Understanding the value of the Visual Arts

As representatives of the Visual Arts ecology, whether as artists, curators, organisations or professionals we believe in the value of the work that we do. We also believe that our audiences value our work too. Counting visitors tells us that people do want to experience contemporary visual arts but how do we discover what they’ve taken away from that experience?

Two recent studies carried out in the South West investigated the contemporary visual arts experience and explored different methodologies for measuring the value and impact of those experiences; ‘Quality of Experience’ study carried out by Visual Arts South West and AJ Associates supported by Arts Council England; and ‘Visual Matrix: Thinking beyond Measure’ by Situations and University of Central Lancashire supported by AHRC.

Both projects took as starting point a concern with existing evaluation methodologies and an ambition to ensure that an appropriate criteria is applied in assessing the success of visual arts experiences.

Although the two projects adopted very different approaches, most apparent is that the experience of contemporary visual arts is complex and multi-layered. Complex artworks demand complex evaluation; both methodologies respond to complexity and can be effectively applied with basic training.

My perspective on the two systems are both as insider and informed audience; I was involved in the commissioning of the Quality of Experience study, and for the ‘Thinking Beyond Measure’ project I attended a full-day workshop which enabled me to experience the ‘Visual Matrix’ methodology, to hear findings from the study and take part in discussions and reflections of this approach.


Quality of Experience

Through our steering group of sector representatives at Visual Arts South West we had noted that ‘Quality of Experience’ was a key concept in Arts Council England’s strategy but that there was no conceptualisation to allow this to be measurable. We felt that there was a risk that this lack of clarity could leave room for prejudice or muddled thinking to expand.

Working with AJ Associates Ltd, we began by producing a conceptualisation that considered the quality of experience in the arts in general, and then the case of the visual arts in particular, and its special features. The paper also considered the purposes of evaluation, and possible methodologies for evaluating quality of experience. Our project went on to test out the methodologies working with 4 visual arts organisations in the South West; Arnolfini, Spike Island, New Brewery Arts and b-side Multimedia Arts Festival. The conceptualisation pointed to 3 methodologies: visitor panel, observational questionnaire and a paper questionnaire. These were designed to work together: the visitor panels provide depth but low generalisability because of the small sample. The paper questionnaires provide breadth but low depth. The system was explicitly designed to be rooted in organisational change: through the experience of staff sitting in on visitor panels or reading transcripts, through the group discussion of the observational questionnaire, and through the adoption of former visitor panel members as advocates for the arts, with knowledge, articulation and influencing skills honed in the heat of the visitor panel.

The quality of experience methodology was designed to examine the experience of those who do encounter the visual arts, including learning from peak moments: to build on what is there rather than looking at what is not. It was not designed to interrogate the expectations of non-attenders for whom there are already many market research methodologies.

The results underline the complexity of quality of experience. The contemporary visual arts experience is a strong match for modern forms of consumption because it is visual, symbolic, active user-determined and episodic. Visitors seek novelty and challenge, from which they derive a strong feeling of achievement after resolution. Families see the contemporary visual arts as a natural extension of the playfulness and experimentation of childhood. Critique is part of the contemporary visual arts experience and we observed that audience members often articulated negative views about an exhibition and then rated their overall quality of experience highly. Buildings or events with diverse audiences naturally have more mixed, and potentially some more negative reactions, than those with more homogeneous audiences. Aside from the conceptual element of quality of experience, building related, sense based, social and informational elements are also important. The full report can be read here >>


Visual Matrix: Thinking beyond Measure

Last week I spent a day learning about an intriguing project undertaken by researchers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), led by Professor Lynn Froggett working with arts producers Situations supported by AHRC funding. The project, which took the seaside town of Ilfracombe, and its recent public art experiences; the arrival of Damien Hirst’s ‘Verity’, and the visit of Alex Hartley’s ‘NowhereIsland’ during the summer of 2012 as its starting points was developed to investigate the systems we use to evaluate visual arts experiences, and to explore new methodologies for capturing the multi-layered experience that a visual arts project offers.

