Subsidizing Performing Arts; between Civilisation and Addiction.

October 29, 2011

Arjan van den Born
Pim van Klink
Arjen van Witteloostuijn


This paper tries to deliver relevant economic advice to governments that are considering to cut down their arts budgets. It is based on a specific economic paradigm that explains the typical economic processes in the arts. According to this concept straight-on supply side subsidies only worsen the scarcity in the arts , meaning the chronic excess supply. If governments want to support the arts it can only be legitimized from the merit good argument and the size of the budget can be explained with the public choice theory. Governments that are aiming for the best value for money for society should choose the council system as allocating instrument. In addition to that they should use subsidies as addition to the box office not as substitute. Besides governments should pay attention to the quality and functioning of board and management of arts companies. In the end they determine the artistic and business results and at least in the Netherlands it seems that artistic arguments dominate in a way that the business results are suffering.

Keywords: arts economic theory, arts policy, sector analysis, leadership, management


In most areas of government policy, economists are among the most wanted advisers. Especially in times of dramatic budget cuts, as we see these days, governments heavily rely on economic advice. In the field of the arts the reverse seems to be true. In 2002, Sir Alan Peacock (2002: 3) even spoke about a credibility gap between cultural economists and government policy-makers. There are no signs of improvement since then despite the fact that the economic circumstances are worsened. According to Peacock, the cause for this gap can be found at both ends. On the one hand, governments give low priority to arts policy because of the very small budgets involved. So, they are not much interested in an effective and efficient way of allocating such a marginal budget. In line with this argument, they are not willing to spend money on research in this area. Arts economics, on the other hand, has not proved, to date, that the economics’ view is very useful to policy-makers. In this essay, we argue that arts economics can make a turn to increase its policy relevance.

To see why Peacock is right in observing that arts economics is partly responsible for the gap itself, the nature of the most investigated subject in arts economics is telling: whether government support for the arts can be legitimated in an economic way. Many economists (cf Abbing, 1989) have tried to apply the well-known market failure defence for government intervention to the arts. And indeed, the arts are associated with some public good characteristics. However, essentially, they also remain a private good that can be allocated through the market. The question then is whether, in the end, absence of governance support would result in the underproduction of arts from a social welfare perspective, a case that is not easy to make, as we will argue below in detail. Furthermore, although the arts certainly generate external benefits in production and consumption, there is no evidence that subsidies provide social benefits that outweigh the alternative use of the public expenditures involved. From a dynamic perspective, an additional argument might be that the arts will take advantage of improved market conditions due to the rising standard of living and improved education, implying that support now is for the benefit of later generations. However, we cannot be sure that future wealth growth will lead to increasing demand for arts, nor can we reliably estimate the support needed now to maximize social welfare later.

In the end, the only argument from welfare economics that really offers an economic rationale for increasing government support for the arts is the normative merit good logic, according to which government should behave on the assumption that citizens underestimate the value of a certain good, now and in the future. Unfortunately, the merit good argument does not imply a very solid economic logic, but rather reflects a paternalistic tautology. Therefore, we must conclude that a core of arts economics is devoted to a theoretical analysis of little practical relevance, if any. Notwithstanding much effort in this direction, arts economics cannot deliver hard evidence that government subsidies for the arts contribute to social welfare, now or in the future. In academia, this is mirrored in the deadlock where, on the one hand, a group of believers argues that there is enough reason to assume that government intervention in the arts market leads to social benefits (see, e.g. Heilbrun & Gray, 1993), whilst, on the other hand, there is another group who argue that this is not the case at all (see, e.g., Grampp, 1989).

