Bringing Hope In A Hopeless World

Interesting piece in The Art Newspaper on why the arts should be funded in austere times. The article is basically an argument about the value of the arts. What immediately caught my eye was the story author Robert Hewison tells about the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the UK’s predecessor of today’s Arts Council. In 1940 when some felt it was illogical to be doing so, the British government committed £2 million in today’s money to the council ““to show publicly and unmistakably that the Government cares about the cultural life of the country. This country is supposed to be fighting for civilisation.” The end of the article notes that the creator and first chairman of the council was “the economist John Maynard Keynes. He believed that in a recession, governments should stimulate the economy.” It was Keynes approach that many were encouraging the Obama Administration to follow to deal with the current economic environment.

Hewison summarizes why the economic benefit of the arts doesn’t work-

“But the Treasury doesn’t buy it. They can see through the “multiplier” calculations of the cultural boosters. They understand the meaning of “opportunity cost”. The money spent on artistic steel and glass could have been spent on an arms factory—and created more employment.”

and notes why the prescriptive argument of how the arts help solve myriad ills isn’t desirable-

“The New Labour government liked this argument, and directed that the arts council should use the arts “to combat social exclusion and support community developments”. The ACE found itself having to meet targets for health, education, employment and the reduction of crime—not truth, beauty or a sense of the sublime….

…. It is difficult to demonstrate a value-chain between art and social enhancement, and difficult to measure the social enhancement itself. Ministers for culture became embarrassed by this…”

Granted the conditions in the US aren’t the same as in the UK. For one thing, I could only dream of a funding structure that had “47% box office, 31% from the arts council, 12% from local authority sources and other public funding, and 9% from trusts, foundations, donors and business sponsorship.” Yes, that is 53% government funding.

The same weaknesses in those arguments exist on both sides of the Atlantic. Right now people are pondering how to make a case for the intrinsic value of the arts backed up by some measurable results for policy makers. While I think there is potential for making the case, it isn’t as easy to do as with previous arguments. There aren’t talking point lists being circulated for the intrinsic value the way they have been for the economic and prescriptive value arguments. It takes a person skilled in persuasive speech or writing to make a compelling argument in this area.

Some of Hewison’s arguments seem tinged with a desperation to employ the arts to preserve society through war or some other cataclysm.

“The value in use of the arts is that they help a society make sense of itself. They generate the symbols and rituals that create a common identity—that is why art and religion are so closely linked. Like religion, the arts give access to the spiritual. Art is a link to previous generations, and anchors us to history. Culture is a social language that we would be dumb without. “


“The precautionary principle tells us we have a duty to future generations to ensure that our cultural assets are passed on to them. We also have a selfish interest in sustaining the richness and diversity of those assets.”


Culture creates social capital, expressed as trust generated by a shared understanding of the symbols that the arts generate, and a commitment to the values they represent. It sustains the legitimacy of social institutions by ensuring that they are accepted, not imposed. Societies with an equitable distribution of cultural assets will be more cohesive, and more creative. Wellbeing, which is the true end of economic activity, depends on the quality of life that culture sustains.

My only qualms with that come in the context of Ben Cameron’s speech that I covered yesterday. I have this sense is that the manifestation of art and culture that Hewison wants to preserve differs from the direction the arts are going. I think Hewison links culture and religion in a manner that evokes monasteries preserving knowledge through the Dark Ages. I think the reality is closer to the religious reformations Cameron referenced. Both can seem pretty cataclysmic as the unfold. Even though a great deal of what is being created seems ephemeral at best, there are things being created with longevity which can serve to anchor us in history.

The question is, will the government want to support these new manifestations. Perhaps even more importantly, will people whose whole success is due to operating outside of the traditional structures want that support? I am sure it would make many in the different levels of government happy if they could find enough people to say so. (Just for the record, I am not ready to give it up yet!) Right now I think everyone dreams of a either a new operating method that doesn’t require so much funding or a new funding method that will sustain their operations. Perhaps one or the other will emerge to relief the situation.

Even though it seemed to me that Hewison was looking for a hedge against the collapse of society in some post-apocalyptic world (and perhaps I was just imposing my own fantasies on his words), he isn’t wrong to say that expressions of arts and culture do provide stability and that governments have an interest in sustaining them.

Rationally, the government should be putting more funding into the arts because of the social capital they generate. There is a sound economic argument that when the market fails to provide certain kinds of goods thought useful, then it is necessary to intervene—health and education are the usual examples. The economics of the arts are particularly prone to market failure, for it is not easy to make the advances in productivity that technology facilitates in manufacturing

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “Bringing Hope In A Hopeless World”

  1. Fascinating post.

    Your reaction to Hewison’s art/religion parallel is one I relate to. For me it orbits about the evolution of the objectification of art, namely art is process, accessible, less thingified more actionified.

    I’m not saying anything new here. We all know that art has become everyday. More and more kids want to be writers and artists. More and more people feel OK about calling themselves artists. The fact that our governance has yet to catch up to its impact on culture and social patterns is standard. Sad, but true.

    In the context of the religion/art parallel I agree that art presents a gateway to the spiritual (one could argue it doesn’t but, why? how one experiences art is entirely relative, embracing that popularizes further). It only follows that culture (art infused society) is more “spiritual”. Not in a religious sense, but in a broad sense – something greater is occurring. Too woo woo?

    How do we engage “government” to wake up and smell the coffee? In my experience, and to sound like a bumper sticker, act locally, think globally. Political engagement ain’t no small potatoes, getting something changed on a large scale. . .How?! Start small. Inch forward, talk to one person, and in the meantime art is burning up, unstoppable, as always.

    Thanks for the post and letting me ramble.



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