The battle for arts and minds

A new campaign has been launched to monitor cuts in arts funding and assess their wider economic impact. But has Lost Arts got its numbers right and is this really the best way to win support for arts subsidy, asks Alistair Smith

Last week, trade unions including Equity, the Musicians’ Union, BECTU and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain joined forces to launch Lost Arts, a new campaign and website that aims to catalogue the scale of the cuts to the arts sector in this country and the damage this is causing to the UK economy.

The website (www.lost-arts.org), so we were informed in a press release promoting the launch, will provide a running total of “the money lost to the arts, the money lost to the Treasury and the number of jobs at risk”.

To me, this campaign represents much that has been wrong with arts lobbying for much of the last decade, and a clear indicator of why the sector is still not taken entirely seriously in the corridors of power.

It is poorly researched, overly negative and ultimately, I fear, self-defeating. I’m sure that the organisers’ intentions are good, but I don’t believe that this kind of campaigning can have a positive effect on the opinions of either the Treasury or the general public – who hold the only two views that really count in this argument. In fact, I’m concerned that it could have a damaging effect in both these areas.

Let’s start with the Treasury.

There clearly is a case to be made around the economic value of the arts – one only has to look at the success which War Horse is currently enjoying globally to realise this – but, if you are going to make this argument to the Treasury, then you have to be certain that your numbers stack up.

Lost Arts’ initial claim that “every pound of funding lost to the arts means two pounds lost to the Treasury” was later downgraded to “every pound of funding lost to the arts means two pounds lost to the economy”. Both assertions are wrong, or at the very least currently unprovable.

The campaign initially attributed this claim to Arts Council England, and later to Arts & Business. I’ve spoken to both of these organisations and neither recognises the assertion.

One can only assume that it is a misappropriation of ACE’s mantra that for every £1 it invests in an arts organisation, that arts organisation manages to leverage £2 from other sources (e.g. box office, trusts and foundations/private support).

This is financial leverage and is very, very different from economic impact. And it doesn’t translate into money lost to the Treasury, as it is not the same as tax generation.

Because it seems to be a common misapprehension, I will repeat that: subsidised arts organisations do not generate twice as much in VAT as they receive in funding from the public purse. Or at least, there are no reliable statistics to back up this claim.

But there is a more fundamental problem with the campaign’s claims. Even if you take its assertion that for every £1 cut from the arts, the economy loses £2 as being true (which it isn’t), the campaign’s maths is still wrong.

On its website, it says that around £20 million of cuts equates to £40 million lost to the economy. It simply doubles the cut to the arts (without including any of the new companies that have gained funding or allowing for the fact that some companies’ cuts may have had nothing to do with reductions from central government) and claims this as the loss to the economy. But this doesn’t take into account the saving to the Treasury by not having to make the £20 million expenditure in the first place. So, even using the campaign’s own method, the overall figure is irredeemably flawed.

Why does this matter?

Well, as I said earlier, I believe there is a case to be made to the Treasury using the economic value of the arts, as part of a wider, more nuanced argument justifying why the government should fund the cultural sector. The danger is that if the arts sector tries to make this argument using incorrect figures, it will cause the Treasury (and local government) not to take those arguments seriously and dismiss them out of hand – even when/if we have better-researched figures.

There needs to be a standard, coherent, Treasury-approved way of measuring the economic impact of the arts, and all arts organisations need to abide by this method when conducting economic impact surveys. Otherwise, the Treasury will continue to ignore this line of argument.

There is also a serious danger inherent in making the economic argument in isolation from all the other reasons why it is right for the state to subsidise the arts. That is, if the only reason that the Treasury should invest in the arts is because of the return it gives our economy, then surely it would make more sense for the Treasury to take that money and invest it in car manufacturing or the arms trade (for example), instead. After all, the return would be even greater.

Governments do not invest in the arts for solely economic reasons (nor do the public want them to). If we are to gain greater public and Treasury support for government funding of the arts, the sector’s argument needs to be far more sophisticated than simply saying that to cut them is bad for the economy. The public does not get worked up about schools being closed, the NHS being overhauled or forests being sold off because it is bad for our economy.

Speaking of the public, I’m also not convinced that this campaign is the best way for the arts sector to be engaging with them. Rightly or wrongly, the arts is regarded by much of the general population as a less deserving recipient of public subsidy than, say, health and schools.

To try to make the argument against arts cuts at a time when other areas of the public sector are suffering even harder settlements will not play well with Joe Public. It will be regarded as nothing more than (as one leading industry figure termed it to me) “whinging luvvie syndrome” – the arts sector with its begging bowl out yet again.

This level of debate does not engage the general population and, because of this, the politicians can just shrug it off. In fact, it could easily turn the public off the idea of arts subsidy altogether.

We in the industry know the contribution that the subsidised arts make to wider society. But that is not enough – we must also demonstrate it. We need to build public awareness of all the wonderful things that the arts can, and do, achieve with the relatively small amounts of money that the government invests in them.

The way to win public support for funding the arts is not by decrying our losses, it is by showcasing the success stories (take War Horse at the Tonys as a prime example) and patiently explaining the crucial role that government funding has played in their creation. Likewise, all subsidised arts organisations need to make a bigger song and dance about the government money they receive. Perhaps with the arts council currently drawing up funding agreements with its new portfolio organisations, this could be a stipulation?

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