Valuing engagement in culture – how far can we go in telling the sto

3 June 2013

The issue of valuing the impact of arts and culture is one of the most fascinating and perhaps most controversial subjects of debate that I have come across since starting my post here at A New Direction.

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(Image by Ed Stone for the Roundhouse)

The recent report by the Arts Council on the contribution of the Arts to the national economy, quotes some impressive headline figures on the monetary value of the arts and culture to society.

In 2011 UK businesses operating in the arts and culture industries turned over £12.4 bn, accounting for 0.4% of GDP. If we include the value of the creative industries which represent 10% of the GDP of the country the overall estimate increases substantially.

The wider impact of the creative sector is also notable –for every £1 of salary paid by the industry, an additional £2.01 is generated in the rest of the economy through the so-called multiplier effect (for instance through supply chain production and employees spending their salaries on other parts of the economy).

As 'cold' as these numbers may feel, part of me relates to them. They do have their place in that, they allow us to talk about an aggregate value of the creative sector and compare it to other parts of the economy.

They show that the creative sector is pulling its weight within the economic engine of the country and they give us a sense of the scale at which this is happening. If these numbers didn't exist it would be even harder to make a case for the importance of safeguarding the integrity of the sector in a time of budget cuts.

But a macroeconomic perspective is not everything. Economists themselves would probably say that it fails to capture those aspects of the value of arts and culture that we don't end up bearing the full cost of – for instance how do we account for the value of the arts and culture to young and future generations? How do we account for the sense of shared identity and community that they create?

At a more basic level however, perhaps these numbers also fail to relate to our own day to day experience of arts and culture. What is its value to the individual? How do we measure it and how do we account for it? These are important questions, especially where market prices for certain experiences do not exist – free entries to national museums and galleries being an example of this.

A measurable relationship

The latest wave of the 'Taking Part Survey' goes some way towards answering this question by looking at the correlation between a measure of self-reported happiness and people's engagement in the arts and culture. This is an interesting take as, of course, happiness and wellbeing will themselves have a material effect on productivity and therefore ultimately on the economy. However, they also have value in their own right.

The survey measures individuals' happiness on a scale of one to ten in response to the question 'taking all things together how happy would you say you are?'.

It also measures active and passive participation in a range of cultural activities within the arts, heritage and museums, library and archives sectors. In line with results from other longstanding measures within National Statistics it finds that happiness has been increasing since 2005/6. It also highlights that happiness is sensitive to socio-demographic factors - it increases with income, it is the highest among the youngest and oldest age groups (pre 25 and 65 ) and those living in rural areas compared to those living in the city.

Crucially, those who engaged with the arts in the past 12 months have higher average happiness scores than non-engagers. The same is true for those who visited museums, galleriesand heritage sites compared to those haven't, but interestingly not for libraries and archives.

Correlation is often a tricky statistic to rely on as it merely suggests that two measures move hand in hand but does necessarily not imply that one causes the other. In this case, there may well be a third factor that influences both happiness and engagement in culture which is not accounted for by this measure (e.g. having higher disposable income may make you both happier and more likely to take part in the arts and culture).

Analysis from the Taking Part Survey goes some way to unravel this by looking at what the differences in self-reported happiness between those who engage with culture and those who don't are across the wealth spectrum. In general, engagers are happier than non engagers, regardless of their level of income – which suggests that engagement with culture genuinely increases happiness.

An analysis led by the DCMS in the context of the CASE programme on the relationship between engagement with sports and culture and measures of subjective well being ('How dissatisfied or satisfied are you with your life on a scale of one to seven") takes this further by controlling the effect that engagement has on happiness for a number of socio-demographic factors, thereby isolating the relationship between the two. It found that activities such as attending concerts and going to the cinema have significant effects on subjective well-being, particularly when people engage with them once a month or more often.

Valuing happiness and well being

But do general measures of happiness or life satisfaction fully capture the value that culture has for the individual?

In a sense they feel more like a 'short cut', the tip of an iceberg which is likely to be underpinned by many factors. Enjoyment, a sense of achievement, a sense of heritage and continuity with the past, self-expression, being in the 'flow', being inspired could all be drivers of a sense of happiness that a cultural experience brings about. Not only is the range potentially infinite but different factors will have a different weight for different people.

One way of looking at this is that measures of happiness and well being are not substitutes for the complexity of their components but a simplification that allows us to move a step forward towards being able to quantify them.

Attaching a monetary value to changes in happiness and well being would be the final step.

Recent research by Fujiwara (2013), which estimates the value of participation in various arts and culture activities by asking respondents to compare the value of well being to the expected additional happiness generated by winning a sum of money, finds that on average the subjective monetary value of visiting museums in one's free time is just over £3,000 a year, that of participating in the arts is £1,500 while the value of being an audience to the arts is just over £ 2,000 a year.

Some of these approaches to monetise the value of culture are in their infancy and have both theoretical and practical limitations. They have been long debated and have often generated strong reactions.

On some level, I must admit that seeing the value of happiness generated by cultural experience spelled out on a page makes me slightly uncomfortable – it seems restrictive and is certainly far from telling us the whole story. At the same time, there is something powerful about being able to encapsulate it in a number. The pragmatic part of me thinks this is perhaps simply a way of translating it into a common unit of measurement and – in this sense- it has a reason to exist alongside other ways of talking about the value of culture to the individual and to the rest of society.

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