Understanding the value of our arts and culture – The Arts Party
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September 21, 2017
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Understanding the value of our arts and culture

By Stephen Cassidy

Reproduced from Stephen’s excellent blog, Indefinite Article. You can subscribe to Stephen’s posts directly by visiting https://cassarticle.blogspot.com.au/


With arts and cultural support increasingly under pressure, arts and cultural organisations and artists are trying to find ways in their own localities to respond and to help build a popular understanding of the broader social and economic benefits of arts and culture. Much work has been done in Australia and internationally to understand, assess and communicate the broad value of arts and culture. The challenge is to share and apply what already exists – and to take it further.

If we think – for whatever reason – that arts and culture is of value, it is helpful to be clear exactly why it has value. Apart from the secondary usefulness of this for arguing for support or commitment of government and private resources, it has a much more important primary use. If we value something, it is useful to understand what that value consists of.

  
Breakout session at the Arts Value Forum on the link between arts and culture and identity and society.

We value many things – how do we make a judgement about what we value most? It’s like the thorny question asked of those about to flee a fire – what would you take first, your family photo albums, your pets? It’s a question that tends to sharpen the mind and has many useful applications. If we understand how and why we value something we are better placed to fully realise that value – as well as share it, protect it and extend it.

The Arts Value Forum
The recent Arts Value Forum (#ArtsValueForum) presented at the Canberra Theatre Centre by local ACT arts advocacy body, The Childers Group, of which I am currently a member, in conjunction with the ACT Cultural Facilities Corporation, has turned my mind again to some work I had been preparing over the last 12 months. It looks at how we understand, assess and communicate the broad value of arts and culture.

With arts and cultural support increasingly under pressure, arts and cultural organisations and artists are trying to find ways in their own localities to respond and to help build a popular understanding of the broader social and economic benefits of arts and culture.

The Arts Value Forum aimed to help equip those attending to understand and explain the broad value of arts and culture in our communities. To emphasise the important role of Government in supporting and drawing on the arts, the Forum was opened by the Head of the ACT Public Service, Kathy Leigh.

‘With arts and cultural support increasingly under pressure, arts and cultural organisations and artists are trying to find ways in their own localities to respond and to help build a popular understanding of the broader social and economic benefits of arts and culture.’

The Forum asked ‘What exactly do the arts do for us: for our society, for our economy, for our health and wellbeing, for innovation, for education, for self-expression – and for the creation of beautiful and useful things? How do we understand, express and measure the value of the arts?’

 
Closing session of Arts Value Forum, Canberra Theatre Centre, July 2017.

Leading experts and practitioners in health, economics, culture and the arts shared insights on the diverse impact and value of the arts in our community. The stellar lineup of arts and cultural practitioners took part in an extended conversation designed to make the value of the arts clearer. The aim was for participants to walk away with fresh insight into how to speak with their audiences and customers, with their funding body, sponsors and neighbours – to convey clearly what it is they do, and how their work in the arts adds value to society.

Shared recognition and understanding
A shared and agreed recognition and understanding of the broad value of arts and culture is an issue for every country and every community. Working in the arts and culture sector or in the part of government dealing with it, this is an everyday issue. For those who recognise the strategic importance of the arts and culture sector to win wide acceptance of that, a broad and long-term campaign to change hearts and minds is needed. For that evidence and a clear understanding of how it all works is required.

However, we also need evidence and understanding for our own purposes. In my time managing various national arts and cultural funding programs I quickly realised that while government funding bodies might need the sort of information collected from funded organisations, those organisations needed it far more – for their planning and to report to their Boards and their communities. They needed it to know whether what they were doing was effective and worthwhile – or whether they should have been doing something else.

‘We…need evidence and understanding for our own purposes….While government funding bodies might need the sort of information collected from funded organisations, those organisations [need] it far more – for their planning and to report to their Boards and their communities.’

We are now well into 2017, still wondering if it will be a better – or worse – year for Australia’s arts and culture than the last three. It seems a good moment to revisit the fundamental question of how we assess and communicate the value of arts and culture.

It is particularly pertinent as the arts and culture sector starts to organise in a more effective way to prevent, or at least limit, the sort of cultural damage we have seen recently and to look to the long term future of Australia’s arts and culture.

Global challenges and connections
My revisiting of the importance of research for arts and culture was originally stimulated by a presentation from Professor Geoffrey Crossick while on a visit to Australia in July last year. The talk reminded me how crucial an issue this is for countries world-wide.

