“Culture Works” Evaluating value

The project Spieltrieb in Krakau
The project Spieltrieb in Krakau | © Andrzej Banaz

Can the effects of cultural work be verified? The Goethe-Institut has been grappling with this question for many years under academic guidance. Now, the findings were presented and discussed by a panel of top-level experts in Berlin.

By Patrick Wildermann

Not many would call the need for cultural work in international dialogue to question or doubt its ability to build bridges and establish networks. But in times of tightening budgets, pressure grows to substantiate these benefits as tangibly as possible in figures, if only to provide a basis for the legitimacy of continued funding. The Goethe-Institut is aware of this, however anyone demanding evaluation in the cultural sphere is entering a field of controversy in the conflict between value and usability, instruments and instrumentation.

The process is more important than the outcome

Secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut Johannes Ebert Secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut Johannes Ebert | © Bernhard Ludewig “What reveals the effects of cultural work? How do we gauge it, how do we illustrate it?” asked Johannes Ebert, secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut at the me Collectors Room located in Berlin-Mitte. Ebert opened the evening of discussion, Culture Works: Using Evaluation to Permanently Shape Foreign Relations, to which the Goethe-Institut invited representatives of various cultural institutions, the European Commission and the Foreign Office.

At the very beginning, the secretary-general raised awareness of the indeterminable things that must not be lost sight of in the course of an evaluation. For instance that “the process of cultural work is sometimes more important than the outcome,” that there is such a thing as “the intrinsic value of aesthetics” and, finally, that the aim of an impact assessment should not be solely to satisfy backers. Instead, it should “open horizons for action” and lead to learning effects for further strategic planning. It is necessary “to think ahead,” to develop best-practice models, to continually, critically reflect and engage in sustained discourse with partners and politics.

Leaving space for the unexpected

Elke Kaschl Mohni Elke Kaschl Mohni | © Bernhard Ludewig For many years, the Goethe-Institut has been grappling with measuring the effects of cultural work under academic guidance. Elke Kaschl Mohni, director of Strategy and Evaluation, vividly outlined some of the assumptions that have been proven in international cooperation on projects, saying, “effect is based on relevance.” In other words, the importance of a project must also be recognizable by the partners and the target group in each country. “Space is left for the unexpected,” she continued. After all, in retrospect often the projects considered most successful were those that took an unplanned turn. Also, according to Kaschl Mohni, “the modus operandi makes the difference.” Namely, a successful partnership must be tackled in a way that is both “contextually and culturally sensitive.”

She cited the Cultural Innovators Network (CIN), a joint project by twenty Goethe-Instituts in the Mediterranean region, as an example from practice. Since its founding in 2012, the CIN has generated an extensive and growing network of young art and cultural professionals dealing with social transformation in their respective countries. This project was evaluated using Michael Callon’s actor-network theory, which pays special attention to breaks and surprising twists. It was just the right method to evaluate with interviews, participant observation and focus groups and thereby better understand correlations. Participants, according to Kaschl Mohni, certainly reported friction within the network, but they also put on record that they were now better able to deal with democratic decision-making processes.

Fear of the “McKinsey effect” in the cultural sector

In the middle: Barbara Gessler In the middle: Barbara Gessler | © Bernhard Ludewig Of course, concerns arise in the context of impact assessments of cultural work, too. At the me Collectors Room, there was repeated mention of a supposedly imminent “McKinsey effect” in the cultural sector, or the worry that in the evaluation, quality might be less important than the pure economics. Barbara Gessler, responsible for the Creative Europe programme at the European Commission, however, reversed the quite relevant question during the panel discussion, by asking why culture should not be an economic factor. “There’s nothing wrong per se with creating jobs.”

Question from the audience Question from the audience | © Bernhard Ludewig In turn, Stefan Duppel from the Foreign Office allayed fears that evaluation could force the process of a cultural project into a corset from the outset, saying, “We agree on objectives. And then we look at the result.” The way the result is reached, though, is open to spontaneous changes in direction and reactions to the unexpected, which often make up the true value and relevance of a project.

Determining this relevance is not a process of “one-to-one logic” as Johannes Ebert had pointed out in the beginning. It is “not necessarily” expressed “in one work.” Hortensia Völckers, artistic director of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, citing an example, added, “If, after several years, we withdraw from a programme in a structurally weak region and the project goes on to visibly grow without us, then it’s also relevant.”