Why Australia urgently needs an arts and culture reset

Now is the time to reinvent Australia’s arts and culture policy and practice to focus on its public value rather than doubling down on economic arguments, write two experts involved in a national conference in Adelaide this month that will address the crisis the sector is experiencing and explore a bold new agenda.

Nov 03, 2021, updated Nov 03, 2021
Unbound Collective at the opening of 'The Image is not Nothing (Concrete Archives)' at ACE Open during this year's Adelaide Festival. Unbound Collective's Ali Baker (pictured centre, with bowl) will be part of a Reset panel discussion on centring culture as a civil right. Photo: Thomas McCammon

Unbound Collective at the opening of 'The Image is not Nothing (Concrete Archives)' at ACE Open during this year's Adelaide Festival. Unbound Collective's Ali Baker (pictured centre, with bowl) will be part of a Reset panel discussion on centring culture as a civil right. Photo: Thomas McCammon

For more than 18 months, arts and culture has been experiencing a crisis of a new kind, one that builds on and extends a number of challenges the sector has faced over years, even decades. As a response to this, for two days this month, more than 300 people will gather face to face in Adelaide and online to discuss a different future for art and culture.

The pandemic pushed arts and culture front-of-stage – for all the wrong reasons.

Among all the collateral damage of lockdowns and lockouts, this sector was hit first, hardest, and longest. Both the economic and psychological cost has been immense. Not just because of individual shows cancelled and work lost during this time, but also through the effects on career plans: whole ecosystems of skills and energy disappeared.

Less immediately obvious was that this came after decades of funding cuts, insecurity and casualisation, low wages, and a creeping sense that governments saw little value in what the sector did.

How to respond to this crisis? One way has been to double down on the default model of the last three decades – to characterise the sector as an industry, that generates GDP and jobs, and brings in tourists and does “place-making”.

These economic arguments are now standard. Large sums are paid to accountancy firms to do “impact studies” which try to show return on investment, “gross value added” and productivity metrics. Not only are many metrics bogus, but these economic arguments haven’t worked. Higher education lost 40,000 jobs in the country’s fourth-biggest export industry:  didn’t work there, either.

The biggest impact of these economic arguments has been on the arts sector itself. Many no longer know any other language than that of economic value.

Too often complaints and anxieties are kept hidden

The recent report by the Federal House of Representatives’ Parliamentary inquiry into the arts and COVID-19 divided this value into “economic” and “non-economic”. Would an inquiry into health describe health benefits as “non-economic”?

As to terminology – arts, culture, cultural and creative industries are all used interchangeably and with no attempt to define them. When the language is all over the place, you know there’s a problem.

The Reset: A New Public Agenda for the Arts conference (November 11-12) aims to do three things.

First, to create a space where arts and cultural workers, managers, activists and institutions can speak freely about the ills plaguing the sector. Too often complaints and anxieties are kept hidden, for fear of being called negative and unhelpful. But the cultural sector has all the tools within it to develop a more critical and politically savvy approach to policy. Now is the time to pull together and use this moment to look at what changes need to happen in arts and cultural policy and practice.

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Second, we want to begin a conversation about changing the language in which we talk about art and culture. They are not industries. An industry is an integrated set of processes whose primary goal is to produce goods and services for a profit. This does not mean art and culture don’t employ people, sell things, export services, or make profits. They are an economy. Just like health and education and social services are an economy. But we do not (yet!) organise our national health and education systems as profit-oriented industries. Same with art and culture. They create jobs but it is not their primary function to create jobs.

If not an industry, then what? This conference will explore the idea that art and culture are a public good; they create public value, like our social, health and educational services – and utilities, roads and broadband. They are part of the social foundations of a decent life in a modern democracy. Does this mean shift everything back to state subsidy and public provision? No. Art and culture would be a mixed economy – state, market, not-for-profit (what the Europeans call civil society). They involve global corporations, state entities and your friendly neighbourhood artist.

How do we create a new deal with artists… who are currently working for a pittance

Third, we are asking, what would this approach ­– of placing arts policy in the space of public good and culture as a civil right – look like? How does democratic participation work? Is it just a consumer democracy or should people get to make culture too? And what would that require, resource-wise. How do we create a new deal with artists – highly educated, highly skilled, deeply committed – who are currently working for a pittance, with lack of conditions that almost all other workforces take for granted?

Historian Tony Judt said once that we should want states to run railway networks but not to make the sandwiches. That is, we need a public vision of art and culture, but this doesn’t mean the public sector provides all the content. But the current settings are a questionable mixture of market first principles – private sector good, public sector bad – with subsidy for “market failure” in return for “economic impact”. Reset seeks a new language in which to describe the public value of arts and culture and the broad principles by which it should be managed by public policy.

This is a tough call. After 40 years of “culture as industry” we’ve lost the language and the skills to manage a complex mixed economy of culture. Getting this back, resetting, is important if we are also to connect to the issues facing us all, like climate change, the rise of the “digital” and AI, the future of work, and learning from First Nations knowledge. How to reach beyond those privileged postcodes and reinvent our cultural democracy. And how to reinvent our attitudes to endless growth and extraction.

What is clear is that if we allow the slow strangulation of the ABC, the Australia Council and the public sector more generally, and give over our art and culture to a private sector and an increasingly hostile, secretive, and pork-barrelling Federal Government, then that future is going to look bleak.

Reset is about hope. In short: We have to reinvent our cultural sector and how we value art alongside the broader process of reinventing our common future. Starting now (and with the next federal election!).

Justin O’Connor is Professor of Cultural Economy at the University of South Australia and Tully Barnett is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Arts at Flinders University.  

Reset: A New Public Agenda for the Arts will be held in Adelaide on November 10 and 11 with a mixture of keynote addresses and conversations (see the full program here). It is presented by the Arts Industry Council of South Australia and Reset (Flinders University, University of Adelaide, and University of South Australia), in association with the Don Dunstan Foundation.


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