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What does $7 billion in cultural funding buy?

Arts Queensland discusses Vital Signs: Cultural indicators for Australia released by the Cultural Minister’s Statistics Working group for public comment . . .

Australia’s federal, state and local governments spent nearly $7 billion on cultural activities during 2011-12 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That’s a lot of government subsidy!  So how do we know we are getting value for money?

At the micro level, artists and cultural organisations who receive public funding have always had to demonstrate outcomes for public investment. Most governments, including the Queensland Government in its recently released Arts for All Queenslanders Strategy, the Arts and Cultural Investment Framework and the Cultural Precinct Strategy, place a high priority on artistic, cultural, social and economic return on investment. As demand on the public purse grows, this focus on demonstrable returns will only increase in the coming years.

So, on a macro level, how do we go about measuring culture’s contribution? Do we know what the economic, social and cultural value created by arts and culture in Australia is? How do we know the cultural sector is contributing to Australian life? Should arts and culture be subsidised by taxpayers at all and if so, to what degree?  Does arts and culture get too much public money or not enough?  Should the private sector do more? These perennial questions are echoed around the world, with many artists and cultural organisations searching for what seems like an intangible answer.

When it comes to measuring something as apparently elusive as cultural value one might think it’s all too hard. But that is exactly what the Cultural Ministers’ Statistics Working Group (comprising national, state and territory governments) in partnership with the Australian Bureau of Statistics is doing.

Vital Signs: Draft Cultural Indicators for Australia (1st edition) pulls together a detailed statistical picture of the value of Australia’s arts and cultural sectors as a whole, across economic, social and cultural value themes. The framework uses available ABS cultural data sets and identifies data needed into the future. It’s a work in progress and is currently out for consultation across Australia. There is an online survey that seeks the public’s input into whether the framework is useful, whether the organizing themes and values are right and whether the supporting indicators are sufficient or whether new and/or different measures are needed.

The development of the indicator framework was driven in part by a desire to establish a stable system of measurement across the Australian cultural sector that other sectors such as environment, health and education had enjoyed for a long time.  Other countries such as New Zealand had travelled the cultural indicator path successfully before, providing excellent precedent for the development of an Australian framework. The development of a framework would allow us to define and evidence the spectrum of value created by arts and culture, to monitor trends and measure progress, to provide international comparisons and to advocate for public and private investment.

Even in draft form Vital Signs has been very useful. On the back of this work the  ABS has included cultural indicators in Australia’s wellbeing framework– Measures of Australia’s Progress (MAP): Is life in Australia getting better? recognising culture’s role in enriching lives:  “Music, dance, art, poetry, film and the many forms of popular culture can bring depth and joy to people’s lives, and clarify our values and identity as individuals and as a nation.”  In addition, arts and culture are now also included in the Essential Statistical Assets for Australia – an ABS project that prioritises investment and focus on identifying essential statistical assets which are critical to decision-making in a complex and sometimes fragmented information environment across Australia.

Vital Signs has allowed the cultural sector to successfully argue that investment in arts and culture not only represents significant value for money but are essential to our way of life and an important consideration in determining Australia’s progress.

Vital Signs is a work in progress and will change over time. Have your say on the current framework by completing the online survey.