However, this whole exercise is rather theoretical because in all Western societies governments do support the arts anyway, regardless of the opinion of academic arts economics. Rather, the main political discussion is about the size of the arts budget, especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis. It is here where this essay hopes to offer a contribution that not only speaks to the academic arts economics community, but also to the community of arts policy-makers. The relevance of this issue is bigger than ever , knowing that almost all arts subsidizing governments are considering or already have decided to diminish the budget for arts. Basically, we will argue that we need to put economics’ traditional demand-supply logic upside down. Our logic is that artists do not experience arts production as production, but rather as consumption. This has far-reaching consequences for the way arts supply must be modelled. In the jargon of neoclassical economics, arts production is part of the artist’s utility function, with government subsidies relaxing the artist’s budget constraint. This implies the proposition that, by the very nature of the artists’ utility function, the natural state in the arts market is overproduction, and not underproduction as generally assumed in the pro-government support case made in arts welfare economics. Below, we explain this logic in detail, and discuss the implications for the practice of arts policy-making.

2- The unique character of arts production
For a good economic arts advice, it is necessary to understand well what it is that drives arts production. For this, we need to turn to a theory of arts labour supply. In his much cited state-of-the-art overview of the field, the then chairman of the International Association of Cultural Economics David Throsby presented revealing statistics that clearly provide evidence for the observation that the arts are associated with structural excess supply of labour (Throsby, 1992). Only 20 to 25 per cent of the artist population earns enough money with arts work (Throsby, 1994a). The remaining 75 per cent of arts production is financed by multiple job-holding or partner donations. So, the bulk of arts production is sustained through cross-subsidization via other jobs or partners. He developed a theory of artists’ work preference to offer an explanation for this stylized fact, arguing that artists simply have a preference to work in the arts, even to the extent that cross-subsidization is needed (Throsby, 1994b).

So, the essential economic characteristic of the arts is the chronic excess supply of artists’ labour (Blaug, 2001). This cannot be explained with the standard microeconomic theory of labour supply. After all, excess supply of labour will, according to neoclassical microeconomics, lead to a downfall in the price of labour, pushing suppliers out of this market into more profitable segments of the labour market elsewhere in the economy. The lower price, or wage, attracts more demand for this cheaper source of labour. In equilibrium, decreased supply and increased demand will match, again, though now at a lower wage level. Apparently, this standard equilibrium-restoring mechanism does not work well in the artists’ labour market, as study after study has revealed structural excess labour supply. This stylized fact gives way to the argument that the usual assumptions of the microeconomics of labour supply are not valid in the arts.

The reason for this is straightforward: an artist as a labour supplier has a very peculiar utility function. The main influence on an artist’s utility seems to be the production of arts, with income only operating as a precondition. Earlier work (Throsby, 1992) revealed that when the income earned from arts production is not sufficient to survive, artists will take a side-job that generates an income just enough to continue the production of arts work. The side-job’s income enables the artist to engage in what creates the highest utility: producing arts. It is clear that artists prefer to allocate all available working time to arts production, provided that income is generated at or above subsistence. If arts production does not generate sufficient funds to live from and to invest in essential means of production, the artist must give priority to earning her or his reservation income elsewhere, implying that less time can be devoted to arts production. This decrease in working time spent on arts production implies a utility drop, which will motivate the artist to invest in the marketing of her or his arts products. Only the happy few have the ability and opportunity to sell so much of their arts products at such high prices that they can stay in any artist’s paradise, where all available working time can be dedicated to arts production. So, artists are very motivated to produce arts, even to the extent that they are willing to cross-subsidize arts production by taking side-jobs. Here is the difference with the neoclassical microeconomic theory of labour supply: a lack of earned arts income does not push artists out of their profession, but rather stimulates them to earn their necessary income elsewhere so that they can continue with their work as an artist. This logic provides full explanation of the atypical stylized fact of chronic excess supply in the arts labour market.

4. The utility function upside down

So, a neoclassical utility-maximization model of artists is associated with a reversal of the usual logic applied in the microeconomics of labour supply. First, what is normally an element of the utility function of a supplier of labour – income – will now be a constraint. Second, what is normally the ultimate outcome of labour supply – production – is now a (if not the) key component of the utility function, together with a leisure element, as usual. This gives utility function

Ui = fi(Qi,L i) (1)
subject to
Ii ≥ Īi. (2)

Ui denotes the utility of artist Ii, Qi artist i’s production, Li her leisure, Ii her income and Īi her reservation income level. Our production theory of an artist’s labour supply implies that ∂Ui/∂Qi > 0 and ∂Ui/∂Li > 0. A simple additive specification of utility function (1) is

Ui = αi Qi + βiL, (3)
with αi and βi > 0. Moreover, our theory of artistic production suggests that αi > βi, and probably αi >> βi.

