Why Art Works

The Long Read

I’m visiting England this summer – to reunite with old friends, deliver a workshop on audience development during the Manchester Jazz Festival and undertake a research project for Jazz North – and to stay in the loop, I’ve been following as closely as it is possible from abroad the discussions around arts funding and the What Next? movement.

In a difficult economic climate and under a Conservative government, making the case for public funding of the arts is high on the agenda for artists and arts organisations, but also for audiences, as presented by this compelling video produced by Arts Council England.

In their advocacy toolkitArts Council England estimated the cost of culture at 14p per week per person – that’s CAN $0.22 or €0.16. However, there’s a place where (research has shown that) culture is even better value: north of the North West region of England, in the counties of Lancashire and Cumbria, culture costs just 3p per person per week.

Why Art Works in figures Creative Concern

This attention-grabbing infographics displays the key findings of Why Art Works, a 2011 strategic research project conducted by Manchester-based ethical communications agency Creative Concern and Cumbria-based consultancy Rebanks Consulting. This project was commissioned by North by NorthWest, “a network of (12) publicly funded visual arts organisations who have come together to support, promote and develop the contemporary visual arts in Lancashire and Cumbria”, two predominantly rural counties in the North West region of England. This network is itself part of the national Contemporary Visual Arts Network.

Here is a summary of the report taken from the Harris Museum website:

Why Art Works
Published in 2011, Why Art Works is the summary of an evaluation study commissioned by North by NorthWest, a consortium of 12 publicly funded visual arts organisations who have come together to support, promote and develop the contemporary visual arts in Lancashire and Cumbria.

The report 
The report makes a compelling case for supporting and exploiting the impact of the contemporary visual arts in Lancashire and Cumbria.

This case is illustrated by the Why Art Works benefits model, which identifies 10 key benefits categorised into three thematic areas:

1. Creating better communities to live in
2. Changing the way places look
3. Changing perceptions of places

Economic Value
4. Attracting and retaining talent, trade and investment
5. Attracting higher value tourists
6. Stimulating a creative economy

Engaging and connecting communities
7. Connecting communities to the world (and vice versa)
8. Engaging communities with other agendas
9. Changing the way people think, see and act
10. Creating art for its own intrinsic worth

Here is an illustration of the benefit model (click to enlarge):

Why Art Works benefit model Creative Concern

The report concludes with 10 case studies illustrating these benefits with recent projects involving member organisations. They’re all fascinating, and I have just picked a handful here, which happen to be the first three benefits, but also projects that I am familiar with.

  • Benefit #1: Creating better communities to live in

According to the Visit Cumbria website, Barrow-in-Furness is “a large industrial town which grew from a tiny 19th Century hamlet to the biggest iron and steel centre in the world, and a major ship-building force, in just 40 years”; elsewhere, it is described as “a tired and worn coastal town on the Cumbrian coastline”; elsewhere still, as “the capital of blue-collar capital Britain”.

Barrow-based collective Art Gene undertook a series of projects in 2010-2011 under the heading Barrow by Design, engaging international artists, architects and designers with local partners and residents to lead a regeneration effort from within – capturing the very essence of the place and creating a legacy for the years to come.  “Barrow by Design is a portfolio of live projects trialling new approaches through an international residency programme and project work with associate artists, and architects linked to education programmes for professionals and communities.” Amongst these projects, the Shop Front Design Scheme consisted of personalised consultations and small grants for local shopkeepers (around £2,000) to refresh their facades, a deceptively simple way to make a big impact when applied on a large scale. About 30 small business owners requested a consultation, and the results can been seen on Art Gene website.

  • Benefit #2: Changing the way places look

Panopticons by Mid Pennine Arts, a series of four “21st century landmarks” erected from 2003 to 2008: Colourfield, Singing Ringing Tree, Atom and Halo, designed to enhance natural vistas and “intended to become symbols of the renaissance of the area – stimulating pride of place; creating new tourism offers; encouraging inward investment; and positively affecting quality of life”. The wonderful-looking Panopticons, which have been photographed many, many times, have become a visual symbol for the sub-region, and the project has its own very pretty evaluation report stating that “22,700 local people, 47 schools, 366 teachers, 46 community groups and 100 volunteers have been involved in the project. Over 100 businesses have been supported, 139 artists have been employed, 208 construction jobs have been created and over 175,000 people have visited the new landmarks.”

  • Benefit #3: Changing perceptions of places

Since 1977, Grizedale Sculpture has been working with local and international artists to create “the largest collection of site-specific art in the environment in the the UK” in Grizedale forest. “The artists lived in caravans and worked for months in the woods with the foresters. (…) Today there are more than 60 sculptures in the forest spread over 2447 hectares. The programme is now being reinvigorated through a major new initiative called ‘Art Roots Grizedale, and a series of ambitious new commissions are being developed.” 250,000 people visit Grizedale each year, and a third (83,000 people) experience or participate in the art. It has also inspired many similar site-specific projects across the world, as well as, close to home, Forest Art Works, “a new partnership between Arts Council England and Forestry Commission England to support achieving great art for everyone in England’s public forests.”


The report conclusion is powerfully illustrative, steeping contemporary art in tradition and appealing to collective and long-term thinking:

(…) Somehow, in recent decades, ideas about the public purse and public benefit have become confused and restrictive, as if all that matters in the modern world are potholes, dustbin collection, gritting the roads and hospital cleanliness. Arts and culture were valued in the mid 19th Century, as evidenced by the  building of museums and art galleries such as the Harris Museum & Art Gallery in Preston. But it was more than constructing grand buildings in a neoclassical style. The decision makers of the time believed in the arts and put their money (or rather their community’s money) behind their idea. (…)

Communities like Preston historically saw their art galleries as an important public good, part of what made them progressive, forward looking and civilised communities. It was an enlightened, ambitious and progressive vision of the North, and one we can learn a great deal from.

Without this faith and the willingness to act, we risk being judged as the blinkered generation who simply could not see beyond narrow accountancy metrics. Much of the space in this report has been taken up in evidencing that art works, but there is a deeper point that is more important, art really matters, it makes us who we are.