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DCMS’ new model for measuring culture’s economic value shows no understanding of how public policy has developed in recent decades, writes Anthony Sargent. Basing funding decisions on it would be "worse than bankrupt".

Anthony Sargent
Mark Savage

It is impossible to read ArtsProfessional’s recent story ‘DCMS announces economic model for deciding cultural funding’ without seeing it through the lens of the public policy journey of the last 20 years, which the new model spectacularly contradicts. 

We have been seeking a convincing rationale for public support for the arts ever since John Myerscough’s seminal 1988 report ‘The economic importance of the arts in Britain’. Responding to Margaret Thatcher’s uncomprehending, reductivist view of culture, the book triggered a wider quest to more fully understand the relationship between the arts and society.

Historically, the role of artists in their communities has always been understood to be as much about feeding the soul and holding up a mirror to societies and communities as about the material, quantifiable aspects of their work. Britain’s 1940 Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (which preceded the Arts Council) was founded to support the arts without being required to quantify a return on its investments. For 50 years, the Arts Council also felt no need to explain government support for culture in monetary terms, until Myerscough ignited interest in what kinds of return cultural investment really offered.

Over the intervening years, answers to that question have more and more seen economic analysis as just a starting point for much wider exploration of the benefits societies gain from healthy cultural ecosystems. 

In 2004 America’s admired Rand Corporation published ‘Reframing the Debate about the Value of the Arts’, arguing for “a new approach to understanding the benefits of the arts… a greater recognition of the intrinsic benefits of the arts experience” and “the social bonds created among individuals when they share arts experiences”. That same year, Tessa Jowell, UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, published a deeply personal essay on ‘Government and the Value of Culture’, asking “how, going beyond targets, can we best capture the value of culture?”. The question was quickly answered by John Holden and DEMOS in ‘Creating Cultural Value’, which proposed “a wholesale reshaping of the way public funding of culture is undertaken”. Rather than starting with the institutional structures and funding methodologies already in place, Holden argued that we should start with the assumptions that underpinned them: “We need a language capable of reflecting, recognising and capturing the full range of values expressed through culture… In short, we are proposing cultural value as an overarching principle for cultural funding.” 

That argument and arguments like it began developing around the world. In 2014, Arts Council Chair Peter Bazalgette folded them into mainstream British funding policy with ‘The value of the arts and culture to people and society’, identifying four ‘value themes’ - economy, health and well being, society and education. Canada’s respected and influential Hill Strategies published ‘Making a holistic case for the arts - the relationship between the arts and the quality of life’, advancing similar arguments from their own evidence base. Then in 2016 came the magnum opus from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, ‘Understanding the value of arts & culture, the AHRC Cultural Value Project’. The report fairly characterised itself as “one of the most in-depth attempts yet made to understand the value of the arts and culture – the difference they make to individuals and to society”. It made the crucial argument that, “it is only once we have started with individual experience that we can then work outwards and understand the kinds of benefit that culture may have for society, for communities, for democracy, for public health and wellbeing, for urban life and regional growth”. 

Over the past decade we have steadily refined that core argument that to understand fully the role of the artist in society we first need to understand the universe of different kinds of contribution the arts make to our lives. Without that understanding we are back with John Myerscough’s original 1988 arguments – useful in helping the Thatcher government see value in supporting the arts, but only a door-opening foundation for all that has followed.

And now we have the Culture and Heritage Capital Programme. DCMS’ project betrays no understanding whatsoever of the last two decades of public policy development, or indeed of the arts themselves. As a basis for decisions about cultural funding it is worse than bankrupt, failing utterly to understand the role artists play in our society – in any society.

Reading the proposals, I was suddenly back in the office of a Treasury official mid-way through George Osborne’s Chancellorship, believing I had marshalled my economic impact arguments to forensic perfection. Eyes rolled wearily. “Please don’t go on inflicting this stuff on us,” the Treasury said. “We know - and you know - these are just figures manufactured by consultants to justify what you do in what you think are our terms. That’s not why we invest in the arts. We invest our proportionally tiny but important arts budget because we believe flourishing arts ecologies are a good thing for the nation”. 

The proposed model addresses none of the real questions. Maybe it does not even understand what they are: why do artists and their work play such an essential, central role in any healthy society?

Anthony Sargent is an international cultural consultant and advisor.
Anthony Sargent CBE

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