Its time to stop side-stepping research into the true value of the arts

Stairs at side of Sydney Opera House by Mister Peterman on Flick'r 

There is no surprise that the latest report from Arts Development UK shows that local authority arts expenditure has decreased to two thirds of the levels reached in 2008. It is interesting that, in this second slicing of arts budgets, much of the cuts have been own blows to local authority arts services rather than to grants to independent and front-line arts organisations, like theatres and arts venues. Surgery is now being routinely applied to the soft underbelly of local arts services, including development projects and now to arts officers, whose activity is not obligatory for local authorities and whose presence is often unseen.

During the last two decades of growth in public investment in the arts with the funding of new infrastructure, ambitious events and audience development programmes, those we entrusted to spend our taxes enjoyed a relative largesse which allowed investment which often did not need to evidence an impact.   Research and evidence gathered by arts organisations and arts councils have largely been used as advocacy tools, with hard evidence often being buried if it doesn’t prove the required point.  This devalues the research process and diminishes its validity.  But a new cold dawn is rising as investors apply the scrutiny which is applied in science, medical treatment and engineering and technical fields.

The Paul Hamlyn commissioned report ‘Whose cake is it anyway’ sends out the first chill signal of this new order.  The report into the outreach and participation activity in museums and galleries finds that

this activity exists on the fringes of the sector’s activities, rather than at its core, and suggests that decades of investment in participation related activity, have not only failed to embed participatory practices in museums and galleries, but appear to have been instrumental in keeping this part of their work on the periphery

The report marks a distinct shift in tone from most of the usual research reports published which emphasise the positive. The BOP report on the impact of the Edinburgh Festivals, for example, is an excellent document which seeks to demonstrate benefits of investment much more widely than the economic measurements.  In talking up the positives, the report is used as an advocacy tool – and we are all for flag waving for funding festivals.  But, in sweeping under the carpet the fact that the relative economic impacts relative to invesment is reduced ( Every £1 public investment in 2004  generated  £61 new output. Using the same measures, every £1 of public investment generated £35 new output (table here), the report goes the way of most research reports commissioned by cultural agencies.  It needs to serve the purpose of the commissioners and not to seek the truth.

Respected researchers and consultants have been chipping away at this for some time, but they are largely ignored.

There was an interesting provocation from John Knell and Matthew Taylor challenging ‘the Arts’  to create a new currency with which to weigh the value of the arts in making citizens .  But although it was published for the most recent State of the Arts Conference run by ACE and the RSA which Taylor leads, it wasn’t even discussed .  There were few deaf ears thouugh in Galway last week  at  the Irish Theatre Forum conference.  The Irish National Campaign for the Arts have proven themselves streets ahead of England in expressing the value of the arts and its leaders are aware of the need to express and communicate the true value of the arts, which goes beyond instrumentalism.  But that value needs first to be established in a rigorous and scientific manner and not just in the rhetoric.

In Its not Rocket Science, (2010), Hasan Bakhshi, Radhika Desai and Alan Freeman challenged

two entrenched prejudices which block arts and cultural organisations from playing their full role in society and economy. First, arts and culture are largely excluded from R&D by definitions based on its Science and Technology (S&T) origins. Second, the arts and cultural sector relies on a conception of creativity that mystifies too much of its work, preventing it from accessing valuable public resources

The reality is that much of the arts and cultural community views gathering evidence of impact as a tiresome diversion. The feature on Arts and Health in the latest Arts Professional magazine  explains that the NHS requires proof of impact and includes several citations of the woeful lack of rigorous evidence gathered to date to demonstrate the benefits of engagement in the arts as a positive healing activity.  There are several calls to arms for the arts to get together to provide the evidence the NHS needs to justify investment in the arts rather than in some other health interventions.  Dr Jenny Secker, Professor of Mental Health highlights the need to move beyond the anecdotal.

Measuring instrumental impact on health is important but there is a more fundamental issue.  We need to get down to the basic life-enhancing benefits of art, describe that and then set up research to measure it.  Take empathy for example. Long-known as one of the core processes of being part of a theatre audience, empathy is a capability which leading neuroscientists fear  lost in a  video gaming  world.

Seeking to find empirical evidence of the positive impacts of engagement of the arts on active citizenship and wellbeing must become a clear objective for the arts and cultural community over the next few years.  To do this, there need to be a substantive independent and objective research programme which seeks the truth rather than seeks to make the case for more funding of current practice.  The research needs to include longitudinal elements and comparisons of the costs and benefits of engagement in different types of creative and arts activities against engagement with other activities.

Such an investment needs a research programme which is rigorously defined, conceived, planned, executed, analysed and communicated.  This means harnessing the skills of research scientists and academics and means being honest about the results.

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