Culture is future » Financing and economic models


Article - Culture is priceless, yet it has a cost !

Did you know that national heritage visits in France generate a revenue of 15 billions euros? Maybe not, and understandably so : the very official report that recorded this figure, as a result of a 3-years survey on the economic impact of castles, monuments and cultural events, simply disappeared from the official website of the ministry of culture. 

What happened ?

As often occurs with every assessment bringing together economy and culture areas, the results of the survey may have seemed polemical, and so it was taken offline. During the lectures I have been giving to culture professionals in the past too years, whenever I happened to give figures, objections were suddenly heard from all sides. “Have we become English to be so obsessed with the financial results of our policies?” was I kindly blamed.

This phobia about figures is not limited to the issue of the economic impact of culture. The figures of the attendance of cultural sites too are very approximate and barely ever updated. Except for a general overview of funding allocations, government expenses for culture are not reported on the ministry of culture official website.

In short, the French, and in the first instance actors of the culture field, are mostly concerned with the immaterial benefits of culture (its educative value or its role in building a sense of community) rather than with its quantitative performances : “How much did we spent to strengthen social bonds ?” or “How can we assess the gap between targets and results in each cultural program?” Such questions are deemed irrelevant and thus not taken into account in the organic law of 2 August 2001 on finance acts.

To take a last example : should we point out that the actual attendance of a cultural site is rather poor, compared with the potential audience of local as well as domestic or international visitors ? It does not matter, are we answered, what is important is the quality, not the quantity of audience.

Common interest as principle of all cultural policies

As the national education system, the administration of culture in France has always been based on core principles which, although they may sound strange to a lot of colleague from other countries, date back to the French Revolution and have barely changed since. Common interest (“intérêt general”, originally coined “Intérêt commun”) is one of these basics that were introduced during the Revolution and renamed under Napoléon III’s reign. The term was then used to legitimize the expropriation of landowners when the French department “Landes Forest” was created. Through the “common interest”, public priority was opposed to the private particular interests of proprietors that where reluctant to alienate their estate for a good cause, that is, in the public interest. Then common interest, a useful concept, gradually took a legal meaning in all domains of public policy.

This ideal is still deep-rooted in the minds today, and serves as a means to strengthen national cohesion and social links, as was reminded by the new minister of culture soon after her nomination. This, even if in France the figures indicating a democratization of culture are constantly decreasing, in spite of all efforts made to make culture more broadly available (in providing free access to sites for instance. Unfortunately, most of regular visitors take avantage of this free access, but “new” visitors rarely come...).

French audiences, target of the communication of cultural contents

Cultural mediation, consciousness-raising campaigns, passing on of knowledge … Local visitors are the nearly exclusive audience to which visitor amenities are dedicated ; and 99% of professionals, as well as subsidies and cultural training are dedicated to this specific target. The fact that this population should be given priority is not questioned, since support and subsidies to the cultural programs are primarily financed by local authorities with local tax money. But this sort of exclusivity given to local visitors is also one of these French exceptions – and one that severely handicap the survey and improvement of cultural sites. 

The example of cultural tourism

To get an idea of how big is this handicap, it is helpful to look at the way cultural tourism is dealt with :

-          In the ministry of culture (which numbers over 30 000 employees), there is not a single job, no resource centre nor engineering dedicated to this topic. In short, a total lack of competences for an industry that represents at least 6% of France GDP. And yet we know that for 80% of foreign visitors, the motivation to visit France comes from the cultural image of our country.

-          Created in the 80s and conducted on an annual basis, the survey on cultural practices has  only been about French audience, whereas most museums and monuments, but also big festivals or biennial arts festival are visited in majority by non-resident publics, amongst which 40% are foreign visitors.

Isn’t it strange for an audience survey to ignore the major part of the visitors of a place ? How can an institution improve its offer if nothing is known of the profiles, behaviours, expectations and origins of its audiences?  

Signs of improvement !

Over the past few years, the antagonism between economy and culture has diminished – an improvement to which the Forum d’Avignon contributed greatly, by fixing objectives, organising debates, appointing delegates, and posting high-quality surveys.

Signs of a change are visible, having a variety of causes (impact of financial crisis; generational renewal; new policies based on redistributive schemes). These signs are :

-          the resurgence of appraisal practices;

-          the actors of culture administration now focus their attention on new areas of inquiry. They are particularly interested about the impact and uses of digital technologies in cultural field.

-          Regions (such as Rhône-Alpes and Midi-Pyrénées) and cities (Grand Lyon) have been implementing the “Creative cities/regions” conception and organisation scheme. Early in 2011, the city of Nantes merged its departments of culture and tourism into one entity called “Le voyage à Nantes”, both dedicated to local visitors and tourists from all over the world.

-          Collaborative and participatory practices (feedback; “comments” posted on social networks; collective intelligence in research areas) replace hierarchical decision processes by cross-disciplinary fertilisation of ideas. With this new concern for competence sharing, the historical divide between public/private sectors looses its significance in cultural administration.

France is on the right track, as it is about to join the other countries in his attempt to answer the fascinating question raised by any visitor, either French or foreign, when he/she sets off to visit a cultural site:“What I am to learn from it ?” 


Evelyne Lehalle, 28.06.12

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Crédits photo : Cmun Project