This utility function is only applicable to the minority of artists who are able to earn enough money from artistic work. When this income falls below the reservation level, the artist’s utility depends on income from non-artistic work while leisure time will be spend on artistic production. Then,

Ui = fi(Ii ,Qi,) (4)
subject to
Ii < Īi. (5)

The crucial issue in this artist utility system is that artists will continue with arts production under all circumstances, being a critical utility-providing activity. Moreover, arts production is determined by income when there is not enough money to keep up arts production at the level that would be preferred if the financial constraint is non-binding [according to Equation (4) and Inequality (5)]. If the financial constraint is satisfied, the preference for some leisure time will codetermine arts production [according to Equation (2) and Inequality (3)]. Hence, leisure time and side-jobs are substitutes in this system, with arts production being the driving force.

5. Consequences for arts policy
What policy implications follow from the ‘arts production as consumption’ theory of arts supply? Starting from the stylized fact of structural excess supply in the arts market, roughly three policy perspectives can be distinguished. Firstly, government can decide to keep distance, reflecting a laissez faire attitude. Then, arts is perceived as any other market, which should be left on its own to let the free forces determine equilibrium supply and demand. In this case, the arts market dynamics will determine the behaviour of arts demand and supply. To survive at the supply-side of the arts market, entrepreneurial capabilities are essential to create products and strategies that attract so much demand that an income can be earned with arts production. If artists decide to engage in overproduction, and hence arts prices drop down, they have to subsidize their own need to produce, either through side-jobs or via partner donations. Arts supply will fall down, and artists will offer their services in growing numbers in other parts of the labour market, looking for side-jobs. At a market level, the gap between supply and demand will be reduced.

Secondly, government may opt for restricting arts supply. There are two policy clues for a government that aims to restrict supply. On the one hand, access to the arts labour market can be restricted by reducing the number of formal arts education slots. Of course, the publicly financed arts education facilities can be limited easily. However, it is unlikely that this policy will be effective in a line of business where people feel intrinsically rewarded by just producing arts. As a by-product of this, there will always be a market for artists who are offering non-official arts education as their key product. On the other hand, government can launch a restructuring plan, similar to the one for European agriculture, buying artists out of their business, with a guarantee that they will stay out of the arts market. Although some artists may be willing to accept such a buyout offer, especially when they are temporarily down and out, it is highly unlikely that this will happen in high numbers, or that the stay-out clause will work out fine in practice.

Thirdly, government may try to stimulate arts demand. From an economic point of view, structural excess arts supply takes away any ground for measures that, intentionally or otherwise, enlarge arts supply. Rather, government intervention in the arts market could be directed at the demand side, trying to develop programs that stimulate the demand for arts. Without any doubt, this is a complex issue. There is no lack of attempts to do precisely this. However, the success rate among these attempts, in terms of a sustained increase of arts demand, is close to zero. In general, it is hard to influence consumer preferences in a world where consumer sovereignty rules, and where taste is the deciding but given variable. Ever since Alfred Marshall (1891), attempts are made to influence the public’s taste for the arts. Often, these attempts seek to trigger learning-by-consuming (Brito and Barros, 2005), assuming that once arts products have been consumed, sustained demand for these arts products will emerge as arts consumers have upgraded the self-perceived utility of consuming arts. Then, priority should be given to arts education within the whole teaching system. On top of this, giving the learning-by-consuming precondition, the usual demand-stimulating logic can be applied to the arts, particularly the positive influence of increased financial wealth. At the macroeconomic level, this translates into the claim that a general economic government policy to improve welfare will, as a by-product, stimulate arts demand as well.

