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What Matters?

Introduction

When Did Culture Become a Number?

‘The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice … To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues.’
Bertrand Russell

When did culture become a number? When did the books, paintings, poems, plays, songs, films, games, art installations, clothes, and all the myriad objects that fill our lives and which we consider cultural, become a matter of statistical measurement? When did the value of culture become solely a matter of the quantifiable benefits it provides, and the latter become subject to input–output analysis in what government budgets refer to as ‘the cultural function’? When did experience become data?

Perhaps a more important question is why did it happen, and why does it keep happening? Also, how does it happen? Culture is innate to being human. Thick books have been written describing culture’s myriad expressions and meanings. Culture has been around for as long as humanity itself. And the question of its value is not new. We cannot claim the modern world is answering it exclusively. But why are we answering it in the way that we are – by turning it into something to be scaled, measured and benchmarked? Who loses and who gains?

These are big questions of more than academic or Australian import. They are, indeed, much broader than arts and culture, as a recent crop of studies describing the unintended effects of the rise of ‘metric power’ suggests.1 So this modest book based on local experiences will nevertheless be of interest beyond Australia and the usual suspects of the cultural debate. Our core contention is that datafied modes of analysis are claiming authority over domains of human existence they have limited capacity for understanding. If you are researching an influenza epidemic, more data is better data. If you are studying Australian film, more data is informative but not definitive because questions of artistic merit can only be judged. If you are assessing Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, massified data is close to useless. At a time when even accountants are looking for a more compelling understanding of value,2 it is imperative that the arts – a domain where individual experience is central – resist the evangelical call of quantification, and winnow its potential benefit from its real and deleterious risks.

This book addresses anyone seriously interested in the value of arts and culture. It particularly addresses those with an operational interest: arts practitioners, managers of cultural organisations, policy makers, leaders of cultural programs at all levels of government, philanthropists and board members, critics (within and outside the academy) and so on. We hope to influence public debate about the value of culture, to encourage people to see their cultural experiences in that debate, and not feel some strange urge to ‘speak the ‘language of government’. This can be extremely alienating. Consider a 2008 Australian Bureau of Statistics paper, Towards Comparable Statistics for Cultural Heritage Organisations. It proposes ‘a list of Key Measures … balancing the priority of items across four cultural heritage domains with the feasibility of producing standard guidelines for collecting data’.3 The five Key Measures it puts forward – Attendance, Visitor Characteristics, Financial Resources, Human Resources and The Collection – subsume 18 Detailed Measures, with a list of Counting Rules for each: ‘There are eleven different counting methods required to count the variety of items held in the collections … These eleven groups of items are designed to cover all the items held across cultural heritage organisations’.

This is a long way from browsing a library shelf, or walking through an exhibition. A long way from reading a book, contemplating the mystery of ancient artefacts, or librarians helping people navigate online genealogy portals. Such language generates a world of arithmetical marks, and the sums and inferences considered legitimate to those marks. Where does the experience of going to a library or museum fit in? Not in ABS statistics, obviously, and no doubt the Bureau would not think itself competent to pronounce on such ‘qualitative’ matters. Who does then? And how do ‘qualitative’ matters sit with quantitative enumeration (which always seems more precise, if only because that’s how numbers look)?

These are important questions. The datafication of arts and culture is only a few decades old, so it is not an essential or inevitable element of their assessment. What happens when this is the major way we describe their place in our lives? In 2013, we began a university research project of moderate scope seeking to understand how quantitative and qualitative indicators align in government measures of culture. As we were in Adelaide, we made that city our focus. We called the project Laboratory Adelaide because we saw it as a case study with a rich cultural history and an active contemporary arts scene: a petri dish of just the right scale.

To get our research off the ground, we held a lunch for some of Adelaide’s cultural leaders. Over dessert, we asked them what they wanted us to achieve. The answer was instructive: a way to talk truthfully about what they do. They were, they said, unable to incorporate their real motivations and experiences into their reporting. Could we find a new, better way of communicating the actual value of arts and culture?

For the first year this seemed a simple enough goal. After all, these people were doing things the public had ready access to. Both state and local government in South Australia had a record of acknowledging the contribution of culture. They supported a range of cultural organisations and events – especially festivals, which are a big part of Adelaide’s civic life. There was a sense that everyone already knew how important culture was to the state. But when it came to demonstrating its value, the words weren’t there. Our job was to fix that. As humanities scholars, we felt we were in a good position to do so. After all, didn’t we spend our lives talking about culture?

As the second year drew on, a note of uncertainty entered the project. By now we were starting to publish, and articulate in a series of articles, columns, notes, letters and emails, the dimensions of the problem as we saw it – the short time-scales governments deploy to evaluate outcomes, for example, which ignore culture’s longer-term contribution. Or the woolly use of language in policy documents, that makes the precise meaning of terms like ‘excellence’ and ‘innovation’ impossible to pin down. These issues, and others, have serious assessment implications. But it goes beyond this, highlighting a basic misapprehension of culture by governments, not on a human level – politicians and policy makers, like the rest of us, read books, watch films and listen to music – but on the official level. Their grasp of culture may be a sure one, personally. But when it comes to acknowledging that value publically, government measurement strategies, like those of Adelaide’s cultural leaders, seem to fall forever short of the requisite level of proof.

