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Why measuring leads to knowing less and measuring even more. On the futility of trend reports and indices

They have learned something at Boekman. The foundation that has had the honour of managing the culture index since this year understands that trend graphs say precious little. We observed that on this site already several times, the researchers now agree wholeheartedly. So the club is taking a different approach this year. In recent months, sixty wise men and women considered the trends. They found that Dutch culture is doing quite well in terms of competitiveness, capacity and money flows, but that participation (active and passive cultural participation) has been going downhill in a punitive way since 2011.

So, before we lose ourselves in the higher kabbalistics of the culture index again: these figures say very little. It is just how important you consider one or the other, so even that an overall average shows a slight increase in the culture index is completely arbitrary.

Worrying.

In the accompanying letter, therefore, the Boekman Foundation states that the index is going to become less important. One prefers the trend analysis by the panel of experts. 

And so in that analysis, what stands out most is that developments are worrying. At least, if you value the more sophisticated forms of art and culture. The attrition rate is gigantic; the number of writers living off writing has never been so small. Boekman speaks of 143; meanwhile, according to the latest KVB Boekwerk figures from November, that has fallen to 67. The film industry consists only of US blockbusters. In the theatre, theatre and dance are declining against a rather shocking growth of 'free', or rather indirectly subsidised offerings of cabaret and music theatre. Cultural press also noted that previously

In music, Boekman's experts see that international violence is also threatening the earnings of musicians of all genres. Festivalisation is said to have reached a peak, musicians' pay a nadir. Across the board, artists and venues are taking less risk.

The canonical performing arts have been going downhill in the Netherlands for years, the index shows conclusively.

Governance.

A striking trend can be observed in the visual arts. The international art market may be booming, but that success largely passes the Netherlands by. Indeed, the number of artists who can make a living from making art continues to decline. At the same time, the number of artists working in policy positions is rising. Could that have something to do with the increased complexity of subsidy schemes? Or is it simply nicer to sit on a board or advisory committee than to hang out in a museum?

When it comes to heritage and museums, Boekman shows remarkably little critical ability when it comes to trends and figures. We previously published about the growth at the blockbuster museums and the decline at the smaller museums. Because the Museum Association presents the figures by province, it seems as if all of North Holland scores nicely in terms of visitors and income, so there is no need to report that this growth comes mainly from the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum after all. Boekman completely ignores the controversy over the transfer of public functions of museums to the heritage act, and therefore the reduction of democratic control over our heritage collections. 

Need more research?

Many of the trend reports state that more audience research is needed. The question is why. This place has previously reported that researching the wishes and desires of audiences, or not-yet-audiences, does not add that much to the insight that good programmers and directors already have themselves. 

It seems that we no longer dare to trust those people, who deal with audiences and programmes on a daily basis. As a result, those people no longer trust themselves. Then an external market or audience survey with supposedly rock-hard figures is something nice to fall back on, even though they may say as little as that whole culture index already does. 

Cultural education.

On Friday, I attended the presentation of A trend report on cultural education, which took place separately from the Boekman presentation because cultural education is not included in the culture index for unclear reasons. There, the mood was somewhat more positive: compared to 2012, those involved in cultural education were more confident about the future. Logical, of course: in 2012 Zijlstra's cuts began and the economic crisis was at its lowest point. So the fact that things are better now is nice, but I found it quite disturbing that the majority of cultural education at arts institutions is in the hands of part-time - and often temporary - staff. 

Another problem is that many extra subsidy pots rigged by a debt-ridden Ministry of Education, Culture and Science remain largely untouched. Reason: the schemes, such as 'More Music in the Classroom' are too complicated. Staff, already at the top of their capacity, have to jump through so many hoops to qualify for a few thousand euros that they would rather spend their time on the real thing.

Measuring is knowing nothing.

In any case, there will be another study of simplification possibilities there too. Will remain difficult, in a system so thoroughly based on distrust that any easing grows the fear of abuse. Research only makes that worse. You can also just start by assuming trust. That five per cent of people betray that trust (a bit more in some political affiliations), you can just take it at face value.

Measuring is really redundant at some point. For example, how do you measure diversity and inclusion, the new nibble and chatter among ministerial buzzwords? You measure those by looking at your programme and your audience. At the meeting on Friday, almost all attendees were blonde and female. The Landelijk Kenniscentrum Cultuureducatie en Amateurkunst (LKCA), which had organised the meeting, somewhat begrudgingly admitted that next time it would be more careful when inviting guests. Not that it is necessarily bad to have a professional group full of blonde women, but how are they in their network of non-western cultural minorities in the Netherlands?

Grephos.

How do you know what good classical Arabic music is? Music that can compete with the other great works of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, if it is not taught at our conservatoires, and nobody knows exactly how it is supposed to sound? Granted, outside the Randstad, diversity and inclusion are more often about how to get strict Old Catholics and Reformed Grephos in your auditorium, than about Muslims or African Dutch people, but you learn about that too not through research, but by visiting, talking to people, inviting and learning by watching and listening.

In these times when Big Data seems to be a solution to everything, it would be useful to get back to working with one's senses. Just start listening, looking, smelling, tasting and - above all - feeling. 

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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