The argument about funding culture rumbles on. Health, social care, education and defence all have pressing arguments for prioritising their needs. And in a world where public money must be saved, those needs are undeniable. So can we justify public funding for the arts: and if so, on what grounds?
We must go back to considering what the value of culture is: and indeed, how we define it.
Consumer behaviour is moving away from the material economy to the experience economy. London pulls in a staggering 48% of Britain’s overseas visitors, drawn by our famous built environment, galleries and theatres, and the possibility of meeting the Queen. Other places in the UK struggle to generate the same pull.
That’s why, when Spring had the opportunity to revolutionise Suffolk’s tourism marketing, we did it through the simple introduction of an interactive map. Sounds obvious? For decades we’d been learning that people didn’t know where the county was, let alone what there is to see here.
The tipping point came with standardised access to GPS on mobile devices, and the evolution of responsive websites – now 90% of people use a smartphone or tablet on holiday, and the thing most accessed is maps. And so, the time was right.
25,000 tourists have been created already by our #takemetosuffolk campaign and the county’s cultural and heritage offerings are a huge draw.
…and what Visit Britain tells its site visitors about:
One reason why culture as a draw to tourists matters so much is that many of the most attractive cultural events happen off season. The arts are not, on the whole, weather dependent in the same way that a beach might be. In fact, many arts institutions report a fall in attendance that directly correlates with tourism high season.
In addition, we know well that holidaymakers are attracted by events, and that the job of any salesperson, marketer or comms professional is to hook and wrap: draw people’s attention and then make the process as easy as possible. So cultural events act as that hook, and the wider offering – accessibility, accommodation, food and drink, retail, landscape – as the wrapping.
Now, there is a 65% difference between on and off season employment in places like Norfolk and Suffolk. That means that there is only the opportunity for that remaining 35% to be employed all year round – a problem in a region where tourism is the most prolific employer. What are those 65% to do for the rest of the year?
Talent retention is a major beneficiary from a lively cultural offering. Not only does culture create sustainable employment, it also helps to create a region in which people want to live. Without events, attractions and renown, talented youngsters often gear themselves up to leave for more rewarding places at the first opportunity. A place which values and supports culture also demonstrates that it values youth, talent, innovation and progress.
That’s the reason that culture is a great catalyst for inward investment, too. If you are a Korean energy magnate in need of a near-site manufacturing plant, do you locate it somewhere where recruitment will be easy and your own people will be happy, or somewhere with nothing obvious going for it? Cultural strength is a great reputation tool: whole economies are built on reputation.
I’d place culture into four broad columns, adding one to the established position set by Visit Britain in 2010: built heritage, arts heritage, contemporary culture and social culture. A compelling cultural offering will combine these four: if a place has a great castle ruin, was the home of a famous medieval poet and has a budding street art scene but has nowhere decent to sit and soak up the atmosphere over lunch, the offer lacks credibility.
Britain suffers from a still-poor food reputation, despite a complete evolution of the catering industry over the last thirty years. Our pubs – possibly the best place to get right under the skin of social culture – have been beaten black and blue by laws, taxation and lifestyle changes since the 80s and yet are emerging stronger, more relevant to modern life, and properly welcoming.
Britain has, in many ways, yet to find its real sense of self again, as our multi-culturalism shifts to embody new races, religions and behaviours. Our place in the world is not what it was, but not yet what it should be. So across the country, our social culture has a job to do to understand itself anew, and communicate that to the world.
And so to funding.
I am a firm believer that public funding should only step in where private funding cannot be found, and with very clear responsibilities attached. Public funding for the arts and culture must have clear economic and social targets; and the funding that supports economic growth also needs to have a clear succession plan built in to ensure that private funding takes over as impact is felt.
And so the job for public bodies funding culture is to really get to the bottom of the value of those impacts, set high targets, place responsibility on funded bodies to excel, forge alliances between all delivery partners, and keep an eagle eye on progress.
The job for everyone is to get the message out, and start to reap the rewards.