Investing in Arts and Culture: A Public Conversation on Value and Where We Place It

The panel was held on the 23rd of May at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter. The speakers included experts in Business and Theatre from Exeter University (Beverly Hawkins and Jane Milling respectively), the director of South West Arts Council of England (Clare Titley), the Chairman of the HQ theatres Trust (Stephen Herthington), and the executive director of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre centre, based in Connecticut USA, (Preston Whiteway).

The issue of the panel was the role of investment, both monetary and otherwise, in arts and culture. It is a particularly pertinent issue given current political developments and the cutbacks in available government funding in the UK. Indeed with many cultural institutions receiving increasingly limited public funding, the question of what culture we invest in, and the ways in which we invest need to be reconsidered. Perhaps a case that encapsulates the difficult relationship between art and investors is the 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of ‘Julius Caesar’, which caused controversy over its depiction of a Trump-like Julius Caesar being assassinated. The controversy caused key private investor Bank of America to pull funding. Whether the controversy was ultimately justified or not, it raises the question of to what degree investors, whether public or private, are inherently enabling – in being able to fund so many crucial public projects – or inherently limiting – due to external parties having a vested interest in certain modes of artistic and cultural expression. Once the relationship between culture and investors is considered what becomes clear, and indeed what was explored in depth in the panel, was the larger question of which culture is given value and investment in wider society.

Money is central to the cultural industry though profit is rarely the motivator. Instead, monetary investment is used to insure other forms of cultural investment; money is the enabler to achieve other ends, not an end in and of itself. Economic investment when done right provides time, exposure, and education. Moreover, it creates spaces that allow for experimentation and even failure, a very anti-capitalist idea that goes against traditional motivations of economic investment. The benefits of creating these spaces is exemplified by the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, which provides a theatrical launch pad and school for experimental American theatre, supporting developing playwrights that may be ignored by mainstream American theatre. This education and experimentation is an investment for future artists. For example, Lin Manuel Miranda wrote his first professional musical In the Heights for the theatre in 2005, which provided a launch pad for its run on Broadway in 2008, and of course his now global success with Hamilton. The O’Neill theatre therefore has a lot of prestige, allowing it to attract much-needed private investors, since the organisation only receives $55,000 annually from the US government.

But the question of achieving time, exposure, and education for smaller or ‘lesser’ cultural institutions is difficult, as it is hard to attract larger investors. This is often local culture; community theatre, free art exhibitions, or craft fairs. But, it is no less important; in fact for many it is often their day-to-day touchstone with culture. In these cases local level cultural often exists below economic investment, utilising free exposure on social media, local networks of expertise, and unpaid volunteers.

Of course while listening to the panel I couldn’t help but reflect on where university societies fit into networks of cultural investment. It is interesting to see societies as the intersection between economic investment from the public, and more local, non-economic forms of investment, such as free expertise and time. Furthermore, university provides space for networking and experimentation, investing in experience to help develop future artists and cultural workers.

This panel was a truly interesting experience. Hearing such knowledgeable speakers talk openly about their opinions and debate demonstrated the complex relationship between cultural spaces of experimentation, which are themselves an investment for the future, and economic investment, which is fundamental to creating those spaces. The panel demonstrated the importance of interdisciplinary networking, particularly between the humanities and business schools, since one fundamentally allows for the management and continuation of the other. It demonstrated how enabling culture investment can be when done right but also how controlling and bureaucratic it can be when done wrong.


Molly Thatcher 


Featured image source.

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