Meanwhile, political events intervened and the Australian cultural sector exploded like a supernova. In 2015, the then federal Arts Minister, George Brandis, raided the budget of the federal arts agency, the Australia Council of the Arts, to set up his own, personally administered grant body. To say this came as a shock to arts practitioners would be a considerable understatement. The minister’s actions contradicted 30 years of cross-party consensus about how culture in Australia should be federally funded – via independent agencies – and rendered his support of the Council’s 2014–19 Strategic Plan a sham. The sector went into uproar. Where did the years of accumulated data on the demonstrable benefits of arts and culture figure in this fiery clash of ideologies?

The answer is that they didn’t. The numerical proofs of culture’s value (mainly economic value) that have been cascading through government consciousness since the 1970s were nowhere to be seen (see Box 1: The Funding Game). Below, we give a description of what was involved, but for Laboratory Adelaide it confirmed a sinking feeling: the problem of the value of culture is not a methodological one. It cannot be addressed by a new metric or a different categorical disaggregation. Use of measurement indicators assumes a degree of background understanding that too often isn’t there at a policy level. The quantitative demonstrations of value we were trying to improve don’t make sense for culture. They flatten out its history, purpose and meaning.

This realisation put us at odds with expert views (see Chapter 5 ‘On the Importance of Not Being an Expert’) about the role of culture in post-industrial societies today. These views are typically upbeat about culture’s economic and urban ‘vibrancy’. Charles Landry’s ‘creative cities’, Richard Florida’s ‘creative class’, John Hartley and Terry Flew’s ‘creative industries’ – the ideas of these authors, and others of similar ilk, are practical and positive (though Florida has recently retreated to a gloomier position).4 The ‘creative industries’ approach, for example, treats policy-making processes with a benign eye and admits no serious difficulties when it comes to proving the benefits culture provides. This chipper outlook is mirrored by swarms of local efforts around Australia today to develop bespoke systems of ‘cultural indicators’, each slightly different, yet each beholden to the same underlying assumption: that the value of culture can be numerically demonstrated.

By now we were participating in specialised symposia and conferences, and consulting broadly among arts agencies and peak bodies. There are 537 local councils in Australia, six states, two territories and one federal government. It sometimes seemed to us they were all looking for the perfect metric. We sat through presentation after presentation on quantitative approaches to culture’s value. At the end, hands would invariably go up and people say they were developing a ‘similar measurement model’.

Yet underneath the relentless optimism, we sensed a current of troubled preoccupation. It went by different names: ‘the intrinsic value of culture’, ‘the inherent value of culture’, ‘(the) cultural value (of culture)’. In this dry form it seems just another dimension of culture’s value, to be arraigned alongside the others: its economic value, its social value, its heritage value, etc. It is not. It is code for all that is left out of measurement indices, which is to say our whole sense of culture, of what culture means. It seems obvious to say it, but in culture No Meaning = No Value. It may not be true of boots, bread and billiard balls. But it is absolutely true of symbolic goods like paintings, performances and books.

For thousands, possibly tens of thousands of years, culture has been supported through patronage. Whether it came from kings, popes or rich merchants, it came the same way: by someone seeing a particular cultural thing or activity and personally choosing to fund it. We have replaced this simple, if limited, support mechanism with distanced assessment processes of Heath-Robinson complexity. These processes – involving submission forms, acquittal procedures, classification systems, priority lists – introduce a loss of fidelity to the immediacy of cultural experience. They are generalised and abstract, with cultural experience therefore framed as a matter of personal taste, and opinions in relation to it ‘subjective’. Numbers present as ‘objective’, whether or not they reflect the core elements of culture. Hence the desire to quantify as much of its assessment as possible.

Even the best set of numbers never stops governments for long, though. Like the mirages of water on a hot road that disappear as you draw close to them, the pursuit of numbers begets only the pursuit of more numbers. You might count, for example, the number of people going to a music concert (a measure of frequency). But did they have a good time (the value proposition)? You might question some of them, and rank their answers (on a preference scale of 1 to 5). But were they being truthful (response bias)? You might look for changes in their market choices thereafter (acquisition of consumption skills). But what of less obvious effects – on wellbeing, level of education, social participation, civic cohesion? More indices, more numbers. The search for certainty produces ever-more uncertain measures, each a further step away from the actual experience of culture. As the numbers get more rubbery and elaborate, people’s trust in them diminishes.

And it’s expensive. The statistical habit, like any habit, is one that requires significant investment. Is there a cost–benefit analysis to be done on our obsession with cost–benefit analysis? Should a major theatre company, for example, outsource its costume department to spend the savings on an in-house metrics dashboard? At what point do we stop trying to measure something and try to understand it better? What would this involve, exactly, if we were to do it?

And it doesn’t help. The ever more elaborate datafication of culture hasn’t secured more money for arts and culture in Australia, or distributed the extant money better. If it assists an organisation to obtain an increase in public support in one grant round, there is no guarantee it will continue in the next.

