The value of culture

A dilemma in five pictures

PICTURE ONE: THERE are eight people sitting around a table on the top floor of a high-rise building in the heart of Adelaide’s CBD. Four of us are from a humanities research project looking for new ways to account for the value of arts and culture to government and the community. Four are economists from the Department of State Development. We are having a laboured conversation about assessment indices for cultural institutions. It is bleak mid-winter in 2015, the worst possible day for us to be having this meeting. The end of mining at Leigh Creek has just been announced. The economists are looking at us with irritation. They talk about robotics, innovation labs, digital special-effects firms. They want to know what we have for them, how arts and culture are going to replace manufacturing and minerals in our stuck-for-an-answer post-industrial economy. They lean forward to hear what we have to say.

When we talk about culture’s value, we think we are speaking the same language – arts, festivals, creative industries – but we are not. There is no semantic calibration tool for the words we use, no handheld device wherein we can insert someone’s use of a term to check its intended meaning. The word ‘culture’ is at the heart of this problem. There is an anthropological use of the word: the culture of the remote islands of the Hebridean coast. There is the word as it is used in the cultural sector: galleries, libraries, museums that produce, collect and exhibit cultural objects and experiences, and provide access to them to diverse people and places. Culture in the sciences is a process of growing bacteria, a synonym for acclimatisation. We should also acknowledge the long and rich history of our Indigenous cultures. In the media there is frequent and casual use of the word: ‘workplace culture’, ‘sports culture’, ‘a culture of bullying’. For all its variety of meanings, however, culture has two common applications: the broad and the narrow. Roughly: culture as a way of life; and culture as art. The two feed off each other in ways that are hard to measure, sometimes even to describe.

Nor is there a standard meaning for the word ‘value’. The imprecision of language is part of the problem, but numbers are no more precise. Think about our growing need for data literacy – the ability to interpret the numbers that get thrown around the public sphere like so many free-floating beach balls as evidence of this or that. Think about the problems in Excel spreadsheets that create egregious errors in published data. In the exchange between scientists and climate change deniers, both use numbers to make opposing cases. How can both be right? Pie charts are everywhere, demonstrating arguments with multicoloured rhetorical force. We are living in a data-driven world, but numbers are unreliable. The answer is simple, but also incredibly difficult. We need better words and better numbers. But most importantly, we need better ways of integrating them.

Laboratory Adelaide: The Value of Culture is an Australian Research Council project based at Flinders University. It is a small group of policy analysts, humanities scholars and the odd, sometime economist. Its industry partners are the State Library of South Australia, the State Theatre Company of South Australia and the Adelaide Festival. Its official aim is to ‘develop and trial mixed methodologies for analysing, measuring and reporting on the total cultural value of Australian arts and cultural organisations’ and ‘build capacity among arts and cultural organisations to measure and communicate the value of what they do, beginning in Adelaide’. Unofficially, the goal is to close the seismic gulf that exists between culture as it functions in the world (messy, mind-bogglingly diverse, part of everybody’s life one way or another) and culture as it is understood in the corridors of government – a function, to be provided in the same way as any other public commodity or service.

There is no magic bullet for ‘demonstrating’ the value of culture. The problem itself is the culmination of years of state and federal policy-making that has consistently failed to grasp how value accrues in the arts and cultural sector (answer: in many and wayward ways and – the kicker – often over long periods of time). Adelaide is an ideal site to study culture in situ because of the range, significance and longevity of many of its cultural organisations and events. Adelaide’s cultural sector has one of every type, and a lot of cross-sector collaboration. The cultural ecology is strong and diverse, ‘punching above its weight’ and with a significant historical tail.

In a deep sense, culture is a central feature of Adelaide’s identity. So it’s possible for cultural organisations and researchers to join forces to explore ways of assessing cultural activities that take a holistic perspective of the benefits they provide to the state and its population. In Laboratory Adelaide we ask questions like: how do South Australia’s cultural institutions operate on a day-to-day level? Why do festivals play such a profound role in the city’s cultural life? We look for ways of understanding the value of culture beyond the economic impact of visitor and ticket sales, wellbeing and social justice arguments, beyond the successes (and failures) of the creative industries. In putting qualitative alongside quantitative methods, we create space in the debate for culture’s intrinsic value and for the very long-term benefits it provides. You can squeeze highlights of the State Library’s event calendar into an annual report, but you can’t capture the full significance of the event on a balance sheet. Economic-impact studies do not tell the full story of a cultural organisation, event or sector. Policy-makers require better ways of understanding what arts and culture organisations actually do, and cultural organisations require a new public language for talking about their value. That’s the problem as is stands.

