Richard Watts | ArtsHub | 

We have metrics to judge audience engagement and box office figures, but no formal process to gauge aesthetic success.

Publicity image for She Said Theatre’s The Quiet Bite at Melbourne Fringe.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison, goes the old adage. Or to put it another way: one woman’s ballet is another woman’s punk-rock circus sideshow. Art speaks to all of us in different ways, and what moves some of us to tears of joy leaves others stifling yawns. In many ways, it’s this ineffable aspect of art that makes our work so engaging.

Nonetheless, the move away from art for art’s sake towards an arts industry in which government funding in particular must be accountable means that increasingly we need to find new ways to talk about and measure the successes of our work.

So how do you measure the validity and impact of an art work aesthetically – beyond the often-limited responses of critics, reviewers and your peers?

‘It’s such a great question and of course it’s exactly what drives us in the arts. I wouldn’t say that it’s something that is entirely subjective and therefore can’t be talked about – there’s certainly a subjective element that possibly can’t be measured quantitatively and can’t be studied, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t base our decisions and judgements on it,’ said Esther Anatolitis, Director, Regional Arts Victoria.

Dancer, choreographer and curator of Hobart’s new festival Salamanca Moves,  Kelly Drummond Cawthon, knows her work is successful, ‘if it continues my addiction to make more, if it is leading me with more questions and more challenges to continue to make more, that things are not resolved.

‘As a producer I feel like things are successful if the audience is moved … when they’re engaged, when they are active, when they can’t stop thinking about it, talking about it, when there’s a call to action around the work that they’ve experienced,’ she added.

Get Your Dance On at Salamanca Moves

For Anatolitis, great work resonates in sympathy with its antecedents – it speaks to a tradition and celebrates innovation.

‘When we see a great work that’s really inspiring, that moves us, we sense its connection to work of similar kinds – the sense of a contribution that it’s making to a tradition of art-making and of practice. It may get great reviews, it may get ticket sales and bums on seats and be talked about, but it’s also part an artistic conversation,’ she said.

‘That work then becomes part of the conversation – about its artistic practice, about painting, about live art, about music, whatever the field that it’s in. And then the force and the energy and the power of that experience infuses the way that we make decisions about supporting the work of those artists [and] programming similar work.’

Penny Harpham is the co-founder and co-Artistic Director of She Said Theatre. In between directing HART at Melbourne Fringe and dramaturging another production, Kate Stones’ The Quiet Bite, she took time out to consider how we judge an art work’s success.

‘The thing I have always loved about art is that there is no clear ending or definitive answer … as a “product” it’s always subjective. You can’t say with universal certainty why something was good or why something worked – because the next person might disagree entirely. Therefore, to bring such a final word like “success” into the artistic process for me is at direct odds with the very ambiguity I love and cherish about making art and, in particular, theatre,’ Harpham said.

As a performer, she constantly questions her own work, thinking of all the moments she has missed or might improve on the following night; and as a theatre maker Harpham notes that might seem like a triumph at one point in your career pales into insignificance later in life.

‘I’ve experienced heaps of minor successes (getting your first show up on opening night as a rookie director is the equivalent to climbing a mountain at the time but when you look back later it seems like a mole hill!) but there are only a few times in my life that I have felt a sense of completion and, I guess, ‘success’ on a project,’ she explained.

‘As a director the times I feel the most proud and sure of the work artistically is when I’ve fought the hardest to get it on the way I – and the ensemble I’m working with – want it to be. And usually this is because when I’m choosing a show to work on, I have a very specific idea of why I urgently want to make it. If I know why it’s important for this work to be made, explored and seen, then I can cope with bad reviews or peer disapproval (I mean, it hurts, but I’ll survive). If the production aligns with my passion for the idea behind it then that is the best I think I can come up with for a measure of artistic success.’


The idea of stepping outside yourself and rating a work’s success on the basis of the fellow artists one chooses to work is a concept that resonates strongly with Jodie Farrugia, Artistic Director of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus.

‘I think for me personally I’ve reached a stage in my making, my career, where it becomes as important for me as an artist that my team and myself feel good about it – and that’s usually about, “Has it been an enjoyable process? Have we have achieved the creative investigations that we were interested in and what drew us to the project originally as a team?” Certainly for me there’s no such thing as being perfect,’ she laughed.

One measure of success for Farrugia is whether the work sustains her creatively.

‘I think it’s become more important for me, the older I’ve got, about [whether] it makes me feel fulfilled, and if it sustains me until the next project, the next work I’m making or creative development I’m going into.’

The Flying Fruit Fly Circus’ JUNK, credit OGA Creative Agency.

Working at Australia’s national youth circus company means Farrugia is also thinking about a work’s success in terms of its impact upon her young charges.

‘I think also in the work I make at the Fruit Flies, which is again different to my own personal practice, success is also about what the performers and the young artists have achieved through that process. So as well as [asking] have I and the creative team achieved what we wanted to explore and create, have the performers and the young artists had an education experience? Do I feel like they are walking away more informed and more rigorous artists than when they entered the process?’

Working with an ensemble of artists, and at a larger company, also means taking into account other people’s definitions of success, Farrugia added.

‘Being the AD of a company means [asking], does it have a touring life, do programmers want it at their venues, can it can picked up and sold? And those successes become I guess, measured on different things – are people going to buy tickets, are we going to be able to get funding, does it tick all the right boxes?’


