The economic case for the arts

It seems somehow ironic that 25 years after the publication of the first serious study of the economic importance of the arts in the UK, that the Secretary of State for Culture should call on the sector to make a stronger economic case.

Just in case you missed that: 25 years.

In 1988, the Policy Studies Institute published John Myerscough’s seminal The Economic Importance of the Arts – a 200 page research study which sought to examine and begin articulating the different ways in which the arts contribute to the UK economy. And, although – as my tweet on the morning of Miller’s speech suggested – there has been a sometimes obsessive focus on economic impact over the last 15 years, the economic case for culture long pre-dates the New Labour assertion of the value of the creative economy.

It was not so much that Miller appeared to be calling on the sector to generate a set of arguments which they had been making for more than a decade; but that it appeared to be such an unintelligent statement for the Secretary of State to be making at a time when public and political debate has moved on to begin addressing more intensively the different ways in which culture adds value. The recently launched AHRC study on Cultural Value, for example, comes at the end of a long period of research and discussion which has attempted to move debate beyond the (economic) instrumentalism v. (cultural) intrinsic divide.

Re-opening the debate about ‘economic importance’ seems such a retrograde step.

But let’s have a look a bit more closely at what Miller had to say:

“I come to you today and ask you to help me reframe the argument: to hammer home the value of culture to our economy…… over the coming weeks and months, I will argue that our cultural sector can bring opportunities, regeneration, jobs and growth…… I will position the arts not as on the periphery, but at the centre of economic growth and in that endeavour I ask for both your support and your ambition. And together, we can build a stronger sector, a stronger economy, and above all, a stronger Britain.”

The key words here are, I think: ‘reframe’, ‘hammer home’, and ‘ask for your support’.

Giving Miller the benefit of the doubt (although it’s difficult in a speech with nonsensical phrases such as: “public funding distributed by the Arts Council should effectively act as seed funding, or venture capital” and “Do we want to be seen to inspire our children or leave them with a mountain of debt?”) – so, giving Miller the benefit of the doubt: she is asking the cultural sector to  to be entirely pragmatic: it’s a call to make the economic case as part of the current round of negotiations – not as a  longer-term vision, but in order to help her get the best possible settlement in the next CSR.

Further, I would read more into her speech too: it’s a call on the sector to be more effective in its economic case-making, not to overstate its claims (no more spurious claims that £1 spent on culture brings £10 in tourism), and to act together to help her.

But it’s on this that I would take issue again. Where is the DCMS in this? Yes, the cultural sector can and should be more effective in making its case but that requires some leadership – particularly when it comes to communicating with and making the case to the Treasury, experience of which is based within the DCMS not within arts organisations.

To take two very practical examples:

  • Creative Industries data: Soon after the publication of the first Creative Industries Mapping document in 1998, DCMS officials got together with researchers in the sector to begin developing a nationally agreed framework for data-collection – to ensure that the mapping work which was being commissioned by local authorities and regional partners around the country adhered to certain standards. Alongside the numerous arguments for and against the 13-sector typology, a healthy dialogue has developed and a series of increasingly robust research studies and partnerships have developed – working with NESTA, the Work Foundation, GLA, numerous university research centres etc. My point being that it was the DCMS which took the lead in facilitating and co-ordinating research in this area, building a set of more robust data – and although there’s still work to be done – leading to a position where numerous Government departments and agencies are investing in the creative industries.
  • On Cultural Value, it was the DCMS who picked up the baton after an initial paper and debate on ‘Measuring Intrinsic Value‘ was published, pulling together a steering group, hosting an AHRC Research Fellow (Dr Dave O’Brien), and commissioning an academic study on the topic. This entailed fostering links across Government – not least the Treasury – to generate a serious debate about the different ways in which the cultural case could be made.

It’s in this context that I’d question the call for the cultural sector to ‘get behind’ the economic case. If Miller is serious about the need to make the economic case then it needs the DCMS to take a lead. The fact that there are precious few senior staff left at the DCMS – let alone economists and statisticians – is a poor excuse (and, anyway, is the result of cuts to avoid the “mountain of debt”).

Here’s one idea: why not convene a Cultural Economics round-table – not a high-profile tub-thumping event, but a behind-the-scenes high-level debate – which brings together the senior researchers who have been working on the ‘economic case’ for a number of years (there are plenty of them: Calvin Taylor, Kate Oakley, Hasan Bakhshi, Sara Selwood, Justin O’Connor), and a group of Treasury officials – and possibly even economists from other sectors grappling with similar issues around ‘value’ (health, environment) – and begin a serious dialogue.



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