PICTURE TWO: IT’S September 2014 in the Lyrics Lounge at the Adelaide Festival Centre, looking over the Torrens River. Night. The Laboratory Adelaide team listen as Australia Council staff present an information session on their 2014–19 Strategic Plan and new six-year grant program. After a decade or more of frustrations with the council – its cantankerous boards and convoluted grants processes – the arts community was invited into a series of high-level consultations, out of which the plan was constructed. Now its CEO, Tony Grybowski, and head of operations, Frank Panucci, are travelling the country, telling arts practitioners all about it. The mood is one of good-humoured resignation. This is the arts in the twenty-first century: processes, procedures and paperwork – ‘ticking the boxes’.

The Adelaide Festival Centre is a storehouse of value for South Australia. Opened the same year as the Sydney Opera House, its gigantic, bone-white rhomboidal roof is another iconic symbol of arts and culture. Since 1973, it has played host to millions of patrons – over eight hundred thousand per year – at thousands of cultural events, both new works and classics, the go-to place for city dwellers and visitors, the place where transformative moments happen and the process of being human is enriched. How to put a dollar sum on that? Value is not just about places, stages, events and galleries, but accrues over time, between people experiencing something together, working towards a common goal, creating a shared history. South Australians like to point out they had a library before settlers arrived from England to found the colony (the famous ‘trunk full of books’ the first Colonial Secretary, Charles Gouger, brought with him). Institutions and the maintenance of their programs, staff and buildings are absolutely crucial to culture, both for those who use them as workplaces, and for those who attend them as audiences. Yet it’s an aspect of the arts that often gets overlooked or, in the corridors of power, reduced to capital works items, job counting and calculations of the money visitors spend.

This is truer now that the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Centre for Culture and Recreation Statistics has been abolished. The centre, based in Adelaide since its inception in 1991, was formed after constant lobbying from the arts sector. It provided specific data about different aspects of culture and leisure, including the sector’s contribution to the GDP. Numbers do not tell the whole story, but the right numbers are important nevertheless – and the loss of the centre is a mortal blow.

PICTURE THREE: IT is Friday 18 September 2015, a few months after our meeting with the Department of State Development. We are sitting in a stuffy seminar room in a Franklin Street hotel. It’s a small room. Three-quarters of it is devoted to a square table for five senators and the petitioners presenting a case. The petitioners have their backs to three narrowly spaced rows of chairs designated for the audience. Clearly the organisers weren’t expecting, or perhaps weren’t encouraging, many observers. But the room is full to overflowing. Some people are sitting on the floor. Cameras capture the action. Around the room many are tweeting. It is Adelaide’s turn for a hearing in the circus that is the Senate Inquiry into the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget Decisions on the Arts. By taking money out of the Australia Council budget, Arts Minister George Brandis has conjured up a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, because he ‘realised that there was really nothing for the arts minister to do as a result of the arrangements left to us by the Labor Party’. It is clear enough that the NPEA will be a mechanism for funding his personal preferences – the antithesis of the arms-length funding principle the Australia Council has operated with for decades.

The Senate Inquiry received an astonishing 2,719 submissions. They came from every part of the cultural sector – music, visual arts, performing arts, Indigenous arts, disability access art, regional groups – and the public. Many were ‘confidential’, or ‘name withhelds’. There were massive missives from practitioners, from ex-pats who left Australia to find more sustainable arts careers, from established artists irate that the cuts would stall the commercial progress of the sector and cut new talent off at the knees. ‘My name is…and I am a…’ The documents are wonderfully, giddyingly diverse, from one-page pro formas wishing to register disagreement with the government’s actions, to angry nine-page rants that detail the connection between art and society. ‘I reject…’ ‘I am outraged by…’ There are practical observations, philosophical disquisitions, economic arguments, personal pleas, all dovetailing in the end into a single point: belief in the value of a world transformed through art.

