Steven Hadley shares his concerns about the shift towards hyperinstrumentalisation in arts policy, which is giving precedence to wellbeing, educational and economic outcomes over cultural value.

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If there is a unifying theme throughout the history of the arts councils of the UK, it is arguably the question of what (and whom) public subsidy of the arts is for. Equally, that question seems to have a straightforward enough answer: public subsidy is about creating ‘great art’ which is ‘for everyone’.

Does an increasing emphasis on non-cultural policy intentions lead to a loss of meaning for cultural policy in its own terms? 

Yet those engaged in arts advocacy debates are equally aware of the plethora of rationales used to justify arts subsidy. Let’s for a moment invoke the ghost of Terry Wogan and play ‘Arts Advocacy Blankety Blank’. Complete the following sentence: ‘The arts are good for…’ Many in the sector could reel off a long list of answers – health, wellbeing, education, economic impact, tourism, etc.

These effects are broadly speaking instrumental impacts of public subsidy for arts and culture. But this approach, this instrumental view of culture, has an underlying logic that is to say the least problematic.

The role of cultural policy

Part of the recent change in focus in the arts sector has been a desire to move beyond what has become an increasingly sterile debate concerning the perceived clash between the ‘instrumental’ and ‘intrinsic’ dimensions of cultural policy. This was discussed by John Holden in his book ‘Capturing Cultural Value: How Culture has become a Tool of Government Policy’ published back in 2004.

This is coupled with a desire to develop more productive understandings of the roles that cultural policy plays within societies. As such, part of the politics of survival which influences the thinking in the arts revolves around how the cultural sector actively contributes to non-cultural policy ambitions, such as those listed above in our game of Blankety Blank.

There is, however, a problem with this approach. A problem arises if culture becomes simply a means to a non-cultural policy end. As Eleonora Belfiore argued, “if the logic of the instrumental view of culture… is taken to its extreme (but intrinsically consequential) conclusions, there would be no point in having a cultural policy at all”.

Our research was concerned with investigating the extent to which this fear for cultural policy has the potential to become a policy reality. Does an increasing emphasis on non-cultural policy intentions (health, wellbeing, etc) lead to a loss of meaning for cultural policy in its own terms? If so, what are the implications for the arts sector?

Outputs and outcomes

The broad shift in emphasis to more instrumentalised versions of policy coincided with changes in the language describing cultural expenditure and the increasing use of economic terminologies such as ‘subsidy’ and ‘investment’. This linguistic shift then reinforced the perception that the point of cultural policies rested on their investment return rather than the specifically cultural content of their outputs, with this return being appraised in terms of non-cultural outcomes.

The increasing expectation that cultural investment will contribute to, for example, the production of creative cities and urban regeneration has certainly become a global phenomenon. And the calls for cultural organisations to demonstrate their social impact through their contributions to health, wellbeing and social inclusion are common.

All policy is instrumental in so far as it is concerned with using certain mechanisms to achieve certain ends. Yet the weaknesses of the evidence base for the positive contribution that culture may have for a variety of instrumental purposes has been long recognised. If instrumental outputs are the basis upon which public funds are allocated to culture, and if it cannot be convincingly demonstrated that culture contributes to these outputs, then why continue to fund it?

The fact that governments have used instrumental arguments to justify financial support for culture for many years does not mean that they necessarily have to continue to do so. In circumstances such as these, the concern is that funding may be removed from culture and assigned to areas demonstrating much more evident success in meeting the non-cultural policy requirements that governments have.

The advent of hyperinstrumentalisation

The question that then becomes important is whether the instrumental approach to cultural policy has established sets of justifications and rationales for subsidy of the arts that have nothing to do with the cultural content of the policy concerned. Using the example of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in Northern Ireland, we question whether such a re-structuring of public policy has the effect of establishing a form of ‘hyperinstrumentalisation’ for cultural policy, where outcomes replace inputs, outputs and intentions as the basis upon which policy rests.

In this view, instrumentalisation sees cultural policy as a means to a non-cultural end, but it is still the case that it is the cultural content of the policy that provides it with meaning. Hyperinstrumentalisation, on the other hand, is only concerned with the ends and the meaning of cultural policy lies solely in those ends. As such, within hyperinstrumentalism considerations of cultural value are effectively irrelevant.

