Who’s making the economic case for the arts?

It seems somehow ironic that 25 years after the publication of the first serious study of the economic importance of the arts in the UK, that the Secretary of State for Culture should call on the sector to make a stronger economic case.

Just in case you missed that: 25 years.

In 1988, the Policy Studies Institute published John Myerscough’s seminal The Economic Importance of the Arts – a 200 page research study which sought to examine and begin articulating the different ways in which the arts contribute to the UK economy. And, although – as my tweet on the morning of Miller’s speech suggested – there has been a sometimes obsessive focus on economic impact over the last 15 years, the economic case for culture long pre-dates the New Labour assertion of the value of the creative economy.

It was not so much that Miller appeared to be calling on the sector to generate a set of arguments which they had been making for more than a decade; but that it appeared to be such an unintelligent statement for the Secretary of State to be making at a time when public and political debate has moved on to begin addressing more intensively the different ways in which culture adds value. The recently launched AHRC study on Cultural Value, for example, comes at the end of a long period of research and discussion which has attempted to move debate beyond the (economic) instrumentalism v. (cultural) intrinsic divide.

Re-opening the debate about ‘economic importance’ seems such a retrograde step.

But let’s have a look a bit more closely at what Miller had to say:

“I come to you today and ask you to help me reframe the argument: to hammer home the value of culture to our economy…… over the coming weeks and months, I will argue that our cultural sector can bring opportunities, regeneration, jobs and growth…… I will position the arts not as on the periphery, but at the centre of economic growth and in that endeavour I ask for both your support and your ambition. And together, we can build a stronger sector, a stronger economy, and above all, a stronger Britain.”

The key words here are, I think: ‘reframe’, ‘hammer home’, and ‘ask for your support’.

Giving Miller the benefit of the doubt (although it’s difficult in a speech with nonsensical phrases such as: “public funding distributed by the Arts Council should effectively act as seed funding, or venture capital” and “Do we want to be seen to inspire our children or leave them with a mountain of debt?”) – so, giving Miller the benefit of the doubt: she is asking the cultural sector to  to be entirely pragmatic: it’s a call to make the economic case as part of the current round of negotiations – not as a  longer-term vision, but in order to help her get the best possible settlement in the next CSR.

Further, I would read more into her speech too: it’s a call on the sector to be more effective in its economic case-making, not to overstate its claims (no more spurious claims that £1 spent on culture brings £10 in tourism), and to act together to help her.

But it’s on this that I would take issue again. Where is the DCMS in this? Yes, the cultural sector can and should be more effective in making its case but that requires some leadership – particularly when it comes to communicating with and making the case to the Treasury, experience of which is based within the DCMS not within arts organisations.

To take two very practical examples:

  • Creative Industries data: Soon after the publication of the first Creative Industries Mapping document in 1998, DCMS officials got together with researchers in the sector to begin developing a nationally agreed framework for data-collection – to ensure that the mapping work which was being commissioned by local authorities and regional partners around the country adhered to certain standards. Alongside the numerous arguments for and against the 13-sector typology, a healthy dialogue has developed and a series of increasingly robust research studies and partnerships have developed – working with NESTA, the Work Foundation, GLA, numerous university research centres etc. My point being that it was the DCMS which took the lead in facilitating and co-ordinating research in this area, building a set of more robust data – and although there’s still work to be done – leading to a position where numerous Government departments and agencies are investing in the creative industries.
  • On Cultural Value, it was the DCMS who picked up the baton after an initial paper and debate on ‘Measuring Intrinsic Value‘ was published, pulling together a steering group, hosting an AHRC Research Fellow (Dr Dave O’Brien), and commissioning an academic study on the topic. This entailed fostering links across Government – not least the Treasury – to generate a serious debate about the different ways in which the cultural case could be made.

It’s in this context that I’d question the call for the cultural sector to ‘get behind’ the economic case. If Miller is serious about the need to make the economic case then it needs the DCMS to take a lead. The fact that there are precious few senior staff left at the DCMS – let alone economists and statisticians – is a poor excuse (and, anyway, is the result of cuts to avoid the “mountain of debt”).

Here’s one idea: why not convene a Cultural Economics round-table – not a high-profile tub-thumping event, but a behind-the-scenes high-level debate – which brings together the senior researchers who have been working on the ‘economic case’ for a number of years (there are plenty of them: Calvin Taylor, Kate Oakley, Hasan Bakhshi, Sara Selwood, Justin O’Connor), and a group of Treasury officials – and possibly even economists from other sectors grappling with similar issues around ‘value’ (health, environment) – and begin a serious dialogue.




