DCMS blog

Art for art’s sake?

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Claire Donovan

Lecturer at Brunel University

Priceless? A blog on the very idea of measuring cultural value by Dr Claire Donovan
Can the language and tools of economics help the case for cultural sector funding? Or is culture a special case with its own rules?

Why measure?

A central question for this blog is whether the value of culture can be measured by government in monetary (or other) terms, or if it is ‘priceless’ and beyond measurement. But why ask this question in the first place?
Picture of a restaurant receipt that conveys putting a price on happiness. Used with permission from Adrian Lander Photography
We live in a financial climate where all areas of public services face scrutiny. Supporters of economic valuation of the cultural sector believe that monetised evidence is the surest way to demonstrate past successes and to secure future funds. The language of economics is the logic of government: if the cultural sector does not speak in these terms it will suffer. Economic or other quantifiable measures of cultural value may be crude, but over time will become more sophisticated, including measures of the impact of the arts or heritage on happiness and wellbeing, for example.

A case for exceptionalism?

Opponents argue that the cultural sector is different from other areas of public spending, and that the language of business and markets does not fit. There is a different rulebook – if there is a rulebook at all – and the value of culture transcends blunt economic measures. Indeed, for this very reason, public investment in the cultural sector should be without strings.
Image of graffiti on a wall that says Remeber That U're Not Doing it For Money
But can we realistically maintain that public funds be asked for and spent without accountability? Why should funds be given to a museum or a library rather than to a hospital or a school? Is to want evidence of cultural value the height of philistinism, or a wider concern that, for example, government spending will bring high quality arts experiences to those who would otherwise be excluded?

Never the Twain?

This blog thread poses many questions, and I hope that you will provide some comments. But I wonder if the argument needs to be as polarised as I have presented it? It would be great to hear from people working in the cultural sector – with large-scale or small-scale enterprises – about how you best demonstrate the value of what you do.
Do only economic measures make sense? Are you pragmatic, and speak whatever funding language you need to? Are there novel ways of demonstrating cultural value that other areas of government could learn from?
Share your views on these questions or other aspects of measuring cultural value via the comments section below.

Dr Claire Donovan is a Reader in the Health Economics Research Group at Brunel University, London. ‘Measuring Cultural Value (Phase 2)’ is jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, and the DCMS.
Priceless? A blog on the very idea of measuring cultural value by Dr Claire Donovan
This interactive blog seeks to stimulate discussion across the cultural sector on the very idea of measuring cultural value. Dr Claire Donovan is an academic working at DCMS to write a report on this issue, and wants to know what you think. Can the value of culture be measured by government in monetary (or other) terms, or is it ‘priceless’?

Receipt image used with permission from Adrian Lander Photography

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7 comments on “Art for art’s sake?

  1. The first thing that occurs to me is that constructing a narrative may be the best way to demonstrate societal impact – and not only for the cultural sector.
    Artists and humanists may have skills that lend themselves to narrative creation, but scientists may also want to go there in describing their own impact.
    In fact, in the UK, this seems to be required in the Research Excellence Framework [the government process used to assess the quality and impact of university research], where impact is judged by peers who are looking at narratives of impact connected to (‘underpinning’) research
    Economics could be, but need not necessarily, be part of that story.

  2. D Morgan says:

    “The language of economics is the logic of government”.
    For me that one sentence perfectly encapsulates the entire problem with modern politics. The question that we ought to be asking has nothing to do with whether or not the cultural sector should be using economic measures to make it’s case to government. The real question is ‘Why has economics become the only means through which government is capable of viewing society?’
    You can travel to any city in this country and find galleries, museums and libraries built over the course of 200 years by councils and supported by citizens whose motivations had nothing to do with turning a profit. They created those facilities for the good of the community because they understood that in doing so they would help to inspire creativity, encourage achievement and bolster Britain’s standing on the world stage.
    And as we take the time to consider that let’s also remember they did all of these things in an age before the introduction of universal healthcare, or even universal education. They could just as easily have used that money to pay for hospitals and schools, and in many cases they did just that. At the same time, however, they also prioritised support for the arts because it was something that they valued. It was what they chose to do with their money once they had earned it.
    Now we live in an age where the values have been almost completely reversed. The accumulation of personal wealth has become the sole overriding objective despite the fact that this serves no socially useful purpose.
    Asking if we should have arts for art’s sake is a far less pertinent question than asking whether we should have money for money’s sake.

  3. B Pelly-Fry says:

    As public money dwindles, so competition for it across all sectors increases. We are all fighting for our cause and need as much evidence to justify our piece of the ever-decreasing pie as each other.
    I don’t think the arts sector should consider themselves a special case – in fact, I think that’s a particularly dangerous position to take. In the short term, economic impact is a high priority for public spending, but in the long term we need to play with the big boys so we should be learning their language in order to continue to develop and sustain the arts in this country.
    People working in the sector know and understand the enormous and wide-reaching benefits of arts and culture, but we need to get better at evidencing and describing them to others.

  4. David Dixon says:

    This is a great set of questions, Claire, and goes to the heart of the relationship between government, citizens, artists and arts organisations, which is under scrutiny everywhere in the world. Economics is not about money, that is a serious misunderstanding; it is about how we make practical choices. How do we as individuals, organisations, businesses and branches of government choose to distribute our resources?
    As individuals we can do whatever we want, within reason, without reference to anyone else, but governments must justify how they allocate resources (money, time, things) because, in the end, these resources belong to all of us. This is why they can’t dodge the questions some people in the arts find uncomfortable – ‘why’, ‘how much’, ‘who gets it’, ‘how do we know they are using it well’ and so on.
    We who work in the arts can’t just pretend those questions aren’t important.

  5. Kathy O'Brien says:

    Hmmm, I seem to have woken up from a deep sleep of 15 years or thereabouts, has nothing changed? Oh and by the way – what happened about the posts in the previous blog on the same subject Claire?

  6. Elizabeth Young (AKA Kennet) says:

    “Economics” has got itself tied in knots over the idea of “value”. Think of bankers’ salaries (called “compensation” – what are they being compensated for?) and “bonuses”; think of works of art; think of schooling…
    Of course “culture” is “valuable”: “value” is what it is about.
    BUT it cannot be defined by the behaviour of “markets” in its presence: it is what it is, and those who know the “value” of “culture” will defend it, and those who don’t will still seek to judge it fallaciously.
    What should Government, looking out for money, do?
    Take the views and opinions of those who know the “worth” of “culture”, just as they take the views of the knowledgeable and expert in other areas – medecine, engineering, architecture, plumbing, and such.

  7. Claire’s questions are all very valid in today’s world of funding constraints and economic austerity.
    Cultural and heritage organisations need to branch out of the traditional funding frameworks, seeking alternative sources and justifying those funding streams still in place by measuring the value (economic and beyond) generated.
    We’ll be looking at these themes in our Culture Matters 2012 conference in November (14-16), including keynotes from Loyd Grossman (How Do We Value Cultural Heritage?) and Donovan Rypkema (The Economic Contributions of Heritage).

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