The publication of the UK?s most comprehensive compendium of statistics relating to subsidised arts was met by a storm of protest when its publisher, the Policy Studies Institute, drew attention to what it considered to be serious inadequacies in the quality of published data about the impact of subsidised arts activity. ArtsProfessional invited the report?s editor, Sara Selwood, to respond to her critics.
The UK Cultural Sector: Profile and Policy Issues is about those arts and cultural activities that are deemed unable or unlikely to thrive on their own: in other words, the subsidised cultural sector. The report covers the built heritage, film, libraries, literature, museums and galleries, the performing arts, public broadcasting, and the visual arts. It describes how much subsidy these activities receive, where it comes from, what it?s intended for, how it?s distributed, how organisations in receipt of subsidy operate financially, whether the sector as a whole looks any different now to how it did before, and how the relationship works between those cultural activities that are self-sufficient and those that aren?t. It focuses on the financial year 1998/1999 (the last year for which data are available), but also looks at previous years for comparisons.
The report draws from several different perspectives. It uses information from those who provide subsidies, as well as those who receive them. It is replete with analyses and interpretations from a range of professionals and commentators who work in or around the sector, and it is unique in that it incorporates the views of academics, administrators, cultural economists, cultural analysts, civil servants, consultants and statisticians. Their individual takes and perspectives certainly differ, but this range of opinion and approach throws more light on the subject than has ever previously been available.
The UK Cultural Sector examines cultural policy, the funding of the cultural sector, and the context within which the subsidised cultural sector operates; and it includes a profile of the subsidised cultural sector itself. The funding sources considered include central government; the urban regeneration programme; institutions of higher education; European funding; local authorities; taxation; the national lottery; charitable trusts and foundations; and the private sector. The report questions many assumptions traditionally made about the sector and considers why government funds culture. What is the relationship between the subsidised and the wider cultural sector? What is the economic impact of the arts, and how is it measured? Is there any evidence that subsidising theatre encourages innovation and diversity?
One of the developments that the report inevitably picks up on in relation to changes in policy and funding is the top down imposition of monitoring and measurement, which has become standard practice within the sector since Labour came to power. This drive towards efficiency has gone hand in hand with the creation of central government cultural policy and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport?s transformation into a ?strategic body?. Thus, the requirement for the delivery of the government?s objectives (access, lifelong learning, efficiency, excellence, economic development, etc) now filters down though the Department?s funding stream ? via its arms? length bodies, formalised through a system of funding agreements, and reinforced by specifically earmarked tranches of funding.
Despite this new accountability however, and the ensuing demands for cultural organisations to make data returns, there is still a paucity of data. In many cases, researchers working on the book found that the information that existed was either inconsistent (accounting methods might have changed, for example) or unavailable for public use (despite being about, collected by, and paid for by the public sector).In other cases, it simply didn?t exist. There are few reliable details even about the basics: how much public money goes into the sector; how much partnership funding it generates; how much organisations earn; and how many people go to subsidised events.
So, despite assertions that the government is edging towards ?evidence based policy?, this lack of data and the general absence of analysis by funding bodies must be impairing decision making and policy outcomes. At the end of the day, how will we know if the government?s cultural policies have succeeded if there?s no baseline data? To quote the press release that accompanied publication of The UK Cultural Sector, how can we know if we're getting value for money if the official bodies don't even know where all the money comes from, where it?s going, how it?s spent, or what difference it?s made?
Media recognition and relations
We were surprised ? and heartened ? by the amount of press coverage the report received and by the impact it has already had within the sector. Many journalists and commentators recognised the dilemma we exposed only too well. The Times leader called for an official report into how public money is spent on the sector (July 25 2001).Most of the news and culture editors on the broadsheets picked up on the issue, and David Walker noted in The Guardian (July 26 2001) that similar problems probably characterised umpteen other types of government policy. But, even if in politics intuition beats causality, ?in a technocratic age, we do expect government to be rational?. And, while Whitehall is awash with knowledge, according to Walker, ?its utility is questionable and it arrives in penny packages?. There are calls within government itself for office holding to be empiricist, and the Cabinet Office has already told Whitehall to sharpen up its analytical skills (Performance and Innovation Unit, Cabinet Office, January 2000, Adding It Up).
But, even if the book?s findings made good sense within the broader political arena, they caused considerable discomfort in parts of our own sector. Compared with their colleagues in the national press, cultural sector writers approached their reviews of the book from a rather myopic perspective. Some presumably did without the bother of reading it and simply asserted that the report was about something it wasn?t: ?You cannot formally value the arts?? (Simon Kensdale, Letters, ARTSPROFESSIONAL September 10 2001). Others just said that they preferred not to have to think about it: ?If you?re anything like me you can only absorb so much in the way of statistics before you feel the need for a cold beer? I think I?ll get that cold beer? (Keith Clarke, Classical Music, August 4 2001).