The effect of such general measures on arts demand may well be rather limited. Hence, if government wants to be more specific in stimulating arts demand, the ‘ultimate’ economic instrument is reducing arts prices. That can be done along two lines. First, fiscal policy could favour arts consumption (and arts donation) by either imposing lower VAT rates on arts products or by offering tax reimbursement facilities for arts consumers (and arts benefactors). Second, arts producers can be subsidized such that they are not forced to charge the consumer the cost price. Both methods are applicable, but strong arguments can be made against the arts producer subsidization route. The key counterargument relates directly to our ‘arts production as consumption’ theory. After all, subsidizing arts production may not only lower arts prices, but is also very likely to attract extra arts production. In fact, it may do the latter much more forcefully than the former, as is clear from the seminal study of Netzer (1978).

Netzer (1978) examined the economic effects of the first ten years of public support for the arts in the US by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). For theatre, opera and symphonic music, he found that subsidies did not generate lower ticket prices. For the cases of opera and symphonic orchestras, he even observed that ticket prices increased faster than average consumer prices. For the case of theatre, he demonstrated that public support was mainly associated with a strong rise in personnel costs, in terms of both salaries and staff volumes. In case of opera, public support was used to give more performancess (64%), but with lower average audience attendance (48%). Symphonic orchestras responded in a similar way, by increasing supply of (80%) much more than demand growth (18%). Hence, the NEA support program increased rather than reduced excess arts supply. This finding is replicated by Van Klink (2005) for the Netherlands. From 1975 to 2002, the supply of performing arts that is publicly supported by the Dutch government has risen with 80 per cent, whilst demand even fell with 30 per cent. These data imply a clear clue that supply-side subsidies for the performing arts are not effective at all in stimulating the demand for performing arts. In fact, these American and Dutch data reveal that supply-side subsidies only enlarge the already existing excess supply of arts.

6- Reality check

Of course, economists have not closed their eyes for the reality that, in policy-making circles, the size of the budget is the issue, and not so much the economic legitimation of the mere existence of government support. Hence, arts economists tried to explain the dynamics of the budget-determining process. Public choice theory is a well-established example. For instance, Grampp (1989) argues that arts subsidies are generally the result of rent-seeking behaviour, not only of artists but also of civil servants and highly educated arts consumers, the latter aiming at lower their entrance fees. Another example is Lingle (1992), pointing at the public failure that is so inextricably associated with public expenditures, implying that the actual results of arts subsidies differ from the original objectives. Of course, this logic cannot provide the ultimate reason to end all arts subsidies because this type of public failure is endemic in all areas of government administration. However, knowing this upward bias in arts subsidies, policy-makers have to be extra alert to safeguard that arts subsidies create surplus value for society. And as we will argue, this issue is specifically urgent in a domain such as arts, given the natural tendency to overproduce.

Based on his experience as chairman of the British Arts Council, Peacock (1994) is very well aware of this issue. This is why he emphasizes the need to stimulate arts organizations to operate as entrepreneurs, eager to increase private income from their arts, and aiming at reducing their arts’ production costs. According to Peacock, arts subsidies should not provide arts organizations a warm bed that would offer them the buffer, or the slack, to turn away from the market and from society. Then, arts organizations would, on average, produce too much at too high a cost for an audience that is largely non-existent. Because of his influential position in the British arts world, both as a scientist and as main governor of the British Arts Council, the essence of Peacock’s view is reflected in British’ arts policy. The role of the state is much more distant than in most other parts of the (Western) world, with more room for the private market. A similar market-oriented system operates in the US, albeit even more stripped to the bone, with even less government and more market, Canada and Australia. Clearly, this Anglo Saxon arts policy system differs substantially from the continental European system. Germany and France are the most profiled examples of this alternative system, pursuing an arts policy that seems to be based on the assumption that arts should be protected against the market, and should be put under a government’s shield.

