South African Cultural Observatory

Interview with SACO Chief Research Strategist Jeanette Snowball

BY 31.01.18

“One of the functions of art is to open up debates in society”

READ an interview with SACO Chief Research Strategist Jeanette Snowball in a monograph on cultural participation and wellbeing by the Social Observatory of la Caixa. Prof Snowball talks about how “one of the functions of art is to open up debates in society”.

Jen Snowball is also a researcher at the National Cultural Observatory in South Africa. Her research interests are focused on the fields of cultural economics (or the economics of arts and culture), as well as environmental and natural resource economics, local economic development and tourism economics.

How do you define the concept of value created by the arts and cultural sector?

I think cultural value stretches across all spheres of society, so there’s no short answer to this question. It would include economic or financial factors, it would include social factors and it would include very personal kinds of value. All of these should be included when one talks about cultural value.

How can the impact of artistic expressions be measured?

Culture can contribute two types of values: extrinsic and intrinsic. As I understand it, extrinsic values are more objective and, therefore, easier to measure. These can be things like the economic impact of a concert or a festival where you can use market prices to measure the impact on the economy of that particular event. Intrinsic values are much more personal. These are the feelings that you get from going to a concert or seeing some wonderful art or listening to music. It’s that feeling of delight or happiness. Or sometimes the function of culture is to make you feel uncomfortable, so you feel worried or you feel that your ideas about the world have been changed or questioned in some way. I think the extrinsic ones are easier to measure and that’s why economists tend to focus on those. As for the intrinsic ones, it’s very difficult to find some kind of way of aggregating them to express them as a general feeling because I think they are quite different for everyone.

Should public institutions lead investment in arts and culture?

I think this is very different according to the circumstances of each country. So, for South Africa, where I come from, public funding does lead the way, especially in fields where there are lots of spillovers of the type that are for the good of the general public. Things like heritage, museums, libraries and so on. The private sector leads the way where there are more specialist interests involved, for example, a jazz festival. Then you will often find there is a bank or another kind of private company that’s funding that. I think that’s a good mix, because if you only have public funding then only certain kinds of activities get funded. They are always in line with what the government thinks should be provided for the country. Private funding gives an opportunity for other voices to be heard. The private sector may fund some things that the government sector would never go near. It may just be something for particular parts of the population. But it may also be something that’s quite risky or innovative or that may cause offence. I think that’s also a function of art, to spark debate in society, and I think that’s where the private sector really comes in.

What does the concept “culturally sustainable development” mean?

I think sustainable development by itself is quite difficult to define and culturally sustainable development is an even more difficult concept, but I think that the two have to be connected. So, sustainable development goals have to take into account the cultural context in which this is all happening. You can have something which is economically sustainable, but not culturally sustainable. You might have something that is best practice in the market, but which is totally rejected because of the culture of the people. In a multicultural society, like the one I come from, there are really different ideas about what is valuable and what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in terms of how you make your living, how you develop, what is important in life, the kinds of relationships you have with your children, your parents, your grandparents and all those kinds of things. The danger from a developing-country perspective is that we take sustainable development models from the developed countries. So we say, “Here’s a nice model,” we put it in place right here in South Africa and it should work perfectly because it worked so well in Spain or the UK or Canada or wherever. Then, of course, it doesn’t work. I think quite often that’s because they haven’t taken into account the cultural context. For me, culturally sustainable development means taking into account the value systems and the culture of the economy or the society where these things are being put in play.

How does culturally sustainable development contribute to social wellbeing?

Wellbeing is much more than just having enough food or healthcare or access to education. It is a much broader kind of concept. It has to take into account individual or personal feelings. Of course, if you think of the hierarchy of needs, people who don’t have access to good water or healthcare or food wouldn’t be thinking about other things very much but as soon as you get past that, then suddenly cultural development becomes really important. You know, how you are feeling depends on your ideas about freedom and about selfexpression, and your identity. These are important at every layer of society when you get just past your basic needs being satisfied. For me, wellbeing is just automatically connected with culture, because the way that somebody from South Africa defines wellbeing (even within different groups in South Africa) might be totally different from how someone in Europe or the U.S. or Australia defines wellbeing. So what’s important is really quite separate. That’s why you also need to take into account the cultural context.

