The Arts, the Creative Economy and the truth!

Last week, two important events happened:  NESTA launched its Manifesto for the Creative Economy.  The next day, apparently by the merest serendipity, the DCMS Secretary of State gave her first major speech about the Arts.  The two events weren’t linked – but they should have been.  In fact, it was astonishing that neither the Secretary of State nor her Arts Minister was present at the NESTA event.  Sadly, it seems to illustrate how far we are in the UK from the kind of joined-up thinking that characterises governments in the emerging economies of the Far East: no wonder they are fast matching and overtaking our traditional prowess in creativity and innovation.

The Secretary of State, in what is becoming a characteristically combative approach, said that ‘the arts must hammer home its economic value’.  It’s a peculiar thing for her to say – for the last eighteen years, ever since the first DCMS Mapping Document, the ‘economic value’ of the arts has been touted, quoted, promoted and argued about by everyone remotely connected with the ever growing “creative industries agenda”.  In my professional capacity, I speak at conferences across the world and hear people of other nationalities quote those figures and discuss with admiration and envy the economic success of the UK’s creative industries.  In the UK, however, the Treasury dismisses our claims as ‘merely anecdotal’.  Cultural economists argue harshly about the value of culture and stir in a bit of tired old “intrinsic v instrumental”, just to keep controversy stoked and headlines high.  The DCMS itself, in an astonishing move in December 2011, arbitrarily downgraded the value of the creative industries by 30%! In what Jeremy Silver described as a “a revenge of the statistics nerds type scenario”, the DCMS appeared to cave in to Treasury contempt and changed the basis for its economic measurement of the sector.  As Jeremy Silver went on to observe, “If we took into account the warp and weft of micro-companies and the convergence with Digital Industries – it would not be surprising if the numbers leapt back up and then exceeded previous estimates of the UK’s Creative Industries economic contribution.”

So, essentially this is what NESTA has done.   Led by Hasan Bahkshi and Ian Hargreaves, they set out to measure the economic reality of the sector, using verifiable and Treasury compliant methodologies to do so.  Notably, for the first time, they have measured that part of the sector that is outside the creative industries but still constitutes a significant part of the overall creative economy.  As a result, they calculate that our contribution to GVA stands at 9.7%.  They have found that “the DCMS understated the size of the creative economy by almost one million employees, of which almost half falls within the creative industries……the other half (59%) working in creative occupations outside the creative industries.”  Growth in the sector has been over four times that of the UK workforce as a whole, with an estimated 2.5million people working across the creative economy.    That is faster growth than any other sector, including financial services.  Unequivocally, our sector is of massive importance to the UK economy.

So, to bring this broader, creative economy picture back to Maria Miller’s challenge, where do the Arts figure in all this?  To some extent, we have been our own worst enemy in this argument.  Unlike other parts of the economy, such as environment and health, we have collectively failed to make our case using the methodologies and quantitative analysis techniques that conform to Treasury requirements and standards.  Instead, we have focused on economic impact and not on economic value.   Sadly, the methodologies we have used for this have been as varied as the quality of results, with some impact estimates raising eyebrows even within the sector, long before they get anywhere near the Treasury!  Thus, as NESTA points out, whilst impact is part of the story, it is not the part that measures the value of culture, nor provides the justification for public funding.   So, although the Arts sector is unequivocally part of, even at the heart of, the creative economy, we don’t yet have the numbers that tell our story authoritatively in terms the Treasury understands and accepts.  Happily, the AHRC has recently launched a new project on cultural value which will aim to address part of this and NESTA is working with the DCMS and others to develop a new classification of the sector, an arcane but essential part of the story.  This work will help all of us articulate better our arguments for public funding.  The best we can do now is to contribute to the DCMS consultation (via a relevant website) and endorse publicly the ten proposals in the NESTA Manifesto:  in particular, let’s sustain the pressure to achieve Proposal 6:

The Treasury and the DCMS should undertake a broad–based assessment of the value of public arts and cultural spending in the UK, drawing upon similar work on the natural environment and upon the Cultural Value Project of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Funding decisions should be justified in the light of criteria that emerge from this work.


Anamaria Wills