This was the problem of culture’s value as it appeared to us in our third year, when we saw the full extent of what we had stumbled into. Beneath the inexorable pursuit of numbers-driven data lay a Dante-esque vortex of hope, despair, panic and bewilderment masked by the neutral patois of quantitative analysis – the bullshit language that Adelaide’s cultural leaders resented so deeply. In contemporary assessment processes, many arguments can be advanced for culture’s value, but culture itself is not an argument. It is like asking someone to justify transport but forbidding any mention of cars. The bullshit has to be all about fuel sales, industrial development and urban expansion.

So where to from here? It is a question with profound implications, and not one Laboratory Adelaide can answer conclusively. However, we have identified some of the difficulties in valuing culture that governments and the public must meet head-on. They are not the only problems, but they are important ones:

1.The fact that assessment processes claim to measure value but leave out the human experience of culture, and turn it into a set of abstract, categorical traits.

2.The fact that assessment processes are preoccupied with short-term effects, ignore the longer-term trajectories of cultural projects, and have a sense of history that is flat and inorganic.

3.The fact that assessment processes use language and phrases empty of specific meaning for culture (i.e. bullshit), or valorise words that have no universally agreed definition.

4.The fact that the people who experience culture are treated as consumers in a marketplace rather than members of a public, so public value (the underlying purpose of public investment) is inadequately addressed.

5.The fact that cultural organisations are regarded as scaled-up delivery mechanisms for policy outcomes, rather than as a serious and nuanced ecology worthy of study and support.

6.The fact that too often the value of culture comes down to its monetary value, directly and indirectly.

These problems interpenetrate. Evaluation strategies aren’t grounded in cultural experience, so the language of official assessment is fuzzy and dead. Participants in culture are treated as consumers rather than citizens, so a flat-earth econometric idea of time becomes paramount, with its diminished conception of investment and return. Ergo cultural organisations are seen as platforms rather than as historical entities interlocked in rich and important relationships. Ergo culture’s monetary value prevails over all other kinds of value – which in turn displaces cultural experience from the fulcrum of assessment, and encourages its breakdown into supposedly quantifiable ‘benefits’.

At this point, those objecting to our opinions might say ‘What’s wrong with wanting to know what the public dollars invested in culture produce by way of economic and social outcomes?’ The instrumental view of culture has its supporters, but our argument is not that culture’s external impacts are being put above its internal qualities. Rather, it is being treated as a function. You can take an instrumental view of culture and still credit culture’s specific nature and needs. But once it is turned into a function it collapses into a series of effects, and evaluation strategies become no more than the management of those effects. This isn’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s blowing up the bathroom. Functionalism rules so completely that culture isn’t considered in any meaningful way at all.

Objectors might then say that culture is considered in assessment processes, by way of peer review and ministerial oversight. They are right to some extent – but it is a declining extent. Peer assessors and politicians retain an important role in how culture is evaluated in Australia today, both before and after it attracts government funding. But compared to the huge social outlay in gathering statistics and developing metrics, our almost religious faith in quantitative measurement, the place of judgment in valuing culture is a reluctant admission, an ageing relative inclined to embarrassing assertions, to be kept on a tight statistical leash. There is no ABS handbook ‘On Peer Evaluation in Cultural Assessment Processes’, still less one called ‘Towards Appointing a Successful Arts Minister’. The human dimension of the problem of value is presumed to take care of itself. Only when it goes wrong, as it did under Senator Brandis, does it become a matter of strong attention.

In 2008, Brian McMaster, in a report for the UK’s Department of Culture, Media & Sport, laid out a different framework for assessing culture, one that

depends upon the funding bodies having the confidence and authority to make judgements that are respected by the arts community … As part of this new framework … funding bodies will need to lay out clear expectations of what they expect in return for their funding and what they will be assessing and reporting to the Government and the public … Evidence would be based on the self-assessments provided by cultural organisations and supplemented by the peer review and funders’ dialogue with the organisations. In this context funders would recognise that not all risks will be successful and that failure should not necessarily be penalised. The quid pro quo for getting rid of cumbersome targets, however, must be an understanding and acceptance that there needs to be dialogue between funders and organisations on the issues of excellence, innovation and risk-taking.5

Supporting Excellence in the Arts: Fom Measurement to Judgement is not a soft-headed document. It recognises that arts and culture today must fulfil an array of social expectations if they want to attract public money and political support. The difference between McMaster and the ABS is that the former recognises that judgment is central to assessing value, while the latter is fixated on counting traits. There is nothing wrong with counting. Counting is an important measurement tool. It is when counting takes the place of judgment that evaluation goes awry. Under these circumstances, the reality of culture parts company from official ideas of it, ideas that circulate in an abstract policy realm without touching the lived experience of people. This is not supportable for long, and eventually something will give, occasionally in spectacular fashion. In 2015, there was an example of just this in Australian cultural policy.

The Trouble with George

In March 2013, Julia Gillard’s Labor government handed down its long-awaited national cultural policy, Creative Australia.6 Delayed year after year because extra funding couldn’t be found to support it or because the government had bigger fish to fry, the policy was finally released just before a federal election. The new Liberal government unceremoniously binned it within months of coming to power. Around this time Laboratory Adelaide had a meeting with some federal arts bureaucrats and were told ‘we don’t mention Creative Australia any more’. Six years of research and industry consultation were suddenly off the table.