How can cultural institutions contribute to sustainable development?

Cultural industries as a sector, as an understanding, that is quite a new thing. They’ve always been there, of course, but they’ve never been seen as one connected sector. We’ve always looked at the movie industry or architects or advertising but as separate things and the problem is they’re still quite dispersed in terms of policies. In South Africa, for example, the Department of Trade and Industry provides all the film subsidies but the Department of Arts and Culture deals with all the museums and professional associations. I think understanding the sector as a coherent whole that has similar, not the same, but similar kinds of ideas and goals is a really big step in the right direction in terms of helping them to reach their potential and acknowledging their importance in society. We don’t have the data yet for South Africa, but there are indications and it’s been shown in many countries that the cultural and creative industries grow faster than the rest of the economy. They’re part of this new service sector, with creation and innovation being really important drivers of economic growth, so I think this is a big potential contributor to economic growth overall.

How does economics, in other words the way of thinking of economists, contribute to a better understanding of art and culture?

Well, you’re asking an economist, right? I think there’s a lot of resistance from artists themselves or practitioners, shall we say, to this idea that economics can have something important or useful to say about the cultural creative process. I think it’s because there is a misunderstanding that economics means money, so if you are an economist, you only care about money or finances or market prices and those kinds of things you can measure easily. But that’s not really true. Economics is about everything, it’s about the choices that you make in your everyday life, the choices that a government has to make: wellbeing as you’ve already mentioned, sustainable development, livelihoods… All of those things fit under economics. I think economics can have quite a lot to say to the arts and culture sector, particularly helping to express the kinds of values that they produce in a way that policymakers and funders will understand. A lot of the work that I do is to use economic theory to talk about different kinds of value associated with the cultural and creative industries and then say to artists: “Could this framework be useful for you to talk to the funders and the community that you work in and the government policymakers?” In a way, I think we can be a bridge between all the different groups in society for expressing and, in some cases, for measuring cultural value.

What topics might be of interest for young researchers starting their careers in the coming years?

In cultural economics? If it were me, let me answer it that way, I think I would be really interested in this idea of the cultural and creative industries as drivers of economic growth and development. Not just growth, but also development. And the big gap is not so much on the consumption side, what do the users do and buy and so on… but on the production side. How does this happen? How do the cultural and creative industries actually work? There’s a lot of case study, anecdotal evidence out there about the precariats, people who are highly educated in, say, the film sector, one of the most studied sectors where you have a short-term jobs and you move from one contract to the other. But I think there are lots of things we don’t know about: what’s happening in other sectors, for example, how does the craft sector work? These seem to be small stable businesses that exist over time. How does the informal sector work? I think this is an opportunity where developing countries can have an advantage, because, for us, the norm is the informal sector.

The minority of people are employed fulltime, with a pension plan and a kind of permanent job; most people are working in the informal sector in a whole bunch of different activities or production areas. If I were going to choose a direction in cultural economics now, I think I would go in for the production side of the cultural and creative industries, and the differences between developed-country and developing-country contexts.

Do policymakers and other stakeholders take into account the research produced by universities and research centres in South Africa?

There are different spheres of influence, so if I publish an article in an academic journal, I don’t think there’s that much chance that some policymaker will read that, which is why I think it’s so important to have a kind of parallel communication system like a blog, or a website, or a short policy brief or something like that. And I think they do notice. Very recently, the Department of Arts and Culture in South Africa established the Cultural Observatory, which is a government-funded research hub focusing on the cultural and creative industries. I’m part of that and the job there is to produce policy-relevant research. That means there is a direct channel to the Department of Arts and Culture when we talk or publish something or do some research, and some of that will filter up, I think, into how decisions are made and what policies are put in place. So, yes, you have to work a bit harder than just writing your paper and sending it to the journal, but there are lots of opportunities for those kinds of conversations and knowledge-sharing to happen.

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