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This item is taken from PN Review 65, Volume 15 Number 3, January - February 1989.

John Myerscough is a subtle economist and statistician. He prepared the 221 page Policy Studies Institute report The Economic Importance of the Arts in Britain, described in Arts Management as "one of the most important and timely documents to be published in the last 20 years". The report, conceived by the Gulbenkian Foundation, was funded by several educational and arts bodies. Given the preferred idiom and fiscal priorities of the present Government and the ways in which they have come to dominate public discourse, it was an urgent initiative: statistics are more eloquent in developing policy for the arts than arguments about choice, artistic freedom or value. Management Strategy and Marketing Plans displace the pragmatic individualism, the enthusiastic risk-taking of the 1970s. Three-or five-year plans are required of "arts organizations" which cannot know the "product" they will have to "market" in 18 months' time.

Patronage nowadays seems to imply dependence; artistic freedom to some is a euphemism for taking liberties with the public and/or the public purse. Values have become decidedly "relative". The only value we can commonly assign to the Arts is a market value. If we wish to argue for subsidy of the arts, it must be an argument about economic benefit. Only those who argue against public subsidy of the Arts today deploy the old-fashioned rhetoric of values.
The Myerscough report keeps to its specific brief. It is in four parts: "Market for the Arts" (Market comes before Arts), "The Arts as a Magnet to People" (a metaphor!), "Economic Impact and Value of the Arts" (the relevant nitty-gritty in forceful language - not only impact but economic impact, and economic goes with Value as well), and "Economic Influence of the Arts".

The Arts economy is a growth area. 2.5% of spending on goods and services goes on them; 122 million attendances (museums, galleries, theatres, concerts) have chalked up £2.7 billion; 27% of tourist spending is "attributable to the impact of the arts". Almost half a million people live off - or on - the Arts (2.1% of the employed population) and the Arts "offer a cheaper way to extra jobs than other forms of public sector spending". We may have "Arts Initiative Schemes" as a way of massaging unemployment figures: surely theatre, museums, publishing and "music" could mop up another half million?
The Arts economy specifically defined by Myerscough is worth about £10 billion, and subsidy from all sources about £450 million. But he does not stop at statistics. "I think it's a very good principle on the whole to leave things to the market place," he confides. "On the whole" sounds consoling - leave 97.5% to the market, and make a different case for the 2.5% already quantified as the Arts. But he adds, "it's a bad principle to remove artists too long from the disciplines of the market." Is it a matter of ill-conceived principle that makes some writers - for example - chary of marketing, unwilling or unable to serve up what the market craves? Surely the principle at work here is the reductive one which converts readers into "market" and writers into "producers" on a model borrowed from the world of manufacture?

Mr Myerscough has fulfilled his necessary, his inevitable brief. It is the report for our historical moment. The terms have been carefully defined, the statistics conservatively gathered - not to prove anything but to give substance to economic arguments. And the facts are interesting - if we can accept as facts numbers and percentages divorced from the activities they translate and summarize in a realm remote from, or inimical to, their essence.

It is best not to remember how, in the 1960s and 1970s, Arts Organizations who were clients of the Arts Councils and Associations were judged by their "product": plays staged, concerts performed, books published. Support tended to patronize "consumers", to assume that they would not take up certain writers, composers or theatres in sufficient numbers to sustain them. Support was provided in the belief that those works, those activities, should be made available, that they were a necessary cultural resource regardless of market. Increasingly the task of discrimination is being devolved by the Arts Councils and Associations onto a market which was seen before as insufficiently responsive.

It is best not to remember how, in the 1960s and 1970s, writers, composers and other artists were awarded bursaries for projects because their record was judged to have artistic value. Galleries, theatre-companies, publishers and others were assessed annually for what they had done. Of course they strove vigorously to sell their wares, their seats, their exhibitions; but they knew that the cultural continuities they served were not necessarily in continual demand among the public. They were assessed not by a Market but by a representative committee of good people and true with experience and interest in the art forms in question.

Arts Council clients are clients because consistent markets do not exist to support their kind of product; yet the product has value and brings an acknowledged value to the public. Or at least a value acknowledged since Arts Councils and Associations began to rise out of the primeval slime almost half a century ago.

If there is still a case in principle for public support of the Arts, it should be cultural. Campaigning for commercial and private sponsorship will of course entail questions of commercial benefit. There the Myerscough report is a very useful tool. But state subsidy should remain different in kind from private subsidy and patronage, just as the BBC enjoys freedoms and constraints different from those enjoyed by the Independents. Arts Council's clients (and the Council itself) should acknowledge Mr Myerscough's work, digest his numbers, and then remember that the historical model for public support for the arts in this country has not been an accountancy model; that certain forms of planning and marketing are simply inapplicable to the arts; and that when a patron begins to adopt the priorities of the capitalist and urge them upon his clients, the artistic product will alter until the supported arts establishment becomes a pale reflection of the aggressive, vigorous, market-oriented independent arts establishment, poor in risk, poor in choice. Balanced books are a bonum, to be sure, but not the summum bonum.

This item is taken from PN Review 65, Volume 15 Number 3, January - February 1989.

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