The team have been developing an innovative new group based method - the Visual Matrix - to move beyond overt measures of impact and unlock the deeper story of an artwork’s effects on the imagination. This could then be used alongside quantitative approaches to form richer, more complex evaluations.

In order to fully understand the system, we were given the opportunity to experience the process itself. First we were taken into a room where we were shown a slideshow of images, all depicting ‘Nowhereisland’ in or around Ilfracombe. We were asked to try to not engage in analytical or critical thought, but instead to simply consider the associations that the images stimulated. Following this, we were invited to sit on chairs that had been formed in a snowflake arrangement (to discourage us interacting with each other), facing towards the centre of the room. The researchers supported the process by also participating, giving interjections of longer, richer memory-based associated stories. After half an hour (usually the process would be slightly longer) the researchers annotated the ‘associations’ that the participants had shared, and we took a short break then returned to the room to view a different set of images; those of ‘Verity’ in Ilfracombe. The process was repeated.

Following the matrix experience, we reflected on the process, now seated in a more conventional circular format. The responses to the two different artworks were rich and varied, but here I want to focus on the methodology. The discussion threw up a number of questions relating to the potential to influence thinking by the nature of the images shown, the distribution and demographics of the participants, and the application of the methodology as part of an evaluative framework.

After lunch we heard from Situations’ perspective of the process, where Claire Doherty, Director, described their motivations for the project, referencing an article by Shaun Glanville on A-N a which rehearsed some familiar arguments for a return to the assessment of art for art’s sake. “If the primary motivation [for making art] is not artistic or aesthetic then the question of measuring the value of the art becomes peripheral and the activity may as well be judged alongside any other type of social intervention.”

Glanville issued a call to action to come up with a new set of critical questions by which we might judge the success of an artwork, along with several suggestions of what these might be, which Doherty went on to challenge, suggesting several of her own evaluative interrogations particularly focusing on a notion of “aesthetic integrity” to which new forms of public art aspire and which can distinguish critically successful projects from other cultural activities which offer immediate gratification, but which do not generate new forms of critical dialogue or transformation.

Prof.Lynn Froggett led the next session, guiding us through the process that they had used in Ilfracombe along with her Research team at UCLAN. She explained that they had used Focus Groups, rapid capture, interviews as well as the Visual Matrix technique. Describing the benefits and shortfalls of each process, she explained the focus on ‘concept’ and ‘affect’ and how each process draws out different responses. The study was carried out over a number of weeks, and the participants reconvened after a time-lapse during which the researchers had analysed and interpreted the comments and outlined their conclusions. This day workshop was one of four across the whole country and following these sessions the team will be collating and updating their findings which will form a full report to be published soon.

I welcome both studies, and it is encouraging to see how each methodology can draw out new meaning to arts projects, but also reveal the multi-layered ‘affect’, values and benefit to audiences. Continual review and research into how we measure the value of arts experience is imperative if we are to avoid reductive thinking. As the content, form and concepts of art itself evolves so must our interpretation and evaluation of it. This vital research comes at a time when cultural ‘value’ is under heavy scrutiny as public financial investment diminishes. Both pieces of research highlight a thirst from audiences for rich, multi-layered experiences that provoke new ways of thinking, seeing and engaging with the world that surrounds us.

Grace Davies, Regional Development Coordinator, Visual Arts South West.


What's On

Family Saturdays

Aspex Gallery, The Vulcan, PO1 3BF

Monday 01 October 2018 – Thursday 31 October 2019

Craft Workshops

Various Venues

Friday 08 February 2019 – Tuesday 31 December 2019

Jon England: Hour Hands

Market House Museum, 32 Swain St, Watchet TA23 0AD

Wednesday 27 March 2019 – Friday 08 November 2019

Visual Arts South West

Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.

Part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network

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