Affect, Accountability, and the Social Impact of the Arts

Par Meghan Lindsay  , Researcher, Queen's University
26 septembre 2023

Social Impact of the ArtsIn a call to radically transform the structures that support artists and their work in Canada, Shannon Litzenberger’s “State of Emergence » offers a simultaneously harrowing and hopeful account of how artists may radically transform the ways in which they engage with the systems of resource, policy, and legitimation that have shaped Canadian cultural production. Writing that “one of the greatest challenges artists face at this moment is that the industry we work in is steeped in the rules, dynamics, and cultural norms that we are seeking to disrupt,” Litzenberger points to how artists simultaneously refute and mobilize the funding mechanisms on which they depend. For many Canadian artists and their organizations, the evaluation of arts and culture in existing funding practices has frequently been the subject of critique. With arts funding described as “leaving artists feeling helpless,” rooted in ​​an ethos of “neoliberal utility” focused on “difficult to measure effects” (Gallagher & Freeman, 2016.), engaging with funding mechanisms has been described as labour-intensive at best, oppressive, at worst. In a recent report by LIL SIS, a grassroots, youth-led artist resource centre in Toronto, artists described having to exploit their identities for financial stability, noting the commodification of identity and trauma in racialized 2SLGBTQ+ communities as a fixation among funders. “I have to sell my art and myself in a very particular way to satisfy those giving me money and it feels like having a sugar daddy. But like in the worst way.”  

The pandemic’s impact on nonprofit arts has triggered a reevaluation of support practices. This critical juncture in the arts funding landscape prompts reflection on how evaluative structures, inherent in supporting the arts, can adapt to address the actual experiences and needs of artistic communities. On a broader scale, it raises questions about the underlying logics and epistemologies embedded in evaluation, particularly at the intersections of accountability, impact, precarity, and power. 


Accountability, Impact, and the “affective turn” in instrumentalism 

Over the past three decades, arts funding in Canada has seen a push for evaluation of the arts’ broader public impact. The term “evaluation » is interpreted to encompass assessing projects, programs, policies, and organizations within the wider third sector, serving as a means of accountability for funders and stakeholders. Born out of the New Public Management (NPM) regime in public administration, evaluation priorities shifted in the mid-1990s from assessing activities and outputs (what was produced) to prioritizing outcomes (actual changes in the lives of users and beneficiaries). The policy environment widely embraced a results-oriented approach, shifting the expectations on the nonprofit and voluntary sector (Phillips, 2018). In response, the arts and culture sector moved toward “evidence-based” frameworks for evaluating the social and economic outcomes of engaging with the arts (Belfiore and Bennet, 2007). Public arts councils implemented outcome-based granting instruments (Gattinger, 2017; Canada Council for the Arts, 2018) and artists and cultural leaders leveraged reports on social impact, often as a means of linking public benefit to non-arts portfolios (health, education, economic development, social cohesion, etc.). Imagining impact became a caveat for project design and demonstrating impact evolved as a perceived necessity amidst a competitive funding landscape. In response to the rise of impact, scholars have critiqued the efficacy of evaluating arts’ social outcomes (Belfiore and Bennett 2007, Belfiore 2009, Belfiore, 2012, 2016; Guetzkow, 2002), pointing to a divide in normative definitions of value across those producing cultural works and those funding it, and exposing linkages between cultural value and social inequality (Belfiore 2020; Ladkin 2014; O’Brien & Oakley 2015; Saifer 2019; Saifer 2023; Frey 2008; Belfiore, 2012; Banks and O’Connor, 2017; Toepler, 2001; Belfiore, 2020).  

Within the broader third sector, there has been confusion over the terminology of “outcomes” (the short term changes that result from the program activities) and “impacts” (the longer term changes, i.e .economic development, poverty reduction, and so forth.) Nonprofits may claim to collect outcome and impact data, but the term « outcomes » has become flexible and imprecise (Phillips, 2018, 314).aa 

Shifts in ideological approaches in public policy inherently affect the nonprofit sector and while the NPM era saw a focus on performance measurement, New Public Governance (NPG) has pointed to the importance for cultural institutions to “do good”. In the era of NPG, cultural actors are anticipated to innovate, collaborate with public institutions to address societal challenges, and frame cultural work as a force for positive change (Kann-Rasmussen 2023). Here, the term “impact” has shifted, becoming less tangible and more perceivably benevolent. While the normative link between the culture sector and social good has obscured the role of instrumentalism in the arts, making it difficult to criticize or identify, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the advocative function of impact. Shuttered theatres and stark unemployment rates have exposed gaps in the cultural economy and creative city arguments, birthing a new wave of discourse on the intrinsic effects of the arts on empathy, social transformation, social justice, and well-being  (Litzenberger, 2022; de Peuter, Oakley & Trusolino, 2023; Mullen & Lythberg, 2021; O’Connor 2022). In a broad move from the measurable socio-economic, to the intrinsic, qualitative effects of the arts, artists, advocates, and scholars have shifted from utilitarian instrumentalism, toward the visceral, vital, or affective functions of the arts. The arts are still branded as good, but in a looser, more foundational, more perceivably universal way. 

