Cultural organisations and their funding bodies have become very good at describing their value in terms of social outcomes. Tackling exclusion, increasing diversity and contributing to economic development are all familiar justifications in grant applications.
But by talking in functional terms about the value of culture, cultural organisations have lost the ability to describe their real purpose – producing good work that enriches people’s lives. Culture now delivers government policy by other means.
The effect has been to favour individuals and organisations that have become fluent in the jargon of public policy. Funding decisions have become safe, and cultural producers have tailored their outputs to meet the latest round policy priority.
But there is a difficulty with the language of outcomes: artists and institutions do not see themselves as creating outcomes. Cultural experience is the sum of the interaction between an individual and an artifact or an experience, and that interaction is unpredictable and must be open
There is equally a difficulty in talking about the intrinsic value of culture, or ‘art for arts sake’. In today’s world it sounds patronising, exclusive and undemocratic.
There is now a growing view within the cultural world that new and convincing methods must be found to validate public funding. This report shows how alternative ways of valuing culture are possible, by drawing on disciplines as diverse as brand valuation by accountants and the language of sustainability used by environmentalists.
John Holden is head of culture at Demos. He is also chair of The Anvil in Basingstoke and a member of the management committee of the Clore Leadership Programme.