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Arts for arts' sake?


Pity the artists. The writers, sculptors, composers, musicians and actors. We believed we were struggling in our 21st century garrets, eking out an existence, surviving on our day jobs. At least we were suffering for our art. Only it turns out that we have been bitterly deluded.

Pity the artists. The writers, sculptors, composers, musicians and actors. We believed we were struggling in our 21st century garrets, eking out an existence, surviving on our day jobs. At least we were suffering for our art. Only it turns out that we have been bitterly deluded. The latest report from Arts Council England (ACE) http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/browse-advice-and-guidance/contribution-arts-and-culture-national-economy demonstrates with forensically gathered evidence and logic that we’re off the scale when it comes to ROI (that’s Return On Investment as any thespian will now tell you).

Outperforming

The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR)’s study for ACE shows ACE gets less than 0.1% of government spending, but produces four times that for the UK’s GDP. And as the Independent points out, the study shows that the arts sector also generates more per pound invested "than the health, wholesale and retail, and professional and business services sectors". However, despite this truly startling and counter-intuitive set of figures, speaking as someone who’s spent their adult working life as an actor, writer and director, I’d still paraphrasingly echo Noel Coward’s advice to Mrs Worthington and suggest that as a parent, you don’t put your daughter on the stage, in front of an easel, before a lump of bronze. Certainly not if you’d like them to look after you in a disgraceful, but financially comfortable old age.

Money, money, money

But ACE’s report has implications far wider and deeper than defending the arts’ corner in a Treasury-DCMS face-off. First, it is deeply damaging for supporters of austerity (Well, I say ‘supporters’, but I suspect that after three years of bottom-feeding, there’s only one supporter left, George). It gives the lie to the idea that the solution to national debt is pulling in our horns. Austerity is the flip side of the profligacy coin, not its nemesis. Neither create what every family, every arts organisation, every business, every nation strives for: sustainable growth. Even in the terrifyingly unpredictable arts world, it is possible to invest wisely and generate the wealth that this country needs to compete internationally and pay our way. If you’re that mythical average earnings taxpayer in the UK, you can feel prudently warm and gooey that your sixty quid investment every year through ACE is helping make almost £250. Let’s skate over what we’ve poured into the banks.

HS3

Second, arts can provide not just spectacular investment returns (did I mention "0.4 per cent of GDP – a significant return on the less than 0.1 per cent of government spending invested in the sector"?), but do so speedily. ‘War Horse opened at the National Theatre on 17 October 2007. It’s currently earning £3m a year for the theatre from the West End production alone, leaving aside the international productions and revenue from aspects of the film. Compare that to the glacial progress of HS2.

Winning here

Third, it’s not just that investment pays off, but that it’s government investment. Sure, it’s operated at arm’s length through the Arts Council, but it’s still government money, spent on our behalf by a quango. It is possible for governments to pick winners. Imagine if the same model (suitably adjusted to each sector) operated in all areas of UK business and industry.  Even Warren Buffet has only managed just under 20% over the last two decades.

Arts education, arts education, arts education

Fourth and last, the implications for the role of arts in our education system are not simply that they should be valued, but that it should be recognised they, in that phrase beloved of business, clearly ‘add value’. The evidence suggests that not only could arts subjects have a claim to be in the mix of the three ‘extra’ subjects that schools will be assessed on at GCSE (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/feb/07/michael-gove-school-curriculum-arts), but that they definitely should be included.

It’s also just worth considering that, as an industry, the arts don’t kill people, pollute, cause cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, increase global warming or use pesticides. They just tend to make us happy.


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