Why cultural infrastructure deserves public funding - RSA Comment - RSA

Why cultural infrastructure deserves public funding


  • Picture of Patrycja Kaszynska
    Patrycja Kaszynska
    Senior Research Fellow, University of the Arts London
  • Arts and culture
  • Economy

Culture should be seen as infrastructure that benefits not just those who directly experience an artistic endeavour, but society at large. This approach provides a strong argument for why cultural engagement requires public support.

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Our prosperity and, many would argue, our survival depend on an ability to reconfigure socio-economic systems so that they work better for more people, places and the planet. A need for this shift has been variously signalled through a proliferation of terms, such as the UN’s sustainable development, the OECD’s inclusive growth and the World Bank’s  wealth accounting.

These terms do not all mean the same. The collective name ‘Beyond GDP’ has been given to the approaches sharing the premise that, in order for the shift to happen, we need a different way of accounting for value that moves away from solely measuring the aggregation of financial profits. What matters is not just efficiency, but also equity; in other words, not just size but shape. 

The concept of cultural infrastructure helps us to think more about form, and not just about total size. This is because the idea of infrastructural provision draws attention to patterns of distribution. Such relational awareness is needed if we are to move Beyond GDP and towards more regenerative futures. Not just that, the idea of cultural infrastructure suggests how cultural engagement can support such a transition and identifies a clear rationale for why culture deserves public support.

We need a different way of accounting for value that moves away from solely measuring the aggregation of financial profits. What matters is not just efficiency, but also equity.

Thinking infrastructurally

Traditionally, infrastructures have been thought to be large-scale, heavy and made of steel, such as the rail infrastructure physically facilitating the transport of goods, services and people. This has, however, been superseded because of an increasing interest in more intangible types of infrastructures, including social infrastructure. In a recent elaboration by the Bennett Institute, social infrastructure stands for the spaces, places and facilities – both physical and virtual – that support the fabric of communities. Here an equal emphasis is placed on the physical and the virtual. 

While social infrastructure is still a resource with a tangible presence, US sociologist Eric Klinenberg makes clear in his book Palaces for the People that it is the intangible dimension of social fabric that matters. Moreover, law professor Brett Frischmann argues that infrastructure should not be defined in terms of a resource category but by the mode of value creation it affords. Infrastructure: the social value of shared resources gives three criteria for considering something to be infrastructure: being non-rivalrous in consumption (meaning it can be used by multiple people at once); derived social demand (being a necessary input to the production of other goods and services); and producing significant externalities or spillovers (effects on third parties who are not directly involved). 

Culture behaves in this way with a number of different implications. Crucial for the argument is that cultural infrastructure produces social externalities.  

Social externalities from cultural infrastructure can be invisible on the policy radar, even though their very existence is the key rationale for why culture deserves public support.

‘Enabling’ value of culture

Externalities in economics are consequences that affect other uninvolved parties without this being reflected in market prices (with the standard example being the pollination of surrounding crops by bees kept for honey). Externalities thus remain unpriced goods – which is aptly reflected in how philosophy defines externalities as those things existing outside the perceiving subject. Indeed, social externalities from cultural infrastructure can be invisible on the policy radar, even though their very existence is the key rationale for why culture deserves public support.  

Society as a whole, including so-called ‘non-users’, is affected when other people participate in culture (be it attending a festival or playing music, going to an exhibition or drawing). The value of participating in culture can have a private use element, as well as a public component, if those who participate start to think and behave differently and thus impacting other people. 

A different way to put this point is that cultural engagement – in addition to being an end in itself – makes other things possible; in the language of inclusive/comprehensive wealth it ‘enables’ other goods and services to ensue, and not just to the users but to society at large.

This way of thinking about the arts and culture – that they are also valuable because they are enabling other things – is well established in the humanities. From within philosophy, a number of contributors, historically and now, have suggested that artistic products provoke reflection and give a vantage point from which to formulate a vision of a good life, which, in turn, influences other choices

More recently, the idea of enabling has been evoked in the suggestion that an important source of value in cultural engagement rests in facilitating reflectiveness and criticality in individuals (for instance, looking back at one’s own attitudes and probing them from different perspectives) and supporting more civic, pro-social, caring outlooks at the collective level (be it through promoting volunteering or giving someone more appreciation of the diversity of human experience). These enabling effects of cultural engagement do not need to end there – they can translate into a myriad of social and economic outcomes.  

Cultural infrastructure should be publicly funded because it affects society at large through the social externality effects.

Infrastructure and cultural policy

The concept of cultural infrastructure matters for cultural policy for three key reasons. Firstly, it allows us to account for the value of culture in a more accurate – and less fragmented – way than is currently undertaken in cultural policy. Rather than just ticking the selective boxes of impacts or trying to put a price tag on individual cultural assets, thinking infrastructurally makes it possible to see the value that falls between the cracks of existing metrics in forcing us to see patterns and how everything is related.

Secondly, it focuses the mind on what matters about culture in cultural terms: namely that it supports collective ‘meaning-making’, including symbolic representation (such as how groups, communities and nations communicate their identity and values to themselves and others, including future generations). This is likely to lead to social, environmental and economic outcomes, but these are not what motivates people to make and experience the arts and culture in the first place. 

Thirdly, it provides a clear policy rationale for public support – cultural infrastructure should be publicly funded because it affects society at large through the social externality effects. If we take seriously the claim that people change because they are exposed to the arts and culture, the outcomes of participation are not just private (and benefiting those who are often most privileged) but will have effects on other people, not just those in near proximity but also more remote groups. To reiterate, the effects of cultural participation are re-distributed and transmitted to those that do not directly participate. 

At this point, some would rightly urge that the claims in this article would benefit from more empirical demonstration. Indeed, it has been disputed whether culture is good for society at large. While it is true that the ‘transmission pathways’ suggested here – whereby individual attitudes translate into social effects – would merit more attention, this will be much easier put to the test if cultural policy takes an infrastructural turn, thereby creating quasi-natural experiment conditions for observing the outcomes. In the light of the considerations offered here, supporting and investing in cultural infrastructure seems a good bet.  

Patrycja Kaszynska is Senior Research Fellow at the University of the Arts London.

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