George Brandis, who had been a vocal critic of the Australia Council at the time of the amending of its legislation in 2012, became Australia’s new federal Arts Minister. Thus began a fractious time for culture that saw angry outbursts from the minister, harsh budget cuts from the government, an upsurge of protest from artists, and eventually a Senate Inquiry that attracted 2,719 submissions. What happened under Senator Brandis was unprecedented and unprecedentedly painful. But from the perspective of Laboratory Adelaide it brilliantly illuminated the problems Australia has with valuing culture. Don’t waste a good crisis, as the saying goes. So what happened exactly?

It is important to note that Brandis’s appointment as Arts Minister was at first welcomed. As a small ‘l’ Alfred Deakin-style Liberal with a keen interest in the arts – in music and literature especially – the general perception was that here, at last, was a politician who actually knew something about culture; he had a double degree in Arts and Law after all. Brandis’s tone in the run-up to the election was measured and thoughtful. And his defence of culture qua culture was robust:

Brandis says his differences with Labor are philosophical: arts policy should recognise and promote intrinsic values – art for art’s sake – and not treat culture as a tool for other policy goals … ‘The moment you embrace a derivative view – that we fund the arts because they are an aspect of telecommunications policy, or they’re an aspect of education policy, or they’re an aspect of trade policy – I think you both devalue the importance of cultural policy in its own right, and you demean the arts as one of the great human activities. But also in a practical sense you make the arts mendicant because they depend on the policy priorities of other, usually more powerful, departments of government.’7

For most arts ministers the first months in office are unsteady ones when they must rapidly come to terms with a diverse and feisty sector. Thereafter things go more smoothly. For Senator Brandis it was the other way round. At first, there were lots of photographs of the minister enjoying arts occasions, often in the company of Julie Bishop, the Foreign Minister, indicating a policy approach inflected by a cultural diplomacy agenda, but still a positive one. Then, in February 2014, nearly a year after his taking office, artists working with the Biennale of Sydney protested at its links with Transfield Services Ltd. The Biennale’s Chair, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, was a wealthy philanthropist and a long-time supporter of the cultural event. Transfield Services Ltd, who built and serviced offshore detention centres for Australia’s marine-arriving asylum seekers, were part-owned by Transfield Holdings, Belgiorno-Nettis’s family firm. A letter of objection signed by 46 artists led to nine withdrawing from the upcoming exhibition, which in turn forced Belgiorno-Nettis to resign. Brandis was furious. He wrote to the Australia Council, funders of the Biennale, demanding it exclude those refusing corporate sponsorship for political reasons – the first time an Australian arts minister has condemned artists for not taking money. He fumed,

Artists like everybody else are entitled to voice their political opinions but I view with deep concern the effective blackballing of a benefactor, implicit in this decision, merely because of its commercial arrangements. Even more damagingly, the decision sends precisely the wrong message to other actual or potential corporate sponsors of the arts: that they may be insulted, and possibly suffer reputational damage, if an arts company or festival decides to make a political statement about an aspect of their commercial relationships with government, where it disapproves of a particular government policy which those commercial relationships serve.8

Darkly, the minister warned that the Biennale’s Australia Council grant was soon up for renewal and he had ‘no doubt that the decision about it will have regard to [this] episode and the damage it has done’. However, when the federal Budget was delivered in May, culture was not singled out for punitive treatment. Certainly, its allocation was reduced, but this was true of other areas of government expenditure. In winter 2014, the Australia Council launched a new Strategic Plan with mild fanfare at the Sydney Opera House. Brandis stood on the podium, seemingly supportive, smiling alongside Council Chair, Rupert Myer. Later, Tony Grybowski, the Australia Council’s CEO, and Frank Pannuci, its Executive Director, went on a tour of the state capitals to explain their agenda. They came to Adelaide on a brisk August night and handed out a nine-page document. Compared to the 151-page Creative Australia, it seemed a little lite-on.

Cultural policy is a funny thing. Governments of different political hues can end up continuing each other’s efforts, even refining them. The Liberal Party under John Howard excoriated Paul Keating’s Creative Nation (1994) while in opposition.9 Once elected to office, they largely adopted its outlook. Brandis’s approach in 2014 seemed initially to be a repeat of this. The Strategic Plan didn’t have to be hundreds of pages long because at its elbow was the ghost of Creative Australia. This meant business-as-usual for artists and cultural organisations around the country: that is, government support for culture as central to a multicultural nation, Indigenous peoples, and schools and communities. If there was anything new it was the commitment to a six-year reporting cycle, which would spare a few lucky practitioners the agony of three-year grant applications.

