Categories
Creativity

Stop making the economic case for the arts

Arts funding is in the news again. The government’s announcement of a Culture Recovery Fund has prompted a round of online discussion of the place of the taxpayer in subsidising culture. It’s not hard to imagine that a feeding frenzy will soon be upon us, with arts organisations and venues gearing up to compete for a slice of the £1.57 billion available.

Why the ‘economic case’ is made

In the arts world, we often feel like we must fight to maintain the place of something we feel is essential in a world that doesn’t always seem to agree. In recent years, it’s become commonplace for those defending state-subsidised art to do so in terms of its economic benefit to a nation or community. In the UK, studies such as this one are cited, speaking of how much the creative industries contribute to GDP.

It’s a line of argument that is both compelling and frustrating. Compelling, because it appears to use a language that governments understand: that of economic value. It’s felt that an economic argument will have the greatest chance of success with the money-obsessed decision-makers in Whitehall – a measurable instrument of success that they can plug into their spreadsheets. But frustrating, because I think most of us would agree that the true value of art to a community or country doesn’t lie in its contribution to GDP.

Problems with the economic case

  1. What are the ‘creative industries’ anyway?

Let’s return to that study. I often see people on social media using the ‘creative industries contribute £13 million to the economy every hour’ line to justify state funding of artistic enterprise. But what actually are these ‘creative industries’, and do they perhaps merit a certain amount of scare-quoted suspicion in this context? Here’s an extract from the report:

The sector was supported by large contributions from tech services and the film and television industries, which contributed £45.4 billion and £20.8 billion to the economy respectively. Another boost was delivered by the advertising and marketing industries, which account for a quarter of the total growth of the creative industries since 2017.

There are a couple of things to draw out of this. ‘Tech services’ is still a little mysterious, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt – it could refer to the highly successful video games that have come out of British-based companies in recent years. Next comes film and TV – mass media genres drawn to Britain by its lucrative tax breaks. Then there’s advertising, and marketing.

So, while the ‘creative industries’ are indeed generating healthy contributions to Treasury coffers, are these really the areas we mean when we cite these figures to defend investment in opera, dance, or live theatre? (If the success of film is how we’re going to justify investment in art, then it’s certainly a far cry from Keynes’ mantra upon founding what would become the Arts Council: ‘Death to Hollywood’!)

More recently, the Arts Council took a stab at defining more closely the actual cultural sectors involved, but still with a focus on the economic gain accruing from them.

2. What if the economic tide turns?

If the creative economy stops contributing as much to GDP as we say it does, how can further investment be justified? By tethering arguments for state subsidy to the economic performance of the sector, we make a rod for our own backs if it then stops making money. This could happen for any number of reasons, including changing tastes or modes of consumption.

To lean into the economic argument sets up a trap later down the road. If the numbers turn against us, and the creative industries stop being the economic boon we confidently assert that they currently are, perhaps even becoming a net drain on public resources, what argument can we fall back on?

3. Square pegs and round holes

London’s Southbank Centre was in the news recently for taking the decision to make two thirds of its staff redundant. Staff were told that when the centre – the largest arts centre in Europe, apparently – reopens, it will be run on a ‘start-up’ model. If you’re wondering what that means in practice, you’re not alone:

Over email, a spokesperson for the Southbank Centre told me: “When we talk about ‘start-up’ we mean a ‘mind-set approach’: being agile, adaptable to change, moving fast, risk-taking, innovating, constantly learning, changing the status quo, learning from failure, for example. We are not re-modelling operationally as a start-up.”

This is obviously nonsense, but it reflects the fact that organisations with an arts focus are increasingly being told to align themselves with the values and concerns of the trendy ‘startup’ model of business.

Should arts organisations really model for-profit businesses? If their worthiness for state support depends on it, thanks to that economic argument for their value, then it’s no surprise if they try and force themselves into a business model that appears to justify it.

4. Does investment in art directly lead to industry economic benefit?

It’s sometimes argued that there is a ‘trickle-up’ effect, by which investment in art filters in to the success of the wider creative industry. But the direct economic links between subsidised culture and creative industry are still not well understood. John Holden, who has written extensively on public policy relating to culture, articulated this back in 2007:

…the creative industries are still, in spite of all the attention that they have received, not fully conceived, explained, narrated or understood. At a fundamental conceptual level, the ‘creative industries’ idea veers between on the one hand being based on the creative capacities of individuals, and on the other being a categorisation of industry types.

It’s therefore too simplistic to say that investment in subsidising culture leads directly to some economic benefit via the creative industries.

5. The economic argument misses the point of art

Don’t worry – a definition of the point of art is somewhat outside the scope of this post. But it’s true that when compelled to articulate the actual value of art to communities, we tend to struggle. Most of us would agree that the ‘value’ of an artistic activity cannot be measured purely by its economic consequences. Social and cultural factors are at least as important.

The result of this is that a generation is at risk of not being able to make the case for investment based on anything except economics – which, as we’ve seen, is not a stable premise. Kate Levin underscores the risk in this article:

…you have to be able to describe your value. There can be a little bit of ‘we’re on the side of the angels’ in the creative sector, and the assumption that people understand what those benefits are.