In essence, there are two archetypes of arts policy. The governmental system, as in place in central European countries, is strongly based on the merit good argument. The underlying rationale is that the arts have to be protected from the ruthless forces of the free market. Otherwise, serious underproduction will be the outcome. This means that government should intervene in the marketplace, and should allocate substantial budgets for arts production. The other system, the council system as applied in the Anglo-Saxon countries, starts from the basic assumption that arts production should be left to the market, by and large. Government intervention would mainly lead to rent seeking and market distortion. Limited public support is legitimate, though, because of the positive external effects that, on average, spill over from the arts to society at large. But given the above, too much public support would be counterproductive.

The different arts policy systems have clear consequences for the size of the budget, as could be expected. This is illustrated by the figures of total public expenditures on performing arts per capita in 1987 in dollars and in 2004 in euro’s for France, West Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, as reproduced in Table 1 .

Table 1: Total public expenditures on performing arts per capita in 1987 ($) and 2004 (€)

Governmental system Council system
1987 2004 1987 2004
France 35.0 34.0 United Kingdom 16.0 7.3
West Germany 39.1 37.5 United States 3.3 n.a.
Netherland 33.5 41.7

source: Throsby, 1994a and Council of Europe, EricArts 2007

As table 1 shows, there is a significant gap between the governmental and the council system that is only widening in time. Explanation can be find in the argument that in the governmental system the arts lobby can be directed at the members of parliament in a direct way while in the council system there is an independent board of the council put in between.

The next step implies that we take a look at the economic performance of the two systems as reproduced in table 2.

Table 2: Comparison of subsidized performing arts companies 2005/2006





Population(x 1mln)





Number of companies





Total amount performances




Total amount visitors (x 1000)




Total costs (mln)





Total subsidy (mln)





Box office





Other income




Subsidy percentage





Average costs performance




Average costs visitor




Subsidy per visitor





Subsidy per resident





source; Theaterstatistik 2005/2006;Arts Council England, Corporate Evaluation Unit July 2007; Dutch ministry of OCW, afdeling Instellingenbeheer

It is clear, according to the figures of Table 2 that the council system, represented by England, is by far superior in its economic functioning. It has the lowest subsidy per inhabitant and visitor; it generates the most performances with the biggest amount of visitors; the companies have the best box office ratio and they produce with the lowest costs.

7- The business side of the subsidized performing arts in the Netherlands

On the macro-level we reached the conclusion that the council system in general leads to better economic results than the governmental system. Now we have to put the light on the economic functioning of companies within a system. The Netherlands, our home country, has a very sophisticated datasystem of the subsidized performing arts so the choice was easily made. We collected all relevant data over 11 years, the period from 1997 till 2007 and applied several econometric methods to this material. The main results are presented here:

– on the average the subsidized performing arts companies earn 20% of their total income at the box office. Roughly 10% comes from private funds and the rest comes out of state and municipal subsidies. In table 3 we made a survey of business indicators per discipline.

Table 3; indicators per discipline in 2007

Box Office (%)

Costs per visitor

Subsidy per visitor

Overhead (%)

Visitors per performance





































Opera (3)


















– it is remarkable that within every discipline there is a substantial range in business performance. We distinguished four categories: ‘stars’ that are able to earn more money with tickets selling than the benchmark and get more subsidy than the colleagues; ‘ entrepreneurs’ with more than average box office income but lesser subsidy; ‘ addicts’ with lesser own income and more subsidy and the ‘ losers’ that underperform on own income and getting subsidy. We found no correlation between any of the disciplines and the different categories.
– although participation is a major goal of government policy, companies with high audience numbers and ditto box office had no better chance on receiving state support.
– a very interesting correlation is found between overhead and obtaining subsidy. The relationship works out in both ways but the stronger influence is from overhead to subsidy. It means that companies which are investing in staff, have a reasonable chance to be rewarded in more subsidy which can be used for attracting more staff and so on. It is a good example of the theory of Lingle as discussed before.
– bigger companies have lesser chance on loosing subsidy, especially when they have a high own income ratio. So the ‘ too big to fail’ argument is also valid in the arts.
– when a company is successful in enlarging their own income in one year, they usually fall back in the next year. It seems hard to continue success.
– part of Dutch arts policy is the requirement that all subsidized companies have to earn 17,5% of their total income themselves. We found out that this requirement has a bigger effect when the company is near or just under this target. When the company is far above, it almost seems to have a negative stimulus.

