Does Art Help the Economy?

Fearing budget cuts, Britain's culture secretary made an unusual case: That art begets economic growth.
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Culture Secretary Maria Miller leaves Downing Street in London on September 4, 2012. (Reuters)

An unexpected upshot in the wake of Britain's latest spending review was the fate of the culture budget -- it avoided a pummeling. What might be considered an easy target in a time of austerity emerged relatively unscathed, with only a 5 percent decrease in funding from £472 million to £451 million.

The arts world had already been hit by a 30 percent cut meted out in the 2010 budget and had been waiting to find out whether they might be granted a reprieve at this latest round of belt-tightening.

This time, advocates for arts funding breathed a collective sigh of relief, with the budget reduction described as a "best-case scenario" -- they had been bracing for much larger cuts.

What explains this unexpected generosity -- if you can call it that -- on behalf of the cash-strapped British government?

It seems that the supporters of the arts were able to stave off the axe by presenting their case to Britain's chancellor, George Osborne, in economic terms.

The current Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, led the charge in this marketing of the arts, presenting the economic argument in a keynote speech delivered two months before the budget review. She suggested that state funding of the arts be viewed as a form of "venture capital," encouraging investment in the British brand: The value of the artistic sector could be "leveraged" to deliver economic growth.

According to Miller, "culture should be seen as the standard bearer for [Britain's] efforts to engage in cultural diplomacy, to develop soft power, and to compete, as a nation, in both trade and investment."

Her reasoning mentions the "dividends" from the artistic industry, and the hope to achieve "financial security" for the sector -- making it clear that Miller knew how to wield the economic jargon favored by the top political brass in the Treasury.

But Miller's rationale for funding was stridently challenged by the outgoing head of Arts Council England -- the body that oversees cultural spending -- Dame Liz Forgan.

Forgan, whose term as the ACE head ended in January 2013, had previously spoken out for the intrinsic value of the arts in her departing address: "the arts, the expression of our culture, are as deep a need in us as food, shelter, sex, and security. We must have them. We must use them to express our human nature and our social existence."

In reaction to Miller's monetary argument, Forgan warned against the dangers of "directing our investment in culture for its commercial potential," lambasting this approach as a self-defeating exercise, which will result in "worse art" and a "worse commercial outcome."

The Scottish Secretary of Culture, Fiona Hyslop, also criticized the instrumental case for the arts, and responded to Miller's keynote speech by reiterating why Scots may wish to vote for independence in a 2014 referendum.

She said Miller presented art as a commodity. By contrast, Hyslop suggested the Scottish National Party "doesn't measure the worth of culture and heritage solely in pounds and pence," but values the arts "because they are our heart, our soul, our essence."

But by no means was the furor about the current state of the culture budget coming only from politicians.

Commentators at The Telegraph railed against arts funding altogether, spurred on by the cost of the event at which Forgan presented her final speech as Chair of the Arts Council.

Presented by

Kyle Thetford is a writer based in Oxford, England.

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