The arts contribute billions to our GDP - so why aren't we investing?

The UK's cultural industries contribute billions to our GDP and the Coalition should make sure they get the investment they need, says Baroness Kingsmill.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 03 Oct 2013

Art can change our perspective on life, the world and even business. It can encapsulate universal human instincts and feelings. Giotto's 14th-century painting depicting Christ expelling the money-changers from the temple shows us how bankers have been regarded through the centuries.

This is a favourite subject that has been revisited and reinterpreted by many great painters, such as El Greco, whose wonderful representation hangs in the National Gallery, and its artistic and political resonance has culminated, perhaps, in the recent Occupy movement on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral.

Art and culture can help to reframe our response to events and teach us important lessons. Henry V's call to action at Agincourt is said to have provided a template for George Bush's 'Axis of Evil' speech after 9/11, but it could also be seen as a model for any corporate leader trying to rally colleagues to give their all for the sake of the company.

The Tempest has been described as a case study for post-merger cultural change, while Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' musings could be instructive in crisis management or perhaps illustrative of the perils of too early promotion.

Few leaders in Shakespeare survive with their reputations intact, however glorious their moment in the sun, whether stabbed in the back by colleagues, as in Julius Caesar, destroyed by their own 'vaulting ambition, which o'leaps itself', as illustrated in Macbeth, or driven mad by poor succession planning, as in King Lear.

I will leave you, dear reader, to decide which modern chief executive fits which example but it is possible that, had they read their Shakespeare a little more carefully, their fates may have been different.

The arts and culture enhance our lives, stimulate our imagination and have the power to inspire and challenge us. They should be cherished and protected for this alone.

Great literature, painting and poetry are intrinsically valuable, but in these materialistic times their economic contribution must also be calculated.

The hard facts are set out in a report by the CEBR for the Arts Council, published earlier this year. The sector has an annual turnover of £12.8bn and directly makes up 0.4% of the UK's GDP.

Its role in supporting the commercial creative industries, however, ratchets this up to nearly 10% of GDP and 11% of UK service exports. Overall, it also has a relatively high Gross Value Added (GVA) multiplier effect, so that it generates more per pound invested than the health, wholesale and retail, and professional and business service sectors.

The arts and culture also make a significant additional contribution to tourism revenues, whether through visits to stately homes and national monuments, to theatres, museums and art galleries, or through spending in the attached gift shops, cafes and restaurants.

Some have argued that this economic success means that the arts and culture do not need significant public investment. Under the Coalition government, the Arts Council suffered a 30% cut in its budget in 2010 with a further 8% this year.

There are persistent rumours that the DCMS will be abolished altogether and its responsibilities scattered around other Whitehall departments. The suggestion has been made that arts institutions should adopt the US model of fundraising from private benefactors.

However, research has shown that private donations have decreased as a result of the prolonged economic downturn, particularly outside London, and with greater impact on smaller local organisations. Austerity bites the hand of philanthropists too.

Public funding is essential to encouraging creative innovation, which is intrinsically risky and entrepreneurial.

It is unlikely private investors would have been attracted to the puppetry show at the Battersea Arts Centre that inspired the National Theatre production War Horse, which went on to become a huge artistic and commercial success, both at home and abroad. Commercial success is a happy by-product of arts funding but should not be the criterion upon which it is based.

The CEBR report also highlights the role of investment in arts and culture as a catalyst for economic regeneration. When Liverpool became the European Capital of Culture, it had a significant economic impact on a city that had suffered a decline in its traditional industries, increasing the number of thriving creative businesses by 8%.

The Tate at St Ives, the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate and the Newcastle-Gateshead cultural development project have had a similar impact. Interestingly, average house prices tend to increase near arts and cultural venues, perhaps because the sector pays nearly 5% more than the UK median salary, so making a positive contribution to average household earnings.

The arts and culture sector is a source of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurialism that provides the foundation stone of the knowledge economy upon which we pin so many of our hopes for economic revival.

This is an impressive and vibrant sector whose contribution to our economy, our national wellbeing and productivity, and our international standing deserves to be widely recognised and generously supported in government policy and funding.

But, to irreverently adapt a line from The Merchant of Venice: 'Politics is blind and politicians cannot see the petty follies that themselves commit.'

Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of British, European and US boards.

Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on

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