An arts council by any other name

An arts council by any other nameThe 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.

Christopher Madden

Work in selected cultural activites 2007
Selected activities Number of people involved Percent of adult population Percent increase from 2004
Photography 638,600 3.9 113
Drawing 558,000 3.4 93
Creating artworks with a computer 552,500 3.4 93
Painting 463,000 2.8 76
Furniture-making and wood crafts 316,800 1.9 55
Textile crafts 282,400 1.7 96
Other craft activities 260,400 1.6 113
Designing websites 254,300 1.6 34
Jewellery making 192,900 1.2 204
Film production 101,000 0.6 0.2
Designing computer games & other
interactive software
75,400 0.5 38.1
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007, Work in Selected Culture and Leisure Activities, Australia (cat. no. 6281.0)

3 thoughts on “An arts council by any other name

  1. Christopher,

    I will leave you to have the rest of your debate with Ben but one of the things i am keen to respond you is your disconnect between the surge in craft related activity (and “Australia’s cultural revolution” as you described it elsewhere) and technological change. I would argue, and have in the past, that the surge in craft is actually a product of the same technological revolution you seem to suggest it refutes.

    See, for example,

    Ben, in his Overland piece perhaps places more emphasis than i would on digitally deliverable forms of culture. However, the larger point is that ALL cultural activity (or arts and/or craft activity) is being transformed by the forces i described in the article above: The globalisation of markets and peer networks, the democratisation and sharing of information and skills, the ability to form communities of interest (facilitated by technology but often ultimately physical) around once unsustainable niches. In your own analysis of the surging participation figures you seem to have not even mentioned the internet and the resulting realignment of markets, niches, information and audiences as a factor.

    Unless there is some strong evidence to the contrary i would argue that rather than surging interests in distinctly analogue crafts being a counterpoint to an argument that technological change is driving cultural change it is actually evidence of it.

    I have a forthcoming essay in Meanjin that extensively addressed this but from my own experience, the Renew Newcastle project is based in large part on targeting the burgeoning new craft communities. That entire project is essentially pitched at a layer of global digital cottage industries (often producing music, crafts, or something that is not in itself “high tech”) that can only exist (in Newcastle at least) as a result of new global economies of scale. What evidence do i have for that? We found most of them the same way they find each other – on the internet.

    • Marcus
      Your piece provides a good explanation for why we see the trends in the ABS’s Work in culture/leisure activities collection. I wish I had seen it earlier. Sadly the Work collection doesn’t provide data on internet use in creative practice (which would provide additional hard evidence for what you are witnessing in your work). The Throsby artist survey, which has asked questions on technology in 2001 and 2007, may provide some ‘hard data’ into the impact of technology on artistic creation, if hard data was of interest. The Ozco’s participation survey would be even better, but is so far only a one-off, so there is no trend information.

      I agree that technology is radically transforming cultural participation, and apologise if I gave the impression I thought otherwise. My revolution article was simply designed to point out that there has been a revolution – and quite a stunning one – that requires more attention than has been given to it by analysts and policymakers. I didn’t get so far as to trying to explain the underlying causes, which I think you have sketched out well in your blog item. In my response to Ben’s article I did not put the data forward to ‘refute’ technological cultural change as you seem to suggest. I just wanted to refute Ben’s claim that ‘screen based’ and digital forms of cultural practice dominate and his implication that forms based on traditional media are becoming less relevant – the point of course is that technology has allowed non-digital cultural forms to grow, and the evidence reveals this. It doesn’t mean I think people involved in crafts aren’t using computers and digital media to their advantage!

      What I think this shows how careful we need to be when talking about technology and culture – we need to be sure we don’t conflate things, and content and medium in particular. For what it’s worth, I use the following map:

      1. Cultural content: the aesthetic, affective, cognitive and spiritual meaning encoded in a work or experience.
      2. Medium: how the content is manifest materially. (In wood, clay; on paper, canvas; in ones and noughts on a CD, online)
      3. Enabling technologies, which help the creator realise content creation and produce work. (Paint brushes, Photoshop, printing presses, digital recording software )
      4. Distribution methods by which content is linked between agents. (art galleries, online stores)

      This is simplistic, and there’s lots of crossover and feedback, but I find it useful. Much of your article on crafts talks about the amazing impact that enabling and distribution technologies are having on engagement in ‘traditional’ cultural media. We are in total agreement that these technologies are opening up possibilities and transforming cultural participation, across cultural forms.

  2. I don’t have long to respond as i am off to do a talk this evening.

    But yes, we are very much in tense agreement again! I will have to come back to your 4 point map when i have time to think about it a little bit more – i tend to think of culture in terms of fluid dynamics so unpacking and breaking it down is a little counter-intuitive to me.

    However, I thought i’d quickly flick you this link to a talk i gave to VAPAC last week that addresses some of these themes and issues.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s