Measuring the value of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) New Contemporaries Exhibition as a Platform for Emerging Artists – Ian Fillis, Ian Fraser and Boram Lee

First of all, some thoughts on the purpose and progress of the project from Ian Fillis, the Principal Investigator:

Our project concerned the measuring of the cultural value relating to the annual Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) Contemporaries Exhibition as a platform for emerging artists. Exhibiting artists were selected by a panel of Royal Scottish Academicians from their peers at their degree shows in art schools across Scotland. We endeavoured to increase understanding of the economic and cultural value of the exhibition in both market and non-market terms. More specifically we were interested in value to artists, value to consumers as buyers or gallery visitors, value to the platform provider (the RSA), and value to the community and other stakeholder groups. We adopted a case study approach which combined qualitative and quantitative approaches in assessing both primary and secondary data. The emphasis of our project was on the importance of non-economic valuation, psychological influences, and interdisciplinary interpretations in moving forward from existing understanding of cultural value. This has tended to focus mainly on extrinsic dimensions, whereas our project adopted a pluralistic focus on both intrinsic and extrinsic dimensions.

The aims of the project were to examine the role of the RSA as a mechanism for launching emerging artists into the marketplace. Some specific areas of inquiry related to how these artists understand the commercial art market, how they set the selling price for their work and if there were any other factors beyond financial value which drive their creative practice. In terms of the longer term viability of the sector, we also aimed to position art as a viable alternative investment and, in doing so, contribute to the longer term sustainability of the art market. We hope to utilise the findings from this research to encourage similar exhibitions throughout the United Kingdom to help new graduates to begin a career in the visual arts.

There are three team members of our Cultural Value project. I am the Principal Investigator and have over twenty years experience of researching arts related phenomena from a marketing perspective. This project has enabled us to join together our expertise in arts and marketing, accounting and finance. We had initially envisaged a reasonable lead time to developing our research instrument for measuring the cultural value of the New Contemporaries exhibition. However, the exhibition was brought forward for the first time in its history, to allow for two more related exhibitions to take place, including one at the Fleming Gallery in London. This did of course present some challenges but we worked well under pressure and were able to produce the initial visitor survey on schedule. We collected this data on site over several weeks and are now in the process of analysing the findings. Our work could not have taken place so smoothly without the help of the President of the RSA, Arthur Watson who divided his time between his role in Edinburgh, being a senior lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art and Design at the University of Dundee, as well as being a practicing artist. Mention should also be made of Colin Greenslade, the Director of the RSA, as well as his staff. They have all been extremely helpful. In addition, we carried out focus group interviews with a number of the exhibiting artists. These took place in Edinburgh and Glasgow within the creative settings of the RSA itself and the Centre for the Contemporary Arts, Glasgow. From both the visitor survey and the focus groups, we found that participants were extremely enthusiastic about what we were doing – once we explained what we mean by Cultural Value!  Of course the artists were demonstrating great insight into how and where participating in the New Contemporaries Exhibition might lead them. It is clear that, rather than just being practicing artists, they are well informed about the wider agenda in the arts and how this might affect them as they develop their practice.

Professor Ian Fraser commented:

What do you think when you hear of artworks being sold for seemingly astronomical sums? You might have noticed that one of Francis Bacon’s paintings sold the other day for forty two million pounds.  Perhaps you are horrified that so much money can be spent on a single artwork!  Or maybe you question the value of art in general.  What is the value to society of the work produced by artists?  Which gives better value – the Francis Bacon painting or Wayne Rooney being paid £300,000 per week?  OK, no need to answer that!

We were not necessarily going to come up with definitive answers to the really big questions, of course, such as ‘should society be prepared to allocate scarce resources to supporting the arts?’ (and, of course, we were not really aiming to carry out a comparative analysis of Francis Bacon and Wayne Rooney!) but by focusing on one artistic project we’re aiming to enhance understanding of the ‘value of art’ and just what that means to different stakeholders in our society.

We focused on one major Scottish contemporary artist event in particular, examining ‘the value of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) New Contemporaries Exhibition (NCE) as a platform for emerging artists’.

The RSA mission is to promote and support the creation, understanding and enjoyment of the visual arts through an all-year programme of exhibitions and events and the NCE is regarded as an important happening for newly graduating art students aiming to commence a career in the visual arts.

Previous work in this area has very much focused on only financial dimensions of artistic value which can be tangibly measured.  We were aiming for a much more extensive exploration of value which embraces all its various dimensions (both financial and non-financial) and which considers value from the differing perspectives of different interest groups including exhibitors, investors, policy makers, the general public & community and (not least!) the artists themselves. We employed a wide range of research techniques including surveys, interviews, focus groups, econometrics (it sounds complicated but it really just means a way of analysing economic data statistically!) and financial analysis.  We aimed to add to what we know about how perceptions of the ‘value of art’ are shaped and understood by different groups.

Update: Our project is now finished (at least in terms of the actual research) and we are now writing up aspects of what we did for publication. We have already published an initial paper (Fillis, I., Lee, B., & Fraser, I. (2015). Measuring the cultural value of the Royal Scottish Academy New Contemporaries Exhibition as a platform for emerging artists. Cultural Trends, (ahead-of-print), 1-11) and have held a feedback workshop as part of wider engagement with the project stakeholders and beyond. Further papers and continued data analysis are being carried out. Our work also has synergies with colleagues at the University of Tasmania and we are developing longer term collaborative research.