“The Monster Outside The Door”

No, the title of this entry is not another riff on my new lizard mascot in the blog header. Last month I made a post quoting Robert Hewison in an article from The Art Newspaper saying citing the economic value of the arts is bad because “But the Treasury doesn’t buy it. They can see through the “multiplier” calculations of the cultural boosters.”

Today I came across a link on Artsjournal.com to economist John Kay’s website wherein he expounds upon that subject and advises valuing art for its cultural and commercial value.

“Thousands of people build hospitals and surgeries, and many small and medium-size enterprises manufacture hospital supplies. Illness contributes about 10 per cent of the UK’s economy: the government does not do enough to promote disease.

Such reasoning is identical to that of studies sitting on my desk that purport to measure the economic contribution of sport, tourism and the arts. These studies point to the number of jobs created, and the ancillary activities needed to make the activities possible. They add up the incomes that result. Reporting the total with pride, the sponsors hope to persuade us not just that sport, tourism and the arts make life better, but that they contribute to something called “the economy”.

The analogy illustrates the obvious fallacy. What the exercises measure is not the benefits of the activities they applaud, but their cost; and the value of an activity is not what it costs, but the amount by which its benefit exceeds its costs. The economic contribution of sport is in the pleasure participants and spectators derive, and the resulting gains in health and longevity. That value is diminished, not increased, by the resources that need to be diverted from other purposes.

Similarly, the economic value of the arts is in the commercial and cultural value of the performance, not the costs of cleaning the theatre….

…The relevant economic questions are whether the cultural and commercial value of the performance offsets these costs and whether these benefits can be translated into a combination of box office receipts, sponsorship and public subsidy. The appropriate economic criterion, everywhere and always, is the value of the output.”

I have often felt that economic benefit surveys often seem to grasp at straws in an attempt to find any activity tangentially related to arts events. Though I will grant you that if a downtown area empties out at night, it doesn’t matter how scarce parking is, the spaces in a garage are worthless. Activities that put cars in that lot help keep people employed. But then, the parking company can claim they provide economic benefits to the arts by providing a safe place to park within walking distance of the venue in an area with scarce parking. Your audience may even value the close parking enough to factor it in to their attendance decision. But as the arts organization in question, do you see the parking lot as keeping you employed? You might. But if everyone starts adding up the reciprocal value they offer to each other, the result may end up being ten times the actual amount of money changing hands in that particular business district.

When you think about it in that context, then Kay’s insistence that the only appropriate economic measure is the value of the specific output becomes more apparent. And it is logical to think that value only exists when the benefit exceeds the costs. The problem the arts have is that the measure of the benefit is so nebulous that we are driven to find some concrete method with which to prove that benefit does exceed the amount granted and donated.

Plenty of people are willing to say that the arts aren’t worth very much in today’s environment. Many are just as willing to listen and believe them and that makes all of us in the arts really nervous and sends us scrambling for evidence. Kay doesn’t offer much help in making that argument and in fact, he raises the stakes a little by adding commercial success as a measure of the value. That doesn’t leave much hope for the group that only had 80 patrons, but touched them incredibly and deeply, only it is tough to demonstrate the degree.

Which is not to say he doesn’t wholly believe there is an intrinsic value to the arts.

“We need to put out of our minds this widely held notion that there is such a thing as “the economy”, a monster outside the door that needs to be fed and propitiated and whose values conflict with things – such as sports, tourism and the arts – that make our lives agreeable and worthwhile. Activities that are good in themselves are good for the economy, and activities that are bad in themselves are bad for the economy. The only intelligible meaning of “benefit to the economy” is the contribution – direct or indirect – the activity makes to the welfare of ordinary citizens.”

I am not quite sure if he is differentiating between economic value benefit to the the economy since presumably having a job cleaning a building would directly contribute to the welfare of an ordinary citizen. Assuming he is separating the two, I would use those concepts to make the following point—

Ultimately, economic benefits are replaceable and interchangeable. Back in 2007, I covered an article that noted that a group seeking funding for the arts in England cited priorities that would be served by the grant that were among the exact same benefits then Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised the 2012 Olympics would provide.

Studio 54 contributed to the economy by employing cleaning people when it was a Broadway Theatre, radio and television studios for CBS, a disco, and then back to being a theatre again when it was purchased by Roundabout Theatre. Let say all these entities existed at the same time and are arguing which gets to use the building based on economic benefit they bring. Who gets to use the building?

Now lets say the criteria used is the cultural value each organization brings. Now who gets to use the building? Maybe it is CBS both times. In the first example, they might win because they would be spending the most on payroll and other expenses. In the second, they might win because their programming reaches more households and thus touches more lives. But when it comes to determining the value offered by a night club notorious for its hedonism and excess versus theatres, the decision may be tougher to make.

My point is, while it is hard to define in concrete terms, cultural value is a much more specific property of an organization than economic benefit and is worth citing as a reason for others’ support.

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

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.


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