Australia’s creative revolution

A dramatic rise in Australians’ creative engagement has changed the landscape of Australian culture and demands a new vision for cultural policies.

While wars on terror have raged and financial systems have collapsed, a revolution has been taking place in Australian culture. Between 2001 and 2007, the number of Australian adults undertakinig cultural work rose by 1.2 million people. That’s some increase: 52 percent, or nearly six times the growth in the population.

Dig a little deeper and even more astonishing trends emerge. Work in visual arts activities nearly tripled from 0.5 million to over 1.4 million people. Creating art works with a computer contributed to this, as might be expected, but so too did more traditional art forms. The number of people doing drawing work rose by 348 percent, or 440,000 people. And if this seems implausibly large, it pales in comparison to the monstrous 672 percent rise seen in jewellery making.

Big increases such as these are usually reserved for executive salaries or Sydney house prices.

The figures come from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Work in culture and leisure activities collection, which gathers information on people doing work in cultural activities such as making art, writing, organising performances and festivals, and playing music. The figures quoted here are for people involved at least once over a twelve month period. Work is taken to include both paid and unpaid tasks, but does not include hobbies. (Taking family snapshots doesn’t count as work) The main growth over the period appears to have been in unpaid work.

Trend numbers in the hundreds of percent tend to make statisticians go in search of errors in calculation or method. Implausible though some of the increases may appear, the numbers do seem reliable. A note accompanying the data explains the pains taken by the ABS to weed out any problems in method. And increases are not isolated to just a few rogue activities. The collection shows across-the-board increases: numbers of people involved in cultural work grew faster than the population in over two thirds of the 41 cultural activities covered by the survey. Participation in cultural work broadly defined went from around 15 percent to nearly 22 percent of the adult population. That’s roughly equivalent to a jump in audience share from the ABC to Channel Ten (using Screen Australia ratings).

Participation rates in culture’s ‘creative core’ – arts activities – grew the most, nearly doubling from 8 percent to 15 percent of the adult population, or from one in twelve to one in seven people.

The evidence is undeniable. Over the first seven years of the ‘noughties’, an increasing proportion of Australians reported undertaking cultural work, particularly creative arts work.

So what does it mean?


Increases in cultural work signal a rise in cultural production – in economic terms, an increase in the supply of culture. With increasing participation rates, especially in unpaid work, the data also point to a ‘democratisation’ of culture: an expansion in the range of people creating culture, making art and contributing to the cultural landscape. As participation grows, Australian culture is, it seems, becoming less about a view from circle seats and more about a dive into the mosh pit.

Some will welcome this as overdue. For struggling artists, however, the numbers are not necessarily good news.

Supply increases may make it even harder for artists to earn a living from their art. Under the rudimentary laws of economics, if the supply of something increases, its price is likely to drop – unless, that is, there is a fundamental increase in demand to compensate. Similarly, if the supply of arts labour increases, its price – the wage rate – is bound to drop. A greater number of artists means increased competition for jobs, audiences and art buyers, making it harder for each artist to earn a living.

‘Over supply’ is already thought to be causing relative poverty among artists.¹  The fear is that further production increases such as those seen in the ABS data, if not coupled with greater demand for the arts, will worsen the financial situation of artists.

This fear seems well-founded, with the census showing signs of employment difficulties for Australia’s professional artists. The census shows artists’ relative incomes worsening between 2001 and 2006. The income gap between the median full time income of artist occupations and other professionals widened by $4,000 over the period.²  Accordingly, employment in artist occupations plunged 15 percent, a decline all the more dramatic in that it comes after more than 15 years of above average employment growth.

It might seem contradictory that one set of ABS data shows a dramatic increase in artistic work, while another shows a dramatic decline in artist employment. But the census measures a very specific group of artists – those who are able to earn a living from their art. These ‘main job’ artists represent a small and highly professional subset of those creating art as paid or unpaid ‘work’. So, rather than showing contradictory trends, the ABS collections provide evidence for ‘oversupply’ in the Australian arts sector – an expansion of creative work has made it harder for professional artists to earn a living.

