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Is it time to rethink how we value arts and culture?

By Laurie Macfarlane

This blog is a follow up to the event ‘Public Value of Art: Connecting value creation and culture’. The event is part of IIPP’s ‘Walking the talk: Getting serious about the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ series. The recording of the event will be published soon.

The introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 marked a significant moment for the arts and culture sector. It was the first time that culture had been explicitly referred to in the international development agenda, which UNESCO hailed as an “unparalleled recognition”.

In practice culture cuts across many of the SDGs — it helps to promote decent work and economic growth, it can reduce social and economic inequalities and it can help to create peaceful and inclusive societies.

But how can we measure the value of the arts and culture sector? This was the focus of the sixth and final webinar in IIPP’s ‘Walking the talk: Getting serious about the UN Sustainable Development’ event series.

In economics it is typically assumed that value is a reflection of price — if something has a high price, then it must be valuable. In 2019, the year before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the arts and culture sector contributed £10.47 billion to the UK economy, representing 0.5% of total GDP.

But do these metrics accurately capture the true value of the sector to society? And perhaps more importantly, how is this value distributed? Are those that are creating value in the arts and culture sector the same people as those who are reaping the financial rewards?

Spoken word artist and IIPP PhD candidate, George the Poet, explained how rap music and Black culture is a “perfect microcosm” of how the link between value creation and financial reward is broken. He explained how the creativity of young Black people kickstarted numerous music genres that have become commercially successful — from jazz and blues to rap and reggae. But despite these major cultural innovations, this hasn’t translated into increased wealth for this demographic.

According to George, this is because value is often “syphoned off” by third parties in the process of commercialisation.

“In rap music wealth trickles up — the value that is created on the ground is heavily concentrated in the hands of a few large media companies. The whole industry is exploitative, it’s based on extraction.”

Frances Morris, Director of the Tate Modern art museum, explained how changes in the way that art is valued have had a dramatic impact on the sector in recent decades.

“When I first joined the Tate, there were two registers of value. One was focused on the intrinsic value of art, and the other was the importance of public institutions and civic space.”

It was these principles that underpinned the birth of museums in the 18th century. However, Morris explained that this began to change with the emergence of neoliberalism in the 1980s. Cuts to government funding forced museums to find other ways of generating income, which led to a growing reliance on corporate sponsorship and philanthropy. This in turn introduced a third register of value to the sector: one that is rooted in the logic of the market, which conflates value with price.

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

The result has been the emergence of the “blockbuster model” in art — a system where financial resources are concentrated in the “upper echelons” of the art world. This system ensures that money flows to institutions that already have profile and notoriety, while everyone else struggles to get by — even if they have enormous potential.

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, IIPP founder and director, highlighted how such developments are an example of the sociological concept of ‘performativity’. The way we talk about things matters: different theories of how value is created lead to different policy prescriptions, and also justify very different distributions of income and wealth.

“If you confuse price with value, this feeds back into what you value. It leads you to celebrate investment bankers as the most ‘productive’ workers while cutting funding for schools and museums.”

What can be done to redress the disconnect between value creation and financial rewards in the arts and culture sector? According to Morris, high-profile institutions such as the Tate have a responsibility to shift their resources away from ‘blockbuster’ artists and exhibitions towards less privileged, but potentially more creative, up and coming artists. At the same, governments should seek to capture more of the financial rewards that arise from public investments in art and culture.

George the Poet highlighted the promise of new digital platforms that enable artists and creators to have autonomy over their work without simply having to “sell to the highest bidder”.

Ultimately however, as long as the idea that value is a reflection of price remains dominant, a major reallocation of resources is unlikely to happen anytime soon. That’s why IIPP is working to create a new framework to understand and recognise where value is really created in economies, and where value is being extracted. Until we rethink how value is created, we are unlikely to change how financial rewards are distributed.



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UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how public value is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato | Deputy Director: Rainer Kattel