I’ve been thinking about this issue since the talk last year and, with my involvement in the Arts Value Forum yesterday, it focused my mind even more. In this article I look at some of the central issues in researching the value of arts and culture, while referring back to the UK study, where relevant. I have also written a second related article about my own experience working on research about arts and culture while I was in the Australian Government. I’ll publish that in the near future.

Professor Geoffrey Crossick is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study of the University of London, Director of the ‘Cultural Value’ project of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and co-author of its report, ‘Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture’. The study illustrates how, just like the Australian arts and culture sector, the British have had to grapple with this issue. In his talk he spoke about some of the issues it tried to address.

Understanding and misunderstanding – arts and culture and the role of government
This study set out to understand the value of arts and culture, rather than to provide a lobbying or advocacy tool. In doing so, it helped lay the basis for more informed and focused advocacy about the value of arts and culture. The study also clearly noted the critical point I mentioned earlier about the importance of evaluation and research for cultural organisations themselves, rather than mainly being driven by the need to report to funding bodies. This is not to say that the needs of funding bodies or the priorities of government aren’t important, merely that the starting point for engagement has to be the recognition that research is not simply to help tick boxes, but to inform strategy.

Professor Crossick began by asking ‘How should we understand the difference that arts and culture makes to individuals and to society?’ He went on to note that the case is too often presented in terms of benefits that are thought to be important to the government of the day while neglecting some of the more fundamental benefits that matter to us all. As a result, he argued, we need to think again about how we discuss these issues and not make claims that are difficult to substantiate. He also noted that it is important to demonstrate that methods from the arts and humanities have a good deal to offer as we seek evidence for the difference that arts and culture makes.

‘An important priority will be to ensure that the research to date – of all kinds and scale – is not overlooked by those working in the arts and culture sector and that we neither reinvent the wheel not overlook crucial areas that we still know little about.’

I found his discussion of this global challenge and global effort compelling because of its relevance to the very same challenges we face in Australia. This is true elsewhere as well. Part of the project was also linked to North American efforts, with a joint symposium organised with the US Endowment for the Arts to incorporate North American experience. Hopefully that research is currently being used in the United States to argue the case for government support for arts and culture, in a changed political environment that was not envisaged at the time of the project.

However, we have to keep the involvement of government in support for arts and culture in perspective. Governments of all kinds will express their support for arts and culture in many of the same terms as the arts and culture sector itself. Further, while the economic benefits of arts and culture may be only one aspect of its impact, we have to recognise that if we are talking about governments having to justify their spending of taxpayer money on arts and culture, economic benefits are always going to have to be demonstrated.

The report of the Cultural Value Project also makes mention of the influential work of Australian cultural economist David Throsby in this area. There is an enormous amount of work available, both in terms of the discussion of how to value culture (considering intrinsic versus instrumental approaches and looking at the issue of economic benefits) and attempts to define and measure the value of culture. An immense amount of this work has been done in Australia, some of it quite far-reaching, and it is an ongoing priority for researchers.

Challenge to share and communicate
A former colleague and experienced researcher at the Australia Council, Mandy Whitford, has been very helpful in directing me to some of the array of research that has occurred or is underway, both in Australia and overseas. Mandy previously worked in the Arts Division of the Department of Communications and the Arts and brings that valuable background to her current work. In the Arts Division she worked with me in the Indigenous cultural programs and produced some ground-breaking work of the important role of First Nations culture and languages in building individual and community wellbeing.

In Australia, the Cultural Development Network and the Local Government Cultural Forumhave undertaken a considerable body of work on outcome measures and the Cultural Development Network publishes a regular newsletter. There is also other work happening across various areas of government to align definitions and frameworks.

The Australia Council’s 2015 Arts Nation report brought together research information and indicators, including some experimental analysis of the economic contribution of the arts to wellbeing (see pages 41-43). I understand that the Australia Council is undertaking a revamp of its website to enable better sharing and promoting of research and data, with a move towards open data. In 2017 Arts Nation became an interactive web presence. Online, Arts Nation continues and expands the work of the original publication, presenting the full range of Australia Council research in an interactive and accessible format.

This includes the Council’s latest study Connecting Australians: Results of the National Arts Participation Survey, which confirms the significant and increasing personal value Australians place on the impacts of the arts, including on our wellbeing; and the ways in which they make our communities stronger and more cohesive. It also includes a recent study the Australia Council published with Macquarie University, Reading the Reader, which looks at the value Australians place on books and reading.

