Rethinking the Place of Arts and Culture in Public Life

Logo Issues.jpg

Embracing Cultural Solutions

x

Good afternoon — it is my great pleasure to be invited to speak to you this afternoon at the end of your important conference. I am particularly humbled to do so in this beautiful building[1]which has been so central to the history of music making, learning and performance in Australia since it was first converted from stables to music school in 1916.

I mention the place because when we talk about culture — place is very important — place informs imagination, it can foster creativity, and a dedicated, well designed place can provide the room for talent and skill to be nurtured.

But this place is particularly special, and given my interest in the discussions about a National Cultural Policy over the past few years it is emblematic of the rich layering of Australian experience and identity which now shapes and informs our culture — which is no longer, if it ever were, singular.

Before the former convict Francis Greenway designed this building to be the stables for government house, this area was home to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation who had a life rich with ceremony and culture here on the banks of this remarkable harbour and whose legacy I think we can now say with greater confidence, will always be with us as a truly unique element of Australian identity.

In the years that have followed this building has had a number of lives and has become home to many people from many nations — brilliant musicians, dreamers, dedicated craftspeople, skilled and not so skilled politicians, students, teachers and audiences.

This is important because when we talk about culture, the art that lies at its heart, and the steps that need to be taken to enable it to thrive, we need to think about what culture means: how we might define it in a way that keeps it alive, open, able to celebrate the best, innovate, create, make sense and fulfill human and social capacity.

A rich culture grows out of such diversity, and Australia like many other settler societies has been fortunate in being able to distill the best of many others, to treasure what we have, to accept the generosity of new arrivals and create something that grows richly from these layers of human, social and economic capital.

This is now a rather more interesting opportunity than was once the case in this country. After tens of thousands of years of Indigenous settlement, and several hundred years of European settlement, contemporary Australia has forged an identity which has many layers, many deep stories, different traditions and expectations shaped by location, education and experience. We are now able to create rich, slow-cooked cultural sustenance.

Importantly we are now connected to the world with ease and immediacy that would once have been considered impossible — distance and size are no longer the obstacles to engagement we once considered them to be.

This diversity, and the richness it contributes both to the backstory of Australian identity and cultural expression and its contemporary manifestation, is enormously important. In the global village there is no longer a need for a cultural cringe, and a cultural strut is equally inappropriate. We can confidently participate on a global stage and create cultural experiences that are unique and valued here.

This is why the process of developing a national cultural policy now is important, and why it is a significantly different task to that which applied at the time of earlier interventions — the creation of the literature fund, the support for national companies and state orchestras, the ABC, the Australia Council, Film Australia, training institutions, all building to Creative Nation nearly twenty years ago.

Governments do not create culture, but a democratic state can help enable us to create our own multifaceted expressions of culture.

Nonetheless these initiatives have all been important and created the rich texture in which we operate. But the world and Australia are now very different — more diverse, more connected and the place of culture is becoming recognized as something much more than a civilizing gloss.

The elements of culture which shape how we communicate, how we celebrate, how we cohere, how we imagine and dream are not a Sunday special, but increasingly recognized as a part of daily life which we both create and participate in.

The mid 20th century perception of Australia as a cultural desert, of it being a craven place where the life of the mind was not valued, now belongs in the past. When one now looks back at the cultural products produced during that time, I suspect it was actually much richer than it was given credit for.

When Geoffrey Rush was made Australian of the Year earlier this year, it was a tremendously important appointment. There was of course a backlash from those who felt that internationally successful artists like Rush did not deserve another accolade, that such honours should be reserved for those who selflessly put back into the community. I know that none of you would be under the illusion that performing at such a level is just play — no matter how much fun he seems to be having on stage and screen — but the product of talent, discipline, skill, creativity and sheer hard work.

When I looked back at the previous recipients of this award, I was struck both by the number of artists who have received the award — and how their appointments spoke to the times. In the early years we had artists of high classical attainment: Joan Sutherland, Robert Helpmann, Patrick White, Bernard Heinze and Arthur Boyd; before the fashion tipped to those engaged in more popular arts: The Seekers, Mandawuy Yunupingu, John Farnham, Paul Hogan and Lee Kernaghan.

These exceptional individuals embody creativity, innovation and skill of the highest order. They are role models for aspiring artists, inspiration for others and a source of pride we all share when they are recognised at home and abroad. I have advocated since it was suggested during the discussions at the 2020 Summit, the need to have a Creative Australian of the year award just as we have awards for community heroes and exceptional young and old folk. Creativity is something we need to value more actively.

