From the sublime to the ridiculous: can we measure the value of the arts?
In a world that is increasingly quantified, compared and assessed, it is perhaps only fair that a framework for measuring the value of the arts is put in place. But where would we begin?
Assessing economic value can, on one level, be fairly straightforward: for example, balancing out the cost of a concert against box office income and other revenues to calculate the profit, loss or breakeven figure. Statistics are readily available to show that in terms of national expenditure to income generated, the arts industry punches well above its weight in the UK (although even the strongest arguments may not safeguard budgets in times of economic woe).
In his 2010 DCMS report on measuring the value of culture, Dr Dave O’Brien offers a review of current methods for assessing value. However the current range of effective procedures falls short for the cultural world in England, particularly in satisfying the requirements of HM Treasury’s The Green Book (which sets out a framework for the appraisal and evaluation of all policies, programmes and projects).
Given the current economic climate, it seems inevitable that the construction of a set of guidelines, which would allow the value of culture to be measured in relation to other government departments, is necessary. Overall, Dr O’Brien recommends the DCMS steers a course to meet the economic techniques endorsed by The Green Book. A cost-benefit analysis framework, as advocated by The Green Book, aims to quantify each cost and benefit in monetary terms. To measure the value of art purely by weighing its individual components as this methodology instructs, seems incomplete. It narrows culture’s true value.
‘Value’ takes a much broader meaning when considering the growth of El Sistema in Venezuela, which has beautifully united social cohesion with artistic brilliance. Over two hundred local centres are now in place in Venezuela teaching music to over 300,000 of the poorest children. Championing this, the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel play to full capacities across the world with an exuberance, artistry and comradeship second to none. Similar green shoots are beginning to emerge in Scotland, where the El Sistema model is being applied to Raploch, one of the country’s most deprived areas. It is still early days, yet the 2011 evaluation is optimistic. The report shows that in relation to family life there are improved relationships at home, wider social networks and more shared activities between parents and children. Parents see a more positive, aspirational future for their children and the scheme has engendered a sense of pride.
Much has been made of the ability of the arts to play a role in social and environmental regeneration too. The Turner gallery in Margate has boldly shown that architecture can transform a well-worn seaside resort on England’s south coast to a must-go destination. In short, the indicators are positive and emphasise the permeable boundary between art and society. On reflection, an assessment of value through a pure economic system loses weight.
Yet, even if there are situations when one can measure short and long-term ‘value for money’ projects or areas that result in ‘social benefit’ are we still undermining the power of art? Crude, artificially created boundaries such as ‘contingent valuation’ only snare the fundamental root of culture. This method calculates value by assessing what price a person would pay to experience it. Alarmingly, the DCMS report states that this procedure is weak but will continue to be used until an alternative method powerful enough to displace it is developed.
The power of art comes from its totality. Inspiration, creativity and intellectual engagement are part of the mix. The time needed to nurture artistic advancement, the space for constructive critique or the arts’ unique ability to reflect and commentate on an individual and a global level all need to be factored in to the equation.
The cultural sector has an opportunity to actively shape a new system, a system that adequately reflects the breadth of value the arts offer to the United Kingdom and beyond. As the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno writes, ‘No city administration…can decide from which painter it should buy paintings, unless it can rely on people who have a serious, objective and progressive understanding of painting.’ It is essential that the comprehensive knowledge and experience within the cultural workforce is presented to central policymakers. Proactive cultural leaders need to help mould a framework that evolves beyond the pure economic tests. Only then will the sector be able to reflect its extraordinary reach and depth. Only then will government be challenged to accept the value of the arts.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Tom Hutchinson is coordinator of creative projects at The Royal Philharmonic Society.
The RPS Debate at the Battle of Ideas weekend, From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: Can we measure the value of the arts?, takes place at 10.30am on Saturday 29 October at the Students Union, Royal College of Art, London.
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