8- The influence of board and management

The variety in box office ratio in the Netherlands, even within one discipline, is rather big; for instance the Koninklijk Concertgebouw Orkest earns 45% of total income at the box office while other good orchestra’s in the neighborhood have only 15% . Flanders has a similar situation with one ballet company on top with 80% ticket market-earned income. In England on the contrary, most companies have a box office ratio of 55% with only small deviations. The assumption can be made that the difference in business performance in the Netherlands and Flanders can be explained by a different quality and functioning of the board and management. So an extensive examination was set up with separate questionnaires for the chairman of the board, the artistic director and the business director for all subsidized performing arts companies in both countries. With a response of 10% in the Netherlands and 15% in Flanders there is enough ground to draw some rough conclusions:

– Dutch performing arts companies tend to compose their boards of two groups: politicians, to secure the subsidies, and businessmen, to obtain a privileged sponsor network.
– a significant difference can be observed in achievement of these two categories: more prominent politicians imply more subsidy and less own income ( for each politician the box office ratio lowers with almost 3%) while businessmen don’t have any impact on this ratio.
– boardmembers with a background at the Culture Council (advisory committee) don’t have any influence on the allocation of subsidies.
– no evidence was found that boardmembers had influence on the internal organization.
– most boards have the view that giving advice or help is their most important function. Only one third of them take their control function seriously.
-in the Netherlands the artistic director seems to be the most powerful person; on average they stay 14 years in function, the chairman of the board 7 years and the business director only 4 years.
– in Flanders there is more balance with the chairman and artistic director staying on average 12 years in function and the business director 8 years.
– in comparison with other sectors management in the performing arts don’t have special entrepreneurial skills, although in Flanders they score significantly better.
– the artistic director in Flanders is more concerned with strategic development and acquiring subsidies than his Dutch colleague, who spends most of his time for artistic activities like repertoire and casting.
– management in Flanders seems to be better leaders than in the Netherlands; they are more capable of inspiring and motivating their employees being a good role model.

9- Conclusion

This paper tries to contribute in bridging the gap between arts economics and arts policy as signaled by Sir Alan Peacock. In these times, that are dominated by economizing governments, arts economics can be helpful in giving more insight in the business processes of the arts. Before doing that we developed a theory that explains the specific phenomena of the arts. According to this ‘ arts production is consumption’ theory supply side subsidies are counterproductive because they are only widening the gap between supply and demand in the arts.

Nevertheless a government can decide to support the arts based on the merit good argument, as an act of civilization. If so our study demonstrates that the council system as used in England leads to much better economic results, reaching more audience against lower costs with lesser subsidies. The governmental system seems to generate subsidy addiction with companies.

Our sector analysis of the performing arts in the Netherlands shows remarkable differences in business results. Some can be explained by substantial differences in production concepts which is best illustrated by the symphony orchestra’s with their huge amounts of fixed labor costs against the ensembles with very flexible labor costs. Nevertheless the main conclusion must be that the quality of the board and management determines the business results. That’s why we put the light on this subject in an extensive survey amongst Dutch and Flemish officials. It leads to some remarkable observations as the underperformance as entrepreneur of the Dutch managers in comparison with their Flemish colleagues. This is reflected in the much higher average own income ratio in Flanders at 36%. This becomes more probing in the perspective of Dutch arts policy that tries to stimulate cultural entrepreneurship since the last ten years. Further on are there several signs saying that the artistic director is the most powerful person in the Netherlands while in Flanders there is a more balanced situation. It seems to illustrate the primacy of the artistic argument in Dutch arts policy. In this context business arguments are not heard and that explains to a certain height the businesswise underperformance of Dutch performing arts companies in comparison with their Flemish and British colleagues.

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