Why Fund the Arts: Because We Like It?

From Alliance magazine
March 2015
By Adrian Ellis

Reposted from Alliance magazine

A little over a decade ago, I suggested to the UK think-tank Demos that we organize a conference on the value of the arts. As an occasional assessor of Arts Council grant applications, I had read one too many fatuous, methodologically suspect ‘economic impact’ studies. These were a requirement for larger funding applications and purported to demonstrate the astonishingly potent effect that the project under review would have on jobs and the local economy. Although the poor assessor had to read these bulky submissions, I suspect no one else did. So was there any point in them?

One consequence was that the question of the value of the project tended to get sidestepped. It was either ‘economic impact’, with capriciously chosen multipliers, and little discussion of displacement or opportunity cost, or it was the dogmatic assertion of artistic importance (basically ‘because we like it’). And not much that you could get hold of in between, whether social, civic, psychological or...cultural.

Valuing culture

The topic struck a nerve and the ‘Valuing Culture' conference managed to get some traction; great, thoughtful speakers signed up – Chris Smith and Tessa Jowell (former and present Secretaries of State for Culture, Media and Sport) among them. In the framing paper for conference attendees I wrote:

‘It would now [September 2003] appear to be a good time to reawaken and rearticulate interest in the fundamental contribution that artists and cultural institutions can make to our quality of life at the deepest level. The current language of performance and its quantification is unlikely to be jettisoned by this or any future administration. But it needs to accommodate the vocabulary of cultural value...’ (1)

The general consensus on the day was indeed that there was something missing in the mix. The traditional justifications for philanthropic and public support for culture sit uncomfortably with the requirements of quantification and performance measurement. The language in funding contracts appeared to leave out everything that mattered to the speakers – even the economists.

Regrounding the case

In the intervening ten years, I am happy and surprised to report, there has been a remarkable amount of both empirical and theoretical work done on regrounding the case for public and philanthropic support for cultural activities. Earlier this year Arts Council England published a literature review – Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences. It summarized over 200 empirical and theoretical studies – mostly British, American and Australian – grappling with the value of culture, almost all written in the last decade.

The debate is international in nature. Although the Arts Council’s literature review stops short of anything not in English, the actual literature extends well beyond the English-speaking peoples. While there is plenty of variety in approaches, the discussion is also cumulative. A paradigm is emerging! Data, from focus groups to scanning of orbito-frontal cortices, is being used to test the ‘intrinsic’ value of individual productions, exhibitions and performances. The new CultureCounts app (2) being beta-tested in the UK and Australia can build cumulative, longitudinal data sets measuring not the basics of attendance but levels of engagement with an art work.

Whereas traditionally most economic impact work was advocacy dressed up as analysis, much of this work is robustly analytical in nature, less prone to sweeping conclusions. While providing the raw material for advocacy, it leaves that to others closer to the fray.

So what is the emerging paradigm? Well, it’s basically a consensus around a typology: a series of boxes into which the various impacts of the arts can be shuffled, with nothing important left over, and subsequently examined. The point is not the sparkling brilliance of the device. Rather it is the value that a broad consensus and a common framework affords researchers. The first significant step was made in 2004 by Kevin McCarthy in a heroic tour d’horizon, The gifts of the muse. In his report for the Rand Corporation, he parsed the various rationales for support of the arts, developing a matrix that embraced ‘private’ benefits from plain comfort and joy to improved academic performance in tangentially related subjects like maths, through to truly public benefits like the development of social capital, and of course economic growth.

The simple mechanism of a typology, and an iterative, broadly based discussion of its refinement, has created an invaluable division of labour for academics, policy analysts and arts advocates alike. It has proved possible to move from a generalized exhortation that ‘the arts are good for you and create jobs’ to specific research agendas exploring the idea that different forms of arts participation (joining a choir, attending a play), when undertaken by specific cohorts (disadvantaged youth, victims of early onset dementia), have a measurable propensity to generate specific individual or collective outcomes. As proof of the pudding, the news is not all good for the arts advocates. In December 2014, The Stage – the UK theatre industry’s magazine – featured the headline ‘Arts and culture have “zero” impact on the economy claims new report’. That’s a long journey in a relatively short time...

This has taken me, for one, somewhat by surprise. I left the conference a decade ago without much optimism about the prospects of a discussion about the social and cultural value of the arts that could be couched in a way that would engage any policy makers and funders who were basically interested in some sort of causal relationships between funds allocated and results – that is, most of them...

Why the change in attitude?

I had failed to take into account three things: first, the speed with which the costs of data collection and analysis would drop; second, the continued visceral acceptance that culture in its broad and narrow senses is inextricably tied to quality of life, which means that the arts continue to have a place on the agendas of most progressive philanthropists committed to social equity. Third, I underestimated the place that the arts would continue to have in place-making globally. From China to Brazil, the processes of rapid urbanization are bringing in their train a continued cultural building boom and, willy-nilly, discussions about what cultural products should be available to whom and on what terms. The debate generally remains not whether to spend but how to spend intelligently on culture and in ways that advance specific social, economic and developmental agendas.

Bill Gates recently caused a stir in the arts community when he echoed moral philosopher Peter Singer’s argument that philanthropic funding of the arts – and Gates specifically cited art museums! – is simply immoral, given the opportunity cost of lives lost that could be saved if those funds were redirected to health initiatives. As Gates put it: ‘The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 per cent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them. Are they willing, because it has the new wing, to take that risk? Hmm, maybe this blinding thing is slightly barbaric.’ (3)

There was a lot of defensive bluster from arts folk in response, but no one seemed to want to tackle the argument head on and point out the longer-term threats to a plural society if a single calculus were applied to all funding decisions. But the cavalry is coming. As the Arts Council literature review indicates, we are able with increasing sophistication to go beyond ‘because we like it’ without sacrificing ‘because we like it’. It is becoming clear that ‘instrumental’ versus ‘intrinsic’ is a confusing oversimplification; and that the potential of big data has as radical implications for arts expenditure as for disease prevention. (4)

There is also a second line of attack, and a braver one, that goes back to John Stuart Mill’s argument that ‘it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. This is the argument that probably needs the most work, now that economic impact has been put in its place: that there are higher and lower pleasures and that it is a legitimate end of philanthropic and public expenditure to seek to ensure that those ‘higher pleasures’ are encouraged and access to them supported. They are, along with the qualities of empathy and curiosity, the opposable thumb and the gift of speech, integral to what makes us human; their flourishing is coincident with the fullest expressions of human potential, and the ultimate end of all rational policymaking, public or private.

Lots of money is misspent – on health care, fundamental scientific research, the arts. We can only strive constantly to spend it more intelligently; be clear about why we are spending it; and set things up in ways that enable us to learn from past mistakes. The arts, especially the arts associated with larger institutions, are playing catch up. Entitled and self-regarding as they are, they are behind the game, and reluctant to hold themselves to the same standards they would hold the world to. But they are catching up fast, and well-spent money on the arts does indeed prevent blindness, of the most fundamental sort.


(1) The background paper for the conference is at


(3) See at to read the November 2013 interview with Bill Gates.

(4) See for a tightly argued piece to this effect by Rob Stein of Dallas Museum of Art, "Museums...So What?"