Some critics were quick to accuse the figures of being out of date (Paul Webb, Theatrenow.com, July 25 2001).Yes ? but they?re all we?ve got. At least two reviewers attempted to flex their muscles by referring to the recent, Society of London Theatre data as more up to date and telling a different story (Webb and Mark Espiner in Time Out). Unfortunately SOLT data doesn?t disaggregate information on subsidised arts organisations, nor do its findings hold true of organisations throughout the UK. Another journo pointed out that particular venues were thriving, despite evidence of falling attendances in general (Luke Leitch, Evening Standard, July 25 2001).But then the Proms and the National Gallery are hardly representative. An anonymous critic (Theatre.com, July 26 2001) reminded us how successfully the National Theatre had managed to solve the problem of attendances with My Fair Lady. So much for subsidies going to innovation. At least Peter Hewitt, Chief Executive, Arts Council of England (Evening Standard, July 30 2001) had the good grace to acknowledge the accuracy of the situation described by the book, but proposed that more people were now attending plays and ballet, despite only being able to cite unpublished data to that effect.(If the Arts Council was to actually publish all the data it collects, we might all benefit from a more accurate picture of the sector).
Exposing the paradox implicit in the book?s claim of a paucity of data appealed to several writers. They pointed to the difficulties of squaring this alleged lack of data with the publication of ?a brick-thick report, crammed with more statistics than a library of trainspotters? notebooks?, and the fact that ?most arts organisations groan that they expend more energy on filling in forms issued by nannying government quangos than they do in putting on shows? (Richard Morrison, The Times, July 25 2001).This misses the point. The UK Cultural Sector was an hoc publication produced and funded by independent organisations, and written in response to the fact that neither the collation nor the analyses of that data had been carried out by those strategic bodies that actually fund the cultural sector. The book also draws attention to the fact that little, if any, use has been made of the information provided by all those forms that have had to be filled in.
Other reviewers simply didn?t engage with the issues. Some blindly preferred not to address the constraints of funding: ?What matters is that theatre companies perform plays: the money is only of interest if it serves this purpose? (Paul Webb, Theatrenow.com, July 25 2001).This is an easy enough assertion to make as long as you don?t have to square the problem of a finite amount of money and increasing demands for it, or worry too much about who benefits from cultural subsidies. Many commentators were clearly against any form of analysis, plainly objecting to the cultural sector being contextualised within the worlds of politics and funding. They implied that the authors of The UK Cultural Sector were nerds, if not philistines. Why bother to look for robust evidence when anecdote would do? (?Anyone who gets around the cultural scene can make an educated guess??).
Other critics regarded the book as pandering to all the worst aspects of managerialism. Andrew Marr (The Observer, July 29 2001) saw no distinction between what ARTSPROFESSIONAL referred to as ?blowing the gaff ? and joining the conspiracy. For him, the book was ?the latest example of the rule of numbers, the dominance of data, applied with a self righteousness that is becoming destructive?. Martin Bailey wrote in The Art Newspaper that 'Perhaps underlying the whole report is the endless appetite of economists and statisticians for more and more data. In a field such as the arts, this does not necessarily bring decision makers closer to the real world.' (July 30 2001).The reviewer at Theatrenow.com believed that there could be no possible need for more data given the excessive demands made of cultural sector organisations already: ?Endless collection and analysis of statistics is of itself of no intrinsic value? (July 25 2001).
Other journalists and commentators cashed in on the opportunity to sound off about government policy. Richard Morrison rejected cultural planning out of hand.?...We are talking about the arts here, not the National Health Service. How much central government planning (i.e. ?control?) of our culture is desirable or healthy?? George Walden (Evening Standard, July 25 2001) described DCMS?s commitment to increasing access and producing value for money as a load of ?tosh?. He asserts: ?I recoil from the notion that you can measure a nation?s artistic achievement simply by counting heads. All that matters is the quality of the art. ?Well, let's forget about increasing access then. ?For any sensible reader, the PSI?s figures are pretty meaningless. Statistics can?t tell us how many ?arts consumers? are simply the same people visiting different events?. Actually, George, they can and they do, and they make uncomfortable reading.
Perhaps the saddest criticism of all was the notion that the book?s exposure of the paucity of data might ultimately threaten cultural sector funding by feeding right into the hands of the Treasury, which is ?always on the look out for a weapon to cut back on spending? (Martin Bailey, The Art Newspaper, July 30 2001).So much for independent research then ? better keep quiet, and pretend that all?s well.
Sara Selwood is Quintin Hogg Research Fellow at the University of Westminster, and Editor of the journal Cultural Trends, published quarterly by Policy Studies Institute. e: firstname.lastname@example.org. The UK Cultural Sector: Profile and Policy Issues, published by PSI, is available priced £30.00 from Central Books t: 020 8986 4854, e: email@example.com.