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Mar 20 / Simon

Holes in the data make arts council’s job all the harder

To make the case for more funding and to achieve a more equitable distribution of subsidy, there needs to be agreement abourt how we can bets quantify the arts’ contribution to the UK economy, writes Simon Tait

The famous remark, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”, has surfaced often in the last weeks, particularly in relation to the divide in public funding and the arts between London and the regions, but who actually first coined it?

It is always attributed to Mark Twain, yet in his autobiography he counter-attributes it to Benjamin Disraeli. Then again, it might have been parliamentary essayist Walter Bagehot, the Tory prime minister Arthur Balfour, a radical journalist called Henry Du Pré Labouchére, or maybe a one-time president of the Royal Statistical Society, Leonard Courtney. So even the most famous quote about statistics is actually unverifiable.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that statistics themselves so often have a murky background, and when we try to wheel out figures to support a thesis we so often find them trundling back at us. We might believe we lead the world in practically every aspect of the arts, but can we actually prove it?

The mathematical range of the inequality of the Arts Council England’s subsidy to artists and arts organisations in and outside the capital has been more of a dispute than the fact of the inequality. Nobody is claiming that the London doesn’t deserve to have a bigger share than any other city because, unlike most other capitals, it is the centre as far as the cultural economy goes. The tourist dollar is spent more in London than anywhere else in England, not only on the theatres, concert halls and museums foreigners come here to see, but on the multiplier outlets they also need – hotels, restaurants, transport.

By how much, and by how much it is supported by the taxpayer, depends on who you ask and the same goes for pretty much any aspect of the arts council’s latest report. The arts are worth – ooh, lots to the economy, but is that in terms of Gross National Product, Gross Value Added, Gross Domestic Product?

The truth is that there is no more reliable data than there are reliable attributions of that deathless quote.
In its latest report, produced only last Friday, the arts council bemoans the lack of accurate material to call on: “While there is a considerable body of research literature, there are also many gaps,” it says, so this autumn ACE is going to fund yet more research literature with a new grants programme that invites “arts and cultural organisations, higher education institutions, consultants, think tanks, foundations and trusts”, so everybody really, to show how they would improve the data base. More statistics.

The problem, as plenty have pointed out, isn’t the amount of material but the reliable nature and retrievability of what there is.

Liz Hill in Arts Professional has gone through the previous ACE report, This England, which is its response to the Commons Select Committee’s call for information on the geographical funding divide, and picked out how information has been massaged to, for instance, diminish ACE’s position as the largest funder of the arts in England (by leaving out its lottery money), how percentages are used to create an impression when the actual figures would tell a different story (as in touring), and the issue of phrases like “core cities” – is Cambridge one, she would like to know, with a population of only 134,000? The arts council might say that population size is not as important as what happens there to bring in audiences from outside or that can germinate for wider use.

But context is everything, as Roger Tomlinson points out in his most recent blog, and the arts council have consistently been underfunded for what it is expected to do and is currently trying to ride a cut since 2011 of 42% with more to come, while the traditionally larger sponsors of the arts – leaving out the lottery – are local authorities whose budgets have been decimated by the government.

In This England and in Friday’s “evidence review” of “The value of arts and culture to people” the arts council tries to steer consideration away from the numbers and to the feel of the thing. In his forward chairman Peter Bazalgette writes “When we talk about the value of the arts and culture, we should always start with the intrinsic – how arts and culture illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world”. The problem is, the Treasury makes the decisions these days and does not think in terms of emotional world; it deals with the economy, so what the subsidisers need to know is what the arts are worth in hard cash. And that’s not easy to do, either.

At the end of last year UK Music, the umbrella body for the music industry, was able to produce a report which showed for the first time how much music is worth to the economy, but they had to do it by compiling their own statistics and not relying on existing Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures which even the Culture Department has conceded don’t allow the contribution of music to be seen as a separate category, only as an element of the cultural input. So UK Music’s CEO Jo Dipple has launched a campaign to get these international codes revised.

“If the UK wants to retain our world-leading status, we need accurate data upon which to base public policy and business decisions,” Dipple tells Arts Industry magazine this week. “The best way for us to achieve this is to secure international agreement for a new set of codes that better captures the music industry.”

The same can be said for the rest of our world-beating arts.