The culture secretary has strange designs on an engine of growth

27th April, 2013

The UK minister responsible for the arts hopes cake can rescue a crumbling economy, writes Tim Harford

‘Maria Miller will tell arts leaders on Wednesday to stop moaning about government cuts and start making the case for how their organisations can boost economic growth.’, April 24

Interesting. Any idea what the culture secretary means?

You mean, do I have any idea what she means, or does she have any idea what she means? The answer’s no, either way. Although she did say that “culture is able to deliver things which few other sectors can”, which suggests that she thinks it’s a bit like Federal Express.

She must have given some examples.

That’s the problem. Every example tells a different story. For instance, she was keen to talk about the £5m a year that the Yorkshire Sculpture Park contributes to the local economy, according to a report commissioned by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The basic benefits measured here were that visitors to the sculpture park might spend money locally, and the park itself also spent money locally, perhaps by buying chocolate cake from Wakefield and selling it to visitors. There is no cost-benefit analysis, so no way of asking whether the Wakefield cake-baking industry might have been stimulated more effectively in another way. Nor is it clear how many of these cakes might have been bought anyway – or in some different part of Yorkshire or indeed the UK.

Still, it is undeniable: people visiting cultural attractions don’t just spend money in the gift shop, but in nearby hotels, restaurants and shops. There’s money to be made.

She must have had some broader vision of the economic value of the arts.

Perhaps. The Arts Council has published a handy guide for arts organisations figuring out their economic benefit and you would be surprised how much of it is about cake-sale uplift, although they do not put things in quite those terms. The guide also mentions that organisations which publish estimates of their value to the local economy do tend to get press coverage, so that’s good, I suppose.

Let’s have some other examples. You’re being mean now.

The culture secretary pointed out that our cultural fame helps foster trade relationships. Perhaps that’s true, but Germany seems to be doing pretty well on the old trade-relationship front despite the fact that its cultural image revolves heavily around Beethoven and Wagner.

Ms Miller was proud of the fact that Norman Foster’s architectural practice is doing well in Hong Kong. She celebrated the fact that the Buxton opera festival had a turnover of £1m, although if economic value is the topic, profit is typically a more interesting number than turnover. And she mentioned that the musical Matilda looks like doing jolly well on Broadway – well done to the Royal Shakespeare Company – while Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, made an awful lot of money.

If you can see the overarching link between these examples, you’re doing better than I am.

Wasn’t Skyfall produced by Sony anyway?

I think so. Ms Miller also said that “arts and culture are now thought to be as valuable to Merseyside’s economy as The Beatles and football”. Apart from suggesting that The Beatles don’t count as culture, I have absolutely no idea what that means. It may be the cakes again, or something else.

You seem very cynical about funding the arts.

I’m not one who is cynical. The cynic is the person who deploys an economic methodology that cannot distinguish between a museum and a rollercoaster. It is worth asking, though, whether arts funding really constitutes the seed capital that the culture secretary and arts grandees sometimes like to talk about.

I’m looking at a list of the 32 organisations that have received more than £5m from Arts Council England. Opera, ballet, symphony orchestras and theatres all but run the show – mostly venerable institutions. Giving millions of pounds to the RSC, the National Theatre and the English National Opera may be worthwhile; it hardly constitutes “seed funding”.

But the RSC did produce Matilda and the National Theatre produced War Horse.

True. And if you add a few other famous cultural creations – Bond movies, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and a cornucopia of Jane Austen adaptations – it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the real source of ideas is the British novel, which seems to me to be resolutely unsubsidised.

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