I am optimistic that the importance of cultural expression, about what we have to offer and the benefits that will accrue to us, to our countrymen and women and more broadly can become more widely recognized in coming years. I am firmly of the belief that a culture such has Australia has developed — diverse, adaptive, democratic, inclusive — and its creative expression holds the key to success in the 21st century.

We have all seen how over the past decade or so, ‘culture’, ‘cultural change’, ‘workplace culture’ and similar phrases have become the preferred jargon of organisations seeking greater success in the commercial world. The task we face in the public domain is more nuanced and slippery than that the corporate change consultants advocate to their clients. This is not a command and control enterprise.

Those of us engaged in the cultural sector face a challenge of how to foster creative cultures that enables us as individuals, groups and a nation to realise our potential, how to galvanise the potential of creativity applied with imagination, intelligence and discipline, how to make the cultural sector sustainable and connected, how to take the naysayers with us by building their confidence and how to critically assess our own contribution.

I know that many of you will have felt under siege from time to time as you pursue your vocations — that you will have felt with some justification, that the state and society does not value you as well as it might, that you sometimes feel that you are operating at the margins, the first to be attacked and cut in times of crisis.

So it is time to reclaim the initiative, to come up with new ways of explaining, measuring and fostering cultural value.

Several years ago I was invited to co-chair the Creative Australia stream at the 2020 summit. As those of you who were there might recall, the energy in the party room at Parliament House was palpable, there was real excitement, a great sense of possibility, of defining new ways of thinking about creativity, the arts and culture in a way that connected with the broader society and government.

Sadly a few days later the then Prime Minister responded to a media query about the work of photographer Bill Henson as though it were an ambush and he could take no prisoners and a lot of the optimism was dashed.

The best art is about possibility, imagination, about filling the back reaches of the brain, of allowing nuance and uncertainty, whereas the public domain is about winners and losers, simple binary concepts that are at odds with the way most of us, most of the time, lead our lives.

I recall this because while the public debate was raging, behind the scenes there was a lot of really interesting work being done to reconceptualise creativity, to look at new models of making the cultural sector more sustainable, of seeking ways of building stronger links across the economy and all of government — notwithstanding the challenges of the global financial crisis.

In the time since there have been a couple of ministerial advisory groups, there has been a discussion paper on a cultural policy, there have been inquiries into the private sector support, the Australia Council, the arts have been slated for inclusion in the national curriculum, online surveys have sought opinions, and hundreds of organisations like the Music Council have put a lot of thought and effort into submissions advocating the best way of devising and implementing a cultural policy.

I have watched this from fairly close quarters. The National Cultural Policy is still a work in progress, but it is a work that is likely to see the light of day in coming months.

Clearly I am not at liberty to discuss the process as it is currently developing, but I can assure you that it is being taken very seriously.

Key themes that have emerged from the public submissions revolve around adopting a more strategic approach, to leveraging the investment already made, to fostering an environment that values artists and recognizes the broader public readiness to participate.

What I would like to talk about though is some of my evolving thinking about how we describe the cultural sector, how we build links, how we measure cultural value, how we pursue cultural solutions and how if we took culture as seriously as it deserves to be taken we might look in a decade or so.

One of several elephants in the room at the 2020 meeting was the tension between those enamoured of the creative industries — of the commercial end of creativity — and those artists who saw their role as creating art for its own sake, who felt that if their contribution could only be measured in dollars the value of the discipline they had devoted their lives to might be diminished. We assigned several of the deep thinkers to resolving this tension, and I think they came up with a formulation that was very helpful. It has certainly helped me shape my thinking over the following years.

The conclusion was that the works of intrinsic value created by the most brilliant artists lay at the heart of the whole cultural sector, that the work of these exceptional individuals was central. This should not have been difficult, but it was surprisingly problematic and probably speaks to the uncertainty that many artists feel about the public value of their work.

At one level this was simple, but it begged another series of questions — how to describe, diagnose and support the full range of cultural endeavour as it intersects with other areas of society, the economy and government.

We needed to find new, more expansive ways of defining, measuring and assessing the impact of the cultural sector.

At one level the numbers are known — cultural and copyright sectors contribute hugely to GDP, to employment and the like — one of the comparators I like to use is the simple one that it is bigger than agriculture and energy generation — and just as essential.

But we have been less successful in communicating the importance of this — what it actually means and what needs to be done to ensure its continued sustainability.

Measuring Cultural Value

This demands a new way of thinking and talking about culture and creativity — a new paradigm. Maybe because it is an ugly term, new paradigms take a while to be made real, to express with clarity what has changed and what that might mean. Sometimes this comes out of threat, sometimes it comes out of opportunity.

In reflecting on this I have come to think that those of us in the cultural sector need to learn from other areas which have become mainstream, but were once at the margins — like women, environment, disability, Indigenous — that now have a recognized place in the policy making process, are generally accepted and valued.