From 2012 to 2015, Professor Throsby and Howard Morphy undertook an ARC Linkage research project on the Value of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage. There has also been an enormous amount of research about remote Indigenous art centres published under the large-scale multi-year, multi-pronged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Economies project, which took place from July 2010 to June 2016.  The project outline, furtherproject information and an extensive list of reports and other material produced by the project are all available.

‘An important challenge will be to ensure that the research to date – of all kinds and scale and from all countries – is not overlooked by those working in the arts and culture sector and that we neither reinvent the wheel nor overlook crucial areas that we still know little about. Sharing and communicating the research that has been done already will be crucial.’

The Institute for Culture and Society at the Western Sydney University has also produced a large body of wide-ranging research. The Institute researches transformations in culture and society in the context of contemporary global change. It champions collaborative engaged research in the humanities and social sciences for a globalising digital age.

There is also the wide range of research produced by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology. The Centre for Excellence is a broadly-based, cross-disciplinary, internationally-focused centre embracing both fundamental theoretical, and highly applied, research in media, cultural and communication studies, law, education, economics and business and information technology, addressing key problems and opportunities arising for Australia, the Asian region, and more broadly in the world, from innovation in and through the creative economy. Its pioneering work on identifying the scope and reach of the creative economy has had wide-spread application. In fact, when I used to work on creative industries research and policy in the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts from 2002 to 2005, the Department and the National Office for the Information Economy actively partnered with the Queensland University of Technology and the Australian Film Commission to help develop this research. The results were used to inform policy development. and briefings.

The use of the approach of Culture Counts is growing as a measurement tool in Australia, and the UK-based company draws on the expertise of partner, Michael Chappell, Managing Director of Australian company, Pracsys. Michael Chappell was on the Panel at the Arts Value Forum.

There are also a number of useful reports about the economic contribution of arts and culture. These include the ‘Economic Contribution of Australia’s Copyright Industries, 2002-2014’, prepared by Price Waterhouse Cooper in 2015 for the Australian Copyright Council. There is also a 2013 report prepared for the Creative Industries Innovation Centre by CSG Economics, ‘Valuing Australia’s Creative Industries’.

There have also been a range of international studies, including the Cultural and Creative Industries Study, which takes a global perspective, the 2015 report by the Arts Council of England, Contribution of the arts and culture industry to the national economy, and the US report, National Center for Arts Research: Volume Two Report. There is also the recent report of the all party Parliamentary inquiry in the UK into the link between arts and health.

An important challenge will be to ensure that the research to date – of all kinds and scale and from all countries – is not overlooked by those working in the arts and culture sector and that we neither reinvent the wheel nor overlook crucial areas that we still know little about. Sharing and communicating the research that has been done already will be crucial.

Addressing a global issue
There are some important issues for research of this nature, which are underlined in the British study, but which arise more generally.

  • It needs to address some important dichotomies, such as intrinsic/instrumental, popular/elite, and professional/amateur.
  • It is important to cast the research net broadly to look at not just subsidised art and culture, but also commercial, participatory, and amateur. In a digital world these are increasingly important and the distinction between them and subsidised arts is far less sharp. It’s also good to then look at the intersection and overlap across the whole range of activity – publically-funded, private and commercial.
  • It is crucial to address the question of identifying causal pathways and recognises that these pathways are long and winding and often not immediately obvious because the causal links are indirect.
  • The value of a palette of methodologies for different tasks needs to be recognised – horses for courses – and the importance of a long-term approach. This means selecting the methodology appropriate to the specific study undertaken, to understand different components of the value of arts and culture. Longitudinal studies are crucial in any complex area like this.
  • Noted researcher, Distinguished Professor Stuart Cunningham, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at Queensland University of Technology, has added a word of caution. We need to recognise a major issue with this sort of research is that there is a very high level of correlation between high socio-economic status and already accumulated cultural capital and spending in the arts. This can muddy the waters of research about the broader impacts of arts and culture.


Avoiding the trap of misguided dichotomies
There is a useful discussion in the UK report about the very long tradition of instrumentalism in looking at arts and culture, which notes than an instrumental view can encompass both the positive – and negative – impacts of arts and culture. The dichotomy between the instrumental and the intrinsic value of arts and culture can be another trap for the unwary.

‘We have to move beyond such dichotomies in search of a more dynamic view of arts and culture.’

