26 March 2013

Big Ideas on Social Sciences and The Arts

I must admit that a debate on how Social Sciences can support The Arts is not the sort of thing that I would normally go to. I am a heavy consumer of The Arts, especially theatre at the moment, but my exposure to Social Sciences goes little beyond Radio 4's Thinking Allowed and that merely confirms my view that there is very little Science in the Social Sciences.

What convinced me to go was that the debate was organised by Big Ideas who have a deserved reputation for staging good discussions. The social aspect was another plus and I chose to sit at the front table with two of the Big Ideas regulars.

Our guide for the evening was Dave O’Brien, Lecturer in Cultural and Creative Industries in the Centre for Cultural Policy and Management at City University London.

Dave started the debating ball rolling with an introduction to the topic which we, the eager listeners, then took in all sorts of vaguely related directions.

As is my customer, what follows is my notes from the debate which include comments made by various people and also my thoughts sparked from these.

Why we fund The Arts has been an issue for many years and various approaches have been tried to determine which Arts to fund given the almost limitless opportunities to do so.

At different times The Arts have been funded because they were a "good thing" and because they were thought to generate economic benefit, e.g. through improving the education of the public.

Cost / Benefit analysis now in vogue with the Treasury. The language has moved from artistic terms (excellence) to financial (benefit). The Government sees its role to interfere when market fail.

One approach is to argue that people who don't go to the British Library, for example, would still pay for it and so it has a nominal value that can be estimated, if not actually calculated.

These approaches are now seen to have failed. For example, providing free swimming did increase the amount of swimming that was done but this was mostly existing swimmers. Similarly cheap theatre tickets are not taken up by new people, they just benefit people who already so yet, to the bean counters, the benefits seem to have materialised.

Art segregates people on social grounds, e.g. music is now very tribal. The label "classical" is too wide but if we consider the classical mainstream (Beethoven et al) then young people are not consuming it and it will die (at this rate). Modern classics, like Reich will survive for longer.

The headline claim from when Liverpool was European Capital of Culture that every £1 paid generated £8 for the city is often quoted but is widely disputed. Even if true, this does not mean that every £1 spent on The Arts generates that sort of financial return.

If we move away from the dubious financial arguments then we can use the Social Sciences to help us to understand genres and segregation, but not the politics of making choices.

The question, What are we funding arts for?, still remains unanswered.

We need to explain why museums are good to encourage more people, being free is not the factor.

The Royal Opera House is the biggest recipient of funding, but why is it sacrosanct? Glyndebourne, a far better opera house, thrives without any state funding.

A lot of art is under the radar of the Arts Council and Local Authorities, e.g. local bands and arts fairs. Is Eastenders art? Funding bodies tend to assume a consumption model of art, i.e. we watch it rather than make it, and this is not what happens at the local level.

There has been some stealth privatisation, e.g. paid exhibitions within the Tate and the V&A. Boundaries are blurring as a result, is the V&A a museum, an exhibition space or a restaurant?

If we cannot use financial arguments to justify supporting the arts then perhaps we can use time as an alternative currency. This is a better, more equitable, measure than money, as we all have the same amount of it.

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