In May 2015, the Liberal government handed down its second federal Budget. Nothing in the run-up suggested big changes for culture were afoot. But when it was delivered there was a nasty surprise. In the arts allocation, $104.7 million was diverted from the Australia Council over four years to fund a new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) – a 16 per cent budget cut for the agency. Since the Major Performing Arts (MPA) Framework locked in grants for 28 major cultural organisations, the money had to be taken from smaller arts organisations and project grants. The Australia Council also faced an efficiency dividend (yet another one) of $7.2 million. Other institutions were affected: Screen Australia’s funding was cut by $3.7 million, the National Gallery of Australia’s by $1.5 million, the National Museum’s by $600,000 and the National Portrait Gallery’s by $1.7 million. All these decreases, however, were less disturbing than the NPEA itself, which appeared to do the same job as the Australia Council, only under the direct control of the minister. This undermined the nation’s bipartisan history of arms-length funding, one dating back to Gough Whitlam and beyond. A war of opposing opinions bubbled up.10

It was a strangely hobbled debate, at first. Many cultural organisations were recipients of federal support, and so were muted in their immediate response, or, like the Australia Council, completely silent, fearing what would happen to their grants if they spoke out. For his part, Brandis hardly bothered to defend his actions. He couldn’t see the fuss since, he argued; the overall funding for arts and culture would remain (roughly) the same, just delivered by a ‘complementary model’.11 The importance of the arm’s-length relationship was not apparent. Perhaps it was not clear what was at stake. A few weeks after the Budget, Martin McKenzie-Murray, correspondent for the usually progressive Saturday Paper, commented:

Our public debates are fractured, brimming with rancour and bad faith. The government’s arrogance and the Left’s vituperation have made dialectic impossible. Brandis’s decision will be judged as cynical whimsy, or the opening of yet another front in the culture wars. The lack of consultation – and the presumed contempt this reveals – will only harden enmities … But to paraphrase French author André Gide, they should not understand him too quickly. Brandis … has long defended government funding of the arts. This week [he] reiterated the point: ‘It’s an ideological view that says that the state has no business in supporting art and that’s a view with which I fundamentally disagree. I think state support for art is very important, it has been enormously beneficial in building a thriving cultural sector in Australia, particularly since the Gorton government established the Australia Council in 1968’.12

The NPEA was duly launched, with no clear delineation of its structure and operation. The Council scrapped its plans for a six-year funding cycle and binned some other important initiatives. Together these changes provoked a grassroots campaign, Free the Arts, led by smaller arts companies and independent artists. Brandis was pilloried and satirised in pictures, cartoons and collages. Resistance to the changes grew. Some important public figures, like the philanthropist Neil Balnaves, condemned the minister’s actions. George Williams, professor of constitutional law at the University of New South Wales, warned that the NPEA was vulnerable to legal challenge, saying that ‘for a long time the Commonwealth assumed it could spend money on whatever it wanted … [the High Court has] shown that to be a false view’.13 The minister was also wrong-footed in a number of press interviews, and shown to be ignorant of the implications of his actions.14 A Senate Inquiry into the cuts was called for. It began in June 2015, and received thousands of written submissions totalling an astonishing 1.8 million words (now that’s a number). Between August and November the Inquiry travelled around Australia, hearing testimony in 10 different hearings in nine metropolitan centres. In December, it delivered its final report, but by then Brandis was no longer Arts Minister. Malcolm Turnbull had become Prime Minister in September and reorganised his cabinet. The easy-going Mitch Fifield took over the arts portfolio, and the NPEA was renamed Catalyst. During 2016, the new body was reduced in size and scope, and some funds transferred back to the Australia Council (though it is hard to tell exactly how much of its allocation was restored). In April 2017, Catalyst was terminated and confined to history. Journalist Ben Eltham, one of Brandis’s most vocal critics throughout the crisis, wrote a long essay, When the Goal Posts Move, which remains the best account of the entire episode. Of successive federal governments’ involvement in culture he shrewdly notes:

Within its reasonably traditional Weberian state bureaucracy, various policy spheres get treated separately and divisibly. Cultural policy is a good example. The Australia Council, nominally independent, receives its funding and imprimatur from the Arts Ministry … The Arts Ministry is a little fiefdom of its own, with its own deputy-secretary and bureaucrats (though not many of them). It currently resides within the Communications Department, but in recent years it has been shuffled about between many different parent organisations, including the Prime Minister’s Department, the Regional Development portfolio and the Attorney-General’s Department, as befits its mendicant status. Other silos are located further afield. The ABC … pursues its own turbulent existence as a quasi-independent body … Screen funding is disbursed through Screen Australia, but screen tax incentives devolve ultimately from Treasury. Copyright and intellectual property rights belong to the Attorney-General. Australia does not have a single ‘cultural czar’; even if we did, the Arts Minister would not be she.15

Yet a cultural czar is exactly what Brandis sought to be. The Medici comparison was often drawn with him, and he took obvious pleasure in his visits to high-visibility cultural events, including the Australian Ballet and the Venice Biennale. In other words, he acted like a patron of the arts, not just a funder of them, and the untoward appearance of the NPEA, along with Brandis’s complaints that he had ‘nothing to do as a result of the arrangements left … by the Labor Party’16, make complete sense when seen from this experiential perspective.

By the same token, the Free the Arts campaign and the Senate Inquiry allowed cultural practitioners to talk in a new way about what they did. On 9 September, the Inquiry came to South Australia and we were able to squeeze into the last seats in a crowded room off a hotel lobby. For a long day, the Committee, chaired by the independent senator and former rugby league great Glenn Lazarus, with representation from Labor, Liberal and Greens senators, heard from a range of individuals who spoke with an eloquence and honesty that none of us at Laboratory Adelaide, for all our industry experience, had heard before. (Rather than cherry-pick an example of this outpouring, we have appended a selection at the end of this book). The testimony was impressive – personal, but also detailed, accurate and informed. Feeling and thought were united in articulate statements that truthfully and movingly communicated what these practitioners did and why it was important – why Australian culture was of value to Australia.

