but fascinating dialogue that spans so many disciplines and decades. After all, if anyone is accustomed to making value judgments within an environment that resists quantification, it’s us! Committing to that conversation could open new doors as we contribute to a broader, shared understanding of human progress without having to downplay some of the arts’ more unique, intrinsic contributions. Entering those doors, however, will require leaving the arts cheerleading that many of us are accustomed to at the coat check. It will require contemplating what it looks like to offer the freedom to participate in arts and culture while simultaneously honoring those who decline the invitation.

  • Matthew

    Does anyone else find it interesting that on discussions about the well being of the arts, creative economy or culture, there is little interest in the well being of artists? Is this because there is an assumption that ‘the arts’ well being is intrinsically linked to the health of artists?
    Perhaps someone could start making some distinctions. A comparison of the earnings of career arts administers and artist might be interesting.

    • Great question, Matthew. My sense is that within the arts, there actually is quite a lot of concern for the wellbeing of individual artists, at least in the sense that people talk about it. Outside of the arts, however, you’re right that it’s much more common to take an audience-centric perspective. At Createquity, we are concerned with both, and it’s likely that one of our research investigations in the coming year will focus on how economic disadvantage impacts artistic expression.

      • Jenni-Beck

        “Within the arts, there actually is quite a lot of concern for the wellbeing of individual artists…” I am not sure I totally agree– at least in a holistic sense. I find discussion about the wellbeing of the independent art community fairly low on the priority list, if not conspicuously absent from conversations about cultural policy and the “health” of the arts in my city. I think these conversations are probably far more common in cities with thriving creative economies with a healthy mix of commercial and nonprofit work for artists.

        I love the idea of examining the earnings of career arts administrators versus artists– however, what is problematic about those distinctions is that so many wear both hats at various times in their lives.

  • Question #1 – empowering vs. offensive – is particularly interesting to me… and I’m not sure it has merit as a dichotomy. It seems to me to be a pretty clear case where one group of individuals subordinating their privilege to support the empowerment of others is a net positive for the community. There’s a lot of social psychology research out there related to the idea that strong, diverse role models help people from many backgrounds pursue their dreams without feeling that particular activities/fields/projects are not “for them” (i.e. girls in science). Shouldn’t we use art to have the same effect on people’s perceived (and hopefully, real) capabilities?

  • Jessie

    Measurability is always a challenge. How does one really measure a low-income student’s inspiration after participating in an arts after-school program? Do we study changes in her GPA? Long-term
    likelihood of a college-education? Number of new, constructive friendships? Or, to the question regarding weighing the benefits of art that is offensive to some and empowering to others: how do we really measure the effects of taking offense? Offense could lead to a decrease in an individual’s well-being… or could it ultimately offer the constructive benefits of exposure to differing view-points and the encouragement of difficult conversation and debate?

    Difficulty and differences in measurability are the biggest sticking points for me in the Effective Altruism discussion, in which the arts are oftentimes intentionally left out of a donors’ choices for making the greatest impact with their dollars. But how does one effectively compare impact when the Health and Human Services realm measures success in black and white metrics, where numbers of diseases eradicated and number of bellies full reflect degree of success? And of course, lives saved will always morally win over lives touched. But that begs the question – is it statistically appropriate to evaluate the arts and HHS within the same framework? Shared nonprofit status and a systemic imperative for donor dollars forces the two together. But is that necessarily the most effective evaluative set up?

    If the arts are a component of well-being (and I agree that they are), measurability seems to be challenge number one. If we want a seat at the evaluative table, we need to play by the same rules (or at least the same metrics). But can the impact of the arts be effectively captured by a coefficient in a “wellness regression?” That question needs to be answered, it seems, before anything else.

    • Great points, Jessie. We didn’t really dive into the measurability question in this particular post, but I agree that it does need to be tackled if we’re ever to see wellbeing taken seriously as a quantitative concept. I’ve had years of experience grappling with challenges of measurement in the arts and in that time, I’d say I’ve become more optimistic about the ultimate feasibility of the challenges you point out rather than less. I’ve taken to heart the words of author and risk analysis expert Douglas Hubbard who insists that “if it matters, it can be measured.” It doesn’t mean that it can always be measured easily or with perfect precision, but it is possible. If you think about it, some of the measures that we take for granted today, like the much-maligned GDP, are actually tracking insanely complicated underlying concepts. The only reason they don’t seem absurd to us is because we’ve invested the resources as a society to collect those numbers and have them easily available.

