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kate taylor

A group of workers at the Stratford Festival change the stage.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

As the cultural community debates whether the value of the arts can or should be quantified, Harry Chartrand heaves a sigh that can be heard from Saskatoon to Toronto.

"The wheel is being reinvented yet again," Chartrand wrote me in an e-mail this week. Chartrand is a former lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan and a cultural economist who has studied how the impact of the arts can be evaluated. How do you measure the jobs created by the arts? And can you measure the seemingly intangible social benefits? Those are the kinds of questions Chartrand has devoted his career to; back in the 1980s, he was head of research at the Canada Council where he came up with a nifty four-part model that deserves to be re-examined.

Primary impact is the direct contribution of the arts to the gross domestic product. It would include such things as the money Canadians spends on theatre tickets as well as the wages the Stratford Festival pays to actors, designers and ticket-takers.

Secondary impact is the indirect contribution, the spinoff benefits of the direct spending, such as all those jobs in hotels and restaurants in Stratford, Ont.

The third level of impact is direct but not quantifiable – it's the way the arts encourage creativity and innovation specifically in arts workers but more generally in the whole society. It's also potentially an economic impact, but it can't really be measured; it may include the benefits that TV and film industries gain because Stratford is busy training actors or the benefits the tech industries in the Kitchener-Waterloo area gain because prospective employees think it's nice to live 30-minutes from good theatre.

The fourth level is indirect and unquantifiable – it's the way the arts improve people's quality of life, reinforce their cultural identity and contribute to civil society by encouraging values such as empathy. It's the fuzzy feeling you might get from seeing Hamlet.

When supporters of the arts argue that a novel, a symphony or a play has an intrinsic value to society that should not be reduced to dollars and cents, they tend to rely on the fourth category, the most abstract and yet the most direct justification for why societies make and fund the arts. But the third category deserves a look too. It's where all those arts supporters who talk about the creative class and urban renewal find their home, but it's also an area in which there are interesting psychological arguments to make: The creation and consumption of the arts creates a kind of psychic confidence in a society that ultimately is going to make it more successful.

There is lots to debate here, but Chartrand's four-level model has mainly been sitting on the shelf since he created it in 1983. Initially, his report was submitted to the Macdonald commission on the economy, a Liberal-appointed royal commission created during the 1982 recession that became best known for recommending that Canada pursue free trade with the United States. Canadian royal commission is usually a synonym for let's-do-nothing-about-that-problem, but Macdonald was a huge exception, paving the way for the 1988 free-trade deal signed by a Conservative government. A few paragraphs of Chartrand's report wound up in the commission's findings, pointing out there were many unquantifiable benefits to the arts – perhaps that was one of the reasons the eventual deal with the United States allowed Canada to maintain protections for its cultural industries – but otherwise his report has languished.

He went on to make similar recommendations to the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States, and his four-part model was adapted by Singapore in 2003, but generally he has found the arts community unreceptive to the idea that the impact of the arts can be measured. At the time, culturecrats were fearful that economic arguments were a double-edged sword that would reduce arts funding to a chilling technocracy. He tells a story about Nancy Hanks, the famously politically effective chair of the NEA under president Richard Nixon, who succeeded in winning tenfold increases to her organization's budget during the 1970s. She made sure the money was never spent on up-to-date computer equipment so that when asked by legislators' for hard figures, she could also truthfully answer she did not have the numbers because the computers were broken.

Today, officials who can't get their computers to work get fired, and the Internet floods us with information even as it collects data about our patterns of consumption and creation. Yet, Chartrand points out that Big Data belongs to the private sector while public data, whether about the arts or the environment, have greatly suffered from politically motivated cutbacks, such as the ones to Statistics Canada. Even if you believe that data are the best way to make a case for the arts, the numbers may not be there to be found.