The EvilImp™ 'Free Range Liberals'

Last week we ran a story concerning the numbers issued by Big Dance for participation in their events in London over a nine day period. We said the numbers were made up, ACE issued a statement to try and clarify things, then just dug themselves and Big Dance into a slightly deeper hole.

First of all here is the initial response from ACE (via Big Dance apparently);

"Big Dance 2010 involved more than one million people - this includes audiences, dancers, choreographers, participants and volunteers. This figure is estimated from evaluation material and other data available when running the programme. This includes the quantifiable 140,000 participants involved in the School's Pledge and the 98,000 Big Dance Bus participants and audiences, as well as people involved in the 850 events which marked Big Dance 2010.

  We worked this out from a representative sample of evaluation material from 302 events that were small, medium and large scale. This sample showed that there were 358,096 people involved (dancers, participants, choreographers, volunteers, audiences), which gave us a figure of 1,185 per event. There were 850 events, giving a total of 1,007,250."

Right off the bat we have a problem. The one million plus number was derived by multiplying 1,185 x 805. The number 1,185 was derived not from any hard a fast statistical analysis but, as it says above, Big Dance "worked this out from a representative sample of evaluation material from 302 events."

Despite the events being very different (small scale indoor vs large-scale outdoor) they have averaged out all of the events not sampled from the evaluation material as having more than 1,000 participants.

In response to follow up questions the funding monolith told Article19 that;

"For the large scale outdoor events, to get completely accurate numbers would have been prohibitively expensive and would have inevitably taken public funds away from dance projects. Instead an approach was taken that balanced the need for accurate numbers with limited resources available."

That seems to be a tacit admission that accurate numbers could not be gathered so yeah, we just used some slightly dodgy statistical reasoning and hey presto but that's ok because we were looking out for the art.

ACE told us that "evidence" of numbers was only provided "where possible" from events that were specifically ticketed or workshop participants could be accurately counted via income from the fees charged for taking part.

"This depended on the event. Some were easily quantifiable through ticketed events or seats filled in venues. Some were large scale events where estimates were taken. For example, an event at Westfield Shopping Centre estimated an audience of 8,000 over 2 days out of a recorded footfall of 130,000. This was based on recording people who actually engaged with the work in some way."

Once again we have the vague "in some way" slotted onto the end of the statement. Do you count someone as being engaged in a show if they were walking past and happened to glance across and catch the show out of the corner of their eye?

'A Fool's Journey'

When Article19 filmed the show 'A Fools Journey' which took place in a very busy shopping centre, you could only realistically say that several hundred people were involved in watching the show across two performances. We have no doubt that tens of thousands of people were in the shopping centre that day, but actively engaged? Not so much. Don't take our word for it, watch the video.

Double dipping the numbers is also a problem in the arts when compiling statistics on participation. For example. Dance company A holds a series of workshops at Dance Agency B and 200 people come to the workshops, so far so good.

Dance Agency B however reports that they ran a series of workshops and 200 people came along and Dance Company A also came for a week and held workshops that were attended by 200 people so hey presto (again) we have 400 people coming along when really it's just the same 200 people counted twice. Think it doesn't happen? Think again!

"Where possible, Big Dance has ensured that duplication has not occurred where names are known or given. The programme held events in all 33 boroughs of London offering local activities for many people. However, we cannot rule out double counting from this figure and the only way we could do this would be to have an expensive administrative exercise, which would have inevitably taken funds away from the dance work."

Again, ACE and Big Dance are telling us that they could have determined accurate numbers but it would have cost too much money. But if you're numbers aren't accurate then why are you spouting numbers in press releases that cannot be verified? Oops!

The Rub

For far too long now the arts has been turned into a numbers game. How many? How much?, cost per-audience member ratios and so much other nonsense that isn't even worth mentioning.

The 'Fools Journey' piece mentioned above attracted several hundred "participants", to use ACE parlance, and there is nothing wrong with that because the choreographer in question, Helen Parlor, wasn't looking to rack up huge numbers. In the interview she told us;

"It reaches out to people, either some people don't ever think about going to the theatre, their friends don't go to the theatre. So they never experience theatre, or it's too expensive, or it just doesn't come into their minds because their life is busy with other stuff.

It gives them [the audience] a bit of light entertainment and another interest for free and I think that's quite important .

People wonder why art is important. If it just puts a smile on people's faces then that's great. Just to engage people in a different way."

If ACE and the Big Dance operators had any sense or the stomach for a fight with the philistines then they would use far more emotive language to describe to success or lack thereof concerning arts projects like this one.

Making up numbers is a waste of time and they don't quantify success even if they were accurate. You can't measure joy or happiness or inspiration and a lot of people need to get over that particular fact.

You want to call us hippies for thinking like that? Our response would be this "Hippies? Dude, we aint' no hippies, we're free-range liberals".

[ 'A Fool's Journey' on Article19 ]
[ Big dance Big Numbers ]

  • Jill

    Good article. I used to compile the annual ACE "RFO Submission" for a touring theatre company. Sometimes we played in village halls (e.g. 80 people came so we put out 80 chairs = 100% attendance!) Sometimes we went into arts centres and theatres, some of which were RFOs and no doubt reported the same audience attending the same show. Don't shout about it, but probably far fewer people attend arts events than ACE think - it's just the same ones that keep being counted...

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