Doing this requires new ways of defining, new ways of measuring, and new approaches to removing obstacles. We need not be afraid of the numbers, but to develop and advocate new ways of measuring cultural value, new ways of seeking out cultural solutions to intractable problems, new ways of ensuring that the artists and creative individuals at the heart of this sector are able to pursue sustainable careers — where they are able to both make meaning and money.

It is heartening that this is a project which people in many countries are now starting to work on — the old tools are not sufficient to measure cultural value and its significance. Last week the National Endowment for the Arts in the US announced a major five year research project, a similar initiative has commenced in the UK, Boris Johnson’s cultural cities project of the London Olympics took a step in this direction, and all around the world in developed and developing countries governments are trying to find ways to loosen the constraints on creativity, to enable culture to flower and the soft connections that make places attractive to others. The dire state of much of the world’s economy makes this both harder and more urgent — my sense is that there is a lot happening below the radar, and when the world’s economy turns up this will be realized.

Before describing my thinking on this I would like to go back to a famous quote by Robert Kennedy in 1968 not long before he was assassinated — because it helps to define the problem and suggest what needs to be done:

Too much and for too long we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things…we judge by the gross national product that counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of out natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet it does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion not our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short except what makes life worthwhile.

With her very fine book, Double Entry, Jane Gleeson-White has made us again realise that the whole process of accounting and economics is manmade — constructed for very particular reasons — and that while it is not necessarily easy the method of counting we use is not preordained — it is capable of adaptation, and indeed must to respond to a changing world.

So we have seen the emergence of the triple bottom line, methods of measuring quality of life, of attempts to assess the environmental impact of major developments before they proceed, of methods to evaluate the cultural impact of traditional sites before development goes ahead. Each has been resisted, but come to be accepted over time.

So too we need to think more expansively about cultural value, and the tools that could be used to measure it — tools that include traditional economic indicators, but go further, because culture is about more than just making money.

I would like to use this opportunity to explain how my thinking has evolved over the past few years. At the end of the 2020 summit I had to do a summing up and I said that the time had come to think of the arts, creativity and culture less as the icing on the top of the cake than as one of the essential ingredients, I don’t think I realized just how challenging that idea would be. It is fair to say that there are many — including those who hold the purse strings — who are happy for this sector to be the icing because then it doesn’t get in the way.

In reconceptualising this in my own mind I have worked with some wonderful people, and I would like to acknowledge those involved in the New Models New Money project — including Peter Shergold, David Throsby, David Gonski, Robyn Archer, Cathy Hunt, and Leigh Tabrett.

Some of you will be familiar with the important work of John Holden and the Demos Foundation did in defining cultural practice and seeking new ways of measuring cultural value. In that work which has been so very influential Holden sought to measure both the intrinsic and the instrumental and industry values of culture which he felt was being distorted by an over reliance on simple economic indicators.

As we have worked on this model and linked it to the UNESCO framework on cultural sectors we have now come up with a very useful descriptive and diagnostic tool — which can both help shape thinking about points of intervention and importantly point to new ways of measuring value and impact.

Visualising the Cultural Sector

Now I am going to test my powers of description and your powers of imagination, because it was beyond my technical skills to develop a PowerPoint slide which would show this — but I hope to be able to describe to you what I have found to be a useful way of framing and describing the cultural sector. I think that this has great utility and describes the sector in a way in which we can all find a place.

So here goes: I would like you to imagine four concentric circles. The inner circle is that exceptional art which has intrinsic value, works of great skill and originality that they have a life that endures — the cherry at the centre of the pie.

The next circle is one which represents the institutional value of culture — the works which help define us to ourselves and represent us to others, collected as part of our living heritage in the national museums, performed in the centres we have built as part of national cultural infrastructure.

The next circle represents the instrumental value of culture — the way as you know better than most, art can aid social cohesion, help people achieve their potential, build healthier and happier communities, put children in touch with their imaginations and dreams.

The next circle represents the industry value — the creative industries which draw on the cultural creativity to create products than have a significant economic value and provide wonderful opportunities to enrich our lives as consumers.

Now I would like to ask you to imagine these four circles as a pie, which is divided into eight segments. These segments are the eight sectors UNESCO have agreed, for the purposes of internationally standardized measurement, make up the cultural sector — Indigenous, Heritage, Music, Performance, Screen, Visual, Writing and Design.

So if we take the slice of the pie, which is music, you have at the pointy end of the triangle — and a sliver of the cherry at its centre — original works of music composed, created and performed by individuals and groups of genius. This includes the whole body of heritage works and the new works which set our horizons high, that open our minds to possibility.

