Cultural Value in Englandshire: A Candid View

Kunst-Orte im Wandel, No5

The early twenty-first century will be remembered as the era in which the capitalist world admitted that it had forgotten how to value the arts and culture in anything other than economic terms.

The noughties began with an enthusiastic embrace of the idea that the creative industries – as culture had been rebranded – would come to replace the manufacturing industries. The kind of ingenuity that gave rise to bagless vacuum cleaners or morphed computer games into films, it was presumed, would surely swell GDP. The kind of cities savvy enough to attract the progenitors of such marketable goods, it was imagined, would surely thrive. Champions of creative industriousness breathed a sigh of relief that their work was not only being recognised but also trumpeted as the key to salvation.

The problem with this theory was that art – visual art, fine art, high art, call it what you will – didn’t really fit.1  Anyone who thought about it for more than a moment was forced to agree that the unique nature of most artworks excluded them from the expectations of infinite reproducibility that underwrote the creative industries. One way around this conundrum was to corral artworks into periodic festivals and watch as hoteliers and restaurateurs reaped the rewards (with little evidence that crumbs ever fell from their daintily laid tables). Another was yet to come.

The beauty of the creative industries was that they could be treated like any other industry – give them a start-up grant and watch the fittest survive. But what about those pesky artists and arts organisations which refused to fit this model? We’ll come back to artists in a minute; for now, spare a thought for those organisations created to commission and exhibit them. With commercial viability as the new Holy Grail, galleries and museums were compelled to wean themselves off state support. For all but the main national institutions, secure, ongoing funding became a thing of the past, and organisations were periodically forced to compete for slivers of a diminishing pie. In order to decide which organisations merited such transient support, it became clear that new assessment methods would be needed.

With most of those capable of qualitative judgement having long since fled the funding bodies responsible, new measures had to be dreamed up that could be used to evaluate even the most disparate organisations. In an era of faux democracy – in which the transmutation of personal into political was carefully choreographed via personality contests and talent shows – there needed to be an element of voting with the feet. Thus, the first metric according to which arts organisations would be assessed was the number of visitors they managed to attract. At the same time, the guardians of state support expressed a tacit desire not to depart too far from ancient precedents. The trial by water undergone by women suspected of being witches was tidily binary – the innocent would sink and the guilty swim, to later face a fiery stake. By dipping arts organisations into the tidal flows of the free market, those that resurfaced without being overly reliant on support would be deemed worthy; those that emerged still needing support would be denied it. Thus, the second metric according to which arts organisations would be evaluated was the extent to which they could generate external income.

It soon became clear that this new system favoured large organisations, with their high profiles and dedicated fundraisers. Tightly bound to the same ducking stool, smaller organisations railed against the pressure of diversifying funding while attempting to tempt audiences to beat a path to their often obscure doors. This prompted the formation of Common Practice London – an advocacy group of small visual arts organisations based in the English capital, comprised of Afterall, Chisenhale Gallery, Electra, Gasworks, LUX, Matt’s Gallery, Mute Publishing, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire. In July 2011, the group published a report, entitled Size Matters.2 This found ‘small’ to entail an average income of £250–300,000, around 63 percent of which was derived from the state.

Victims of historical underinvestment, small arts organisations generally lacked tangible assets (such as a building, collection or café), and Size Matters took comfort in those intangible assets (skills, knowledge and experience) possessed by the Common Practice group. At the same time, the report introduced the concept of ‘deferred value’ to a cultural readership – the idea that ‘artistic, social and societal value are often realised long after a commission has left the initiating organisation’. As the report progressed, fiscal value crept in as another category of deferred value, especially at the nexus between small and large organisations, and consideration was given to the ways in which intangible assets might be monetised. Perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise; from the outset, the report’s author confessed herself committed to helping ‘arts organisations to reduce their dependence on grant funding through increases in earned income’ while enhancing ‘understanding of the value and role of the arts in the economic terms understood by HM Treasury’. This was not so much an attempt to turn the tide, then, as an exercise in pragmatism. As economic conditions worsened and cultural subsidy shrank,3 artists and arts organisations colluded in framing art as a burgeoning industry in an attempt to secure their future.4

In April 2012, Common Practice London extended an invitation to the representatives of some thirty arts organisations, their equal in size and scope, to build upon the conclusions of Size Matters. This brought about a rejection of the social Darwinism that had underwritten recent cultural policy. Instead, care was taken to avoid defining the largely non-commercial work of small arts organisations in exclusively economic terms. At the same time, greater recognition of the role of small organisations was urged, on the understanding that narrative approaches might be needed to capture the individual and social value of their work.5

While the wider group around Common Practice deliberated, the value of attempts to advocate the value of cultural work from within the sector was being delimited in academic circles. The main governmental funder in the field, the Arts and Humanities Research Council – itself the result of attempts to shackle research in and through the arts to industrial norms – launched an investigation into the lost art of valuing culture in individual and social terms. The Cultural Value Project began with the ‘actual experience of culture and the arts rather than the ancillary effects of this experience’.6 In the process, the abiding tension between intrinsic and instrumental value was dismissed as a ‘false and sterile dichotomy’,7 in a bid to focus on an elision of these two traditionally discrete approaches.