Now that Brandis has gone and business as usual has returned, it is worth reflecting on what his two years in the top job showed. The trouble with George was not that he was ignorant about culture, but that he knew too much and wanted something different from what was on offer. Had Brandis set up the NPEA with new money he might well have improved support for the arts in Australia. In the context of a cost-saving federal Budget, it would have been politically difficult. But it would have been a tiny impost compared to defence, health or social security and could have added range and flexibility to a system often resented for bureaucratic overkill. Instead he delivered a detested fiasco. For if the system for assessing and supporting Australian culture can be up-ended on little more than ministerial inclination, then it is a castle built on sand.

The Rest of this Book

The Senate Inquiry had a galvanising effect on Laboratory Adelaide. We were now convinced that the perfect number to prove the value of culture to those chronically sceptical of it was not only an impossible goal but a meaningless one. The South Australian cultural organisations we worked with directly – the State Library, the State Theatre and the Adelaide Festival – and the others we talked to, large, medium, and small, were generating metrics-saturated reports at a rate of knots. Where were these reports going? Who was reading them? Who was competent to read them? And what did ‘good numbers’ get you in the end? For Australia today, the nub of the problem is this: that the experience of culture is distant from its means of support. This pervasive but unacknowledged social fact is the broader context for our book, and we admit that its implications are ones we are still coming to terms with.

The chapters that follow contain more questions than answers. In the end, value isn’t really ‘a problem’ anyway, but an aspect of being human. Despite the fact that governments treat it as interchangeable with ‘benefit’, it is something deeper and more resonant. Value is constitutive. It not only is something, it does something, leaving us changed as well as rewarded. Paradoxically, this is most obvious in culture, where stories of personal transformation abound. The intractability of measuring culture is offset by the fact that it sometimes embodies the very essence of the idea of value, bestowing on us a permanent enrichment of spirit. As Plato argued two and a half millennia ago, ‘the soul takes nothing with her to the next world but her education and her culture’.17

The aim of our book is therefore simple to state, if difficult to achieve. It is to change the conversation around the evaluation of culture in all domains, but especially the government one, so that it reflects more context, is more honest, and makes more sense. If the impetus behind the writing is to complicate, the desired result is to facilitate better thinking and better art. But nothing is achieved by talking in an inappropriate mode of scientistic address. This is the tone of too much of the academic value literature. While the book is not personal essay, it eschews both high theory and heavy empiricism to communicate its central ideas more clearly. It seeks to engage rather than have the final word. A central assumption is that all parties involved in the creation and support of culture are of equal standing. Artists are as important as audiences, governments as important as cultural organisations. In this ecology of mutual need, no view of culture should dominate in evaluation strategies and, given the diverse forms of culture today, no view can dominate. Negotiation lies at the heart of assessment, in a process we call the ‘conferral of value’, to acknowledge that however objective a metrical indicator might seem, it is only when it is socially endorsed that value can be said to exist.18 The problem of culture’s value cannot be solved in the classroom, the boardroom or the party room. It involves extended webs of social understanding and expectation. Choosing between incommensurable objectives is the bureaucrat’s unenviable lot. The job of researchers is to ensure that the information available does not misrepresent the policy choices under consideration. There is a difference between helping society make easier decisions about culture, and helping it make better ones. Laboratory Adelaide’s commitment is to the latter.

The structure of the book is relatively simple. The first chapter addresses definitions of key terms. Thereafter follow three brief case studies from different cultural domains (‘The Problems’). Here, we discuss what we call ‘parables of value’, looking at cultural experience in situ, and identifying the difficulties and challenges these examples throw up for anyone serious about evaluating them. The second part of the book (‘Where to from Here?’) looks at how we might address such difficulties and challenges by developing a new sensitivity to language and narrative. We then draw attention to recent trends in evaluation and reporting occurring in the corporate sector. The conclusion makes some broad remarks about the social structures that have given rise to the problem of value in its contemporary, desiccated form. But it would be depressing, and perhaps misleading, to end the book on this note, so we finish with the words of some of the hundreds of people who made submissions to the 2015 Senate Inquiry into the Brandis arts cuts.

A deep conviction the authors share is that there can be no over-determining, abstract view of culture. It has to take place in some place, at some time, and within distinctive social arrangements. Broad conclusions about culture can be made, but always need translation to and from particular contexts. For us, Adelaide is a fine city to take as a reference point. Bigger than small but smaller than big, it has one of everything by way of major cultural organisations, and a longstanding commitment to the arts. It has the Dunstan legacy: the remarkable Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan – he of the pink shorts and safari suits – who in the 1970s brought the city and its culture to a point of identity. South Australia is ‘the Festival State’, in its heart as well as on its car licence plates, and while it currently faces tough economic times, culturally it boxes above its weight. For this reason, our book is relentlessly ‘glocal’, taking its examples from the Adelaide cultural scene while mining these for insights that are more widely applicable. The exception (in focus and to some extent in tone) is the chapter ‘The Reporting of Value’ at the end, which describes new international accounting frameworks as a practical way forward.

