Many of the experts we consulted in writing this pamphlet have stressed how difficult the next three years are going to be for the arts. Insolvency is a ‘trending topic’ across some arts boardrooms and the sector is facing some very tough choices.
A driving force behind this pamphlet is the concern that some of those choices will be insufficiently radical unless the arts develop a deeper shared purpose about how they are aiming to create value in the longer term. This will require the arts to improve existing rationales, but also embrace new ways of telling a richer story about how they create value.
There are many in the sector who are deeply sympathetic to the view that if too much of the case for the arts is made on the basis of their so called instrumental effects, the true power and potential of the arts will be obscured.
Indeed, we are acutely aware that some people in the arts regard the language of instrumentalism as rather toxic, as something the arts have ‘moved beyond’. Certainly this is not new territory; we will be revisiting some familiar arguments about value, whilst assessing the impact of the Big Society discourse for making the case for the arts.
We think this re-articulation is essential and timely. All publicly funded art has a responsibility to give a clear account of its value to the society that funds it. All allocations of public funding, especially at a time of fiscal constraint, involve deciding between competing priorities. The argument is not simply whether arts are virtuous but whether they are more virtuous than other claims on the public purse.
When voices in the cultural sector rail against demands for evidence of impact they are implicitly asserting that their sector alone should be exempted from the demands of accountability placed on other recipients of taxpayers’ money. Part of the problem is that the rhetoric of debates about arts funding too often implies a choice between the case for intrinsic value made in terms chosen by the arts community, and a case for instrumental value made in terms chosen by the policymaking community. Here we suggest a different possibility; making a robust instrumental case for arts funding but in terms that recognise what is different and special about artistic participation and appreciation.
We need to reinvent and strengthen instrumentalism, breaking through some of the messy compromises and anaemic logic models that underpin the overall rationale for arts funding. This reinvention is vital if the sector is to expand the scale of its ambitions and place the arts at the centre of our everyday lives.
But there also needs to be some sober reflection about the place of the arts in the UK; the balance sheet is in the red as well as the black. First, access and diversity battles have not been won (particularly not for all publicly funded arts organisations). The people who benefit from the public funding of art are still, overwhelmingly, the well educated, who tend to be middle class. Second, excellence is more visible across our cultural output, but patchy across different cultural ecologies and regions. The best remains spatially concentrated. Third, too many of the hard won gains in arts funding have been, in part, as a result of aggressive but shakily-grounded lobbying.
... for the most part, the UK arts sector seeks to stand on a charter of artistic excellence as its first line of defence and first justification for continued support. We do not deny the importance of this rationale – indeed we are keen to strengthen its purchase – but are perplexed at the reluctance of the sector to emphasise equally strongly other rationales which are no less powerful.
In terms of making the best possible case for the arts it is not that we have had too much instrumentalism in the arts in the UK, rather we have not had an intelligent enough debate about the role of different instrumental logics and how, if reframed, they might deepen our understanding of the ways in which the arts create value.
Whilst it may be uncomfortable for the arts community, it seems that the general public, local authorities and other parts of the third sector tend to place greater emphasis on access, reach, and tangible economic and social outcomes as the most important criteria that should drive public funding of the arts. In contrast artists, and those working in arts organisations without a particular social remit, tend to prioritise artistic excellence. It is then hardly surprising that the conflation of intrinsic and instrumental rationales proves so attractive to the arts community.
The intrinsic argument is that good art is just a good thing, like green spaces or clean air. However, if we think about it, there are reasons why we think green spaces and clean air are good, which reflect views about the good and healthy life.
The ‘art makes people better citizens’ argument is premised on some idea of the good citizen in the good society. The strength here is that it combines idealism with a case for art being a public good. The weakness is that those who make this argument are usually very wary either about saying what they mean by this good life, or by providing much evidence of the connection between art and higher citizenship.
Some in the arts would probably be happy with a categorisation of high (arts for arts sake) and low (economic and social outcomes) instrumentalism. We think it would be preferable to talk about a spectrum that spans artistic instrumentalism and public good instrumentalism.
Artistic instrumentalism would embrace excellence in terms of raising artistic standards and a better understanding of the value of the artistic experience for producer and consumer. Public good instrumentalism would focus on the wide range of positive economic and social outcomes Aowing from the arts, and active participation in the arts. Sometimes these logics will overlap. Sometimes they will not. Both are united by a common interest in the quality of the experience for audience members or for those actively participating in the arts.
If the Big Society requires citizens to have strong critical faculties and a capacity for empathic imagination, what connections – theoretical and empirical – can be made between artistic participation and appreciation and engagement in civic life? If the Big Society involves – as the Prime Minister has implied – an ability to develop conceptions of the good life which go beyond possessive individualism, artists are well placed to explore such ideas in their practice, indeed artistic appreciation and participation can in itself exemplify a different account of fulfilment.
... it is no longer enough to express commitments that more people ‘experience’ the arts. The sector needs to be explicit about their ambitions in terms of raising not just audience figures (in particular new audiences for the arts) but also increasing active participation. What is certain is that we need a tide that lifts both ships, which is likely to sharpen the trade-offs between funding across the spectrum of artistic and public good instrumentalism.
All arts organisations need to think of themselves as community institutions, where people connect socially as well as culturally, with arts spaces being used as public spaces as much as possible. This will help encourage arts organisations to build new relationships between communities and artists living in these, and will build new audiences. As Diane Ragsdale has suggested, attracting and retaining new audiences in the future may require arts organisations to stop selling excellence and start brokering new relationships between people and art.
The public should also have the opportunity to be direct commissioners of art and cultural activity, what Francios Matarrasso has dubbed ‘Distributed Culture’. This is a model in which local communities are given public money to invest in local cultural production, supporting a cultural programme of their design and choosing. The result might be that cultural organisations large and small would be competing by tender to create vibrant cultural programmes for communities.
Not only do we believe that the sector can make a much stronger ‘arts for arts’ sake’ case for funding, but that the arts over reliance on a narrow artistically instrumental case for funding has actually helped impoverish the place of the arts in everyday life and may actually be weakening the sector’s ability to respond to the public’s aspirations for fully engaged cultural lives.
If progress is measured – as it surely should be – by more people having more enjoyable and fulfilling lives, then public funding for the arts is not simply about investing in opportunities and experiences today, it is about creating the infrastructure of aspirations and expectations for the social economy of tomorrow.
Art is not just there for itself. Nor is it there just to deliver other kinds of social good: it helps us to re-imagine the good life in the good society. The idea of the good life and enhanced citizenship must include challenge and edge. Active citizens are difficult, demanding, and idealistic. We must never lose a willingness to fund art that is too.