The next segment is the institutional — the performance of music in places of national and local importance, the export of works we consider especially valuable or representative, the works that speak to us as Australians in a global village, that like the Australian Chamber Orchestra perform the greats or Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu sings with a distinctiveness that others recognize as Australian.

The next is the instrumental — so that includes the teaching of music, the use of music in health and other community settings — the place where many of those most committed to the teaching, creation and performance of music find their vocation.

Then the industry of music, the business of recording, performing, producing, selling music which has the world singing along with Gotye or the singers on Australian Idol setting new records for iTune downloads.

Each of these segments requires a different business model, a different way of measuring success and outcomes, a different way of engaging with the public sector and philanthropists, but each informs the other — there could be no industry without the intrinsic works, no institutional opportunities without the instrumental teaching fostering exceptional musicians and informed and knowledgeable audiences.

Now the importance of this is that it means when it comes to public policy arguments about the value of culture that there are a number of different yet complementary areas which need to be measured and which have a bearing on the outcomes of other activities — it also suggests a way in which the cultural sector might engage with the whole of government, not just the ministry of arts.

Clearly there is a link between the institutional value of culture and foreign affairs, infrastructure, communications, tourism, even defence; the instrumental role intersects with education, health, welfare, community affairs, migration, Indigenous affairs; the industry sector intersects with trade, research, innovation, tourism, infrastructure, communications and so on.

In the cultural policy discussions we struck on a notion of cultural solutions — which recognizes the place of culture and creative expression in the instrumental ring where a great deal of public funds are spent. One of the members of the group, who came up with this term, described his own trajectory, from being a tearaway in a poor suburb to being one of the nation’s cultural leaders — it was exposure to a drama class that turned him around.

We all know examples, but how do we operationalise this? If we look at many of the biggest issues we face as a society — many have eluded resolution by legal or economic means — but a cultural approach may be more rewarding. This is an exciting challenge that can extend the scope of our activities in exciting ways.

Work was done on this earlier this decade to systematically measure cultural value, to evaluate the impact of community projects, to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the creative industries. To some degree this has fallen out of favor and needs to be revised with rigour if it is to achieve its potential.

Sadly the evaluation process is generally ad hoc rather than systematic and designed to grow — it is still easier at a public policy level to put culture in a small arts box that can be given and taken at will.

Rather what is needed is an approach which recognizes that culture impacts across the whole of government and that government has a role to play in enabling us to realise our right to create and express ourselves creatively.

That means that there is at least as much a need to think about the cultural impact of major initiatives as there is to think about the economic dimension. It may be that there are cultural solutions which are more effective than economic or legal ones, it may be that doing cultural due diligence on major projects could make them more effective.

Few of the biggest projects undertaken in recent years have attempted to factor in the cultural impact — and to prepare for it before they proceed — all would have been stronger if this had been done before the money was committed: building education revolution, NBN, the NT intervention.

My argument is that there is circularity in this — we need to attempt to assess cultural impact built into the evaluation of major initiatives before they are undertaken. But if this is to be done properly we will need to find new ways of measuring cultural value, will have to ensure that rigorous data is collected and collated and compared over time, that we work with both statistics and stories to assess impact.

Think back twenty years — the notion of an environmental impact statement was odd and contested — now it is normal. You might argue with the reports on major projects at the margins, but methodologies have been developed which makes it possible to make informed judgments on major projects. Similarly the process of assessing the cultural value of traditional Indigenous sites once would have been unimaginable not so long ago — again there is still contest, but ways of measuring and assessing have evolved. Or take the notion of ensuring that there is not discrimination on the basis of gender or disability, not so long ago that was contested, now it is accepted — it can be measured and evaluated and we accept that the public benefit is greater than the cost of inclusion.

In the cultural space it seems to me that we need to be similarly assertive — to develop ways of measuring that include but go beyond statistics, that join the dots and develop a new paradigm for cultural value that is not apologetic, mendicant or uncritical — but recognizes that it is through cultural engagement that full human capacity can be realized, and that the benefit of this is essential to our humanity, of value to our society and economically significant.

I don’t expect that this is something that will happen overnight — but it is a worthy project, one that has the potential to benefit us all, and put a real value on those things that really make life worthwhile.

Author

Julianne Schultz. Professor Schultz, of Griffith University, Brisbane, was the featured speaker at the Annual Assembly of the Music Council of Australia, at the Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, on 24 September 2012. The speech was first published in The Australian on 27 September. Entered into knowledge base on 25 November 2012 with additional references for internet use. For a more complete description of the author, please click on her name above.

References

  1. The 2012 MCA Assembly took place at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, known affectionately as the Con. ED.
Share your opinion