Can we value art economically? AHA alum Helena Roy examines funding for the arts…

Culture Secretary Maria Miller argued in April 2013 that the arts had to make a case for their economic worth to receive government funding. Speaking at the British Museum, she said British culture should be viewed as a ‘commodity’ and ‘compelling product’ to sell at home and export abroad.

Investment in art, she went on, is only a means to ‘healthy dividends’. When British art is exported, it should be part of ‘relationship marketing’ to help ‘attract investment which will drive jobs and opportunities here at home’.

Maria Miller at the British Museum in April

But at the heart of Miller’s speech was contradiction.

The arts can only grow and benefit Britain’s economy with significant government funding. Asking them to increase profit whilst reducing funding is paradoxical. The most successful theatrical exports of recent years – War Horse, One Man Two Guvnors (seven-times Tony-nominated and currently touring Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia), and Matilda – came from the subsidised sector. Sir Nicholas Hytner, head of the National Theatre, said ‘she seems to be acknowledging that the arts are an engine for growth, but growth is what we are desperately in need of.’

Besides, Britain’s culture is already fantastic value for money. London theatre alone returns almost as much to the treasury in VAT as Arts Council England gives to theatre across the country. If we consistently reduce funding we may see a repeat of the 1980s, when persistent reduction in funding closed roughly a quarter of the country’s theatres. This would be an astronomical loss. Arts funding amounts only to 7p in every £100 of public spending, yet the creative industries, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), account for 6.2% (GVA) of goods and services in the economy, £16.6 billion in exports and 2 million jobs.

The musical 'Matilda' has been a hit both at home and abroad

Despite this, Chancellor George Osborne announced a 7% spending cut to the DCMS as part of the Spending Review in June 2013. It was probably the best case scenario in a worst case economy. But Richard Mantle, general director of Opera North, pointed out that ‘it’s a 5% cut on top of a period of quite severe cuts…since 2011, so it’s the cumulative effect which is the challenging thing.’

That challenge is particularly felt outside the South East. We cannot hold up all British arts to of London theatres, in terms of revenue. This risks an increased split between the South East and rest of the country in terms of arts funding, and thus artistic creation – denying millions the opportunity to enjoy and generate culture. Keith Merrin, director of Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland, is facing a struggle as a result of a 10% cut to local authority budgets. ‘The belief that philanthropy will pick up the slack is simply unrealistic in most parts of the country,’ he lamented.

The British Museum - one of London's top attractions and free for visitors

Making art a commodity most detrimentally risks reducing interest in new culture. It is not just profit that makes art valuable – it is the fresh and exciting risk it takes; the challenges it throws at society’s mores. Creative risk-taking produces excellence and modernity, but artistic figures cannot do this if they are programmed to focus on profits. A desperate need for funding will lead to overreliance on big names to generate the required investment. A cycle of reliance on celebrity artists will ensue – making the art market elitist, and denying opportunities to younger artists.

Above all, art is about more than money. Labelling it with an economic value is harmful. Art is generates a sense of community and identity, and offers a platform for opinions and public discussion. Miller’s speech seemed to sideline all other benefits the arts bring. The fact that art is about more, and that access to it is mostly free, is what makes it so culturally valuable. It is first and foremost a social commodity. Former Arts Council England chair Dame Liz Forgan summed it up well:

“The danger…is that people actually start to believe that because art produces huge economic benefits, we should start directing our investment in culture for its commercial potential. That’s not only philistine, it’s self-defeating, because then you get accountants making artistic decisions, which is as silly as having artists making accounting ones. If you start to invest in art because of an identified commercial outcome, you will get worse art and therefore we will get a worse commercial outcome.”

Culture undoubtedly has economic value. UNESCO has identified the UK as the world’s largest exporter of cultural goods – bigger than the US, Japan, Germany or France – and 40% of tourists to the UK cite culture and heritage as the primary reason for their visit. But this should be a pleasant, unintended (but not unforeseen) consequence of funding the arts. Making financial gain the ends of artistic creation will destroy and commercialise the means.

Miller admitted that ‘culture educates, entertains and it enriches. We must never lose sight of that fact.’ But in times of economic crisis, with harsh cuts being made everywhere, that is exactly what we risk. The British Museum is a pertinent example: the UK’s most popular tourist attraction, part of its appeal is that entry is free of charge – it is accessible to all. As I described with opera earlier this year, art and culture is unifying. If we give it an economic label, we risk splitting its audience by income and depriving future generations of artistic opportunities.

With thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC and the Independent for photos.

 

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