      It may be helpful to keep in mind that there’s a big difference between measuring something once (say, in the context of a research study), and setting up a tracking system to create a “metric” that is applied broadly and kept up to date on a regular basis. Many people associate measurement with the second situation, but in most cases the first is perfectly sufficient to tell us what we need to know. The way that Createquity operates is that we take all of these research studies that have been done and filter out the strongest ones, the ones that seem like they have the most to tell us about how the world really works. Then we construct a generalized story of cause and effect from the evidence that’s there. So in the case of after-school programs, it doesn’t really matter if this particular program has evidence of impact on student wellbeing if there is general evidence that after-school programs have that impact. And the beauty of that approach is that wellbeing can be defined many different ways at the level of the individual research study, and reviewing the evidence (if there’s enough of it, that is) will tell us what sort of story we can believe about the specific effects of after-school programs.

      There are already people in the aid world who have started down the road of creating composite measures to track quality of life – for example, look up DALYs, which stand for Disability-Adjusted Life Years. And check out GiveWell’s very smart writing on the opportunities and challenges of measuring cost-effectiveness of charities (for which the hard part is measuring the effectiveness, not the cost) here.

  • Iva

    It seems to me that the question of weighing the benefits of
    art that offends some but empowers others can be brought back to the first
    system mentioned: Amartya Sen’s capability approach. Rather than worrying about
    trying to measure particular pieces of art that may or may not offend someone,
    maybe it is more important to measure art within freedom to make choices. As
    Amartya Sen mentions, people’s wellbeing tends to be better when they have
    choices. Perhaps it would be better to measure the number of choices people
    have within the arts. For example, a city that is thriving with various forms
    of music (opera, symphony, jazz clubs, rock venues, etc.) would allow more
    options than a city that might only have one concert venue that only plays one
    type of music. If people have more choices, they can more easily experience art
    that empowers them, and avoid the art that offends them.

    The concept of weighing art that might offend someone
    extends beyond just artwork. Pretty much everything that exists in the universe
    is bound to offend somebody. The idea of trying to weigh something that is
    based on someone’s opinion seems somewhat futile to me. But if this can be
    something that can help figure out the level of a country’s wellbeing, I
    believe this should be applied to more than just the arts.

  • Gabriel

    Thinking about how one accounts for changes in value, it’s important to look at the first point of
    the Capability Effect: individuals draw varying levels of benefit from the same resources. This definitely applies to arts and cultural products and experiences. After all, so much of the value
    drawn out is subjective, both on the part of the makers and the audience. So, there is no “correct” amount of value that can be assigned at a given time, much less try to track how that value may change over time. I don’t think that something such as an Arts Discount Rate exists, since this implies that there is a set present value to the art that is lower than the expected future value. A piece of art or a cultural experience may be created and have its biggest impact at its immediate inception, but then lose all of its intrinsic value when removed from that specific context. Who would determine this discount rate? Would there be different rates between visual and performance arts? How about for paintings, sculptures, photos, and ceramics? One of the greatest things about the arts is that they are open to interpretation and can impact individuals or groups in unique ways. Why would we want to try to categorize this?

    So maybe the answer is that we don’t account for the changes in value. Can we just allow art to be appreciated differently at different times? After all, the artist’s intent and the viewer’s experience more often than not are not convergent. And isn’t the value of the product or experience ultimately determined by the end user (audience member) rather than by the maker? Tastes change over time, and styles of art go in and out of fashion. This change allows new types of art to emerge, people to embrace new styles, and experiences to be shaped in uncommon ways. And with no set system accounting for value changes, those arts and cultural products and experiences that “stand the test of time” seem even more awe-inspiring.

  • Gabriel

    Unrelated, I came across an interesting article from earlier this year that examines the influence art has on well being in the more traditional sense of the word.

