Valuing the Arts in an Age of Austerity

The Carriageworks TheatreAs part of the Emerge Leeds Festival 2011, June’s Leeds Salon is looking at how the arts justify themselves and ensure quality in the face of budget cuts.

With the current economic crisis and widespread cuts in public spending budgets, things are even more financially precarious for the arts than usual; and many in the arts have been forced to reappraise how they argue the case for funding.

The Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) is investigating techniques to assess the economic value of the arts, what it terms non-market goods, in terms of what people feel they would be willing to pay for things if they were not free.

And the February 2011 Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) pamphlet entitled Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society: Remaking the case for the arts states: “The Commission on 2020 Public Services at the RSA has called for more public investment to be evaluated in terms of a ‘social productivity test’: whether it builds individual and community engagement, resilience and reciprocity.”

The pamphlet sets out to define a bold response to the challenge presented by the cuts in funding, but is there something wanting in the solutions offered?

This discussion aims to challenge the participation approach of chasing audiences, in favour of more compelling reasons why the arts should receive public funding, and ask some difficult questions such as: just how should we value the arts? Are the arts a luxury or a necessity? Do they have intrinsic value or are they best assessed in terms of outcome and impact? Does what the public think they want or like matter or should we fund the arts regardless? Do the arts even need or deserve public funding at all?

Our panel of speakers:

Angus Kennedy, head of external relations for the Institute of Ideas.

Moira Innes, Director Leeds Met Gallery & Studio Theatre.

Councillor Adam Ogilvie, Executive Board Member for Leisure on Leeds City Council.

Andy Abbott, artist with Leeds-based arts collective Black Dogs.

Our speakers will all be given around 5 minutes to deliver their opening remarks after which it will be opened up to debate.

Valuing the Arts in an Age of Austerity is taking place on Wednesday 22 June, in the Millennium Room, The Carriageworks, Millennium Square, Leeds, 5:45pm (for a 6pm start) to 7:45pm.

This is a public discussion open to all. The entrance fee of £5 waged/£3 unwaged will be charged on the door to the Millennium Room.

This is also a back-to-back event with Manchester Salon. So if you can’t make 22 June join the discussion in Manchester on Tuesday 21 June.

The Emerge Leeds Festival 2011 is being held at the Carriageworks Theatre from the 19th to 26th June.

Paul Thomas is co-founder and organiser of Leeds Salon, and promoter of Leeds as ‘A City of Debate’.


  1. Hi there- this looks like a really interesting session, and I wish I could be there (but will be stuck down South!).
    I think there’s a challenge for all of us in making this debate feel really ‘alive’. The problem might be that there is a great deal of common ground around – it’s hard to find people who disagree with the value that arts can create for society – and it’s tempting to get sidetracked into lots of discussion about intrinsic/ instrumental value which doesn’t necessarily take us that far forward from where we are today. I guess there is something interesting around ‘why should arts be funded, when it competes against education/ health funding in an age of austerity’, but even this takes us into fairly familiar territory and does not provide us with much in the way of practical ideas and solutions around how to make the arts really flourish across the UK, and connect people much more intimately with the effect that art can have. How should we balance artistic excellence/ breadth of ‘provision’ of arts- can we have both? How do we nourish philanthropy and ‘democratise’ arts funding- and should we? Where are our new philanthropists coming from- and what is the balance of our expectation re arts philanthropy alongside, say, private giving to education and health?
    I think there’s lots of innovation out there, and there’s a lot that this debate can do to explore some vitally important themes about the future of the arts in the UK- but I hope that the debate itself can be challenging and move beyond many of the ‘traditional’ approaches to this question, which can get a bit tired sometimes.
    Rant over! Good luck- hope it goes v well.

    1. Ed

      Thanks for you comments and sorry you can’t make tonight. However, rather than the intrinsic/instrumental debate being a side issue I’d say it’s at the heart of any debate about how we value the arts – whether at times of austerity or not. For example, in its Strategic Plan 2011, Leeds CC says that ‘the benefits of culture are linked to improved health, wellbeing and educational attainment … [and can] help to regenerate communities’.

      This type of instrumental argument has become the norm for justifying funding for arts organisations. But what gets lost is arts true value: to transmit beauty and truth about the world; and to be pleasurable rather than worthy. Not only is it a lot to ask of the arts to heal minds and communities, but any impact it may have in these areas can only ever be an unpredictable side effect of its intrinsic value, not a targeted ‘outcome’.

      What this means is the arts are competing for funding to solve problems they’re not designed to. This both does the arts a disservice – the arts are only seen as having any worth if they achieve these extra-cultural ‘outcomes’ – but it also diverts attention and money away from real political and economic solutions to those problems; in which case the arts simply become a palliative.

      I agree with your desire to see the arts flourish across the UK, although millions are already involved in the arts in one way or another. According to the Voluntary Arts Network over half the UK population is involved with some form of art and craft and there are 50,000 formal amateur arts groups with 9 million members. However, to maintain or increase that flourishing of the arts, we need to defend them in and of themselves, which means taking on the instrumental arguments.


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