Laboratory Adelaide is a project with its roots firmly in the humanities. As researchers we come from the creative arts, literary criticism and digital studies. Our work connects with social scientific approaches to value, but the expertise we bring derives from the cultural disciplines. We are, consequently, particularly sensitive to issues of language. It is possible to measure things that cannot be defined precisely. The validity of numerical data when everyone’s understanding of key terms is different, however, is open to doubt. This is not a problem more information will fix. ‘Big data’ often makes the task of aligning words and numbers more difficult, bringing blindness as well as insight. The message of our little book is therefore ‘stop measuring and judge carefully’. If we are serious as a society about assessing culture’s value, we need to accept the difficulty of the task and the limited nature of the proofs. Culture is a varied and constantly changing phenomenon; value is a profound conception of human gain. As researchers we need a degree of intellectual humility – something usually missing from the measurement debate – a catholicity of taste, and an ambition to be as flexible in recognising forms of value, as cultural practitioners are in creating them.

Box 1 ‘The Funding Game’: A (Very) Brief History Lesson

In the last half-century, arts and culture in Australia have been dominated by government policy and government agencies. Yet the public funding of culture does not go back much further than century 1950. It is worth keeping this history in mind. Government is big in the Australian cultural sector, but not eternally so. Its influence could wane again. That may, in fact, be what happens in the twenty-first

In the sixty years after Federation there were modest cultural initiatives like the Commonwealth Literary Fund (established 1908), the ABC orchestras (established 1932–36), the Elizabethan Theatre Trust (established 1954), as well as state-funded libraries, art galleries, museums and, with the long and finally triumphant saga of the Sydney Opera House, concert halls. However, it was not until the founding of the Australian Council for the Arts in 1968, and a major expansion of funding in 1973, that Australia had an arts policy with the resources to make things happen.

There are good reasons why it was needed. Following waves of postwar migration, Australia could no longer see itself as a cultural extension of Britain, but the initiative to recognise this change could not come from the commercial sector, which was fundamentally risk-averse (and still is). Moreover, Australians have traditionally looked to government for leadership, and there was no strong philanthropic support base, despite relatively high levels of prosperity (again, still the case). A distinctive national culture was not going to occur spontaneously. A range of government programs at federal and state levels were developed to address this.

Despite being publicly funded, at first artists were largely left to evaluate their work themselves in a combination of peer review and an arm’s length relationship from politicians. But Australia’s turn towards neo-liberal beliefs in the 1980s exerted an influence on all it touched. Money spent on arts and culture had to be justified in budgets that might otherwise spend it on healthcare, education, or manufacturing. Art for art’s sake is not a plausible policy criterion in an environment dominated by audit rigour and value-for-money. The ‘governmentalisation’ of the arts, as policy critic Lisanne Gibson has called it, is a logical consequence of artists having economic rationalist governments as a patron. Its budget processes require general explanations, abstract justifications, statistical proofs. These are often hard for cultural practitioners to provide, because the meaning of their work resides in the personal response it evokes. Government evaluation strategies seek to be detached and objective. Neither parameter is relevant when you want to write the great Australian novel.

The introduction of more instrumental assessment methods for the arts started in 1976, when the Industries Assistance Commission handed down its report Assistance to the Performing Arts, acidly suggesting the sector should be treated ‘like any other service industry’. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser did not follow its econometric recommendations. But arts and culture have been squaring off against this policy dynamic ever since. In the subsequent 40-plus years, Australian governments have initiated a number of inquiries and reports into the sector (see our Brief Chronology below). In 1981, the first major economic analysis of Australian culture appeared, Kenneth Tollhurst’s ‘Australians’ Attitudes to the Arts’. Thereafter, there was a rush to produce economic impact studies, though whether these found genuine traction, either with the Treasury officials who questioned their assumptions, or with the artists who saw them as tangential to their artistic goals, is moot.

In 1994, the Keating government released Creative Nation, marking a shift from an ‘arts policy’ to a ‘cultural policy’, with the widening of scope this implies. In tone and intent it is a very different document from Assistance to the Performing Arts. Yet it retains a preoccupation with the contribution of culture to the economy as ‘a valuable export in itself and an essential accompaniment to the export of our commodities’. It declares that ‘the level of our creativity substantially determines our ability to adapt to new economic imperatives’. This focus continues in our last national cultural policy, Creative Australia, in 2013.

