Intangible, inflatable, irreducible

Lucy Kimbell explores the value of artists’ work.


The three scenarios following illustrate different organisations and individuals grappling with how to determine the value of artists’ work. Although fictional, they are each based on real events.

Scenario 1 – The art school

Sally is not looking forward to the academic year ahead. As well as the usual struggle to get things done with insufficient resources, there is a new element – the government’s next Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)1 to assess the quality of research in higher education, due to happen in 2008. This requires all higher education institutions to give an account of their research activities.

Since the art school where she teaches was absorbed into a university in the early 1990s, it has become clear that the wearisome efforts she and her colleagues have made to communicate what goes on in the school have yet to be understood. Perhaps they never can. Here on her desk is an early indicator of the work that will be required to fulfil the needs of the RAE, as interpreted by the vice-chancellor’s office. It is a form she is requested to distribute to all the ‘academic’ staff.

She has to fill one in herself to demonstrate she is ‘research active’ although in the past two years she has not had much energy for making her own work. It asks respondents to list their research outcomes. How many exhibitions, publications, performances have they had? How many were solo authored, how many jointly? Which venues, festivals, biennials or other contexts have shown their work? How many established publications have reviewed their work and which ones? How many talks about their work have they given, and where? Sally wonders whether to ask two of the technicians, who are exhibiting artists, to fill in the form.

Scenario 2 – The funded venue

Rachel was delighted to have been selected for a group show. The curator working at a publicly-funded venue approached her and asked her to put together a proposal which was then accepted. When she found out who the other seven artists were, she was even more pleased – the context was absolutely right for the body of work she was engaged with.

By the time of the opening, another two venues had agreed to take the show with the support of Arts Council England (ACE) touring funds. In her dialogues with the curator and one of the other artists, Rachel felt that her work was understood. The nature of her practice resulted in her making the work right before the show although its conceptual development took several months during which she had very little to show other than sketches.

At the opening she was nervous but welcomed the responses from the other artists and the talk they gave the next day seemed to generate very interesting questions. Some of the other work seemed slight but she was glad to have the opportunity to be in the exhibition.

About a month later Rachel was asked to attend a meeting in London – they paid her train fare – attended by both the curator of the first venue, people from ACE and a marketing consultant. He had been asked to do an evaluation of the show. He reported that the audience members he interviewed had described her piece as ‘difficult’. They said they didn’t know what it was about and felt ‘unexcited’ when they looked at it. At the meeting the curator looked embarrassed. Neither he nor Rachel spoke much. The show toured and got two reviews. She didn’t make it to the other openings.

Scenario 3 – The self-initiated project

Having met on their MA, the four founders of Artgroup decided to continue working together in some way when they left college. They supported themselves with commercial design work, bits of teaching, and other odd jobs while they found a way to get a studio. It was big enough for them to work there together although security was a concern.

They talked about different ways they might collaborate but for now carried on as individuals submitting work for shows and applying for bursaries and awards. After a few years of working like this, Rob suggested they apply for a residency together as a way of taking their studio practices into another context. It would give them a different, but temporary, identity as a group and perhaps stimulate them to making something together as Artgroup.

The interview for the residency went well – the organisation seemed to want to provide artists a way to experiment. None of them felt entirely sure that this was the right thing to do but a six-week interruption was something they all felt able to risk. Financially it was more of a struggle because there were four of them instead of one artist.

The residency started well – in fact they seemed to get on with things faster than the two other artists there at the same time; they had already begun a dialogue amongst themselves. The middle two weeks were more difficult – Alex went back to see her boyfriend and ended up staying a week. But they kept on going to the studio and doing things, sometimes on their own, but mostly together. They talked a lot.

During the penultimate week they decided they would not try to put a joint show together – Rob disagreed but the others felt like continuing to make work on their own. At the end of the residency, the group workshop with the host organisation and the other artists was hard work but surprisingly useful. Then they went back home. About a year later, Kemal’s cartoon strip loosely based on the experience was shortlisted for a drawing prize.

Talking about value

Talking about the value of artists’ work is difficult. Before trying to explore this issue we should first examine why we need to talk about art in this way. Value is a slippery concept, muddied by economic thinking with its two basic concepts of ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’ and, in the UK at least, entangled with the familiar debate about the state of public services.

The ways we make ‘value judgements’ are part-and-parcel of how we assess what we like or don’t like in art and other areas, whether we think something is good or not. Assessments of value are embedded in contemporary culture in industrialised societies. In contrast, the term ‘value for money’ shows where market economics has lead us – to an ugly paradoxical phrase that is deployed when the powerful want to control what the less powerful can and can’t have access to.

In the Knowledge Economy 90s, the word ‘value’ began to be heard more within business circles. Analysts and investors tried to find ways to put a value on the future earnings of companies whose business models were untested and quite possibly imaginary. Corporate executives reaped huge personal rewards when the share prices of their companies grew and grew, ‘creating value’ for shareholders.

Consultants sought to persuade managers that the future of their businesses lay in finding ways to exploit unexplored elements of their ‘value chain’. Marketeers talked in terms of ‘value propositions’ – the tangible results a customer gets from using products or services. These developments within corporations were echoed within civil institutions.

The New Labour government, far from rejecting the ‘value for money’ legacy of the 1980s and its critics2, instituted a culture of target-setting and league tables, that impacted on the arts3. Culture minister Tessa Jowell’s recent personal essay on ‘Government and the Value of Culture’4 heralded a new commitment from the government to culture for culture’s sake, but the previous years saw an instrumental deployment of art and artists to contribute to economic and social regeneration, all of which had to be measured and evaluated. Jowell’s distinction “between simplicity and complexity, between entertainment on the one hand and cultural engagement on the other”5 is a welcome acknowledgement that art, especially good art, cannot easily be accounted for.

What are artists to make of this wider context? How does it shape how they think about the value of their work?

For those who lay claim to the public purse, a pragmatic engagement with the will to measure is probably required. From ACE’s Grants for the Arts forms to other organisation’s administrative artefacts (especially if funded by ACE), artists must increasingly account for what they are doing and the quantity of their outputs; they must evaluate. Similar to the RAE-inspired exercise described in the first scenario, artists are asked to list their outputs, count their audiences and describe how they will evaluate a project. Most of us probably assume that the people reading these forms will be people directly involved in the arts as critics, curators, artists, teachers, producers or ACE officers. But if the second scenario suggested above becomes more common, then market researchers or others implicated with the world of the value proposition may be the people making decisions about arts funding.

For artists who sell their work, a different model applies. The (often not so) invisible hand of the market determines the financial value of their artworks. Some developments in art such as conceptual art or performance art have been absorbed into this by the market, giving a value to documentary artefacts produced along the way by artists making non-material art (although internet-based art emerging from the context of open source and free software continues to provide a challenge). An artwork may have a financial value if it finds a buyer or dealer or other function in the market apparatus. But this economy does not provide a way to escape the capitalist mode of production; it’s unable to measure the value of the artist’s work as distinct from the object produced, let alone examples such as the third scenario above.

Both of these ways of thinking about valuing artists’ work are responses to context. If, instead, we start with what artists value about their work then a different picture emerges. Many (most?) artists make work because they want to make work, not because someone might want to engage with it, immediately upsetting the consumer-model of capitalism.

The audience or user or spectator or participant is built into the artist’s work to a greater or lesser extent but, unlike a business, the artist is not there trying to meet a consumer’s need or desire. The artist’s starting point is his or her own need or desire. However many BA Fine Art professional practice modules or NESTA awards try to disguise it, the production-led model entwined with individual psychology underpins most contemporary art making.

On the continuum between process and product, there are several ways of thinking about the value the artist creates through his or her work. At one extreme there is the artefact as artwork, a discrete object that is either the art or a document relating to it, a tangible expression of the value of the artist’s labour. In a market-based art economy, the object can stand on its own, can be exhibited, can be transported, can be exchanged – it exists away from and outside the artist.

Moving away from the object model, site-specific and pubic artworks make the boundaries of the artwork more fuzzy. The economic concepts of exchange value and use value don’t quite work. Particular audiences or forms of engagement might be essential to the conceptual coherence of the work. Removed from its site, the artwork may lose its resonance. Its value is entangled with its context of production or reception.