There are actual artworks in the submissions. Memes circulated on social media of famous works of art with Senator Brandis’s face pasted in that were later officially handed to the inquiry. Others provided a sample of their work plastered over with the phrase ‘my art cut’. There are poems and collages and a fifteen-second video. It was a campaign that became more effective as it went on, and it included the core attributes of its creative practices in its resistance strategies. As a result, the arts are now more politically organised. If not exactly in fear of artists, the government now understands how annoying they can be.

The inquiry held hearings in most capital cities and some regional towns. At first it looked like we weren’t going to get one in Adelaide, but then more dates were added. The five-member committee included two Labor senators, Anne McEwen from South Australia and Catryna Bilyk from Tasmania, as well as a Liberal, Linda Reynolds, and a Green, Scott Ludlum – both from Western Australia. The West Australians leave after lunch, perhaps to fly home for the Canning by-election. The inquiry is chaired by the independent senator and former footballer Glenn Lazarus, from Queensland. We sit the whole day, listening to articulate and nuanced responses as Adelaide’s cultural sector stands up and is counted. Do not cut the Australia Council funding, they say. Think of the cultural sector as a whole.

In the field of research into culture’s value, the methodology problem has become as thorny as the definitional problem. Governments determine the value of arts and cultural organisations through a set of policy categories based largely on economic data (data which is no longer properly collected thanks to cuts to the Australian Bureau of Statistics). Cultural organisations are required by funding agencies to express the value of what they do through aggregate gauges such as ticket sales or tourism dollars attracted into the state or region. Because measurement indices are dependent upon what can be readily counted, evidence of value is gathered from numbers. Some policy-makers are open to new ways of showing the value of culture. But how exactly is this to be achieved?

The Senate Inquiry, with its national hearings, came in austere times. The rhetoric of justification and defence had a particular resonance in South Australia, where four decades of investment in culture has created the eponymous ‘Festival State’. We even bear the title on our license plates. The public hearings and the submissions created a resource, a snapshot of the value of arts and culture by its community. In the final report there is talk about all kinds of value: economic, health, social cohesion, public, longitudinal, institutional, intrinsic, instrumental, personal, transformative, liveability. Anything and everything: just like culture itself.

Internationally, there is an ongoing conversation about new ways of understanding the value of culture, particularly in the United Kingdom, where the Arts and Humanities Research Council recently supported a massive two-year funded research theme (under its umbrella, some seventy-odd projects looked at the notion in different contexts around the UK). For a while the economic case around culture were captured by the beguiling work of the creative industries, commercial industries that have grown from a kernel of creative arts. This approach sidesteps difficult questions about culture’s intrinsic value, however, preferring rich lists and head counts of what the US policy consultant Richard Florida famously dubbed the ‘inner-urban creative class’, who can power urban renewal and gentrification. There is an economic impact, but the numbers just scratch the surface. Always and again: culture reduced to a narrow conception of economic measurement when the value is much greater.

PICTURE FOUR: THE Laboratory Adelaide team is in Brisbane for the 2016 Science Communicators’ Conference. We have been asked to present on how our work on valuing culture might be relevant to the value of science. Queensland University of Technology’s Room 360 gives a gorgeous view over Brisbane on a beautiful autumn day. Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, stands up to give the opening address and steals our thunder. Narrative is crucial to the communication of science, its methods and its findings. Great news! There is a growing consensus that the stories we tell about ourselves matter. That numbers alone cannot communicate the value of what we do. Narrative and narrative skills are critical to Laboratory Adelaide’s view of the problem of culture’s value, and we are heartened by what the chief scientist says.

But we also hear worrying things. One presenter tells us that 97 per cent of scientists believe anthropogenic climate change so concerning that immediate action is needed. We think: wow, that is a very big number! And yet there is still little meaningful action addressing the issue as governments haggle over measly targets that will have negligible effect. If 97 per cent doesn’t generate action, no number will. Actually, researchers are now finding that communication of fact--based information does not correlate with behaviour modification. Our actions are governed by deep-seated beliefs, not empirical proofs. Evidence that contradicts beliefs does not lead to change. The lesson is clear: numbers alone don’t work, even in science.

Numbers are a problem in culture too. There’s always a new number to collect, a new column to fill out on the spreadsheet. We don’t stop collecting data, we only add more to what we already report on. There are never fewer indicators. And the more numbers we collect, analyse, measure, report on, compare, the less meaning we can make of the mix.

