Admitting the evidence

I was amused and fascinated to see the results of the Guardian’s latest ICM poll, published in the paper on 26th December. In a front page article entitled “Britain’s end-of-year Olympic verdict: it was worth every penny”, it reveals that a substantial majority of the public, even in Scotland (where both approval and interest were markedly lower before the summer), think that the Games was worth the money for the feelgood factor and lift in confidence it brought.

Just to remind you before we go any further: they cost nine billion quid.

I must also remind you of a further set of facts: in 2012-13, the arts sector in England is getting £359,179,000 in Government grant-in-aid, and £232,000,000 from the Lottery, making a total of £591,179,000 (statistics from the DCMS website). That is just over one-sixteenth of the Olympic budget, made to last a whole year.

What I found remarkable was the explicit idea that the Olympics and Paralympics were worth the money because of what it made people feel. The actuals on the budgets aren’t available yet: the final cost/benefit in pennies, the financial impact in terms of tourism, consumer spending, employment and perhaps most importantly, a sports ‘legacy’ of increased participation for people of all ages and abilities, has yet to be discovered. ‘Discovered’ is itself an interesting concept, as implies something being revealed to the general view, on which, as we know, politicians and their spin doctors have a somewhat spotted reputation.

The arts has made the qualitative case for its continued funding over and over again. It inspires, it improves people’s education and confidence, it draws communities together, it is both use and ornament. However, politicians in recent decades have ignored or actually rejected this argument as a good reason for funding the arts. Since the days of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, we have had to try to show the qualitative case, the financial impact – how much money we bring to our locality, how the educational impact translates into students’ potential earning power, how many jobs we create, how much money the UK earns through its creative industries and how much of that is attributable to the arts. Not only have we done this, but we have shown that the arts sector produces huge quantitative benefits.

The problem is that this evidence too is still being ignored, rejected or brushed aside. Jeremy Hunt’s failure to protect investment in the arts, despite the huge benefits in both finance and prestige these bring to our nation, and Michael Gove’s failure to include the arts and design in the proposed Ebacc (English Baccalaureate) are testament to this. However hard they shout that they support the arts, the fact is that they are rejecting the evidence and failing to act on it.

However, I suspect that the Government will find the ‘inspiration argument’ perfectly adequate to justify spending the equivalent of 15 years’ arts spending on a few weeks of international sports, however wonderful they were at the time. The gamut of emotion from despair to ecstasy, the tears streaking the faces of the victorious athletes and the glorious fluffiness of Bradley Wiggins’s sideburns have coalesced into an irrefutable myth which, as well as being unfair to other sectors such as the arts, is not really fair to the world of sport either.

We have to steel ourselves: we do not have to say that the emperor has no clothes, but we must point out that if these are the emperor’s clothes, then we are wearing them too.

Published in: on December 27, 2012 at 19:00  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Because of the way macro-economics works (it’s based on the behaviour of people, after all), increases in feelings of well-being and confidence can and do have real economic effects. A lot of the spend on the Olympics was an investment rather than mere spending, and will bring rewards (economic and otherwise) in the future. This may even lead to more money available to the arts in the future. Whether the country has a government which recognises the value of the arts and is willing to spend money on them is another matter.

    I was highly sceptical about the whole Olympic project from bid through to the event itself, but found myself converted by how well it went off and the positive effects it has already had.

  2. Hi Badger. I don’t disagree that feelings of well-being and confidence are of value – it’s one of the main things that the arts deal in. I just wish that this was better recognised by those in power and those holding the purse-strings. I hope what you say about more money available to the arts in future is right – but frankly I’m a bit cynical about it all. Sigh.

  3. Agree – and I don’t particularly expect that it _will_ lead to more money for the arts – just making the point that, because of the way financial markets work, something like a successful Olympics can bring real economic benefits. When people feel more confident, they spend more; and when a country acts more confidently, outside investors are more likely to invest in it. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, really, but it’s how things tend to work. A major arts event could have a similar effect, but arts tend not to be visible enough to create such a widespread effect.

    I disagree with the government’s approach to the economic situation, and I disagree with their reductionist approach to most areas of spending. If someone could convince them of the economic value of the feelings produced by the Olympics (rather than them just using it as a sound-bite to make themselves sound more successful) _and_ convince them that the same applies to the arts and various other areas which have received money from the state in the past, that would be a good thing. Like you, I won’t hold my breath.

  4. Thanks for this clear discussion of the issues. Badger puts his finger on something we suffer, have suffered, are about to suffer more from in the North East. Overselling the economic benefits of the arts. A huge infrastructure of new buildings – the Sage, Baltic, Mima may be known outside our region – were supposed to be a magnet for external investment but will soak up an increasing part of the available revenue support for the arts – mostly from ACE. Local Councils are being dismantled as independent democratic bodies with the ability to do anything other than carry out central government programmes. Newcastle has shown one kind of response – panic and cut the lot!

    Sadly, I think the arts will have to retrench, rethink and go underground for a while. The political battle to reassert the importance of a shared cultural life as a public good may depend upon our ability to get rid of the current financial structure. If we cannot have any new building, factory, railway, hospital or school without investment coming from abroad we have really lost the last shreds of cultural independence.

    As usual, the state of the Arts is a symptom of something deeper.

  5. Thanks for your cogent comment, Paul – and incidentally, very nice to hear from you!

    I’ve been doing various bits of research work in the North East recently (music not theatre, so I haven’t crossed your path), and I do sadly agree with you about the ways the cuts will fall.

    What you say about investment from abroad is chilling. I often feel that the whole of the UK will shortly belong to foreign investors.

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