  1. Hi Graham

    Hurrah! Hurrah for a proper historical perspective, and hurrah for actually reading the speech and providing some serious context. I agree with all this, and with your concluding proposal. (And I must dig out Mysercough, which I haven’t read).

    Two points. First, leaving aside MM’s party politics, which are not mine, the speech is that of someone who is possibly well-intentioned (I prefer to be generous) but floundering around, and who is short of the kind of official counsel that we used to take for granted when we had a serious civil service. The DCMS has been eviscerated and appears to have little or no corporate knowledge even of its own history as regards much creative economy stuff. This is familiar but no less shocking.

    Secondly, the economists of culture (or cultural economists) in our universities have, as far as I can tell, largely left the stage as far as Westminster and Whitehall are concerned. For example, not one of them has provided written evidence to the current Commons Culture Select Committee’s enquiry into “Support for the Creative Industries”, which will certainly address the arts-funding point when it reports shortly. Why? Is the business of public policy-making, policy evaluation and policy commentary beneath them, less important than writing books and pursuing internal academic agendas, or is there some other more generous explanation? I may be completely wrong here but I this situation as shocking as that of the failures in Whitehall.

    At such a conjuncture we should not be in the position of being, for practical political purposes, so apparently ignorant about our past, scratching around, trying to re-invent wheels or tut tutting from a great height.

    It may be, of course, given the politics and the economic context, that a more informed critique would have made no difference to cuts of 30% plus to the public funding of arts and culture, but that’s not a position I’m inclined to accept without protest. I want to get to a position where we can cogently argue for a doubling of such subsidy/investment, or even more – a repudiation of defensive thinking. That will certainly be challenging but is not, in my view, utopian.

    Alternatively we can all just give up!

    best regards


  2. Hi Graham and Martin,

    Thanks for posting these thoughts. Since I am named in Graham’s post and in agreement with Martin’s observation that it appears shocking that the academics have left this particular stage, I would like to take this opportunity to reply. I can only speak personally, but here are my thoughts on this.

    Throughout my research career I’ve always engaged with policy. From the Huddersfield Creative Town Initiative in the late 1990s, through the Arts Council regional work in late 1990s/early noughties, though the early days of the RDAs and then the Regional Cultural Data Framework (the DCMS-facilitated work that Graham refers to in his post) on which I was a member of the Steering Group.

    A couple of observations. My interest and participation in this kind of work has never been driven by wanting to produce either an economic theory of culture, or, finding a way to shoe-horn culture into a cost-benefit framework. I was interested in other questions – where are jobs for young people going to come from in the future; in what way might culture enable towns, cities and regions become more humane, hospitable and sustainable places to live? In this early period, these sorts of questions had a shared community who linked the cultural industries/creative industries (take your pick) to bigger questions of social, cultural and economic welfare (and as a result took a larger view of what culture might be about). My view was that getting better numbers was one among a number of perspectives that might enable policy-makers to get a better grasp of this. At least in the early days there appeared to be some degree of receptiveness on their part to this.

    That receptiveness plunged over a cliff around 2003. First, the work for the development of the Regional Cultural Data Framework was kicked into the long grass – despite the better part of a year’s worth of detailed development, consultation (across the UK with regional and local stakeholders, etc.) and testing the framework in live research activities. What was particularly shocking about this was the complete absence of any explanation (or even a sense that an explanation was needed) on the part of public officials. The irony here is that this and subsequent work is at the heart of the UNESCO Framework for Cultural Statistics (ratified in 2009). Second, from about 2005 onwards DCMS officials increasingly displayed resentment at academic input to their work. I remember one staggering meeting in the dying days of New Labour at which the bright young things of DCMS openly regarded their posting to the department as a demotion. It was not uncommon to be invited down from Leeds to give an opinion on an issue only to be told that my answer was wrong (that is, if there was any kind of response at all). I would say at this point that between 2000 and around 2010 I must have attended around 30 meetings/events at DCMS at their request. Not once did they offer to reimburse the travel costs.

    That sorry story hasn’t changed. Last year I was invited with a group of other academics, local policy folk, etc. to meet the Shadow DCMS team and talk about regional issues. The promise of follow up hasn’t happened, and, yet again, no offer to reimburse the travel costs.