  • Nicole Kite

    Examining the arts under Nussbaum’s capabilities of “Senses, Imagination, and Thought” and “Play” potentially undervalues the role that arts have in societal well-being. Of those that Nussbaum lists, “Senses, Imagination, and Thought” and “Play” seem to be some of the least defensible capabilities, the most likely ones to be written off as “soft” or “extra” – much as the arts have been written off in recent years in our schools. If we are to construct a new dialogue around the arts as truly significant to overall human well-being, the case should be clear that the arts are substantiative and fundamental, and without them societal well-being is at a clear risk; the arts are not simply fun or icing on the cake.

    I believe a strong case can be made for examining the arts under the capability of “Affiliation.” While the capability of “Senses, Imagination, and Thought” does address the notion of freedom of speech, it does so in a very individual sense. Looking at arts under “Affiliation” acknowledges the influence a whole community has in fostering a sense of well-being through their support of the arts, and gives room to demonstrate how the arts play a role in educating about the lives of others and conditioning empathy through depiction and storytelling.

    Further, and to the question of offending or empowering art, the freedom or ability for human beings to safely manifest their potentially controversial beliefs and experiences through creative media and have others in their society receive them reflects a culture that is more open, receptive, and/or comfortable examining ideas different than their own – where the notion of offense can engage folks with differing beliefs in dialogues about the “why” and “so what” of a work. The flat rejection of offending creative material reflects narrow-mindedness, arguably a characteristic that has an adverse affect on both community and individual well-being. By looking at arts under the capability of “Affiliation” we are better able to consider how the arts add to a fundamental human right, freedom of expression, rather than simply provide a delight or pleasure.

    • Katie Ingersoll

      This is really interesting Nicole! One of the compelling things about thinking about the arts in the context of the capabilities approach is that arts experiences have the potential to be related to multiple of the capabilities, and I think your point about adding affiliation to the list of capabilities that are potentially developed through arts experiences is a good one. (Though it is possible that audiences likely to dismiss imagination and thought as “soft” might have a similar reaction to affiliation as defined by Nussbaum.)

      Your points about how affiliation speaks to the question of offensive art and the importance of freedom of expression are also well-taken. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  • Mae Saul

    It seems like we can’t get away from this question of worth and value when we talk about the arts and their place in our society. Whether it’s a question of public funding, education or access, the arts really have been put on the defensive and we have already seen multiple movements attempting to address this issue—attempting to create a systematic way of quantifying arts experiences. Creative place-making, the STEAM movement and the creative economy approach are all examples of how arts advocates have had to rethink how we value the arts and make the case that there is some sort of measureable benefit for our society—whether that is improving neighborhoods, arguing that arts enhance the STEM disciplines, or creating an economic framework that shows leaders and policy makers that the arts can have a hand in a local and national economy. It is frustrating as an arts administrator to have to think about valuing the arts in this manner and ignore the notion that the arts are a fundamental part of the human experience. However, I understand the necessity and I think that the Createquity approach does something to build the case for quantifying the value of the arts without diminishing the intrinsic value of the arts. I think it is a good approach to adding the arts to the set of well-being indicators and weighing them against other important parts of well-being. I think it is well understood at this point that we are really looking for a “seat at the table” when talking about the overall good of a community and measuring human well-being. I think this approach could emphasize the importance of the arts in the human experience if done right.

    I think the most challenging part of this project will be understanding how to use data that is collected throughout this process and understanding how to weigh indicators against each other. I am thinking specifically of using survey results and the problems with understanding responses. I don’t think you can gather useful data about how people value arts and cultural experiences when there is such a huge inconsistency in access, education and involvement in every community in our country. I am also concerned about how we define “arts” and “culture.” What will happen to this data if we define “attending a sporting event” as a cultural activity? We will get completely different results than if we define cultural activities as performing arts, museum visits, etc. But, sports are a huge part of our cultural life and I think it could be argued that they are an element of community and well being. I think a truly successful framework for valuing the arts or arguing that the arts themselves are an indicator of well-being will have to be tied more to a case study approach. I think this is the biggest challenge for the project both in terms of gathering useful information and thinking about how to weigh different elements of well-being against each other. I also think surveying the general population wouldn’t generate any strong support for the argument that the arts are a part of our overall well-being. I think declining audiences and falling tickets are indicative of this in the first place.

