The Australia Council turns its back on contemporary culture … again

The Australia Council has just released a major new piece of audience research. Entitled More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts, it’s a weighty and significant contribution to the field which features statistically significant market research surveys of more than 3,000 ordinary Australians.

Unfortunately, it suffers from some of the typical prejudices and problems of so much Australia Council policy and research.

Most notable is the definition of “the arts.” Perhaps for reasons of funding, or perhaps for political reasons, the research has defined “the arts” in a very narrow sense, essentially confining “the arts” to music, writing, visual arts and performance. Film and television – according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the most popularly consumed form of culture – are ignored, and, astonishingly, so are the digital arts and cultural expressions, like gaming.

It’s hard to believe that after all the debate and criticism of  the Australia Council’s recent history by people like Keith Gallasch, Marcus Westbury and myself, when it comes to the most significant piece of audience research by the agency in a decade, vast swathes of Australia cultural participation are simply ignored. But it’s happened. Again.

Here is the relevant paragraph, on page 13 of the report:

The focus of the study is upon the art forms that are supported by the Australia Council (visual arts and crafts, music, dance, theatre, literature). The definitions were agreed after a thorough consultation within the Australia Council and with key stakeholders.

So there you go: “the arts” are what the Australia Council funds. Unfortunately, this not only leaves out the most important cultural expression of the 20th century (cinema), it also ignores many of the important emerging cultural expressions of the 21st (gaming and digital culture). Sure, there are some cursory reference to “digital/video art” in the visual arts section, but you won’t actually find the words “games” or “gaming” anywhere in the report. Gobsmacking.

Moreover, it seems like a step back from recent well-intentioned efforts by OzCo to address digital culture. After looking at today’s  effort, one has to ask why the Australia Council even bothers with its “Arts Content for the Digital Era” strategy if it’s not going to bother to measure the most important forms of interactive digital culture.

It’s not that this isn’t a highly informative piece of research. Like the last such exercise, the Saatchi research report from the early 2000s, More than bums on seats represents important new data on the state of cultural participation in this country. I”ll be delving into it in more detail this week.

Still, it’s another piece of evidence of the ostrich-headed policy direction of the Australia Council under Kathy Keele. More than bums on seats is rather less than the full picture of cultural participation. What a shame.

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