Fronted by the ever-ebullient and ever so slightly Pollyanna-ish Sam West, the Campaign for the Arts presents us with their answer to the question nobody with any sense is asking: what's the value of the arts?
Their answer? The Arts Index.
Really, I can't begin to tell you how simultaneously annoyed and depressed this makes me. Where to begin, well for a start let's take a look at some of the indicators chosen to demonstrate the health (or otherwise) of the arts. The combined reserves of all regularly funded arts organisations is proffered as an indicator of stability in the sector. [Pause for laughter]. No mention of what percentage of the arts sector actually is regularly funded. Combined income of all West End theatres is also touted as a reasonable proxy of the financial health of the commercial arts sector - possibly fair enough, but this proxy feeds into a picture that purports to represent the health of the arts as a whole. The only 'quality' indicator is overall audience/consumer satisfaction ratings culled from a DCMS survey. This rather reinforces the notion already well entrenched with government and other funders that the only art worth funding is stuff that's guaranteed to put bums on seats, wipe its own face and mix its own metaphors. Need I go into why that's stupid? Oh, all right then. Without subsidy, the arts activity that happens further down the foodchain ie not regularly funded by Arts Council and not commercial, is where young artists learn and grow, it's where artists can develop new ideas and try new approaches to their work and that sort of work is and should be challenging for audiences. It should also sometimes be bad. That's how we learn. However, without this apparently invisible part of the arts sector the whole arts ecology just doesn't stand up. Highly skilled and creative artists, producers, curators and technicians do not spring up like dragon's teeth fully formed and ready to stage another West End success or Oscar-winning nostalgia fest.
Still on the question of bums on seats, we're given (of course) numbers of adults and children attending arts activities and participating in arts activities. OK, interesting enough, but not an indication of the value of the arts. If you really want to drill down into this question you have to ask what would happen if we didn't support the arts. Of those people surveyed who claimed not to have attended any arts activity, how many watched Downton Abbey? How many listen to music or watch videos? Blimey, where do all these people come from who make this stuff?
In a climate where local authorities are slashing (and in some cases abandoning altogether) spending on the arts, is this bean-counting really the best response we can come up with? It plays straight into the hands of successive short-sighted and Phillistine governments who will not be persuaded that the arts are more than a 'nice to have' by these shallow economic arguments. Do we have nothing to say about the value of the arts on our own terms?