#artistsmatter: But can we put a value on how much?

#artistsmatter: But can we put a value on how much?

Text by James Doeser

We all agree that #culturematters (to borrow from the current campaign). By extension therefore we can presumably all agree that #artistsmatter too. After all they are the architects, creators, enactors and translators of this culture-that-matters-so-much.

People have been banging on about the instrumental value of the arts for at least 20 years. Academics have been churning out studies that demonstrate the cultural value of this or that practice, while others have been arguing that such an exercise is either a waste of time or a denigration of the arts. One thing is clear, on the whole the outputs of all this debate refer not to art, or artists, but The Arts.

The debate has proven unstoppable. There have been a slew of research reports recently that have attempted to capture the broader social impact of ‘the arts’. The AHRC Cultural Value Project is churning out lots of material at the moment, and it’s worth keeping an eye on developments. Elsewhere, this important study from academics at Sheffield Hallam University for the CASE programme was launched (regrettably) without a whisper of publicity. It highlighted a number of studies showing the social impacts (health, wellbeing, civic renewal, educational attainment etc.) that are derived from engagement with the arts, as well as setting out a logic chain through which engagement in the arts leads to various pro-social outcomes.

But what about the role of the artist in particular? In this article I want to switch things around, and focus specifically on artists. Susan Jones (like many others) has repeatedly called for a greater recognition of the part that artists play in the value chain. Some people are making money, why not artists? The challenge is that the specific contribution of artists (as opposed to galleries, agencies and institutions) can be hard to isolate and even harder to measure. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Advocates still need a complementary counterpoint to claims that “artists are valuable, just… because they are”.


Articulating hidden value

As Steve Messem convincingly argued in a-n recently, artists frequently miss a trick by not properly considering the value that they provide to others. His article really highlights the needs for artists to be savvy, and to recognise when or when not to invest in their own practice. But there is something else at work here, an under-use of the evidence that should add weight to an artist’s sense of their value to other people. I have a feeling this is for two main reasons: firstly, there is a lack of awareness (or trust) amongst artists when it comes to the evidence that demonstrates this value, and secondly that the language used to demonstrate it can seem cringingly technocratic, almost philistine. There may also be a third factor at work, which relates to the general paucity of that evidence, and the legwork required to hone it into a coherent package of self-supporting advocacy.

I want to show that any discomfort is misplaced. As I have written before articulating value needn’t equate to selling out or taking the corporate shilling. The world may not be as you like it – too competitive, too capitalist, too macho. And, sure, it’s worth fighting these things. But in the meantime how are you going to pay the bills? It’s not vulgar or distasteful to describe your work as an artist in terms that relate to the value you provide, it’s the smart thing to do.

Some artists are simply interested in creating work, pure and simple. “Forget the social value of my work” they say. That’s fine of course. And they’ll survive if they are well connected, the next big thing, or born rich. This is an article for those who aren’t so lucky.

This article attempts to spell out a handful of arguments about the contribution that artists make to society. It’s important to stress that I’m not talking about work that is pitched explicitly as socially engaged arts practice (which has a ton of evidence to support it). There has been some great research by Lynn Froggett and others at the University of Central Lancashire which explored the myriad impacts and benefits of the “audacious, original work, characterised by attentiveness to process and informed by a social agenda” produced by agencies such as ArtAngel, FACT, Grizedale Arts and CCA in Glasgow that are involved in socially engaged arts practice.) Instead I want to tease out robust and high-quality research that evidences the work of visual artists more generally. Admittedly, this can sometimes be hard to find.

I’ve tried to present a few evidence-based arguments worth considering. I’ve taken a fresh look at the material on CultureCase (and elsewhere) to see what we know about this area. For some of you the next few paragraphs will read as painfully instrumentalising, and it will demand a bit of twisting and turning of what you might normally do, but hopefully there are some useful takeaways that you can use in your own promotion, plotting and fundraising.


Artists help young people navigate complex identities

A project in London exploring children’s multiple and overlapping identities through the work of Gillian Wearing and Cindy Sherman showed just how much potential there is for contemporary art to be deployed as a tool for discourse and exploration. Where artists get involved in the learning process it can also have a profound impact on children’s creativity and self-efficacy (the sense that they have confidence in their ability to overcome problems and achieve goals). Both of these are known to enhance performance in other aspects of school attainment.

A promising approach in the UK that I’ve noticed is the way that Bow Arts use their skills and expertise in education settings. What they pitch to schools is not simply an artistic experience, but something transformative that will be beneficial to the children more broadly. Using art as a means to achieve whatever the school is interested in. This isn’t a manipulation of artistic ideals but a smart way to articulate the value of art (and, crucially artists) in this particular setting. Unsurprisingly, a key component to getting this right is appropriate planning, monitoring and evaluating.


Artists help older people adjust to life-changing events

Dr Anna Goulding at Newcastle University has been researching the impact of contemporary art on older people. What she has found is that when artists and gallery staff themselves play an active role in supporting the interpretation and discussion of work, visitors to the gallery are able use the art as a vehicle to connect with others while reflecting on their own lives and experiences. This is particularly important for people going through disruptive changes like bereavement or moving into care accommodation. Her work also shows how these experiences can resonate with people years after the gallery visit.


Artists are engines of workplace creativity

The discipline and creativity that is inherent in the development of artistic practice can be valuable to businesses that need an injection of such thinking. Stagnation of ideas and fossilisation of practices are two risks to ongoing business development that can be countered through the deployment of artists. This is a well-trodden line of argument perhaps, and certainly a type of activity that has been underway since at-least the 1960s. Workplace residencies of artists are (on the whole) not well evaluated, and more work needs to be done to measure their impacts, but one study in particular showed that the presence of artists in a conventional workplace setting could produce an uptick in creativity. A critical success factor in the example above was the degree to which senior management was invested in and committed to the artistic exercise. In many ways it further illustrates the need for better appreciation amongst the corporate world for the benefits that artists can bring.


What’s left to learn

So, those are a few arguments worth articulating, with confidence that they are underpinned by evidence from academic, peer-reviewed sources. It’s clear that it’s quite difficult to locate the specific contribution of artists in generating social outcomes, especially in settings that are not part of an explicitly socially engaged arts practice. But the evidence base is growing, and I anticipate that more and more studies will validate arguments that are currently made on the basis of anecdote, or simply from first principles. If you know of any such studies then let me know and I’ll put up more summaries on CultureCase.