The literary journal Overland asked me to respond to an article in its September 2010 issue, Culture is bigger than the arts, in which Ben Eltham pleads for Australia’s cultural policy to be liberated from its stuffiness. Ben calls for cultural policy to adopt a wider notion of culture – one that includes game design and all manner of ‘screen based art forms’ – and for policy to move on from supporting ‘elite’ arts.
My response to Ben’s article, An arts council by any other name, focuses more on Ben’s method than his proposed reforms. I have no problem with promoting change in cultural policy. Culture is a fluid and dynamic thing, so it is critically important that policy evolve with culture to stay relevant. I have argued that mechanisms should be built into the cultural policy system to facilitate this change.
I’m not sure the changes advocated by Ben would necessarily achieve this, but it is his method of argument that I find most worrying. The methodological problems I discuss in the article are:
- The case is founded on an assumptions about cultural engagement that are not supported by evidence.
- Rationales used to support the proposed reforms are not consistent with policy theory (in particular the notion of ‘public benefit’).
- Data used to support the case are not robust and relate to only a small part of the cultural policy system.
- A number of the reforms could not be undertaken by the new agency proposed.
- The reforms proposed address only a minor part of the policy system.
The article looks at these methodological problems and tries to offer alternatives based on public policy theory and practice, and on my previous work in cultural policy research and analysis. This is quite difficult to do in a short piece in a literary journal, so my response only skims the surface.
If cultural sector advocates want to effect policy change, I believe it is important they ensure that their methods stand up to scrutiny and their arguments speak to policy makers. Questionable methods weaken an advocate’s case and lessen the chance that their ideas for reform will gain traction. In another blog item, Advocating cultural policy change, I follow up my ideas by looking at six ways I think cultural sector advocates can improve their chances of success in arguing for policy reform.
|Work in selected cultural activites 2007|
|Selected activities||Number of people involved||Percent of adult population||Percent increase from 2004|
|Creating artworks with a computer||552,500||3.4||93|
|Furniture-making and wood crafts||316,800||1.9||55|
|Other craft activities||260,400||1.6||113|
|Designing computer games & other
|Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007, Work in Selected Culture and Leisure Activities, Australia (cat. no. 6281.0)|