The Value of Culture: Beyond GDP

Cultural and creative industries make a significant contribution to the EU’s GDP. Photo: EnvironmentBlog, FlickrCoinciding with the opening of the European Culture Forum in Brussels, Monday 4th November saw the publication of a Eurobarometer survey on the cultural access and participation of nearly 27,000 citizens from across the EU. The survey was conducted by the European Commission. Although results differ substantially from country to country, the overall trend to emerge is that fewer Europeans are taking part in cultural activities compared to six years ago. The Culture Forum, organised and funded by DG Education and Culture, provided a timely opportunity for stakeholders and experts to discuss the challenges facing culture, as well as to consider possible solutions.

Given that the economic crisis continues, it is unsurprising that respondents gave lack of money as a reason for not partaking in cultural activities, and the relationship between economics and culture formed the springboard for much discussion at the Forum. It may seem a necessary evil to cut spending on culture in times of austerity, but the Forum’s first session on measuring the value of culture argued the opposite. For while culture’s soft human value cannot easily be quantified, its economic contribution can: to give but one example, in 2010 culture and creative industries already accounted for at least 3.3% of the EU’s GDP. During the Culture Forum, Matteo Maggiore, Deputy Director of Public Affairs and Communications at the OECD, highlighted the significance of creativity and culture in lucrative sectors of the job market such as technology. In the value chain of an iPhone, for example, he showed that almost 50% of the retail price ($270 out of $600) is tied to the creative side of production: innovation, marketing, and design. The high price these creative skills command reflects their importance.

Some may baulk at the idea of linking culture with economics, but Hasan Bakhshi, Director of innovation charity Nesta, showed that although economists can be seen as “philistines” by the cultural sector, they can play a valuable role in supporting it. For example, economists show funders unfamiliar with the culture sector why it is a worthwhile area of investment. The value of culture does not lie solely in monetary terms, however, and Elisabetta Lazzaro, Chair of Cultural Management at Université Libre de Bruxelles, provided some balance to the session by presenting research on the direct link between higher cultural participation and increased well-being.

The second session of the Forum focused on new funding models for culture, exploring how they may help the culture and creative sectors tackle some of the challenges they face today, such as the digital shift, competition for people’s time, and restrictions on public funding. Some audience members voiced concerns about culture becoming dependent on unreliable private backers, but Rasmus Tscherning, Chairman of the European Creative Industries Alliance, pointed out that public funding is no longer necessarily better or safer than private. Public funding can also be restrictive, concentrating power in the hands of a very few and running the risk that only a limited range of cultural projects, unrepresentative of the needs of society, receive support.

Over 1200 cultural policy-makers, stakeholders, artists and cultural professionals attended the European Culture Forum, hosted by the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Photo: tiseb, Flickr

The panel’s discussions also showed how hard economic times can force the culture sector to diversify to survive. Veronique Bossaert, Administrator of the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra, spoke about the orchestra’s innovative commercial projects, such as recording the soundtrack of the film The Artist. Such projects could be construed as “selling out” but Benji Rogers, CEO of PledgeMusic, argued convincingly for the need to embrace fresh ideas rather than clinging onto old ones. Although a decline in CD sales could be interpreted as proof that people value music less than before, Rogers argues that this is not true. He believes people now want to access music differently, and to be part of the production process rather than just buying the end result. These wishes should be responded to, for the benefit of both artist and consumer.

The third and final session of the Forum looked at audience development, namely how to engage “non-audiences” (e.g. different generations and social groups) in culture. In his research, Andrew McIntyre, founder of audience focus consultancy group Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, identifies eight different audience types, ranging from the “committed” to the “hard-to-reach”. The problem, he argues, is that most organisations target audiences at either end of the spectrum, forgetting those in between. Although many Eurobarometer respondents cited lack of money or time as reasons for non-participation, McIntyre argues people can nearly always find the resources for activities they really care about. This suggests that the problem lies within the activities on offer. Yoel Gamzou, conductor of the International Mahler Orchestra, tackled this idea more explicitly, arguing that many artists (and policy-makers) have lost respect for their audiences. He contends that they harbour a secret belief that there is something fundamentally ‘wrong’ with the audience, and argued for the need for this to change. The problem, he argues, lies not within the audience’s judgement, but within the fact that artists are creating art for art’s sake, rather than striving to offer consumers something relevant.

In times of economic crisis, it was perhaps to be expected that much of the discussion at the Culture Forum revolved around the not inconsiderable contribution culture makes to society in terms of GDP. Culture should not, however, be appreciated only in terms of units sold, for its value goes far beyond this. The difficulty lies in how to measure its more intangible meaning for society, which is a very complex issue in an age of growing nationalism. There is a danger that culture, viewed by some as something static and intuitive, will become more exclusive. Cultural operators must work to ensure culture’s inclusivity and relevance, not only so that cultural participation does not further decrease, but to bring multicultural European society closer together. If this work is successful, the next Eurobarometer on cultural participation will hopefully paint a more positive picture.


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