“Culture belongs to the upper classes. It is hard to attract families with lower education levels”
Françoise Benhamou is an economist, university lecturer in social and economic sciences and a columnist in several French publications. She collaborates with numerous public and private organisations related with the economy and culture, including the Managing Board of the Louvre Museum and the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Communications and Publications (ARCEP) in France. She was advisor to French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, and has published several books on her main area of research: the economics of culture.
How has the emergence of new technologies helped redefine the notions we held previously on the democratisation of culture and cultural diversity?
One of the greatest challenges we face is trying to understand how cultural consumption has changed with the emergence of new technologies. In France we have invested an enormous amount of money in developing programmes focused on attracting new audiences in the cultural sphere.
But on analysing the statistics we suffered a major disappointment. Although it is true that cultural consumption is very broad, if you observe the data in detail, you realise that the profile of users is not very diverse. For example, most of the audience have university qualifications, and while not necessarily rich people, for the main part they do belong to the middle and upper classes.
And is reversing that tendency complicated?
It’s very difficult. For six years I have been a member of the Managing Board of the Louvre, the world’s largest museum. We receive between 8 and 9 million visitors per year, but leaving aside school visits, the audience is very homogenous.
So we are asking ourselves: How can new technologies help us to tackle this challenge? My answer is that they can help solve a part of the problem, although not completely.
The Louvre recently opened its doors for the recording of a video clip by Beyoncé and Jaz-Z. Is this an example of the type of proposals that might help to expand and diversify access to culture?
Exactly. Over seven million people saw the video during the first 24 hours following it being posted on YouTube – today it has over 100 million views. The large majority of this audience is people who would never come to the Louvre. But through the video they have been able to visit, even if only virtually, a part of the Museum. Many people have seen for the first time masterpieces such as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci or The Wedding Feast at Caná by Veronese, as well as discover the majestic staircase of the Louvre or the famous pyramid designed by architect I. M. Pei.
Subsequently, we had the idea of organising a guided tour around the Museum which tours the 17 works that appear in the video clip. It is working very well and attracting new audiences. Obviously, these experiments don’t solve the entire problem, but they are changing things a little.
So, do you believe that the use of new technologies can help to bring culture closer to the newer generations?
Undoubtedly. It is very interesting to use new technologies to expand the cultural audience. We have to learn how to use videogames or tablets in an effective and educational way. We need people to feel that culture is closer and more accessible.
For example, by using videogames on school visits to museums; or offering the option to do the visit with a tablet so that people can explore information on the cultural contents they are visiting. It is very important to convey the message that culture is not for the elites, but for everyone.
What initiatives have been implemented by the public or private sector in France to attract new audiences towards art and culture?
Cheaper admission prices have been introduced for museums and shows, as well as longer opening times and cultural heritage days.
From the application of these initiatives to date, I would extract three conclusions: Firstly, that if it is already difficult to attract families with lower levels of education and unaccustomed by their family environment to visiting cultural places, it is even more difficult to get them to return: the great challenge is converting the first-time visitor into a faithful user.
Secondly, price plays only a marginal role: free-of-charge museums have not served to change to profile of visitors.
Thirdly, the initiatives carried out by schools are crucial. I am not referring only to school visits, but to introducing the learning of the arts through participation by artists or writers in school activities.
What types of cultural projects have been successful and what conclusions can be drawn from those initiatives that have not caught on?
The greatest difficulty for promoting these policies is their cost. The budgets allocated to expanding the number of visitors to theatres, museums or historical monuments are mainly fuelled by governmental or local subsidies, which usually suffer cuts.
Some regions and cities offer “culture cheques” which enable young people to access cultural attractions. The French government is preparing the launch of a 500-euro Cultural Pass for people reaching their 18th birthday. Through a smartphone app, they will have access to museums, historical monuments, shows, concerts and cinema, as well as being able to buy books and music. It is a model that has already been tested in Italy, but it is very controversial due to its low efficiency.
Here too the project is highly disputed because of its cost (500 million euros), because of the unexpected effects it may have (young people willing to pay would benefit free of charge) and the doubts about its efficiency in relation to the democratisation of culture: many believe that only young people who are already interested in culture will take advantage of it.
You have written that with the arrival of the Internet, we consume culture in a more individualised way. Is this positive, negative or simply a sign of the times that we must adapt to?
Philosopher Bernard Stiegler says that with the Internet, we have the poison and the remedy at the same time. And the same thing happens with cultural consumption. Thanks to the new technologies, for example, people watch films from their computer. It is not the same socialisation experience as going out to the cinema, not to mention the problem of piracy… But at the same time it opens up new pathways for culture. They are complementary experiences.
The Internet is no substitute for the physical experience of consuming culture, but it is a new pathway for discovering works of art, monuments or even books.
And what does it mean for the artists? With new technologies, the creators of art have found not only a new way of expressing themselves, but also a channel of unlimited reach for distributing their work.
