Introduction: Seeing the big picture

| Report

The United Kingdom is a cultural powerhouse whose arts sector is recognised globally for its quality, diversity, and innovation. It often punches above its weight.

Let’s highlight just a few achievements. The United Kingdom is one of only three net exporters of music in the world.1  It is the world’s second-largest commercial market for visual art.2  UK authors won the highest number of Nobel Prizes in Literature from 2000 to 2023 and UK actors the second-highest number of Academy Awards for acting. And the United Kingdom is home to five of the world’s top 30 higher-education art and design institutions. The Royal College of Art (RCA) is number one.3

No less than 139,000 enterprises operate within the UK arts sector, along with 63,000 voluntary leisure-based groups. Together they engage millions of people, up and down the country, in the arts.4  Indeed, a recent survey by the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) found that 91 percent of UK adults—around 51 million people—had taken part in one way or another during the previous year.5  Art in the United Kingdom is a mass-engagement activity.

A good deal of work has been done examining the impact of so much art touching the lives of so many people. Often, however, this research looks at just a single section of the arts world—the theatre, say, or film—and tends to consider just one measure of impact. This independent report aims to take a wider lens. Drawing on existing data, new analysis, and interviews with more than 50 experts and arts leaders, the report looks at the entire arts sector across all four UK nations, gauging its impact both in economic and noneconomic terms. The report also seeks to understand what makes that impact possible.

The conclusions of the report are striking. Driven by the scale and quality of activity, the arts sector has an impact reaching way beyond its intrinsic value as a source of entertainment and stimulation. The sector contributes to the economy and to the lives of individuals—their health and education, for example—and helps improve the fabric of entire communities.

It does so not only because of the efforts of individuals in the sector—artists, teachers, funders, venue owners, and audiences, for example—but also because of the strength of a series of connections between them, in a complex and dynamic ecosystem. However, that ecosystem can be vulnerable. A decision taken in any one part of it can, intentionally or otherwise, reverberate elsewhere, strengthening or weakening the whole.

UK authors won the highest number of Nobel Prizes in Literature from 2000 to 2023 and UK actors the second-highest number of Academy Awards for acting.

Understanding the sector’s impact and the connections in the arts ecosystem could prove valuable—particularly at a time when the sector is still coping with fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges. During the lockdown period, the arts and entertainment sector experienced the second-largest reduction in monthly GVA. The proportion of UK workers furloughed in the sector—70 percent—was second only to that in the accommodation and food services sectors.6

Although the government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund has been vital for many arts organisations, today’s rising cost of living is impeding a return to full activity.7 Many studies have found, for example, that while audience levels have picked up, revenues haven’t, as organisations cannot bring prices into line with rising costs. Arts organisations, funders, and policymakers all face difficult prioritisation choices when budgets are tight.

The report does not make policy recommendations. Rather, it seeks to inform debate and thus to share a perspective helpful for all those working to ensure the sector’s continued impact, in all its forms. It’s a perspective that explores the connections within the arts ecosystem and where they could be strengthened.

Defining the arts sector: A dynamic ecosystem

To gauge the impact of the UK arts sector, we must first define it. There are many excellent existing frameworks and terminologies whose differences lie in nuances such as whether the literary arts ought to include all publishing or only fiction and whether the screen arts ought to include video games.

This report chooses to define the arts sector widely, as the goal is to gauge its impact as extensively as possible while maintaining focus on a coherent subset of the creative industries. Whether or not a specific art form is included in our analysis is not a judgement of its quality or aesthetics or of the degree of artistic or creative input required.

In our definition, the arts sector has four subsectors, each of which includes multiple art forms (see sidebar “Methodology”):

  • Visual arts: painting, sculpture, digital art, performative art, and creative photography, for example (including galleries and museums)
  • Performing arts: music, dance, theatre, comedy, and opera, for example (including production, recording, and live performances)
  • Screen arts: scripted TV, film, and video games, for example (including production, postproduction, distribution, and projection)
  • Literary arts: fiction writing, screenplays, and poetry (including publishing, libraries, and archives)

Within this definition of the sector, the report seeks to understand the different roles that individuals and organisations play. We define six roles common to all art forms: (1) creators and participants in an artistic activity, who, for example, play an instrument, write, or paint, whether professionally or as amateurs; (2) distributors and promoters; (3) arts educators; (4) donors and funders; (5) audiences; and (6) the suppliers of goods and services, such as wigmakers, caterers, and people who make musical instruments (exhibit).

Creators and participants

Distributors and promoters

Arts educators

Suppliers of goods and services

Consumers and audiences

Donors and funders

In the UK arts ecosystem, six roles are common to all art forms. (1 of 7)
In the UK arts ecosystem, six roles are common to all art forms. (2 of 7)
In the UK arts ecosystem, six roles are common to all art forms. (3 of 7)
In the UK arts ecosystem, six roles are common to all art forms. (4 of 7)
In the UK arts ecosystem, six roles are common to all art forms. (7 of 7)

Throughout the report, the term engagement is used for the many different ways in which people are involved with the arts—for example, by composing music, taking part in a book club, attending an exhibition, or buying a work of art. The term organisation refers both to arts enterprises (sole traders or larger) and to voluntary leisure-based groups.

These definitions, and all others in this report, represent just one approach among many legitimate ways to define and analyse the sector. Note that the report does not cover important topics such as diversity and inclusion.

Read the next chapter: Assessing the direct impact of the UK arts sector.