While attempts to link artistic and social value increasingly represented the centre left position,8 the centre right stance could be characterised as a reassertion of individualism – of the artist and the viewer.9 With the latter camp in power, the mood of the times was that ‘the public funding distributed by the Arts Council should effectively act as seed funding, or venture capital: giving confidence to others to invest in the creativity and innovation of our cultural organisations’.10 Such investment, the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport foresaw, would be drawn from the philanthropic and commercial sectors. This signalled a return to the Thatcherite notion that diminishing state support should be supplemented by private patronage or the business sector.11
In response, a small arts spokesperson argued that cultural, rather than economic, measurements of cultural value were needed.12 Again, the demand for arts organisations to diversify their funding was pitted against the plea for a better understanding of their work. At the same time, ambiguity resurfaced around the term ‘cultural value’. Caught on the back foot, Arts Council England commissioned an evidence and literature review,13 which attempted to capture cultural value and missed the point almost completely.14

And what of the artists affected by this ambiguity? They, too, were incited to become more entrepreneurial. The main vehicle for this was a focus on professional development, which provided scope for yet more ambiguity. At one end of the spectrum, art making and exhibiting were understood to be the ultimate professional development;15 at the other end, business skills were inculcated.16 In between, myriad programmes were offered, radiating outwards from practice – from materials, resources and techniques to education, discourse and networking. Again, this was perceived as an attempt to divert artists away from expectations of state support. At the same time, there was a sense in which artists were being armed with skills and knowledge and abandoned to their fate.

During this era, artists and their representatives in the capitalist world were systematically devalued. Denuded of recognition, they came together in complicity. Robbed of the vocabulary with which to articulate their work, they waited for the academe to define them.

  1. See David Cameron, ‘Transforming the British economy: Coalition strategy for economic growth’, 28 May 2010.
  2. Sarah Thelwall, Size Matters: Notes towards a Better Understanding of the Value, Operation and Potential of Small Visual Arts Organisations (London: Common Practice, 2011)
  3. Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, Letter from the United Kingdom, originally published in Billedkunst, 2013.
  4. See the Save the Arts campaign instigated by the Turning Point Network of 2,000 arts organisations.
  5. Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, Value, Measure, Sustainability: Ideas Towards the Future of the Small-Scale Visual Arts Sector, December 2012
  6. Cultural Value Project
  7. Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett, ‘Rethinking the Social Impacts of the Arts’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Volume 13, issue 2, 2007, p. 148.
  8.  John Knell and Matthew Taylor, Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society: Remaking the case for the arts (London: RSA, 2011).
  9.  Munira Mirza, Culture Vultures: Is UK Arts Policy Damaging the Arts? (London: Policy Exchange, 2006).
  10.  Maria Miller, ‘Testing times: Fighting culture’s corner in an age of austerity’, 24 April 2013.
  11. For a discussion of this, see Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, ‘Third Wave Privatisation of Cultural Provision in the UK’, Trondheim Kunsthall, 2011.
  12. Gavin Wade, ‘Economics is Meaningless’, 24 April 2013.
  13. Arts Council England, The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: An Evidence Review (London: Arts Council England, 2014) and John D. Carnwath and Alan S. Brown, Understanding the Value and Impacts of Cultural Experience: A Literature Review (London: Arts Council England, 2014).
  14. See Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, Exploring the Longitudinal Relationship between Arts Engagement and Health (Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University, 2015.
  15. Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, Mapping Artists‘ Professional Development Programmes in the UK: Knowledge and Skills (London: Chisenhale Gallery, 2015).
  16. New Creative Markets, Space Studios
Verschlagwortet mitKunst-Orte im Wandel, No5

Über Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt worked for a decade as a curator of international contemporary art. Since 2003, she has consistently applied the methods of social research to the cultural field. A book, based on her study of the cultural policy of the Cuban Revolution, will be published by PM Press in spring 2015. She is a founder member of The Centre for Cultural Change (

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