Why attacks on the arts are attacks on entrepreneurship

From discouraging students wishing to study arts subjects to slashing funding, the short-sightedness of government policies could have unexpected effects for entrepreneurs.

In recent years there has been a big drive in this country to encourage schoolchildren and university students to abandon the arts and pick subjects that are more likely to set them up financially. Concurrently funding for arts projects has been slashed repeatedly and many local and national theatre and music community projects have been forced into closure.

You may think these issues have very little or nothing to do with small businesses or entrepreneurs – or you may even think it’s a good thing for enterprise – but personally I feel the arts and entrepreneurship are linked in more ways than at first seem obvious.

Is an arts education really a financial albatross?

Last year education secretary Nicky Morgan caused a fuss by commenting on a study that reported students who study maths to A-Level earn an average of 10% more over their lifetime.

She took the results of the study as a cue to discourage anyone looking for financial and professional security from studying arts subjects.

“These figures show us that too many young people are making choices [studying arts] aged 15 which will hold them back for the rest of their lives,” she concluded.

Well that is one way of looking at it. But if we look at entrepreneurship in isolation, especially at those who shoot for the stars, a slightly different story emerges. Research by Approved Index in March 2015 on billionaires’ backgrounds suggested that an arts degree is hardly the financial albatross that Morgan wants us to believe.

If you really want to hit gold the report suggests engineering. Almost one-quarter (22%) of the billionaires from the sample have high-level engineering qualifications. Those with a background in the discipline also have the highest wealth; with a pretty health average of $25.77bn.

>See also: Overcoming challenges to become a medical entrepreneur

After no degree at all in second place, which is in itself the subject of countless articles, the third most lucrative degrees are business and economics – perhaps unsurprisingly – but they are then closely followed by the arts. The arts come ahead of maths, finance, law and science.

So if the country really wants to produce billionaires who can bring wealth, jobs, philanthropy and esteem to the country – maybe putting people off arts completely isn’t the government’s best bet after all?

Sympathy for STEM

There is another side of the debate of course. Britain desperately needs people with STEM skills to apply them – whether as entrepreneurs or workers. So I would never want to say that people should be discouraged from studying STEM subjects per se.

Research from the Higher Education Statistics Agency earlier this year revealed that 72,425 students graduated in engineering, architecture and related subjects in the past year alone. Add to this more than 40,000 in computer and mathematical sciences and it’s a pretty significant number. Especially when a top STEM recruiter estimates that there simply aren’t roles to sustain employment for all of these graduates.

Of course this doesn’t take into account people starting their own business straight from university; but this is very rare. The simple truth is people are not entering STEM roles for a number of reasons and this will limit those who will gain the experience to start their own businesses in the area.

But all this takes place long after people have made a decision whether to pursue STEM or arts subjects. Taking people from arts subjects will not fix the crisis caused by lack of STEM skills – the problem lies elsehwere.

Is arts funding a mere luxury?

Another area where the arts are under attack is the stripping away of basic funding. People are aware of the big areas like music and film, but what of areas that on the surface of it have even less to do with entrepreneurship?

>Related: Five business giants who failed first time round

Museums for one are suffering inordinately under the strain of swingeing government cuts. In 2014 1 in 10 said they were considering selling off at least a part of their collections.

But the most worrying statistic from the Museum Association’s report reveals that school visits are down in more than one-third (36%) of British museums. This is hugely problematic for many reasons.  Firstly how many future entrepreneurs in all areas have first had a nascent creative spark ignited by a trip to a museum?

If we take away all (free) opportunities to experience first-hand the inspirational work of those who have come before them, how do you expect them to dream up the next world-changing idea themselves?

Quite apart from this view, the facts show that investing in the arts is simply good economic sense. For every £1 invested in the arts £1.06 is funnelled back into the economy – with a total value of £7.7bn. Yet the UK invests only 0.3% of its GDP into the area – below the EU average of 0.5% and well below Denmark (0.7%) and France (0.8%).

So if we want to create a strong economy in which entrepreneurs can succeed, along with the inspiration to do so, cutting funding to the arts and culture simply doesn’t make sense.

Artists and entrepreneurs can be one and the same

The final point, and one that seems fairly obvious, is that many entrepreneurs actually work in the creative industries and need it to be strong to succeed.

When we think of entrepreneurs we think increasingly of tech innovators and financial services start-ups such as TransferWise and Spotify (which itself relies on the arts of course). But many of the country’s most lucrative young companies are in the arts.

Sam Mendes shot to fame as a Hollwyood film director with American Beauty and other hugely successful projects. But few people know that he also started his own production company Neal Street.

It has recently been sold to All3Media for a decent sum that was undisclosed but is rumoured to be upwards of $60m. This is just one example of creative people showing entrepreneurial spirit that in tech or financial services would be more vocally lauded. We need to keep these businesses going – and to discourage people from studying the arts will mean the industry will seriously start to struggle.

Keeping an open mind

The most important point to make is that for entrepreneurs to come up with ideas that keep the UK at the cutting edge of all sectors, we need to keep interest in the arts high.

Encouraging students only to understand sectors that look lucrative on the surface is short-slighted and counterproductive. How many of the great entrepreneurs of our time would be where they now without free-thinking and the ability to imagine an idea that others could not – however simple it looks in hindsight.

Creativity is at the heart of successful financial, tech and manufacturing entrepreneurship. Any pursuit that can enhance this value, while more than justifying its place in the wider economy, should be celebrated and not attacked.

Further reading: Using war wound to build a beauty business

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