So what’s the alternative?

If the economic argument doesn’t hold water, what other techniques can we use to make the case for public investment in art? Are there other arguments we can marshal, other valuations we can usefully deploy?

Arts Council England – the current successor to Keynes’ ‘Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts’ – has developed a 10-year plan, ‘Let’s Create‘, articulating its vision for publically-funded culture. It does a good job identifying some of the problems with access to culture across the country, and acknowledges a need ‘to improve the way we make the case for the social and economic value of investing public money in culture’.

However, there’s little in there that explains in simple terms why we as a people should fund the means of artistic creation. When one eventually reaches ACE’s ‘Investment Principles’, there’s a fair amount of buzzwordy jargon and not a great deal of solid matter. So what else is there?

  1. Soft power

If we still want to go down the route of talking to government in its own language, there’s always the idea of culture as ‘soft power’ – culture as an export, disseminated to project values and power across the world.

It’s interesting to see that Portland’s Soft Power Index has put the UK at number 1 or 2 in the world for the last five years, with ‘Culture’ tied with ‘Education’ as its chief asset. However, this is still largely the result of big-budget film, TV, or literature products such as Sherlock or Harry Potter – not the smaller, more fragile industries propped up by state support which are the focus of this post.

2. Enrichment

In a 2012 article for The Guardian, playwright David Edgar highlighted a case for the arts which centred on the idea of enrichment:

Five years ago, the Arts Council set out to produce a threefold definition of art’s purpose: to increase people’s capacity for life (helping them to “understand, interpret and adapt to the world around them”), to enrich their experience (bringing “colour, beauty, passion and intensity to lives”) and to provide a safe site in which they could build their skills, confidence and self-esteem. Other forms of endeavour do some of these things. Only art does all three.

I think this is compelling. Edgar goes on to lament how difficult these three effects are to quantify, but concludes that widening participation in artistic endeavour is likely to have the most long-lasting social benefit. But where does that leave high-level traditional opera, say, or other genres which are the domain of the highly-trained? Artistic value in these areas still seems to elude the quantifying measures required by state subsidy.

What does that leave us with?

Cultural ecology

John Holden, commissioned to report on this topic by AHRC in 2015, elects to reframe the subject as a ‘cultural ecology

…culture is an organism not a mechanism…careers, ideas, money, product and content move around between the funded, commercial, and homemade/amateur parts of the overall cultural world in such a way that those funding categories cannot be disentangled.

Finally we have a view which reflects the complexity of the contemporary creative landscape – culture as an interconnected series of pursuits, professions, and crafts, each umbilically linked to the others.

Seeing culture as an ecology allows the formation of ‘a comprehensible overview that does not privilege one type of value – financial value – over others that attach to culture’. A later passage is worth quoting in full, because it gets right to the heart of our discussion about the problems of relying on economic value alone:

It is…a category mistake to treat culture only as economy, because the cultural ecology operates in ways, and produces effects, that transcend monetary transactions. The mistake has real consequences. One is that concentrating on only monetary valuations of the system (which the Treasury’s Green Book methodology demands, in that it requires all types of value to be expressed in monetary terms) inhibits interactivity, and is likely to reduce the creation of both financial and cultural value. Another is that non-monetary flows in the ecology are neglected whereas in fact, as Crossick explains: ‘without an extraordinary level of free-sharing, value cannot be formed’. The cultural ecology cannot be understood without taking into account free labour and emotional rewards.

So, the focus on the measurable economic benefit of art not only misrepresents what art does, but does active damage to what it can do.

People do not have a solely ‘professional’ relationship to creation. They move through different phases, pourously – at different times and in different circumstances they can be amateurs, professionals, spectators, supporters. I started singing as an amateur; I spent a few years as a professional singer; but in my current phase I’m more likely to listen to and support others singing than participate directly myself.

Not all of our labour is directly able or apt to be monetised, and there is no blanket distinction in art between the amateur and professional worlds.

Holden is leading us towards viewing the cultural environment as a whole. This allows him to suggest targeted interventions which might take the form of funding, based on asking ourselves questions about what art needs:

It is helpful to think of these biological concepts as a set of life-cycle questions: what conditions bring a form of culture into being? How is that form of culture then sustained? What threatens its existence? How can it be nurtured to grow to its full potential? How can it help other life-forms to emerge? When should it be let go?


Perhaps we shouldn’t be shying away from the complexity of the organism that is ‘culture’. Finding the right answers to the questions above could result in funding going a lot further.

However, it’s certainly true that fulsome answers to complicated questions don’t fit in a tweet. And if government only talks the language of economy, can it be persuaded to learn that of ecology?

It might not be so far-fetched. After all, the national conversation about the natural environment has advanced greatly over a short time, with those in government generally agreed that the care of the natural world is a matter of pressing concern. The ecology model might be one to road to helping us present subsidised culture in the same light – and attract a similar level of concern.