The emphasis on policy outcomes within hyperinstrumentalism means that as culture is no longer an end in itself (but is simply a means to an end), direction of the sector by political actors takes priority. Moreover, the consequences arising from these changes lead to a situation where there is no need for a specific cultural policy, functioning within its own sphere of action, and with its own control of inputs, outputs and resource allocation. The instrumentalisation of culture in these circumstances is no longer an issue having been replaced by hyperinstrumentalisation instead.

Hyperinstrumentalisation demonstrates the consequences for the sector in conditions where claims about the value of culture are irrelevant to political actors. As such, the establishment of better arguments to justify the continued existence of an autonomous sphere of cultural policy practice is needed if the arts sector is to be able to stake a continued claim to independence.

Steven Hadley is an academic, writer and consultant in the arts and cultural sector and an Associate Consultant with The Audience Agency.
Tw @mancinbelfast

This article is based on 'Hyperinstrumentalism and cultural policy: means to an end or an end to meaning?' a recent paper by Steven Hadley and Clive Gray, published in Cultural Trends, discussing the logic of instrumentalism.

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As individuals and groups we can make free choices about what is art and what is not, about which art we support with our time and money and which we leave alone. Our motives for choosing could be banal or sublime but that is our business - individuals don't have to justify their spending policies. When it comes to government money (local or national) then policy is crucial. After all, they are spending OUR money and they need to explain to US why they define activity X as art and not activity Y (jazz is art in France but not in the UK, for example) and then, why they chose to give money to organisation A and not organisation B. Instrumentalisation and the general rush to measurement is deeply problematic but it is a justified reaction to the old method of defining art and handing out money which is to rely on small committees. The problem with this method is that it is profoundly un-democratic - since nobody can really define 'art' or 'quality' adequately these committees inevitably give money to the things which they themselves find worthwhile, leaving whole communities and thousands of artists outside the charmed circle. It is an old-boys (and a few girls) network. In many countries where I work this means that funding goes almost entirely to the arts favoured by highly educated white people. Indeed, art is in effect defined by subsidy - 'that which is funded by the government is art and that which is not is just entertainment or handicraft.' Health, education, transport, housing, social care, banking regulation, the judicial system....all are now measured to a large extent so that funding decisions can be better explained (it is often not easy, but we must try). The arts and the military are the last bastions of the 'great and good' system of decision-making and oversight so beloved of old ruling elites, where we are told to trust the experts because the rest of just don't understand the finer points. Instrumental funding is not itself bad since cultural activities are indeed good for mental and physical health, crime reduction, social cohesion and so on - how is it a bad thing to say that? It is only a problem when arts practitioners are unable to come up with equally convincing analysis of what constitutes 'cultural value'. Politicians have no choice but to favour things which can be measured and analysed over things which, they are told, are rather like fairy dust - magical but impossible to describe.

I think this was an interesting article but was a bit confused about it's basis. The reason the arts uses 'hyperwhatever' is simply to secure funds from other sources it couldn't otherwise access using a purely cultural justification e.g. health or crime prevention etc - given the budget holders in these areas need to justify their spend cultural providers need to show how their work impacts change for people's health, or rampant criminality. Fair enough. However, its unlikely they'll be zero crime, or perfect health so I'd lay money on the fact , if cultural providers CAN show a positive change, funds will be found for the arts in these areas. Bit depressing if entire cultural sector can't jointly invest/work with health partners to show some objective evidence of impact. Reckon some of it could also be 'great art', standing on its own merit. The 'culture for culture's sake' is a completely different argument. Here, it IS the responsibility of the 70 years old Arts Council to assess and back projects with purely artistic merit/high quality and 'step-in' to support culture/art with no chance of existing because its audience participants won't/can't pay for the cost of putting it out. Here, politics will rule within a government funded quango like ACE but Grants for the Arts and quite a few NPO's, although funds are tiny, still fund culture for cultures sake. Quite a bit of it also has broader health and crime prevention outcomes.

Oh dear, yet more entitled speciousness and special pleading. "If there is a unifying theme throughout the history of the arts councils of the UK, it is arguably the question of what (and whom) public subsidy of the arts is for. Equally, that question seems to have a straightforward enough answer: public subsidy is about creating ‘great art’ which is ‘for everyone’." In a democratic society - and even more straightforwardly - it's surely a reasonable expectation that those who spend public money should be able to demonstrate public benefit.

