What is the value of culture?

  • 11 March 2014
  • By David Verey
  • Chairman, The Art Fund

Art impacts on society and needs to be invested in. The Art Fund's Chairman, David Verey, underlines the importance of understanding its true worth.

Granary Square, King's Cross © Simon Rawles

Granary Square, King's Cross


© Simon Rawles

In February the Art Fund moved its headquarters from South Kensington, in close proximity to the museums of Exhibition Road, to Granary Square just north of King’s Cross station.

This move has been a long time coming, and our new next-door neighbour is Central St Martins (pictured), one of the world’s leading centres for art and design education. It also places us in close proximity to the British Library where, in January, Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, gave a keynote speech on the value of culture. While noting the impact of culture on the UK’s economy (the Arts Council recently announced that arts and culture account for over £850m of direct tourist spending each year) and its importance to our international standing, the minister reminded us of the more fundamental reason why art is important: because of the impact that it has on us as individuals. To use her quotation of Steve Jobs’s words, it ‘makes our hearts sing’.

The idea that art is valuable is something that underpins everything we do at the Art Fund. It is a fundamental belief that access for everyone to great art is something worth funding, and worth fighting for. A recent report by Fiammetta Rocco for The Economist showed that globally the number of museums has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, reaching 55,000 across the world. China in particular is building more and more to meet a growing demand from an increasingly educated and culturally hungry nation. Here at home, a record number – over half the population of UK adults – visited a museum in 2013.

But to ensure that the government, businesses and individuals continue to invest in the arts, we need hard statistics as well as warm words, which is why it is encouraging to see that so much work is taking place to bring together – in evidenced-based terms – a tangible understanding of the value of culture. What the Treasury needs to understand – and embrace – is that investing in culture is an important economic activity and part of the growth agenda of this country. Above all else, it makes economic sense to invest in museums.

From the Commission on the Future of Cultural Value at Warwick University to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s ongoing work with the Arts and Humanities Research Council on the holistic value of culture, and the Arts Council’s work with the Centre for Economic and Business Research on the economic value of art, there is much debate on how we can demonstrate the financial value of culture. We at the Art Fund are working hard to understand these complex models, from gross value-added calculations to life satisfaction equations: but it is also vital to remember that whatever the monetary value of culture, its real worth is something entirely unquantifiable.

A recent survey by Barclays of the very wealthy suggested that while there are 30 art investment funds in the world, only a minority of people would buy art purely in the hope of turning a profit. This view was echoed at a packed talk at the London Art Fair in January. But we are all too aware, as my fellow trustees and I decide which works of art we are able to help museums purchase, that the price of art is rocketing and that the art market is, in investment terms, in a healthy position.

The truth of the matter is that no activity is beyond the reach of value and we must ask again ‘what is the real and irreducible value of the arts in our lives?’ In an ideal world it would not be necessary to state the need for something so fundamental to an enjoyable, fulfilled life. But if the argument does need to be made – and funds produced – we stand ready to make the case.

This column appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Art Quarterly. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, please buy a National Art Pass.

Tags: what-we-do