Not only art and culture’s economic contribution, but its social, educational and wellbeing ‘spill overs’ are now the objects of an industry of evidenced-based research by governments, academics and the sector itself. None of this data is without use, but it is problematic. We end up evaluating things that have little to do with qualities intrinsic to culture, its production, and its experience. Nor does the strategy seem to be working, as support for arts and culture is almost the only area of public expenditure going backwards, according to The Australian newspaper’s economics correspondent David Uren (26 May 2016). Australian society may but it is worth considering the ‘funding game’ critically, and whether there are alternatives. As one artist wrote to us recently, in a private communication: have beaten a retreat from Whitlam’s national-culture-building vision,

The money is swiftly running out. Always living down to the line. It’s an old familiar feeling. However, as I finish writing up my final grant acquittal, I realise that once it is approved I am free from the cycle of arts funding. Each time I am tempted to apply for an upcoming round, I step away and do something else. It is not a sustainable future, not for me, not for anyone. […] What is missing is the idea of ‘investment’ and ‘return’. The only thing that keeps happening is artists ‘return’ for more grants! And the pool of applications is getting larger by the round. What I’ve learnt is that there is no actual logic to arts funding. There are no resulting outcomes apart from keeping individuals, groups and organisations hanging on for subsequent rounds, hoping their number will come up. I realise that funding is a privilege and not a right. But to me, after almost 15 years, there is no follow-through, with arts funding bodies probably knowing full well the majority of artists can never achieve independent financial status. The logic is skewed because one cannot just apply to be ‘supported’. The majority of funds have to go to various strands of production and the applying artist ends up getting the left-overs (aside from fellowships, which as we know are singular occurrences). I feel there could be a much better way of spending government money on artists. I believe the solution is something like a 10-year period of base income funding [for those] who have shown consistency in their practice rather than this grab-bag of amounts that just go around in circles.

Brief Chronology of Formal Australian Cultural Policy since Federation in 1901

1908 Commonwealth Literary Fund, Australia’s first government cultural
  subsidy fund established.
1947 Guthrie Report on the state of Australian theatre.
1954 Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, predecessor of the Australia Council for the Arts, established.
1963 Vincent Report on the state of Australian film.
1968 The Australian Council for the Arts established by Holt–Gorton Coalition government.
1972 Gough Whitlam becomes both Prime Minister and federal Arts Minister in the first Labor government for 23 years.
1973 Whitlam announces plans for a new national cultural agency, the Australia Council. Federal arts budget increases from $7 million to $14 million. H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs, former Governor of the Reserve Bank, becomes first Chair of the Council.
1974 Legislation introduced into federal parliament to give the Australia Council statutory independence.
1975 Australia Council Act passed. Whitlam’s Labor government ousted from office in November (‘The Dismissal’).
1976 The Industries Assistance Commission hands down its report Assistance to the Performing Arts.
1986 The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure hands down Patronage, Power and the Muse (the McLeay Report).
1989 Following the recommendation of the McLeay Report, the Australia Council establishes a Major Organisations Board. The first triennial grants are introduced.
1994 Creative Nation launched by Prime Minister Paul Keating’s Labor government.
2000–01 Securing the Future (the Nugent Report) handed down by Prime Minister John Howard’s Coalition government.
2013 Creative Australia launched by Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor government.


1See especially David Beer, Metric Power (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); and also Jerry Z. Muller, The Tyranny of Metrics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018); Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (New York: Crown, 2016); and Stefan Collini, Speaking of Universities (London; New York: Verso, 2017).

2See Jane Gleeson-White, Six Capitals: The Revolution Capitalism has to Have; or, Can Accountants Save the Planet? (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2015).

3ABS “Information Paper: Towards Comparable Statistics for Cultural Heritage Organisations” 4916.0, 2008: 37.

4See Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class – and What We Can Do about It (New York: Basic Books, 2017).

5Brian McMaster, Supporting Excellence in the Arts: From Measurement to Judgement (London: Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2008), 23.

6See Julian Meyrick, ‘Assemblage of Convenience: National Cultural Policy-making 101’, Australian Book Review, May 2013, 12–14.

7Matthew Westwood, ‘George Brandis details Coalition’s arts manifesto’, The Australian, 20 August 2013.

8Letter from Senator George Brandis to Rupert Myer, chair of the Australia Council, as reported in the media including Chris Kenny, ‘Sydney Biennale “Shame” Risks Funding, Says George Brandis’, The Australian, 13 March 2014, and Bridie Jabour, ‘George Brandis Threatens Sydney Biennale over Transfield “Blackballing”’, The Guardian, 12 March 2014.

9Commonwealth of Australia, Creative Nation (Commonwealth Cultural Policy, October 1994).

10For a brief overview of Senator Brandis’s actions, see J. Meyrick, ‘The House Loses’, The Monthly, October 2015, 11–13. For observations on the Senate Inquiry, see Meyrick and Barnett, ‘Senate Inquiry into Arts Funding: Testimony and Truth in South Australia’, The Conversation, 22 September 2015.

11Rosemary Neill, ‘Culture Shock’, The Australian, 1 August 2015.

12M. McKenzie-Murray, ‘Inside George Brandis’s Australia Council Arts Heist’, The Saturday Paper, 23 May 2015.

13Jane Lee, ‘George Brandis’s Arts Funding Program Open to Legal Challenge’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July 2015.

14See in particular Ben Eltham, ‘Brandis “Completely Flummoxed” by His Own OzCo Changes’, Crikey, 22 July 2015.

15Ben Eltham, When the Goalposts Move. Platform Paper 48 (Sydney: Currency Press, 2016, 25).

16Rosemary Neill, ‘Culture Shock’, The Australian, 1 August 2015.

17 The Republic, translated by Henry Lee, 2nd edition, revised (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 63.

18J. Meyrick, T. Barnett and R. Phiddian, ‘The Conferral of Cultural Value’, Media International Australia. Under review.

What Matters?

   by Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett