Saturday, 2 October 2010

I Value the Arts

"A Cynic is a person who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing." - Oscar Wilde

There has been much made in the British press recently of the Government's plans to slash public spending across all areas. Education, science, the NHS, Public Services are all facing budget cuts of up to 40%. The Arts are no exception; in fact, in many people's eyes, they are the first place the axe should fall. 

One of the (many) criticisms levelled at The Arts is that they cost a lot of money - money that could be better spent elsewhere on social services or the road infrastructure or, I don't know...defence. Another criticism is that there are no concrete 'outcomes' to prove that the artform is giving good value for money. 'Outcomes' are the bane of anyone's life who has to write funding bids. It is nigh on impossible to accurately predict the number of people who will 'engage' with a painting, or listen to a piece of music, or even attend a play. The only outcome that should matter is that the piece of art should provoke some kind of response (ideally a positive one) in the people who come into contact with it. 

The people who hold the purse strings obviously have a problem with this concept - that Art has a value of and in itself, that defies quantification and does not sit comfortably in any tickbox. They want proof that their small but valued contribution has been spent wisely. They want to be able to account for their investment; to ensure value for money.
What they cannot understand, and therefore cannot account for, is that The Arts have a long-term, organic, and creative value to society. An auction house may put a price on a Van Gogh but what value can you put on the impact that painting has had on countless people, many of whom may have gone on to create artworks of their own?

There are some instances where a 'value' in the monetary sense can be given. There is a wonderful and very hard-working organisation called Dance Utd. that regularly works with young people who are either in danger of offending or have already been through the Youth Justice system. Dance Utd. takes these youngsters and via a 12 week dance training course instills in them increased levels of self-confidence, co-operation, problem-solving and fitness. This is as well as increasing their awareness of healthy eating, exercise and self-discipline. Some might think that a dance class is a 'soft option' and that it is hardly an effective deterrent against re-offending, but this is not the case. Many of the young people who have been involved with Dance Utd. say that it is the hardest they have ever worked at anything.  The difference in the young people who stay the course is marked. Their confidence is improved as is their ability to express themselves. To see the graduation performances after the 12 weeks is an inspiration and is often an emotional event for the parents of these 'bad lads and naughty girls'. Several young people from each cohort progress onto further education or training, and a number have been offered places at some of the most prestigious dance schools in the country. 
The cost of taking a young person through the Criminal Justice System is immense (not only in hard cash terms but in the workload and time spent) and custodial sentences rarely work in stopping the cycle of offending. If even one of the young people involved in Dance Utd. no longer offends, no longer needs a case-worker, will no longer re-offend and face prison, then the cost of funding Dance Utd's work has been saved. There are many examples of such projects across all art-forms, each one giving something back to society or allowing people to find some belief in themselves. I would suggest that each of these is worth its funding. 

I had a conversation recently with someone about the Save-the-Arts and Value-the-Arts campaigns currently galvanising support to oppose spending cuts. They said that they valued the arts but didn't think that public money should be spent on them. They also said that they preferred the Value-the-Arts approach as 'Save-the-Arts' implies that we actually have to DO something. Herein lies a problem; there is a perception amongst some people that The Arts are something that other people do and therefore are not their responsibility. They happily watch hours of television, visit the cinema, listen to the radio, read a book, buy a CD and not see the connection. 

There has to be a sensible approach to arts funding, we can't expect bucketloads of cash to be handed out to anyone with a paintbrush or a guitar. But we can seek to redress the inequalities. We can reaffirm ourselves as a civilised nation that sees The Arts as an important, even vital, part of life. We can be less cynical and stop asking what things cost but how much are they worth. 

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