The current focus on the intrinsic effects of the arts, can in some way, be viewed as an affective turn in rationalizing support for the arts. Affects, or the name we give to those “visceral forces beneath and alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion,” (Seigworth and Gregg, 2010,1) are the shivers we get from watching a compelling performance. They are the tingles from reading a powerful piece of prose. Affects flow through a successful advocacy campaign or case for philanthropic support. In describing the value of the arts as visceral or vital, we shift the value proposition from “good” to “human,” because affective reactions are distinctly embodied. This complicates evidence-based rationale for supporting the arts and calls into question the evaluative practices on which the sector has become accustomed. 

While many artists celebrate the shift from hyper-instrumentalism to broader qualitative claims, my research considers how these claims function within an impact-driven funding landscape. How are the visceral dimensions of the arts named? How are they described and by whom? Further, how are they received and evaluated? As an artist and scholar working at the intersection of critical cultural policy, nonprofit and charities in the arts, and spectator research, I point to an often-overlooked dimension within the funder/fundee relationship: that the stakeholders reading an impact report, or evaluating a grant proposal are, in effect, an audience. Acknowledging that who we are affects what we see and read, I consider whether evaluating the arts can ever be a neutral, or equitable space.  


The Funder and Donor as Audience 

In a recent interview for Newest Magazine, Anishinaabe visual artist Natalie King noted that: “when non-Indigenous folks witness Indigenous art, they often want to come out of the experience feeling like a better person, or feeling like they learnt something. I am constantly resisting that. I try not to show people anything really, I’m simply enacting the embodied experience of being a queer Anishinaabe woman, reflecting on those intersections. There’s no need to categorize. It’s fine to just feel, exist, it needs to just exist” (King, 2022). Through King’s words, we see how Canadian settler audiences often recognize Indigeneity in accordance with the tropes that have been cultivated through a complex history of recognition through tokenism. We too, see, that transformation is not a universal experience or expectation. Our positionality – race, class, socio-economic status, and so forth – shapes how we view the world, and subsequently frames how we define what is impactful. It, too, shapes the impulse to derive, or extract, something from an artistic experience. This disconnect, between an intended impact and received effect, has been discussed within the context of spectatorship. Through her work on theatre audiences, Dani Snyder-Young reveals that audiences’ racial comforts affect their reception of a piece more than its intended impact, pointing to how impacts may be received differently depending on the positionality of the viewer (2013, 2019). Stó:lō scholar Dylan Robinson’s notes that Indigenous and settler audiences have very different affective reactions to intercultural music performances involving First Peoples, suggesting that universal or transformational definitions of impact may sanitize settler perceptions of reconciliation under the auspices of friendly togetherness (2014).  

Recognizing that audiences, publics, funders, and artists will inherently vary in their reception of a work or practice, means that the impulse to describe an event through causal rationalization (i.e. this art was moving because, this art is impactful because) may not adequately account for how affect moves throughout the spectator. It, too, highlights the labour that goes into naming, describing, and predicting impact. 

As someone who has worked as an artist for twelve years, I have noted that artists are savvy in their capacity to instrumentalize instrumentalism. We, by the nature of our craft, are affect-producing experts. That said, formal evaluative processes (i.e. writing a grant, evaluating an arts program, conceptualizing an impactful project) may produce a felt experience of oppression by subjecting artists to a perpetual state of self-commodification. They may similarly produce feelings of anxiety, alienation, ineptitude, and powerlessness in normalizing specific devices for communicating impact (i.e. written communication, linearity and causality, etc.).   

In naming the affective turn in arts advocacy, we point toward an ill-defined impact cycle in resourcing the arts that confuses legitimation. Funders want to be simultaneously accountable and moved. Arts charities perceive that donors want data-driven impact analyses. Artists want to resource their practice with support, flexibility, and without engendering excess labour or perceived exploitation. Rhetoric of arts impact is pervasive and yet, as Belfiore notes, evidence-based rationales for arts funding is rarely a driver for decision making. Instead, evidence has been operationalized to obscure the role that values, beliefs, and ideas play in decision making (2021,14). By considering the funder as a spectator, we make visible the role of values, positionality, and beliefs, encouraging a self-conscious reflexivity that spells out how discourses of logic, legitimation, and rationale are not neutral, but rather complex sites for class and race. Moving toward new imaginaries for conceptualizing and communicating value in the arts, the affective life of impact allows us to be honest about the theatre of it all. 

Meghan Lindsay 


social impact of the artsMeghan is currently a researcher on “Pandemic Preparedness,” a cross-national examination of how COVID-19 supports for the performing arts affected artists and arts organizations. She is also primary researcher on « Being Together,” a multi-year, SSHRC-funded project on audience perspectives of co-presence. Meghan teaches at Carleton University’s Master in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership program and is completing her PhD in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University. She serves on the board of directors for La Fab sur Mill, an artist cooperative located in Chelsea, Quebec.



Cet article fait partie de l’édition spéciale de Septembre 2023: Philanthropie et les Arts. Vous pouvez trouver plus d’informations ici.


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