We live in an audit culture and this, along with the growth of ‘evidence-based policy-making’, tends to commodify culture as ‘an instrument’. The global financial crisis has opened up some critique of the role of financial, accounting and economic approaches to value. Culture is not alone in looking for better ways to talk about what it does. Yet arts organisations small and large are stuck in a process that doesn’t allow them to participate in the decisions about what evidence is collected to determine their value. The Australia Council has shown an interest in applying UK research to the Australian context, inviting Hasan Bakhshi, a cultural economist, to speak in Australia, and providing information to encourage organisations to think more broadly about their reporting processes. These initiatives indicate a need for qualitative, narrative--based tools for assessing the value of arts and culture, but do not specify what those tools might be or how they can be developed.

Part of the problem is the incessant conflict between high and popular culture – ‘art’ versus ‘entertainment’. They are certainly functionally different. Art possesses a quality of intractable presence that carries its own justification and stands the test of time. Entertainment is justified by its acknowledged purpose and, while it may do many things, its raison d’etre is to divert, amuse and engage people. These two different ways of looking at and talking about culture have grown antipathetic discourses. Their estrangement is neither useful nor, in a world marked by technological and cultural convergence, viable. Bringing them together is another laborious but necessary task.

PICTURE FIVE: IT is March 2015, and author Jane Gleeson-White is here to speak at Adelaide Writers’ Week about her latest book Six Capitals: The Revolution Capitalism Has To Have – Or Can Accountants Save the Planet? (Allen & Unwin, 2015). What a title! Over drinks we talk about the similarities between the environment and culture. How do you put an old-growth forest on a balance sheet? How do you talk about the investment in arts and culture that may not pay off for decades? They both require longer time frames than electoral cycles or forward estimates can encompass. Once you start seeing culture as purely a series of secondary effects, no matter how well intentioned you are, you are lost. Space has to be found for the idea that arts and culture contribute to our society in and of themselves, and not just as improvements to the economy, wellbeing, mental health, social inclusion, youth outcomes and urban renewal. If the government can achieve these through means less troublesome than the arts, what then is the argument for culture? As intractable as the notion may be, we need to be talking about intrinsic value.

In her book, Gleeson-White talks about the $15 million hamburger. If we could register in the price of a hamburger the true cost of its production – the environmental cost, the health costs, the cost of transfer pricing and offshore tax havens and so on – we might take a different view about how much to pay. A similar approach would help in the arts: if we could encode in the balance sheet of arts and cultural organisations the real benefits to individuals, communities, nations, then the value of that organisation relative to its cost would become clearer. How to do this? Tell a story. We can continue to use numbers but always balanced by narrative. The right narrative.

The ‘intrinsic value of culture’ is more than just another type of value. It is a phrase that defines pretty much everything being left out right now from the official assessment of culture. In other words, it is a category of guilty awareness. When we talk with the Department of State Development, there’s a sense that we all know what ‘it’ is. The three questions are: are we measuring ‘it’; can we measure ‘it’; and should we measure ‘it’? Measurement is key to evaluating important aspects of our life – but only if we get the context and categories right. Numbers can become a prison, trapping the minds of those concerned with real change.

Key to our thinking on Laboratory Adelaide are two very simple ideas. First, care with language. Don’t use adjectives as nouns. ‘Excellent’ can never really become ‘excellence’. It’s sleight of hand. You may have seen many excellent things but you can never hope to see excellence because it exists in an abstract way. Second, strive for prepositional clarity. Know who you are working ‘for’ and speaking ‘to’ or ‘with’. How prepositions locate themselves in our talk about culture determines the difference between sense and nonsense, between talking about ‘it’ and talking about nothing at all.

In Laboratory Adelaide, when we ask people who have never been to the Adelaide Festival whether they think it is important, ‘yes’ is the public and emphatic response. They support the use of public money being invested in South Australian arts and culture. Their enthusiasm is unequivocal. Even ‘non-users’, as they are drily called in the statistical literature, understand the value of arts and culture in South Australia. Culture cannot salve the economic woes of a state losing its manufacturing and mining. But it is a fundamental component of making us both who we are now, and who we want to be next.

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