By Francesco Chiaravalloti
A systematic literature review of contributions to the arts and cultural sector which have appeared in accounting journals shows that the evaluation of the artistic performance of publicly funded arts organizations is not a purely procedural and technical issues relating to the production of better performance information, but it is above all a substantive and political one relating to the nature of the arts and the function of publicly funded arts organizations in individual communities and in society in general.
Due to the evidence-based evaluation policies introduced by many European governments since the 1990s, performance evaluation has become a dominant means of government control of the publicly funded arts sector. Publicly funded arts organizations have been increasingly asked to account for performance to external stakeholders and to implement performance evaluation procedures as part of their internal, managerial control practices. Under the quantitative paradigm inspired by the business sector and propagated by the New Public Management, numbers have become the dominant form of performance information in governments’ requirements for accountability, also toward organizations whose value and quality are hardly quantifiable, such as arts organizations.
My review of financial and management accounting literature on the arts and cultural sector shows that technical issue of financial and management accounting reporting cannot be solved without having gained at first a deep understanding of more substantive issues around the value of arts, culture and heritage for individuals, organizations, and society. For instance, financial valuation of heritage and museums’ collections emerges from the reviewed literature as an issue that has to do with accounting techniques only at the surface. Under the surface, the problem is not a purely procedural one relating to how to produce better financial reporting, but it is a substantive one relating to the nature of the arts and heritage and, consequently, to the scope of not-for-profit arts and cultural organizations in individual communities and in society in general. The financial reporting problem is thus at first a problem of financial accountability, but then of general public accountability. This wider problem cannot be solved only by discussing the technicalities of evaluation because it necessarily involves an understanding of the specific objectives of the organization and of the needs of the community the organization seeks to serve.
Instead of continuously implementing new evaluation and accountability procedures, governments should first aim at a better understanding of the nature of work processes and of their evaluation in arts organizations and the communities they serve. This is a precondition for the use of meaningful systems of evaluation. External procedures of evaluation that mirror the reality of the work in arts organizations have an higher chance of assuming substantive relevance for the organizations’ managers and staff, than external procedures that are entirely decoupled from the internal practices of evaluation.
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Francesco Chiaravalloti is Assistant Professor of Cultural Policy at the University of Amsterdam. His work aims at the enhancement of the appreciation of arts, culture, and creativity in communities, organizations, and businesses.
Fontebasso (attr.), Lady looking at a work of art, oil painting, 1709-1769, Wikimedia Commons.