Farrugia’s mention of ticking boxes brings us back to square one, and the fact that while Australian funding bodies have formal guidelines to record the success of touring programs and audience development, we lack effective frameworks  by which to judge the aesthetic and artistic qualities of the work we create.

In the UK, the Arts Council England is reportedly considering the imposition of a standardised system for measuring artistic quality on some of the major organisations it funds – despite the poor response a pilot scheme project has had.

Would a formal framework such as that being developed by Arts Council England be welcomed in Australia – or even successful?

Harpham said no. ‘Art’s immediate impact should not be judged – it should be allowed room to grow and breathe.

‘I saw an amazing contemporary dance piece earlier this week and I haven’t stopped thinking about moments of it, but if you asked me what it was about or why it was good or successful I really couldn’t tell you. And I have no idea if the person sitting next to me was feeling the same way or the complete opposite. Or if she was enjoying it for the same reasons as me. I mean, how do you tick that off in a box? How do you qualify someone’s subjective experience?’

Nicole Beyer, Director of Theatre Network Australia and co-convenor of ArtsPeak (the confederation of national peak arts organisations) is also sceptical about the introduction of formalised aesthetic and artistic guidelines.

‘On the face of it, tools that help organisations to gather more information about audience and peer response to their work, to feed back into their processes, is useful. And industry-wide metrics could be a reasonable way for arts organisations to benchmark themselves. However, I think it is a problem when we oblige organisations to use those metrics in a rigid way, creating more admin burden,’ said Beyer.

The West Australian Ballet via Photo by Clare Chappell.

‘After the Culture Counts trials here in Australia, the anecdotal feedback I have heard is that it didn’t really give participating organisations anything significant to work with artistically, that the main benefit was that it provided them with some data and graphs to use in acquittals back to funding bodies.’

Beyer does not want to see Australia jumping on the UK bandwagon.

‘Given how desperate we are in Australia for resources to make new work, I don’t believe the arts sector would readily accept an imposed new evaluation program. Imagine if instead we had a new program of funding designated for the front end of the process: creative developments, exchanges, residencies, artistic retreats, fellowships, scholarships and creative conversations with peers. I think we would see a much greater explosion of artistic output and quality than if we put the same resources into a measurement system,’ she said.

‘Yes we need to continue to have conversations about ways to capture the creative impact of art on people, and we do also need to continually improve our evaluation and benchmarking systems, but right now in Australia I would oppose the idea of funding bodies enforcing a standardised artistic measurement system.’

Anatolitis is conflicted about the hypothetical introduction of such a scheme: ‘On the one hand I really worry about artistic quality and an artistic experience being reduced to something that is a measure. But on the other hand, we’re constantly hearing and telling each other that we need measures to explain, and in a sense justify and champion the value of the arts. But we can’t consign that just to being reduced down to a dollar value.

‘With the Arts Council England approach, the threshold where that would affect organisations, as it’s proposed, is £250,000 of current funding per year. That’s something like, I don’t know, $430,000 or more Australian dollars, so that’s at the major end.

‘So part of me thinks, don’t we want something like that here? Don’t we want there to some consequence for those major performing arts organisations for example, who perhaps don’t produce new Australian work and don’t develop Australian artists and their work for Australian audiences? There needs to be some kind of consequence for that,’ Anatolitis continued.

‘So how do we judge when it comes to funding, an organisation that – to use that great line of Marcus Westbury’s – if they’re just “covers bands” then why are we funding them? And how can we make that decision, apart from the fact that they’re just putting on other people’s work and you know, feeding us a colonial canon – how can we judge? There’s artistic vibrancy at the Australia Council but there actually do need to be consequences for their funding. So I’m not sure what the best approach is but I think something needs to be looked at, and these conversations are happening in Australia as well.’


At the Australia Council for the Arts, peer assessors rather than formal metrics are used to judge artistic merit, explains Frank Panucci, Executive Director, Grants and Engagement.

‘At the end of the day, having people who are practitioners and professionals and have experience in that area of practice – I think they are the best ones to make judgements around aesthetics and around the artistic merit,’ Panucci said.

‘I think we also have to be careful around thinking that we could find some kind of set of metrics which almost would allow you to put something through some kind of algorithm and come out with an answer to say “this is more aesthetically or artistically meritorious than the next one”. Because I don’t think that would allow for the sort of complex, organic, continually evolving process that art and art-making is.’

Rather than try to restrict or define artistic excellence, the Australia Council have instead focused on providing a shared language to enable more informed and engaged discussion about artistic merit – an eBook entitled Artistic Vibrancy, published in 2014.

The Artistic Vibrancy Framework, said Panucci, was designed ‘to get people and organisations to focus on the quality dimensions – how do you elicit feedback from your key stakeholders and then move that into continually reflecting on and improving your work?’

In essence, it’s about having a shared framework – and a shared language – to facilitate in-depth conversation about the merits of the art we make.

‘Even having a shared language in some areas of practice at times is difficult, so even if we can get that and then could move it to the arts community as a whole, I think we’d be in a much better place – not just in terms of the aesthetics conversation, and the work conversation, but I think also it would enable greater public discourse about what are the myriad of broader benefits to all of civil society about art and culture,’ said Panucci.

The Australia Council for the Arts

The Flying Fruit Fly Circus

Regional Arts Victoria

Salamanca Moves, Hobart
20 September – 1 October 2016

She Said Theatre’s HART and The Quiet Bite
Melbourne Fringe Festival
15 September – 2 October 2016

Theatre Network Australia