With so many professional artists working irregularly or holding main jobs outside the arts, the census is a rather blunt instrument for measuring professional artists’ employment. A full picture will only become available with the release this year of the latest in David Throsby’s series of artist surveys. Until then, the warning is clear for aspiring artists: don’t give up your day job just yet.

If artists might dread the prospect of further financial hardship, others might welcome the ‘democratisation’ of culture implied by the ABS data. Those who consider the arts elitist, controlled by powerful self-serving ‘gate keepers’, will welcome the numbers as a sign of a shift in culture’s power base away from elites and toward a broader-based constituency.

Policy implications

Policymakers should take note: such a fundamental change in Australian culture has profound implications for cultural policies. And, with arts activities showing the largest rises in work involvement, the policy agency at centre stage is the government’s cash dispenser to the arts, the Australia Council.

Critics who see Australia Council as a prop for the arts elite might cite the expansion of arts work as evidence of waning Council relevance. Those more sympathetic could counter that the increases in arts work are evidence of the Council’s success, given that most of its support feeds into the supply side of the arts. Regardless of one’s sympathies, the data on work and employment do seem to present a real challenge to the Council: how long can it continue to pump the supply-side of the arts when signs are that the sector is already gorged with supply? And especially when supply increases can impact so negatively on its key constituency, professional artists?

An obvious starting point is for the Council to strengthen its ‘audience development’ initiatives to increase arts demand and counterbalance the rise in supply. In fashioning a strategy, the Council has the benefit of exciting new ‘market intelligence’ gathered through its own cheekily titled research, More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts, a gloriously detailed snapshot of Australians’ participation in the arts. Among its mountain of information, the research holds clues on which segments of the Australian public are best to target audience development initiatives. Once such segments are identified, the Council will need to apply fresh thinking to its current audience development programs, which, unusually, are predominantly focussed on supply. Useful starting points can be found in demand-led programs implemented elsewhere.³

Beyond the Australia Council, the establishment of an independent Foundation for the Artist could, if it goes ahead in the form proposed, inadvertently add to the woes of professional artists by stimulating supply even further.  The message in the ABS data is clear. Any such organisation needs to look beyond supply-side incentives and assistance: it needs also to stimulate arts demand. Not doing so will work against the organisation’s own mission, to help artists.

Arts Minister Peter Garrett will no doubt be mulling over all of this as he formulates his National Cultural Policy.  The last time Australia had something resembling a proper cultural policy was in 1994 with the Keating government’s Creative Nation. With ABS data showing a creative revolution in Australian culture, a contemporary cultural policy will need to be quite different to the industry supply-focussed Creative Nation. The current Arts Minister needs to develop a more nuanced approach: one that finds a better balance between supply and demand initiatives; one that responds to the more ‘democratised’ cultural environment while also tending to the delicate finances of professional practice. Sadly, few pointers came out of the Creative Stream of the 2020 Summit – perhaps because, oddly, the ABS data were not part of the statistical package presented to participants.

Fresh ideas and new thinking is required in Australian cultural policy. A creative revolution has changed the face of Australian culture. From the circle seats to the mosh pit, the new cultural landscape demands a reinterpretation of Australians’ creativity and a new vision for cultural policies.

Christopher Madden
July 2010

This article was featured on ArtsHub>


¹ See Pierre-Michel Menger, 2002, Are there too many artists? The excess supply issue: a measurement puzzle, an increasingly flexibility-driven functional requirement and an unavoidable mismatch effect in creative activities, and Hans Abbing, 2002, Why are artists poor? The exceptional economy of the arts.

² Much of the data here come from the comprehensive data compendium produced by the Australia Council Data on Artists’ Employment and Professional practice in Australia October 2009, Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts, February 2010, Commonwealth of Australia.

³ Examples of demand-side initiatives are the Welsh Collectorplan and the Own Art schemes of England and Scotland, which have inspired Tasmania’s Collect Art scheme, and the Culture Card in the Netherlands.


8 thoughts on “Australia’s creative revolution

  1. Pingback: The yarts debate thingy « Overland literary journal

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  7. Thank you for this report, I have referred to it many times in discussion about Australian cultural policy and artists’ incomes.


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