A poverty of inquiry

Imagine if the number of Australians playing sport doubled in five years. Would the Sports Minister go out to the media crowing about the success of sports policy? Most likely. What if research showed participation in a football code – say, Aussie rules – tripled over four years? Would the AFL shout this from the rooftops, exalting a new wave of popularity for Aussie rules? You bet. Why, then, when trends of this magnitude occurred in the arts, hardly a word was said?

Between 2001 and 2007 the number of Australian adults undertaking creative work in the arts doubled according to Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Work in culture/leisure collection. Increases in some art forms were extraordinary – visual arts rose a colossal 181 percent. That’s almost a tripling in creative participation in the visual arts.

Yet the Minister was silent. Policy bodies said nothing. Reaction from peak arts bodies – what little there was – was, to be generous, underwhelming.

Numbers like these come around once in a blue moon, if ever. It would be rare for a politician or industry representative to miss the chance to crow about positive trends in the hundreds of percent. Why would the arts miss such an opportunity?

I believe that the problem lies with an imbalance in the system that produces knowledge about culture and cultural policy in Australia. Thanks to the cultural statistics programs of the ABS and government agencies we now have a mountain of cultural data, but we don’t have enough interpretation about what all that data means.

We have, in short, a wealth of data but a poverty of inquiry.

A widespread poverty
The disregard shown to the astonishing trends revealed in the ABS Work collection is symptomatic of the imbalance. Other examples are not hard to find.

In August 2010 the Australia Council released the latest in David Throsby’s series of surveys on Australian artists. And, as with each of the previous surveys, attention focussed almost solely on artists’ relatively low incomes.

A major survey is an expensive way to produce a headline that can be obtained from other sources. And it misses other more interesting stories in the data. For example, the survey suggests the professional arts in Australia have come to the end of a golden era: for the first time since the surveys began, the population of Australia’s artists grew less than the Australian population. This is a new development in the data, unlike low relative incomes, and deserves much more attention than it received. Why has the number of professional artists stalled? What does it mean? What, if anything, should be done about it?

The Throsby surveys, which stretch back to the late ‘80s, contain a huge pool of detailed information that remains largely untapped. So too the data held by the ABS. The ABS’ recently published statistical overview, substantial though it is, is the tip of a very large data iceberg. How much interesting, policy-relevant information is gathering dust in libraries and archives across Australia?

The Australasian approach
In an editorial for an upcoming special Australasian edition of the journal Cultural Trends, I argue that the source of the problem may lie in the ‘Australasian approach’ to cultural statistics, recognisable by a high degree of government agency involvement in producing statistical reports on culture. Government agencies like the ABS are data producers, not data interpreters – they produce information for others to interpret and imbue with meaning. The problem is, interpretation is thin on the ground. Interpretation by policy agencies is subject to ministerial sensitivities and transparency issues, and is limited to the agencies’ own specific strategic priorities. Few academics and independent analysts have the inclination or time to undertake ongoing monitoring and interpretation of the masses of cultural data produced. The use of data by industry commentators is variable.

The Australasian approach to cultural statistics favours the production of information, not the development of wisdom.

This is a lost opportunity. The data produced by agencies like the ABS is very high-quality. (The most recent Work collection survey was based on a sample size of over 26,000 people, a scale that few independent researchers can achieve) There are well-known problems with collections like the Census, but these have been mitigated through special collections tailored to culture, such as the ABS’ Work series and the Australia Council’s professional artist and participation surveys. When used together, and used well, these data collections provide a rich mine of information for understanding cultural trends and their implications for cultural policies. And they can be a powerful advocacy tool too. The cultural sector may be less than enamoured with data, but robust well-presented statistics are a potent addition to an advocate’s arsenal.

The challenge
A key challenge for the cultural sector and policymakers is, I believe, to encourage greater analysis and interpretation of the cultural data produced by Australasian government agencies. If the problem lies in the cultural policy research and information system itself, one place to start looking for solutions is in systems used overseas. These are well documented in the late Mark Schuster’s Informing Cultural Policy: The Research and Information Infrastructure. The ‘cultural observatory’ model is an obvious starting point. Popular in Europe, an observatory is an independent ‘think tank’ tasked with analysing and interpreting cultural data. It is in a way a version of the Cultural Ministers’ Council Statistics Working Group, but operating arm’s length from policy and funding bodies.

The observatory model may be prohibitively expensive in an Australasian context, but could serve as a benchmark for intermediate approaches. A brokering model, such as the academic partnerships brokered by the Research Division of the Australia Council, is an intermediate step that might be more suitable for Australia. Any change to the current system would likely involve the diversion of resources currently dedicated to producing data reports, but if this done through partnerships, it could result in a net increase in resources as well as producing much-needed interpretation and analysis.

Whatever is the best approach, one thing is for sure: encouraging interpretation and analysis of the substantial data on culture and cultural policy would be invaluable, both for advocating culture and for improving cultural policies. We need to turn a poverty of inquiry into a wealth of understanding.

Christopher Madden

Cultural Trends Special Australasian edition, part 1: measurement
Vol. 19, No. 4, December 2010

Editorial: Special Australasian edition, part 1: measurement
Christopher Madden (Read a pre-print copy of the editorial)

Cultural indicators: assessing the state of the arts in Australia
Kay Ferres, David Adair and Ronda Jones

Searching for the “public” in Public Value: arts and cultural heritage in Australia
Carol Scott

Meaningful measurement: a literature review and Australian and British case studies of arts organizations conducting “artistic self-assessment”
Jackie Bailey and Lance Richardson

Measuring the intrinsic benefits of arts attendance
Jennifer Radbourne, Hilary Glow and Katya Johanson

Geographic Information Technologies for cultural research: cultural mapping and the prospects of colliding epistemologies
Chris Gibson, Chris Brennan-Horley and Andrew Warren

The second volume will be released in 2011.

The Australia Council library subscribes to Cultural Trends.

The journal is also available online:
Cultural Trends, Vol. 19, No. 4, December 2010>

A version of this article was published on ArtsHub, 26 November 2010


5 thoughts on “A poverty of inquiry

  1. Pingback: Australasian edition of Cultural Trends | artspolicies.org Christopher Madden

  2. Pingback: An introduction to Australian cultural policy | culture360.org

  3. Pingback: An introduction to Australian cultural policy | artspolicies.org Christopher Madden

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