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“How far does the economic debate on ‘cultural value’ dominate policy makers’ decisions?” by Vikki McCall

Instrumental justifications for spending on the arts and culture, whereby public ‘investment’ is justified on the basis of the social or econ0mic returns the cultural sector is seen to provide, have been at the centre of an incensed debate over the past 15 years, in Britain and beyond. But do those instrumental rationales really drive policy making? What do we know of politicians’ and policy makers’ real motivations in drawing up policies and making those all important funding decision? Ultimately, every cultural policy decision is predicated on the exercise of cultural authority, and a better understanding of what notions of ‘value’ are behind the policy-making process is therefore central to the cultural value debate. In her contribution, Vikki McCall (@vikki_mccall ) reflects on empirical research she has conducted in Scotland.

After reading Eleonora Belfiore’s blog on ‘cultural value’, I could not help but agree that current debates have been dominated by economic impact arguments.  This is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that even the word ‘value’, in relation to the concept of culture, has stemmed from an economic understanding of it. This emergent focus on economic arguments is actually quite interesting, as the world that Klamer describes is one where economics was ‘banned’ from cultural conversations.  Interestingly, Valentine suggested the ‘cementing’ of the economy and culture took place through the Major years, but the emphasis was still on culture rather than economy.  New Labour’s vision that followed linked economic and communal value into the cultural sector.  Now it would seem that you cannot see the word culture without a following citation about its economic impact.

For Scotland in particular, the Scottish Government has pursued a full economic strategy since 2007.  The overriding vision of the Scottish Government is “to focus Government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth”.  In this policy context, all activities therefore must contribute to this overriding purpose.  Culture did not feature as an indicator for this purpose until 2010 in Scotland.  The result of this is an increased rhetoric on the economic impact of cultural activities.  Museums Galleries Scotland (2010; 2008) commissioned two reports solely to demonstrate this purpose and Creative Scotland (2012) has also released a large scale report on the economic impact of the arts in Scotland.  The economic impact of culture, museums and the arts has therefore been a very dominant policy rhetoric.

I would like to question, however, the real influence that the economic debate has had on policy makers’ decisions. I did some research in 2008/2009 exploring high-level policy makers’ perspectives on cultural policy in Scotland.  Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), civil servants and policy makers from cultural bodies were interviewed to gain an understanding on how they viewed culture.  This gave key insight to what was behind their decision making activities.  The findings showed that the economic policy focus within Scotland had influenced their definitional understandings of culture, but actually much of the justification and arguments that MSPs gave for cultural spending were related to the social value of arts and culture.  Some policy makers employed evidence of social impact, such as social inclusion and wellbeing, to help justify their own interest in arts and culture.  Here is an excerpt from one of my interviews that shows a policy maker using the social value of the culture to justify arts investment:

“Nobody would question the importance of that sort of [cultural] activity in their life.  But they do question spending money on the arts.  Everybody does, and it’s always squeezed.  It’s squeezed at local authority level, at national level, it’s always squeezed. So yes it’s important to find good arguments that allow you to support investment in the arts.  And the widening access and inclusion arguments have been some of the most productive for us.  Not just for investment in the arts but making sure the arts are available for all.  And that has been a very good argument for us to lever in resources for particular programmes – starting with museums” (New Labour MSP).

In an article exploring these findings, I showed that due to the lack of clarity on key social concepts, policy makers tended to employ their own views in explaining the role of culture.  Participants’ understandings and ideologies were linked to how they viewed culture and the potential outcomes of cultural participation.  These tended to be skewed in the direction of more individualistic outcomes rather than wider societal change.  There was also a key theme of viewing cultural participation as central to individual wellbeing.

Overall, the economic focus of current Scottish policy did influence policy makers’ understandings of key concepts.  However, justification of culture was dominated by social impact and outcomes such as wellbeing.  Individual ideologies were also central in policy makers’ justifications for the arts.  Cultural value, therefore, can be driven by ideological notions of individual and structural development.  The wider social arguments around culture dominated when exploring policy makers’ in-depth understandings of culture.

This also suggests the rise of an almost two-tier debate.  There seems to be the wider structural economic impact of culture alongside individual social impact.  The social and economic arguments employed around cultural value, therefore, have clear foundations within the structure and agency debate.  This may be a key approach on how action is formed in relation to generating ‘cultural value’.

This was reinforced at the recent Museums Association conference in Edinburgh.  Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, spoke about the economic value that culture brings to the nation alongside the social value that culture brings to communities.  She also stated that the “… impact of museums and galleries go far beyond cultural activities… Scotland’s culture and heritage is our soul”.  This would suggest that while economic arguments have been getting increasing attention, the social roles and impacts attributed to the arts is still an important part of the ‘cultural value’ debate.



Vikki McCall’s research interests have focused on social policy within cultural services, especially museums. Vikki has published work around social policy, social inclusion, museums, policy makers’ perceptions of culture and the value of the Scottish Household Survey as a cultural data set. She was presented with the ‘Best Newcomer’ award from the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice in 2010 for her writing. Vikki also loves teaching the Social Sciences and is an Associate Lecturer for the Open University and Guest Lecturer for the University of Stirling.  Vikki currently works as a researcher for Museums Galleries Scotland and her role includes trying to increase the quality and value of cultural evidence throughout the museums sector in Scotland.

You can contact and follow Vikki via Twitter @vikki_mccall or e-mail: vikkim@museumsgalleriesscotland.org.uk



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