    I do think it is important that academics interact with the policy-world, but the policy-makers have got to clean up their act. The early days were characterised by a degree of knowledge exchange. There appeared to be a willingness to want a dialogue, and there was some degree of acknowledgement of diversity of perspective. It felt like there was actually a conversation taking place that has been absent from the Cultural Policy sphere in the last 10 years or so.

    I suspect such an agenda is not really on MM’s mind.

    Finally, Martin asks why we aren’t at the table. In addition to the above you can add ‘looking after shop’. In my annual staff review I have three activities I am accountable to: recruiting teaching and keeping happy students; producing publications that meet the tests for the REF and applying for research funding. It’s a pretty full-time job.

    All best,


  3. Hi Graham, Martin and Calvin – great blog, stimulating comments – I’d just like to add to them a bit: Calvin modestly omits to mention that, inter alia, he was the founding Chair of CIDA which I set up in January 2000. I invited him to take on the role because I had been so fascinated by his contribution to Huddersfield Creative Town Initiative, where he brought an academic perspective to my own experience as a practitioner, and suddenly made the world in which CIDA operated so much more intellectually challenging and our own work of so much more potential benefit. Through Calvin, we saw ourselves contributing on broader canvas; our experience as practitioners became validated on an economic and political level as, nationally and then internationally, we were approached by governments and their advisors. As mapping programmes took place in different countries, we were called in to advise and help in translating theory into practice. The marriage between academia and practice that we in CIDA embodied informed the programmes we devised and helped us to explore, understand and contribute to the bigger questions of social, cultural and economic welfare whilst never losing our fundamental commitment to the intrinsic value of the arts. We were lucky in Calvin that we had an academic with a real commitment to, and understanding of, the practice – he championed our work and gave us confidence. It seems crazy that governments of any hue can bleat on about our inability to make our case but then consistently fail to listen to those, like Calvin, who can help identify the solutions.
    And, as ever, Martin uses intelligence to cut through the crap and issue his clarion call : ” I want to get to a position where we can cogently argue for a doubling of such subsidy/investment, or even more – a repudiation of defensive thinking. ” And so say all of us! I hope and trust that Graham’s call for a convocation of cultural economists will be a starting point for achieving that ambition – are you listening, o politicians!

  4. In the interests of accuracy, I should perhaps make it clear that Calvin has fully served his time with CIDA and remains wonderful but no longer a Board Director.

  5. Dear Calvin (through Graham)

    Just a brief response to say, first, that much of this detailed history is new to me (I was doing Russian stuff at the time!) and I’m grateful to you for drawing my attention to it.

    Second, given what you say, it is all the more regrettable that the Culture Select Committee, whose job it is to scrutinise the executive, has not had the benefit of your commentary – and possibly that of other colleagues. It is likely that the Select Committee’s report will be the only serious analysis of the policy landscape during this Parliament. It’s ostensible focus is “Support for the Creative Industries”: you seem to be saying that there isn’t any in Whitehall, and hasn’t been for some time. That is certainly my perspective based on the experience of the last five years or so, but it is a point that really needs to be nailed because it is so at odds with the rhetoric of both governments since circa 2007.

    Third, I think I do understand the demands of the job – the endless treadmill of various bits of academic process – and, equally, the history that you describe must have been thoroughly demoralising to work through. I would only say that we need some public intellectuals in the universities to re-engage in this area of policy analysis if we are not endlessly to repeat the same mistakes.

    best regards


  6. Viewed in the context of strategy she accepts a false premise and starts behind the line. Oopsy.
    Yes, leadership is important.
    Too often institutional survivors end up being leaders as too often the kind and decent Bohemians spend little free time having a life. Over here 20 years the dominant culture has stripped out all funding from schools, “no child left behind”, yes its retrograde to forget real research, too bad. That research represented 30 years of prosperity. We now have had 20 years of optimizing. What we have over here are the instrumentalist real estate developers that see culture as sexy revitalizing, what that begets is more tactical institutional art leadership and facile thin crappy art. Real infrastructure takes years and multiple areas of expertise working together. Too often the dominant culture rightly sees Bohemians as a threat, has done an easy job of dividing and dividing. Leadership is now who can best sell the culture option as safe entertainment, the most calculating salespeople, not stewards of anything related to culture.

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