Further away from objects and closer to process, the value of an artist’s work is not solely located in the artwork. At the most fundamental level, the artist might distinguish between the ideas and his or her ability to realise them in some form. Doing the work, whatever it is, requires the artist’s skills, knowledge and experience, the application of the artist’s intelligence, his or her passion, commitment and integrity – each factor being harder and harder to assess.

Part of the value of the artist’s work is their ability to move through this complex and often confusing terrain and resolve their work in response to it, especially in the context of a commission, venue or specific site. This is work done by the artist through which they learn from the experience of making the work, benefiting them in future projects, all contributing to what Bourdieu calls their cultural capital6.

Hard as it is to describe the elements that might make up the value of an artist’s work, it is even harder to rank them. We are now used to the idea of commissioners or funders assessing artists’ project proposals against criteria that are more or less transparent, and more or less coherent. What assumptions are they making about the value of the artists’ work? How are these concerns then inscribed in the way publicly-funded projects come about? How is the public sector’s adoption and bastardisation of concepts from the business world shaping how art is produced?

It’s not within the scope of this article (and quite possibly not within the powers of this writer) to offer a framework for determining the value of artists’ work. But one way of approaching the subject is to offer a fourth scenario, which goes like this:

Scenario 4 – The exchange

SuMay decides to contact a venue she has not worked with before to suggest doing a project with them. She’s unsure how to approach the organisation, partly because she imagines they will see her as an artist who works on education projects (of which she has several under her belt) rather than a commissioned artist. What is the best way of presenting herself to them? How can she communicate her ideas and experience, without coming across as a supplicant?

The meeting seems to go well. SuMay has thought a great deal about how to engage with them. In a sense she’s already started the work she would like to do but of course at this stage she is the one investing her time. The organisation now wants her to propose a project. How can SuMay make clear the investment she is making without, at this stage being paid for her work? What would the value of her work be to them, if the project does not go ahead? What is its value to her?

Within a couple of months, both parties reach agreement on a project which has at least three phases – first, what SuMay calls a discovery phase, where the project is being imagined, leading on to more structured development, leading to production and the point where wider audiences engage with the project. SuMay senses that one person in the organisation wants her to prod some of his colleagues, to challenge them, to be disruptive. In contrast she sees herself as a mediator working with the audience she has begun to engage with, who are doing their own prodding.

What are the boundaries of SuMay’s work as a maker and performer and her work as a negotiator? If the organisation begins to find her, or her project, troublesome, might this be of value if it opens up their understanding of other ways of working? If the audience finds her work too personal, too risky, does it matter that they can see how much time she has put into the project? If her work conforms to the audience or organisation’s received ideas about what an artist’s work is, how does this shape how they think about its value to them?

At the end of the project, SuMay agrees to take part in the obligatory evaluation – counting numbers of people involved, describing what happened, photographs, producing a financial report, photocopying reviews. She decides to ask people from the venue to describe how this project changed their ideas about how to work with specific audiences, and to ask members of the audience how they changed their ideas about the subject matter of the piece. Is it important to identify, codify and disseminate knowledge of practices gained during a project? Is it important that the members of the organisation will miss her when she’s gone? What exactly will they miss?

This scenario has rather more questions than storyline but it suggests how the engagement between the parties involved in a specific (imaginary) project might think about the value of the artists’ work.



2 See for example Mike Power, “The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification”, Oxford: OUP, 1997 and Marilyn Strathern, “Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy”, London: Routledge, 2000

3 See Sara Selwood, “Measuring Culture”, Spiked Online, 30 December 2002,

4 Tessa Jowell’s essay “Government and the Value of Culture” published by the DCMS, May 2004 is available from

5 Jowell, p3

6 He expands the notion of capital from Marx’s theories of economics to include cultural practices that regulate and reproduce culture. See Pierre Bourdieu, “The Logic of Practice”, Cambridge: Polity, 1990

The writer

Lucy Kimbell is the author of Audit (Book Works, 2002). She is an Arts and Humanities Research Board Creative and Performing Arts Research Fellow at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University, developing a number of projects grouped by the title ‘I measure therefore I am’.

Lucy Kimbell

First published: November 2004

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