Focusing on restrictive dichotomies, like ‘excellence’ on the one hand and the broadening of access and involvement on the other, is ultimately counter-productive – just as in sport or science or most other areas of human activity, supporting a broad base of interest and involvement is the only way to build a strong body of ‘excellence’.

We have to move beyond such dichotomies in search of a more dynamic view of arts and culture. One way might be to recognise that the span of culture is so broad that while we need to recognise that it is all interconnected, perhap it’s time to acknowledge that creative industries might need to be addressed by economic policy and other aspects of culture by cultural policy or by a mix of both.

Perhaps there is no one answer. It reminds me of a forum on First Nations languages in schools, organised by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority when it was developing the Australian national curriculum. Asked whether they would prefer to have a separate Indigenous strand in the curriculum or an Indigenous component in each of the individual subject strands, the First Nations languages organisations present replied that to be effective, both were needed.

The big and broad picture – looking beyond the obvious and the immediate
It’s important to look beyond funding when we talk about the arts, so it is critical that research enables us to broaden the terms of discussion far beyond the question of arts funding.

The UK project refers to both narrower and broader definitions of culture, as it grapples with the age old and thorny question of what culture actually is. I found this echoed very practical discussions that had occurred within the Australian Government around the scope of arts and culture. When the national arts and culture agency, now called the Arts Division of the Department of Communications and the Arts, was transferred to the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts after the election of the Rudd Government, an interesting ‘culture’ shock ensued.

‘Focusing on restrictive dichotomies, like “excellence” on the one hand and the broadening of access and involvement on the other, is ultimately counter-productive – just as in sport or science or most other areas of human activity, supporting a broad base of interest and involvement is the only way to build a strong body of “excellence”.’

The Indigenous cultural programs moved into a much broader range of Indigenous programs, encompassing heritage, the physical environment and landcare and traditional knowledge. To these areas, culture meant the whole broad gamut of shared human values and social practices – what communities believed and how they interacted with others and the environment. For the arts and culture division, culture was much more focused, the creative expression of this broader form of culture and initially there was confusion about what everyone meant when they said ‘culture’.

The British study found that the main area of cultural involvement and engagement is in the home. It makes the point that research in 2011 estimated that 94% of the viewing of film ocurs in the home, yet all our public discussion of film is about it being shown and watched in theatres. This is why the digital realm will become increasingly important because, for the home, the digital universe is the main window into the world.

‘The broader and longer-term impact of arts and culture through personal experience of involvement in arts and cultural activity is so pervasive and profound that the relatively restricted framework of something like an economic impact study cannot possibly capture it.’

We also have to be prepared to reconsider our starting point. The cultural value study touches on this in considering the issue of how culturally pre-ordained hierarchies shape research by influencing the questions being asked – which of course dictates the sort of answers that are possible. It notes, ‘We’re interested in whether studying music improves ability in maths, but not whether studying maths improves ability in music.’

The cultural value study also argues that the broader and longer-term impact of arts and culture through personal experience of involvement in arts and cultural activity is so pervasive and profound that the relatively restricted framework of something like an economic impact study cannot possibly capture it.

How and how much: complex long term causal paths and the scale of impact
Let’s move beyond the undeniable immediate impact of arts and culture. At the heart of understanding the broader value of arts and culture is the need to understand the winding and complex path of causality, linked with the need for longitudinal studies to track the long-term impacts, coupled with the need for evaluation to be built into projects from the very start. We need sophisticated analysis because we are talking about quite complex causal paths. The distinction the study emphasises between qualitative and quantitative research, and the importance of both, bears on the difference between tracking the causal path on the one hand and measuring the extent of the impact on the other.

Some of Australia’s most effective cultural organisations operate with a firm focus on the broader impacts of arts and culture. For example, BIG hART, Australia’s leading arts and social change company, is well aware that such impacts are many and diverse. However it is not only organisations like BIG hART – that consciously seek broader impacts – which create them. One of our challenges is to discern the more indirect and subtle social and economic impacts of artists and organisations that may not even consciously seek them.

It’s a useful starting point to take the view that arts and culture is of value in its own right – for an infinite range of reasons. However, for our own purposes, we need to understand the nature of the broader impact that the work of companies like BIG hART has – and to track the scale and reach of this impact. If arts changes lives, we need to understand what these changes are, how they happen and how big and frequent they are. Only then will we appreciate the full power of arts and culture in our lives and the lives of our communities.

© Stephen Cassidy, 2017