Weighing up the Value of the Arts in Ireland

Posted on: 17 September 2015

John O’Hagan, Professor of Economics

As the Budget and an election approach one hears concern being expressed about the demand for increases in expenditure in many areas.

The much bigger concern, however, is whether or not we are getting value for money from the huge existing public expenditure, a task that should be ongoing and a catalyst for major change within the public sector.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has addressed this issue through a series of value for money studies across government departments, the latest of these being in relation to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The Arts Council was chosen as its “case study”.

The findings of this study on how the Arts Council conducts its business and what it does for its annual investment are reassuringly positive. It is an organisation that operates effectively and is refreshingly open to new ideas and strategic change.

It was also found to be proactive over a difficult period in leveraging its limited core State funding against other public, private and philanthropic sources of funding, as well as taking hard decisions about its own structures to better meet the needs of the arts community. The review also identifies some opportunities for improvement.

Beyond this important analysis though is the bigger issue of defining and measuring the societal outcomes of the work of the Arts Council. This is an issue that dogs evaluation of value for money not just of the arts but of the whole wider public sector.

It is not the number of artists assisted, or the number of events sponsored that matter but the benefits (or value) to wider society, and hence taxpayers, that accrue from this expenditure. What are these societal benefits though and can they be measured in any meaningful way? There are three which will be considered here.

The arts, it is argued, describe in a unique way our sense of identity, community and belonging and thereby provide a vital “glue” for social cohesion, a clear societal benefit.

In his splendid recent book on Germany Neil MacGregor for example chooses to “define” Germany more through the works of cultural figures – such as Beethoven Dürer, Goethe, and members of the Bauhuas movement – and important historical cultural monuments and artefacts, than through political figures and events. Such a convincing tale needs to be articulated in relation to “defining” Ireland.

How would we “define” Dublin without for example Joyce, O’Casey and the Abbey? Would we think differently about Ireland if there were none of the major national monuments such as the Rock of Cashel or Trim Castle or artefacts such as the Book of Kells?

Would Ireland be the same place without the traditional music of counties such as Clare, the many local cultural festivals, the visual art of people such as Jack Yeats, and the poetry of Seamus Heaney and WB Yeats? Would all of this have been generated/preserved without patronage, be it private as in the past or public as today?

These are the questions that need to be addressed if the identity/social cohesion function of the arts in Ireland is to be documented and established.

There are two other major grounds for State funding of the arts. One of these is that the subsidised arts sector, be it through tax breaks or direct state outlay, creates opportunities for innovation and creativity, free from the constraints of immediate commercial success.

The sector can for example provide a “test bed” for new ideas and talent in drama, music and the visual arts. In time huge benefits can accrue from this, for example for the TV, cinema, commercial theatre and design sectors, from which the wider public can benefit greatly.

The question then needs to be asked and addressed to what extent commercial successes such as Riverdance and popular TV drama such as Love/Hate or Father Ted depended on the prior existence of a subsidised State sector. Likewise in relation to successful commercial design, film and music in Ireland.

This aspect of arts funding is not perhaps sufficiently recognised by the arts sector, especially as often it will mean half or near empty theatres and concert halls and few visitors to art galleries displaying such work. That though is the nature of experimental work: only a small fraction of it leads to eventual commercial success.

The arts also create a societal benefit through its economic impact. The sector is a direct employer. Much more importantly, it creates indirect employment in hotels and restaurants by attracting visitors to an area. The arts can also enhance Ireland’s reputation internationally, something which can impact in the medium to long term on tourism flows and investment decisions.

While there is a strong case then around the societal benefits of the arts sector, the challenge is determining the value of these benefits. There is no standard methodology, no nice set of metrics that can be applied. Besides, in relation to some activities such as the Wexford Festival Opera all three may apply, but only the second say to the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Trinity.

On a personal level, you may value hugely some arts event such as a play in the Druid or a piano recital at the forthcoming New Ross festival. Other people may get a similar personal benefit from gardening or golf or watching a film. The key issue though is what is the societal benefit to justify taxpayers’ expenditure on the arts activity?

We need to move away from thinking that the societal value is self-evident, to actively demonstrating that value; no matter how patchy the evidence. And such evidence can be and has to be found, be it qualitative, quantitative or by way of a convincing narrative. It is the only way to secure the future growth of the State-supported arts sector.

This article was originally published in The Irish Times on September, 17th, 2015

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