The Hidden Value of the Arts in Levelling Up

UCL Slade School of Fine Art
\ Education \ Sustainability

Sarah Munro (Director, Baltic, Chair-CVAN), Jo Townshend (Principal Partnerships Manager (Creative Industries); Chair – CVAN London, UCL Innovation & Enterprise) Kieren Reed (Director, Slade School of Fine Art, UCL) and Audrey Tan (UCL Public Policy) reflect on the value of arts and culture and explore how we can leverage the opportunities within the creative industries to advance thinking on creative careers, place-based interventions and employment.

The recent UCL AI for People & Planet: Art Futures policy roundtable clearly highlighted the value and role of the arts in sewing together our cultural structure, expanding visions for technological capability and enhancing the relevancy of work in other industries. Its importance to the economy and employability is recognised through government sector deals and industrial strategies. However, pandemic implications have exposed the vulnerability of the freelance economy and societal inequalities. The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to lead to a £77bn (30%) fall in turnover across the creative industries and cause the loss of 409,000 jobs — with freelance roles accounting for the majority of this total.

The creative sector has seen consistent growth over the years; in 2018, the creative industries contributed £111.7bn — the equivalent of £13m every hour — to the UK economy, with growth in the sector more than five times larger than growth across the economy as a whole.

Additionally, this sector makes significant contributions to the workforce by supporting one in every 16 jobs. This success has been built upon the UK’s world leading arts education and its entrepreneurial graduates; over 64% of employees in the creative sector have a degree, evidencing the value of the universities and schools of art. The quality and impact of UK creative education attracts thousands of overseas students every year, with Nesta’s Policy and Evidence Centre reporting that ‘international creative students can have important implications for the UK’s Industrial Strategy and the “levelling-up” agenda pursued by the present UK Government’.

An arts education develops high-level creative skills, along with complex problem solving and critical thinking — areas that the World Economic Forum has identified as the top three skills for future work. Arts methodologies enable individuals to innovate through transferring skills across productivity, systems and processes, which in turn, support market development and entrepreneurial practice. For example, students at the Slade develop skills in illustration, design and video game development that lend themselves to host of different jobs. Createch, the emerging genre at the intersection of technology, arts and creativity, is another prime example of how creative arts and technologies can shape each other and inform new thinking for experiences, products and services.

Newcastle’s Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art carries out a large education program, working with families in the local area and also partnering with Northumbria University. The pandemic has required the gallery to rethink how it delivers its programming, and in so doing, has offered an opportunity for it to reflect on the wider objectives of this. Many of the communities in North East England that want to engage in creative education are quite socially and economically disadvantaged. Existing inequities and those exacerbated by the pandemic have highlighted the need for spaces and art communities to be accessible for people from different socio-economic backgrounds to foster a vibrant and diverse arts sector.

Data Visualisation
The value of place-making for employment

It is absolutely vital for the future of our society to be able to teach and learn from our cultural capital. If we do not value the arts within the school system, working class families will not think that there is value for their child to pursue a career in this area and only serve to further perceptions of classicism and elitism within the sector, taking away the diversity of thought that is so needed. Prioritising STEM disciplines and measuring a university arts degree based on its fiscal value to the economy only months after a person graduates is reductive and short-sighted. In order to achieve the innovation and advancements the country desires, you first need to invest in students coming from the creative education sector who are at the forefront of what is valued further down the line.

The lack of creative jobs outside London is another major challenge for people in the creative industries; we need a more equitable distribution of jobs and opportunities. While we have seen hotspots of talent popping up around the, research is needed to drill down into what it is that has led to this surge of talent. Has Arts Council England invested in local art galleries and education? Has the local authority placed an emphasis on arts policy? Is an individual teacher or practitioner fostering talent within a school?

We do have some exciting examples of towns and cities that are reinventing and positioning themselves as centres for creativity. The Folkestone Triennial began in 2008 and is the largest exhibition of newly commissioned artworks n the UK. Every three years, artists are invited to use the town as their gallery to utilise public space to create new art. This immersive, interactive and inclusive initiative shows how the arts can centre a community. We need to think about how we can open up more spaces and opportunities for growth. Creating ecosystems that foster collaborations across industries will not only foster new ways of thinking, but will also create employment opportunities for local communities.

The Living Archive, a collaborative experiment between Studio Wayne McGregor (SWM) and Google Arts and Culture, is a tool that has used thousands of pieces of archived dance footage to create a machine learning technology enabling anyone, anywhere to create choreography inspired by SWM. The combination of creative and technological expertise working to create a cross-disciplinary project serves as an example for similar collaborations, with the tool offering a valuable case study of how partnerships can be built between a large private corporation and the arts sector.

Emerging technologies, and especially ‘disruptive’ technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), or virtual reality can become part of the fine art practice. We recognise the jobs that arts graduates will be employed in in the next five to 10 years do not yet even exist. Investing in our emerging and young artists now means investing in their futures, as well as the economy.

Despite the value of the creative industry, the freelance economy has also been one of those worst affected by COVID-19 restrictions. Whilst an artist’s ambition is to sculpt, paint, perform, create — they also want to have the security and stability that comes with regular employment. Although some tech giants have artist-in-residency programmes, such as Adobe and Facebook, such opportunities are limited in number.

Levelling up action must ensure that all families have access to the arts — arts organisations, arts education and arts employment. State education should broaden the curriculum and place equal value on all subjects and careers options. Policy must acknowledge the value of arts and humanities training and level up access to these courses for all, introducing bursaries or reduced student fees.

Expanding models of culture-led enterprise zones (e.g. Creative Estuary: Cultural Development Fund) and research-led innovation (e.g. Arts and Humanities Research Council Creative Clusters) are recommended to support the levelling up of opportunities for employment in and for the creative industries across the regions. Within these place-based initiatives, funding for Research and Development (R&D) and interdisciplinary PhDs would optimise arts and technology innovation, support growth in the economy and UK leadership in CreaTech.

We need to ensure that the people who are contributing so much value to the economy can themselves earn an income. Organisations and institutions need to devise new terms and conditions around developing artist practices and employing artists. Businesses might even consider employing artists in residence. More transparent and accessible routes are needed to enable artists to access information and courses about how to build links with the tech industry and other sectors. New policies for secure terms and conditions of self-employment are required to level up creative careers as a secure option for all. Research into the value of arts methodologies with industry would create the case for further investment and employment opportunities.

The world is facing a series of unprecedented global challenges and we need creativity, imagination, innovation and problem solving to overcome these. The hidden value of the arts is in the way artists can engage with society to rethink our economy and contribute to complex issues of public health, design and sustainability. The UK is home to world-class arts, arts education, creative and cultural industries; to sustain this position and level up opportunities, creative and ambitious policy interventions are required to ensure a fair and equitable future.


Image credit: Kara Chin, UCL Slade School of Fine Art
Image credit: Kara Chin, UCL Slade School of Fine Art