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Jo Caird: Assessing the Value of the Arts

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Last week saw the release of an Arts Council-funded report entitled “Unlocking value – the economic benefit of the arts in criminal justice”. Essentially a cost/benefit analysis of three arts organisations working with offenders, former offenders and those likely to offend, it's fascinating read.

The report considers the outcomes of those involved with the theatre company Clean Break, the arts charity Only Connect and the education support charity Unitas, based on the idea that involvement in the arts reduces reoffending. It takes into account economic benefit to the individual (i.e. from potential future earnings following obtaining qualifications) and to the state (i.e. money saved through not being spent on charging and imprisoning offenders and raised through income tax on participants' future earnings). To sum up a complex and sensitively-produced 50-page study in one sentence, arts charities working in the criminal justice sector are a good investment.

This is good news for these organisations and others like them in terms of increasing the likelihood of securing future funding, but the very existence of this report throws up a number of uncomfortable questions about the way that the value of the arts is measured in our society.

Anyone involved in the business of making theatre or indeed anyone with a passion for it, will attest to its value. I love theatre and believe it should be funded from the public purse because of its unique potential to open people's eyes to different worlds of experience and ways of thinking. Coming together to share stories is fundamental to our nature as human beings and crucial in terms of empathy and communication between individuals and groups. Theatre is also frequently beautiful, moving and funny – a past time with the ability to bring happiness through escapism.

The trouble is that is it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to measure these ephemeral effects, and in the current financial climate, when resources are limited and the state is having to choose where to make the cuts it deems necessary for the continued health of the nation (like many people, I'm not persuaded by the logic of the government's deficit reduction plan – now however, is not the moment to open that particular can of worms), theatre-makers are left with no choice but to attempt to justify what they do using the language of economics.

Since the government's comprehensive spending review was published in October 2010, in which it was announced that Arts Council England would face 30% cuts, and following the news this spring of exactly where the axe would fall over the coming years, many theatre-makers and commentators have come out in defence of this art form, using economic arguments to attempt to persuade policy-makers and the public that theatre is worthwhile. From the VAT that the West End raises for the Treasury through ticket sales, to the money that tourists attracted to London for its theatre spend at hotels, shops and restaurants while they're here, it's all totted up and the conclusion is reached that theatre should be funded because it's a money-maker (or, in the case of the arts and criminal justice, as demonstrated by the report I began this post with, a money-saver).

While I can understand why these arguments are made, I can't help but feel that this line of thinking is misguided and ultimately damaging to theatre. By engaging with the Treasury's rhetoric, we are helping to push discussion of theatre's intrinsic value to the sidelines, and when someone then argues persuasively that another industry – pharmaceuticals say, or arms – is a better investment, we are left with no more cards to play.

What is the alternative? Is there one? Many would argue that if artists are going to take advantage of public subsidy they have to play by the rules dictated by those responsible for dishing out the cash. But if we want the debate to be less reductive in its terms, theatre-makers – and theatre lovers – need to better articulate to policy-makers (it seems pretty unlikely that the government is going to change its modus operandi all by itself) why theatre is inherently valuable. It won't be an easy task by any means, but if subsidised theatre is to maintain its creative integrity, I don't see what other option we have.


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