Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Public spending on the arts

It started with a tweet

That's an interesting historic observation. It makes no claim as such, but points towards an inference. I presume(d) the $1k benchmark refers to public (taxpayer) money and responded by mentioning the obvious economic difference between the historic averages and any predictions about the impact of future funding reshuffles.
That's pretty cryptic so let me explain. Can we please start off by assuming that the reason we spend taxpayer funds on the arts is to generate benefits for appreciators of the arts? Maybe there's another reason, in which case I'd like to hear it.

Proceeding... One measure of the amount of benefit generated is spectator numbers. This is imperfect of course, because spectators incur costs in getting to artistic performances, whether by physically relocating to a performance venue & buying a ticket, or paying to download a track. Still, spectators is not a bad indicator.

But since we're comparing live classical music, ballet and kapa haka we really should note that the ticket prices are likely to be substantial for the first two and minimal for kapa haka. High ticket prices will curb demand, which probably accounts for much of the difference in spectator numbers per $ of public funding.

Ticket prices are also a great indicator of private willingness to pay. Ticket prices are way higher for orchestras & ballet than for kapa haka, which tells us that there is a more reliable business model for the arts favoured by rich people, which diminishes their case for public funding.

Yes, spectator numbers are choked off by the high ticket prices, but why does that mean taxpayers should pay more?

Public funds should be allocated to places where there are big spillover benefits. To my eye, that looks way more likely for kapa haka than for classical music and ballet. And may I just add that when I pay good money to attend all night outdoor parties featuring outrageously loud jungle music, it never occurs to me that there should be any taxpayer subsidy.


  1. I also found the $/spectator data interesting, John, but wondered about whether it would be a wholly reliable guide to policy on arts funding, if that's the implicit message: spectators may not be a bad indicator, but they're not a great one, either.
    It looks, for example, at face value as if some artsgoers (at the NZSO) are being treated more liberally than others (at kapa haka), and the unspoken implication would be that the unevenness should be ironed out. But I'm not sure you can necessarily go that route. It's normal for a government with a portfolio in a sector to simultaneously run projects with different degrees of payoff: at any given time there are roading projects with huge payoffs because of low construction costs and high traffic levels or whatever and projects with lower ones, with the total spend governed by some payoff cutoff level or the budget available or both. In the arts (I'd guess) there's also some considered tiering process, and you'll also have some projects with big payoffs coexisting with some with lower, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a strong argument for changing the result that's come out. You've funded the kapa haka, and it paid off big, fine. You've funded lower priority/payoff things, and that's fine too.
    The other issue I wonder about when applying the $/spectator metric is, its logic takes you to a funny place (and indeed I'd say TV1/2 have actually travelled there). Why not take the pot of $ and use it for 'reality' shows, where the $/viewer payoff might be immense? At which point you start to go back to the big rationales for why govt is involved in activities in the first place, and I start thinking along Reithian lines about a public duty to "inform, entertain, educate" (and since life has moved on since his day, and the inform and entertain sots have mostly been filled in, that leaves you with 'educate' and the harder-to-do entertainment).
    You also wonder if things with high $/spectator payoffs are almost by definition the poorer candidates for public funding.
    There's part of me that says the public arts funding should be mostly or wholly aimed at worthwhile things that the market won't or can't supply (I totally agree with your final point about many activities not requiring any taxpayer subsidy), and I'd also throw in some equitable access angles too (if they're not already implicit in the "market won't" point). We don't want people dying because they can't afford care, and while it's less dramatic, we don't want live Mozart to be accessible in Remuera but not in Mangere. That also rather leads you to directing your efforts to the more expensive, lower $/spectator end than to the more popular, more affordable end.
    Put me right if I've lost the logical thread on any of this!
    BTW I've got the Concert Programme going in the office as I write: I don't know what its $/listener ratio is, but I do know NZ would be a worse place if it went off the air.

  2. That should have been "the inform and entertain SLOTS"!

  3. Read something recently to the effect that the concert programme cost 5 million per annum to run and plays mostly German classical music. All classical music has expired copyright and is available for free on playlists everywhere. So why would we be the poorer without it? Makes you wonder if another arts project could better use the money.

  4. good thoughts Donal & Jennifer.

    I wonder if we should distinguish between broadcasting and live performance here? Certainly it'd seem unfair to compare audience levels between those 2 groups, and you've both cited very low cost broadcast models (reality tv & expired copyright music).

    I agree that $/listener is an imperfect measure, but the real difficulties are in separating out the private and public benefits, preferrably without our own artistic preferences getting in the way.

  5. I found these issues quite hard to get my head around (though that may say more about my head than about the issues) and maybe the answer is in your last point: I suspect there is no values-free way of separating out the private and public benefits.
    Sure, could distinguish between broadcasting and live, but an arts funder with a portfolio will still have to figure out some metric for allocating between them (1000 listeners = 1 live attendee?)
    And Jennifer - well done on the Camino, BTW, one of my own plans is to do the pilgrims' way to Canterbury - I'll assume the "mostly German classic music" is a gentle wind-up (Vaughan Williams is playing as I write, with Gershwin, Chopin and Sullivan to follow, and the first Franz doesn't appear till 3.00pm). But the $5mn point is I think off the mark: that may be the cost, but even so classical radio is actually one of the most economic forms of public radio to produce