The value of culture lies in its capacity to enrich lives

By Martin Vogel

The National Gallery drew large crowds during the Second World War for recitals by Myra Hess
The National Gallery drew large crowds during the Second World War for recitals by Myra Hess

Organisations of all kinds face a new challenge: to demonstrate that they create value for society and not just for themselves.

A reckoning has been a long time coming after the financial collapse of 2008. But it’s arrival is unmistakable – not just in the mood music of the party leaders as they compete to compose the best tune on moral capitalism. It’s evident in the furore around the aborted bonus of the RBS chief executive, Stephen Hester, the broadly sympathetic hearing given to the Occupy protestors at St. Paul’s, and the public revulsion over the phone hacking scandal which brought about the Leveson Inquiry into the role of the press.

The broader context is the maturing of social media which has enabled the public to put pressure on leaders in unpredictable ways. This was a key factor in the phone hacking affair, in which a campaign on Facebook and Twitter brought down the News of the World in a matter of days.

Arts organisations may consider these remote developments. But this would be to underestimate what are in fact seismic shifts in the relationship between the public and organisations. With no immediate end in sight to austerity, arts companies – as recipients of public and charitable money – can expect intensified scrutiny of their value. But there’s also an opportunity in that the arts’ contribution to the quality of life can compensate for declining standards of living.

People working in the arts could be forgiven for having an allergic reaction to talk of social value. During the last decade, arts companies were made to jump through hoops to justify their existence in terms other than their artistic purpose – for example, their impact on regenerating depressed areas or the arts’ stimulus to the UK economy. The new social value agenda – exemplified by the likes of Michael Porter at Harvard Business School and David Jones, an advertising executive and former adviser to David Cameron – provides a way to align the artistic and business aims more authentically. It emphasises not the spin-off effects of an organisation’s activities but the contribution to society made by its core purpose.

All organisations, if you think about it, are founded to deliver value to society beyond providing profits for shareholders or a living for those who work in them. The purpose of the arts is intrinsically social; they exist to reach audiences.

But to what end? This question begs an assertive answer – the value of culture lies in its capacity to enrich lives, challenge preconceptions, engage the imagination and simply delight. In hard times, these qualities are prized and hard to come by and this is why people gravitate to the arts. Think of the role played by the National Gallery during the Second World War – when Myra Hess gave piano recitals to lift the spirits of Londoners and (with the collection evacuated to Wales) people queued to see the single picture that the Gallery was able to display each month.

Social value, then, is about more than the language arts organisations use to account for themselves. It encourages programming in ways which create more impact on people’s lives – perhaps by reaching more people, perhaps by surprising existing audiences into deeper engagement with the arts. Here’s an example. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has recently been taking classical music into pubs. This might have been conceived as an attempt to reach new audiences but I suspect the actual outcome has been to enable devotees to experience music afresh.

For arts marketers, the questions raised by social value thinking concern how well they understand the communities they serve. What sense of purpose informs the organisation and how well does it align with what audiences’ need?

People in the arts tend to have a strong sense of vocation and to take as self-evident that the arts are a good thing. But they are curiously embarrassed to articulate the benefits the arts create. It can be invigorating for arts professionals to inquire into that deeper sense of purpose and to communicate it to audiences and funders alike. Sometimes, the inquiry can uncover a gap between intention and practice – the organisation isn’t doing what it says it’s doing. That realisation can spark a renewal which can lead to increased attendances and more revenue. That’s to express the outcome from the organisation’s point of view. In social value terms, what that means is challenging and delighting more people through engaging them in arts.

Originally published on the AMA blog.