In part yes, but it is an ambivalent question. On the one hand, the artist can show his or her work to a very broad audience. But only in theory, because on the Internet there are millions of pages, and the fact that something is published does not necessarily mean that anyone will see it. It continues to be intermediaries who direct the audience towards a work of art.
In the case of music, online self-production platforms help record labels to discover who is innovating, who is proposing new sounds and new tendencies.
But on the other hand there is also the question of remuneration for artists. And here is where the ambivalence lies. The Internet created a major tsunami in the music industry. It meant the loss of half of its income. Now, with streaming, people are buying music again. But artists earn very little money with business models like Spotify. So despite increasing numbers of people listening to music, the artist cannot make a living from it… and that is a very serious problem.
How do you believe that the public sector can help find solutions to the problem of making culture economically sustainable for the artists?
In the case of music, the question is that platforms such as Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music, etc. belong to private companies. So I would say that where work needs to be done is in regulating these business models. Public policies should promote an agreement between the artists and these companies.
The key is that these platforms should pay for the entire value chain that lies behind artistic creation, from the creator to the record label; and secondly, of course, it is necessary to continue fighting against piracy.
When you talk about the monetisation of culture, are you referring exclusively to the remuneration of artists or is it a broader concept?
It implies many aspects, of course. The question of the pay of creators and artists is one of the main ones, but the problem of the monetisation of culture is much broader.
In France, for example, there is an intense debate on the monetisation of cultural heritage. It is currently a very important question on the agenda for the current French Minister of Culture. The question is that it is very expensive to preserve and open historical monuments to the public. Even though the State is the owner or manager of that heritage, it cannot assume the entire cost that its maintenance represents, so we have to think about alternatives.
The solution to conserving cultural heritage must involve a combination of public and private funding. We have decided to add new forms of funding cultural heritage: not only hiring out venues, or offering marketing products, but also devoting part of the income from the National Lottery to the maintenance of cultural heritage.
Digital natives may think that culture is free, as they have had a large cultural offering available to them on the Internet for as long as they can remember.
This is a fundamental issue that we still haven’t solved. But I believe that the public is starting to understand, that if they consume culture free of charge, somebody is paying for it for them: it may be advertising, it may be that the quality of what they consume is decreasing; or it may be that artists are not being suitably paid for their works.
However, we are starting to find solutions. For example, the case of streaming. Two or three years ago, people – especially young people – believed that they could listen to music without paying anything. But now, the money that Spotify or Deezer request for subscription to their services corresponds with what users are prepared to pay.
I think that the problem of cultural contents being free of charge is that for a long time, the people in charge of culture set prices too high. And the public was not prepared to pay them. Another example: e-books. Publishers set prices too high because they didn’t want the e-books market to swallow the traditional publishing market. And the consequence was, firstly, the emergence of piracy; and secondly, that the e-books market did not evolve.
So the key to developing the market for digital products is to find the right price.
Perhaps parents or teachers should educate young people to understand that there is a large human and industrial chain behind every piece of cultural content…
The education of children is very important, obviously. But I believe we have a problem with the parents too. We should educate the parents first. And also the teachers.
It is a very complicated problem to resolve because all of this is relatively new. It is logical to think that teachers must educate their pupils in the use of the Internet, but what happens is that the teachers themselves are not always well informed about the way in which online consumption is organised.
I think, on the one hand, that there should be a research programme; but also, on the other, a programme for the entire education sector that helps to reflect on how we should teach students to interact with the Internet. First of all, it is necessary to train the teachers, and after that, the students.
We need to ask students: when a teacher gives you homework or asks you a question, do you go directly to Wikipedia? And when you get the answer from Wikipedia, is it enough or should you consult other information sources?
It is also necessary to bear in mind the question of intellectual property rights. Kids (and their parents too) should know that when they copy something from Wikipedia, the sources are not always mentioned or it is not always possible to know if the sources are reliable or not.
It is not easy to understand this, nor to learn to manage the information that we receive from so many different sources. It is the same problem as the one raised by fake news.
It is an ethical, political and economic question.
What do you believe can be done, through public or private initiatives, to make culture more accessible for groups at risk of social exclusion, whether for geographical, economic or cultural reasons?
What is happening in France is very interesting in this sense. There is a model of cultural promotion that is being developed at this moment in time, the result of collaboration between the public and private sector.
A very symptomatic case is occurring in the field of museums and private foundations. It is important to take into consideration that private foundations that work in the promotion of culture, like "la Caixa” in Spain, are not very common in France. It is very under-developed field.
But today things are starting to be done differently. We have found a new way for the public and private sector to collaborate. A paradigmatic example is that of the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, but there are also other examples outside of the capital, such as the Leclerc Foundation, in Brittainy, or the Carmignac Foundation, in Ile de Porquerolles, in the south of France.
These foundations open up their artwork exhibitions to an audience of tourists who do not necessarily have a very high educational level. I think that the public sector should imitate these practices, and in fact I think that has already learned how to do certain things. These are practices that perhaps can open up a door to diversity.
Interview by Juan Manuel García Campos