What Arts and Culture Are Worth

We’re above it. We couldn’t survive without it. It pains us. We resent it. Yet money is the first yardstick we reach for when we try to measure the success of Art with a capital ‘A’. 

The proliferation of digital technologies, resources, capabilities and audiences has increased the association of cultural relevance with commerciality. But we also struggle in this new context with how to use money, apply it, or distribute it in ways that create artistic value. This has consequences for creatives’ personal lives and career trajectories, arts and culture organisations’ priorities and survival, and our economic and societal vitality. 

How do we declare the value of the arts? We can recite all of the reasons why money does or doesn’t matter: The arts create a rich society. The arts are riches in and of themselves or conversely the arts are for/by rich people. The arts spring from, or reflect a rich society.  These arguments resonate but are somehow lacking and don't seem to capture the full story.

What if to better understand the value of art in society, we have to understand money and value better? It is possible to question the close-mindedness and short-sightedness of value for money thinking in the arts while more deeply engaging with the true meaning of money for the arts.

Economists ascribe three dimensions to money: 

- a store of value

- a means of exchange

- a unit of account.

We’re most familiar with the idea of money as a store of value and history is full of examples of people using “valuable” things like gold or silver or shells as money. A fiat currency has value when backed by a government’s resources, reputation and might. We use a currency to buy and sell things and we do our bookkeeping in pounds or dollars or whatever the local currency may be.

Even Bitcoin, millions of people view it as a store of value, even though we rarely use it to buy and sell goods and services besides other currencies or denominate business accounts or contracts.

We usually think about the arts and culture through the store of value lens. We decide what's valuable - what cultural institutions fund, what people pay to see, or what work has cultural or artistic credibility. But the arts also have value as a medium of exchange, as a means of dialogue and a way for us to communicate with each other. They also have value as a unit of account, but we get lost in using other people’s yardsticks, whether it’s money or attendance or followers.

If we were to look at the value of the arts in the multi-dimensional way that economists consider the value of money, what would that mean? 

As a store of value, the arts could demonstrate excellence, prestige, novelty, profitability, attendance, sheer pleasure…however creators decide to define value in a way that can be compared to other things. As a medium of exchange, we could ask how the arts enable exchange, transactions, communications, and relationships that have value to individuals, communities and society. As a unit of account, we could ask how the arts create a record, artifacts, and knowledge.

Once we enrich our definition of the value of the arts, how do we decide how to invest in the arts? How do we combine the economics of how we use resources with the evaluation of artistic merit? Public policy evaluation specialist Julian King writes that in order to assess value for investment (of any resource, not just money), we need to ask, What did we put in? What did we get out? Was it worth it? And to whom? 

This is where the multiple dimensions of artistic value conceived as a store of value, medium of exchange, and unit of account truly bear fruit. Not only is it a question of how much attendance did we get for how large a grant, but what relationships were built? What was left behind? 

Applying those monetarily-informed dimensions of artistic value changes the rubric of who “deserves” access to resources and who should be included in the decisions. This is where the opportunity for participation by people who aren’t usually part of the process emerges. Participation isn’t just a fuzzy emotional or social value that creators share, it then actually creates value in the currency that creators have defined. And using a multi-dimensional rubric of artistic value also allows creators to insist that their value be evaluated and tallied in their chosen currency. 

Rather than shying away from money and evaluation, valuing the arts and culture as a store of value, medium of exchange, and unit of account empowers creators. It allows them to clearly define value on their own terms, how they intend to create value, who it is for, and how that value will be measured. For those who seek funding and those who seek to fund the arts, it will connect money to artistic value in ways that allow the work to flourish.

This contribution to Audience Labs' work for AHRC at King's College London is written by:

Dr Noshua Watson - Managing Director, Interwoven Impact

Dr Watson is the founder of Interwoven Impact, a social impact analytics consultancy for content companies. Interwoven helps companies measure how their marketing, media, educational or research content creates social change.

She holds a PhD in Strategy from INSEAD specializing in Corporate Social Responsibility and a masters in Economics from Stanford University.

She has worked with clients including the United Nations, Rockefeller Foundation, Unilever, UK Department for International Development, Inter-American Development Bank and PwC.

Image credit: "Current Rising" - developmental scene sketch by Joanna Scotcher