The value of the arts: a new Australian study

Dr Andrea Baker

Dr Andrea Baker

By Andrea Baker

On the ABC TV Q & A program on June 9, 2014, titled Primates, Populism and Utopia, a video question from an audience member asked the panel of respected elder Australians (across the arts, anthropology, journalism and academia) whether the responsibility of art was to bring people towards a passionate awareness of reality.

A doyen of the visual art world in Australia, and former National Gallery of Australia director, Betty Churcher responded to the question by noting that the arts, especially in recent times, has certainly brought Australians together.

A study, The Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts, released in late May this year, from the Australia Council supports Churcher’s claim.

Based on national sample of 3,000 people living in Australia conducted in late 2013, the survey covered visual arts and crafts, music, theatre, dance and literature, as well as community and Indigenous arts.

It found that more than 95 per cent of Australians have engaged with the arts in the past 12 months.

Examining consumers as well as creators, the Australia Council reported that over 48 per cent of Australians were creating art in 2013, compared to 41 per cent in 2009.

The study highlighted that one in three Australians are creating visual arts and crafts, which is up to 30 per cent in 2013 from 22 per cent in 2009.

These findings support the American urban studies guru, Richard Florida’s creative class thesis which contends that over one third of today’s workforce consist of the creative types.

In despite his many critics, since 2002 Florida has argued that the creative class is the economic force of the new industries and businesses; and ‘therefore the dominant class in society in terms of influence’ with’the power, talent and numbers to reshape the world’.

If Australia is aligned with Florida’s world, then we are also a musical nation where one in five Australians are making music, which is up 20 per cent in 2013 from 15 per cent in 2009.

Literature is also important to us and reading (especially the novel) is still our popular pastime with over 87 per cent of the population reading in 2013, which is slightly up from 84 per cent in 2009.

Ninety-two per cent of Australians also feel that Indigenous arts are ancritical part of Australia’s culture, a point which Betty Churcher (along with Amatjere Indigenous elder, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, a Aboriginal activist from Alice Springs and former lead actor in Charles and Elsa Chauvels’ seminal 1955 Australian film classic, Jedda) alluded to on the ABC program, 9 June.

Perhaps most importantly, the study found that 66 per cent of Australians think the arts have a big impact on the development of children; and can influence their well being as an adult.

This last point is of particular importance to me, as an Arts and Culture coordinator of a large undergraduate journalism unit at Monash, which runs in 2nd semester this year.

Since 2010 in this highly popular, third year elective unit over 100 journalism students explore the research and reporting practices associated with contemporary arts and culture.

Reporting Arts and Culture canvasses contemporary issues and case studies across the visual and performing arts, cinema, comedy, music and literary reporting.

It examines the key personalities and institutions in the cultural world and critically considers the professional and social implications and accountabilities of reporting in the arts field.

What the students are reporting on in (as noted in the Australian Council study) is the growing demand for cultural related events, where arts journalists (alias critics) have the responsibility of communicating the transformative nature of the arts.

Similar to outcomes from the Australian Council study, I hope that from this tertiary arts educational experience these 18 to 24 year old, emerging cultural critics will develop a stronger ability to think creatively and develop new ideas.

As Sebastian Smee, former art critic with The Australian said: “Inside every critic is a painter, photographer or sculptor fantasising about the opening of their own sell-out show”.

Participation and education in the arts is not an indulgence, it is a necessity. As the Australian Council reflected, it improves our sense of well being, and the ability to deal with stress, anxiety or depression, which is often so prevalent in our busy lives.

More than 85 per cent of Australians surveyed in The Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts study affirmed that the arts have a fundamental place in our culturally diverse lives and can offer a richer and more meaningful life.

Cultural activity is part of our soft power diplomacy. It is a way of understanding our national psyche and investment in all creative fields adds cultural value to society as a whole.

But in the recent Federal budget cuts, our peak cultural organisations such as the Australia Council and Screen Australia stand to lose more than 10 per cent of their annual budgets, which will means fewer grants to artists and arts organisations.

Despite this, the Abbott government, with Senator George Brandis at the helm as Arts Minister, has sought to reassure the Australian arts community that the Federal Government remains pro-arts, despite slashing millions of dollars from the sector.

In this current post budget climate are these motherhood statements about the arts meaningless?

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