A Cautionary Note on the Social and Economic Value of the Arts

think of the grandchildrenArts Council England has released a new report on The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: An Evidence Review. What to make of it? From the foreword by the Chair of the Council, Sir Peter Bazalgette:

Of course the inherent value of arts and culture is, in part, a philosophical assertion that can’t be measured in numbers. Quantifying the benefits and expressing them in terms of facts and figures that can evidence the contribution made to our collective and individual lives has always presented a problem, but it is something that arts and culture organisations will always have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources.

What is the evidence for this? There is significant private and public funding that has not and does not demand quantitative evidence of the contribution of the arts. Sometimes metrics can be very useful to organizations to evaluate performance and change, no one would deny that. But let’s not exaggerate the demand for such statistical estimates.

He continues:

When we talk about the value of arts and culture, we should always start with the intrinsic – how arts and culture illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world. This is what we cherish. But while we do not cherish arts and culture because of the impact on our social wellbeing and cohesion, our physical and mental health, our education system, our national status and our economy, they do confer these benefits and we need to show how important this is.

We need to be able to show this on different scales – on individual, communal and national levels – so that we can raise awareness among the public, across the cultural, educational and political sectors, and among those who influence investment in both the public and private sectors. We need this information to help people think of our arts and culture for what they are: a strategic national resource.We also need this information to see where the impact of our work is felt, and where we don’t yet reach. We want to understand how we can do better, so that arts and culture can be truly enjoyed by everyone.

As this evidence review shows, there is a considerable body of research literature available – but there are also many gaps. There is a lack of data, for example, about the economic benefits of museums and libraries, and about the importance of the arts to the creative industries, particularly in regard to innovation.We lack longitudinal studies of the health benefits of participation in arts and culture, and comparative studies of the effects of participation in the arts as opposed to, say, participation in sport.

We cannot demonstrate why the arts are unique in what they do. And when it comes to crime, we have little knowledge about the effect that participation in the arts may have on reducing the numbers of people who re-offend.

The report gives the sense of a Council very unsure of its value. “We always start with the intrinsic …” yes, of course, but why this felt need to search for so much evidence of the extrinsic? Is this where research, and the resources needed to fund the research, would be most valuable?

What are the trade-offs? If “we want to understand how we can do better, so that arts and culture can be truly enjoyed by everyone” is a priority, then why not focus attention on that, where the intrinsic value of the arts is not reaching different groups of people?

Finally, a caution on seeking research on economic and social impact. I’ve already taken on “economic impact studies“, and I fail to see how any research on the “economic benefits of museums and libraries” will yield anything of scholarly or policy interest. There is a body of research on how creative industries might impact local economic growth (including a recent collection of research on the subject), but it doesn’t lead to strong policy justification for funding the Arts Council.

But what about “social impact”, on health, on the recidivism of criminals, etc.? On this I would give the same caution that I would give regarding economic impact, namely that just as every sector has an economic impact (in the sense of representing demand for goods and services, and generating income), so do many expenditures have a positive social impact. A problem with using economic impact as an advocacy tool is that you are left in a bind if other sectors come forward claiming to have a greater economic impact per dollar (or pound) invested – you have put aside the unique value of the arts to engage in an economic-stimulus competition with every other sector, and it is far from clear that the arts would come out on top of such a competition. And the same might be true of “social impact”. Does participation in the arts improve health outcomes? Maybe. But there are many, many policies, especially in the US but in the UK as well, where dollars spent would have even greater benefits for health outcomes. Does arts education raise math scores? I’ve not seen a reliable study on this (though I’ve seen many unreliable ones), but even if it did, if raising math scores is an important outcome to us, there is an even better way to achieve the result: more and better math instruction in schools.

The arts are unique. Chasing new research on economic and social benefits puts that uniqueness to one side, in search of results where the arts are always going to be a small impact sector relative to direct spending on health care, core-subject education, or rehabilitation of prison inmates.

The intrinsic benefits are unique. Proclaim those.

A postscript: From R.F. Harrod, The Life of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was the leader (in 1942) of the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the forerunner of Arts Council England, and he believed: “In the time to come [when the war had come to an end] the mass of people should be able to enjoy the delights of fine art which in the past had been reserved for the favoured few.” No other benefits, economic or social, are mentioned. Just the delights.

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