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The Balance Sheet

April 25th , 2013

I recently became rather irritated by accountancy. It all kicked off when Maria Miller, the government culture person talked about how the arts should demonstrate its value. By which she means how much money it makes.

Naturally this upset a lot of people. It annoyed me too. The real value of art and culture cannot be measured in money. It's essential. If you think otherwise then you've pretty much missed the point of civilisation. Like the government I suppose.

But actually, it's pretty easy to demonstrate some monetary value from arts funding. If not comprehensively then at least it's possible to demonstrate enough "profit" to zip the lips of the detractors. After all, look at all those tourists coming to see Big Theatre. Add all that up. Add up the blockbuster exhibitions and the tourist spend. Add up all the music and films and books.

Basically there's loads of it. But will it be counted? After all, how long did it take Danny Boyle to go from his theatre days to putting out major films like Slumdog Millionaire (which alone grossed the equivalent of the Arts Council's annual budget)? YEARS. If you're an accountant you won't be relating those two figures.

And if you're looking at what you're spending on theatre and exhibitions now, the promise of millions from its by-products a couple of decades down the line isn't going to cut it. But that's how it works. Cutting edge art is cutting edge R&D. And then some. It builds people, ideas, communities. It creates the conditions for creativity, ideas, innovations, making things and generally everything that people in government like to talk about without having the faintest idea what they mean.

So, the chances are that people in the arts will struggle to demonstrate their economic value. Not because it doesn't exist, but because it doesn't work on a yearly cycle, like a business. But pretty much nothing in the economy works on a yearly cycle, like a business. Because the economy is not a business. The problem with money as a token of value is not money itself, but time.

We're obsessed with short term money. The investors on Dragon's Den want to see a return yesterday. Alan Sugar wants to see some profit in a couple of days. People want to go from never having sung in public to having a million-pound record deal.

And in these circumstances, the only things that come out on top are the most basic forms of trade: buying and selling, overnight success. The reason we love banking so much is because it generates instant profit from air. What could possibly beat that?

So it's not just arts people that need to worry. Because this is what defines everything. We invest in business people to develop their businesses because it's quicker. We support entrepreneurs because we'll turn a faster profit. It's like healthcare: all cure and no prevention.

The real opportunities for the economy are somewhere else altogether. They're in schools and communities. They're in families. They're unemployed people and children. They're people who have never even considered running a business. They're the massive, untapped capacity in people that have never even been to a networking event.

But investing in all those opportunities to build a world-beating economy isn't going to pay off any time soon. You'd just be investing in people because you thought that people were worth investing in. And who's going to do that?