After reading this article, I am disappointed with the cultural policy field. We seem to be unable to move on from this topic. The buzzword now may be hyperinstrumentalisation, to ensure funding and get articles published, but this is the same content, with the same premises, and the same dead end. Anyone who has worked in the field knows that the main drive behind the so called instrumentalisation was to encourage cultural organizations to remember that there is no point whatsoever to have a museum, for instance, if citizens or users don´t visit them, or when they do, they don´t understand what they are experiencing. Or if people with young children find that going to McDonald's is a more rewarding experience that going to the most recent exhibition. It is about people. It is a completely legitimate question to ask: How are citizens experiencing cultural activities funded by citizens? And what tools are we using to ensure this? Do these tools encourage or reduce creativity and innovation in the sector? It is so frustrating that we can´t seem to get past this. There is a great deal of good research and evaluation happening out there (B. Garcia, D O´Brien, S Pritchard, work at NESTA) that actually supports reflection and growth of the sector around this topic and other issues. It is frustrating that Arts Professional sees this topic as relevant, just because the author came up with a new term (hyperinstrumentalisation). It is disheartening to think that cultural policy students are still being taught this, not for one lesson, but for most of their MAs.

I agree with R Williams, I feel I have read this article a thousand times over the past 15 years and it has been pretty irrelevant for at least the past five. Funding from the arts comes from some areas where it is the art that interests them (Arts council, some trusts, private donors) and from some areas that need to see some form of non-artistic impact (local, central government, a range of other trusts). As a sector, we are skilled at raising funds from both types of funder and adapting our language as neccessary. It is important that we don't lose sight of the fact that we are creating art, equally we should never lose sight of the fact that we have a civic responsibility to make sure that art impacts and benefits as many people as possible. We all know this and operate accordingly. I feel the author needs to do a little catching up.

Whatever you like to call it, this is a ship that sailed long ago. The embrace of neo-liberalism as the UK’s defining economic policy post-1979 led directly to the current “price of everything and value of nothing” attitude to public services, where every single state-funded organisation (hospitals, education, the arts, social services, etc) is measured only against a fallacious standard, supposedly defined by “the market”, of alleged value for money. Politicisation of senior Arts Council appointments from the 1980s onwards and the increasing domination of arts organisations’ boards by business people led to a “cultural cringe” by vast numbers of arts organisations, bullied into believing that out there in “the real world” were exemplary commercial companies whose doctrines they had to adopt. Funding applications have been larded with inputs, outputs and KPIs, as the arts struggle desperately to show that, at heart, they're a business just like BAE or Shell, the only way to compete for a share of a constantly dwindling pot of public money - even one that's already almost infinitesimal in terms of UK GDP. For 40 years successive governments have used the arts to compensate for shortfalls in other areas of public expenditure such as education. But once arts organisations started producing economic impact studies to “justify” their subsidy in the 1980s, the argument was lost that funding could be for their cultural value and to make their work available to the widest possible audiences. In the market economy, the idea that there is intrinsic artistic merit in presenting a Shakespeare play, a Maya Angelou poem, an Ai Weiwei artwork or a Judith Weir opera simply doesn’t compute. Funding policy has almost nothing to do with fair representation of Britain’s ethnically and culturally diverse population, but everything to do with the philistinism of a philosophy that sees the state as a malignant force (while ensuring that huge companies take every advantage of tax minimisation rules and hidden public subsidies) and tax as a gross imposition, and elevates commercial competition - in reality, almost always in the form of cartels or monopolies - above any notion of public good.

This article has lost some key emphasis in editing down.-I think many readers, like myself initially, are missing the important background issue of: "Northern Ireland shut down the equivalent of the DCMS and transferred arts policy to the equivalent of the DCLG" (much simplified) If that's not a cultural policy issue, I don't know what is! Are you a community artist or a well-being practitioner (who just happens to use art to do so)? Will this a good, bad or indifferent thing for artists, audiences and managers in the arts in Northern Ireland? Personally I haven't a clue, I don't think the article is directly trying to address this. Evidently many think it is possible to make arguments on two fronts, intrinsic and instrumental at the same time, or at least that the two don't immediately contradict and negate each other in the minds of decision makers and 'political actors' as much as strict theory would suggest. "As such, the establishment of better arguments to justify the continued existence of an autonomous sphere of cultural policy practice is needed if the arts sector is to be able to stake a continued claim to independence." Given the "slightly fed-up with academics" tone of commenters above me, clearly we're all still waiting for these "better arguments" to arrive...