    I think it would be more valuable to look at communities in which the arts have increased the well-being of residents. I think this definitely has the same measurability challenges, but I think case study will get closer to the actual well-being effect of arts programs than self-reported well being measures. It could also be a question of rethinking the way in which we ask people to assign a value to the arts in their life and well-being. For example, questions like, “Have you noticed the new pianos in parks throughout Seattle? Have you stopped to listen to someone play them? Have you attended a musical event in the last 6 months?” vs. a vague/too big question like, “Do you feel that the arts add joy to your life?” or a purely informational question like, “Have you ever been to a classical music concert?” would be more representational to how the arts add value to a community.

    • Katie Ingersoll

      Hi Mae,

      I appreciate your comments on balancing the intrinsic value of the arts with other more instrumental benefits. Part of the appeal of this approach is that it easily recognizes both the intrinsic benefits of culture and those other oft-cited gains you mention like economic development and STEM education.

      I agree with you that the devil is in the measurement details! I like the example survey questions you give as examples that move beyond more commonly used (and perhaps easier to measure) indicators like attendance at a concert. One of the studies we found very helpful in this research was a literature review sponsored by the Scottish government:

      The author’s review multiple studies that look at culture’s relationship to wellbeing in various ways, some of which are case studies of the type you mention. They discuss the difficulty of establishing causality and generalizability to other groups through such methods (two important considerations for policymakers at the national level), though the authors do leave room for the possibility that findings through other methods like “grounded theory” could also be of use to policy makers to rely on. It’s an interesting discussion, if you want to dig deeper, chapters 1.7 and 1.8 cover this material. (And as a bonus, they also look at sports!)

      Thanks for reading!

  • Katerina

    I like the idea of using a regression to determine the different weights for the individual aspects that make up “wellbeing” as a whole. Regressing individuals’ levels of access to and utilization of multiple topics (ex. the arts, culture, housing, employment, education, health, safety, etc.) against what they self-rate their overall wellbeing as could enable discovery of not only the significance of each topic but also how the topics interact and influence each other. The article mentions that measuring arts audience participation is not an effective metric because it may not tell the entire story (Is not participating an informed choice or is it due to being unaware?). A regression lends the possibility to reveal more of the complete story and would be a good tool in the attempt to assign weights to different topics of wellbeing. I also think it would be profitable to include economic indicators such as
    income as well as the individual geographic location in the regression to explore the impact of these elements on wellbeing. I believe it is most important to investigate the interaction between the different measures and for our purposes as arts advocates and supporters to make sure the arts is included.

    I briefly want to touch on the idea of how to measure art that may be offensive to some but empowering to others. I’m not convinced that this should be taken into account in this context. As an art audience member, determining whether or not you enjoyed or liked a piece of art and whether you felt offended or not is incredibly subjective and I’m not sure if it detracts from one’s wellbeing. There are other factors that may interplay with a negative reaction to art which then may have an effect on wellbeing. Such as, the ability and freedom to speak your opinion.

    • Katie Ingersoll

      Hi Katerina, your thoughts about the importance of analyzing the relationships between different variables echo some of what we saw in the literature. If you haven’t already you might want to check out Stern and Seifert’s study of cultural ecology and wellbeing in Philadelphia (link below) where they do begin to analyze how various measures of wellbeing (including culture) relate to one another in Philadelphia.

      Your point about measuring offensive art is interesting. I agree that the perception that a piece of art the viewer finds offensive has decreased their wellbeing is very subjective, though the literature we reviewed suggested that there is a role for subjective measures of wellbeing, though they are best when used together with objective measures. I think you are right that personal security and freedom of expression are also important elements of wellbeing to consider.

      Thanks for reading!

      Link to Stern and Seifert’s study:

  • I liked the thought of: “being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.” Everyone differs in what recreational activities they like to enjoy but everyone loves to laugh and play. Good thing we have loads of options to choose from in this world to make that happen. :)