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How Do We Value Arts and Culture?

It’s not new: understanding – and trumpeting – the “economic impact” of arts and culture has been a small industry in the field for some time. Most notably, Americans for the Arts has conducted three national studies of “The Arts and Economic Prosperity,” and is beginning a fourth. The rationale is that policy-makers continue to be convinced of the value of arts and culture by highlighting their impact on jobs and revenues, even if those policy-makers see no intrinsic benefits to arts and culture.

In a recent Financial Times article, John Kay, a leading British business economist and academic, bemoans the standard methodology of cultural economic impact studies.  What arts impact studies typically measure “is not the benefits of the activities they applaud, but their cost; and the value of an activity is not what it costs, but the amount by which its benefit exceeds its costs,” suggesting that measuring resources consumed is not a valid method of evaluation.

I’ve always felt that economic data about cultural activity worked best as part of a broader set of advocacy strategies that articulated all of the ways arts and culture add value. As Randy Cohen, AFTA’s Vice President of Local Arts Advancement, pointed out in an e-mail to me, “this sort of [financial] measurement is standard procedure in most industries. Perhaps [Kay] doesn’t view the arts as an industry.”  He also commented that Alan’s research into the intrinsic value of the arts is an important part of the story, as is the impressive data emerging about the impact of arts education: “it’s really a question of ‘and’ not ‘or’ when making the case.” The moral of the story? As long as civic leaders are swayed by economic numbers, they have a role to play in describing the value of arts and culture.


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