Two important new research reports from the Australia Council

With the excitement of Australia’s hung Parliament and everything I have been giving cultural policy matters a back seat for my writing on Australian politics itself.

Indeed, the election campaign has also obscured the release of two important research reports from the Australia Council on the state of artists’ incomes and career prospects in Australia.

On August 17th – in other words, during the last week of the election campaign – the Australia Council released the new reports, which it claims “offer a comprehensive picture of the working lives of Australian artists.”

The first, Do You Really Expct to Get Paid? is the latest in the long-running artists’ income survey conducted by eminent Macquarie University cultural economist David Throsby.  This is an important and extremely rich research research project, as it has been running for nearly three decades across five separate surveys.  The latest installment is particularly rewarding, offering fascinating insights and precious hard data on issues like artists’ basic demography, income levels, working hours, employment patterns, professional challenges and use of new technology. It’s a treasure trove of sociological information which I’ll be exploring here in more detail over the next few weeks.

Stuart Cunningham and Peter Higgs’ What’s Your Other Job?: A census analysis of artists’ employment in Australia is a very thorough and interesting dissection of available Australian Census data. But it inadvertantly shows up of one of the biggest policy  problems posed by the Australia Council by the methodological definitions it employs. Presumably at the request of the Australia Council itself, census definitions  used are not those the ABS uses in it Employment in Culture series, but rather a subset of those classifications that deal only with the artforms currently funded by the Australia Council: Chiefly literature, music, visual arts and crafts, theatre and dance, “cross-artform” arts, and design.

The relevant definitions are carefully explicated – but what it is significant is who is missing. If I read the definitions correctly,  whole swathes of the cultural sector are missing. There are no film-makers, no animators, no game designers or developers, no broadcasters or book or magazine publishers, no librarians or archivists, no journalists and no bloggers – nor any of the related professions that might be snobbishly considerd “non-artistic” but in fact are vital to the production and performance of the arts – jobs like sound recorders and producers, festival promoters, museum curators and film and TV producers.

In fact, the film and television sector appears to have been excluded altogether – a strange and arbitrary decision which appears to have more to do with existing policy ambit of the Australia Council than the relevance or cogency of this definition to the broader debate. After all, what is it exactly makes design more “artistic” than cinematography?

None of which is to criticise Cunningham and Higgs’ report, which still has some really interesting things to tell us – data I’m going to explore over the course of the next week or so.

Richard Mills tries to defend the heritage arts; fails

I couldn’t let this one go … distinguished composer and WA Opera Director Richard Mills had a wonderful defence of the heritage arts in The Age last week. Sounding like a critic trampled in the riot on the first night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mills thunders on about the new media arts in a tone that would be shocking if it were not so risible:

Some recently emerging mumbles in the national conversation appear to advocate a radical reallocation of government funding to various enterprises seen as exemplifying greater diversity of engagement, relevance (to whom or what is never stated) and, of course, innovation. I suppose I should begin by nailing my colours to the mast through making this confession.
I was a member of the Australia Council for the Arts in the 1990s when the New Media Fund was set up. I opposed it vehemently – and in vain – as it seemed to me just another example of meretricious, self-serving claptrap, which confused content with process, masquerading to the weak-minded as new, with a healthy sense of entitlement to whatever funds might happen to drop from the perch of government.
To educate and enlighten my misguided ways, I was taken to an office in Melbourne by an earnest, believing colleague. This office was the hub of revolutionary “new media” enterprise. I was ushered in and shown, in an atmosphere of hushed reverence, some examples of “new media” which, so far as I could tell, consisted of pictures of yellow flowers changing and moving about a bit on a TV screen.
“Humbug,” I exclaimed, “this belongs to the visual arts” – only to be howled down by the entire clutch of councillors of the day (except, if my memory serves me correctly, Christopher Pearson).
Thankfully, this nonsense, and other things like it, were recognised in their true colours some years later when my esteemed colleague Jonathan Mills (no relation) encouraged the abolition of the New Media Fund with enthusiasm – and final success.

Apart from the important new revelation that we can sheet home some responsibility for the abolition of the New Media Arts Board to Jonathan Mills, the article is an amazingly short-sighted defence. I’ve responded over at Inside Story:

Like the best satire, Mills’s essay skates close to the ridiculous. (When was the last time someone cried “humbug” in a policy discussion?) As spoof, Mills’s essay is a near-masterpiece. As sincere argument, it’s a train wreck. Mills gloats over the destruction of the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board in 2004, as though it were some victory in the culture wars. He advances factually wrong statements – for instance, that grassroots music depends on musicians trained by symphony orchestras for the supply of expert teachers. He makes frankly embarrassing comments about jewellery and computer programming. More generally, in his rage against the dying of a light, he reveals himself to be as reactionary and ill-informed about other artforms as he is proficient in his own.

Mills’s essay is destined to become an important source document for those studying the current shape of Australian cultural policy. Sadly, one of Australia’s finest living composers has shown himself to possess a narrow critical mind. But Mills has also done us a favour, because he has been honest enough to reveal a widespread attitude among influential decision-makers in the Australian arts: the attitude that some forms of art, particularly their own, are more meritorious than others.

How do US college students find out about new music in the digital age?

From Crooked Timber‘s Eszter Hargittai and Steven Tepper from Princeton’s Centre for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies comes a fascinating paper in Poetics: “Pathways to music exploration in a digital age” (Poetics 37 (2009): 227–249).

This paper is several things in one: a lively introduction to the literature on this topic (particularly the sociology of taste), a presentation of novel data, and a stylishly-written discussion of an important topic which contains many minor gems (my favourite was the description of The Wire magazine as “an expensive British magazine for eclectic rock aficionados.”

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Andy Bennett on the cultural sociology of popular music

Today, a quick look at Andy Bennett’s review article from late last year in the Journal of Sociology.  This paper, “Towards a cultural sociology of popular music” [Volume 44(4): 419–432] is an excellent resource for those (like me) looking to get their heads around the historical development of this debate:

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Organising the musical canon: US symphony performances in the 19th and 20th centuries

Today, a look at one of the more interesting papers in the sociology of music of the last decade: Timothy Dowd, Kathleen Liddle, Kim Lupo and Anne Borden’s “Organizing the musical canon: the repertoires of major U.S. symphony orchestras, 1842 to 1969,” published in a special issue on music sociology in Poetics in 2002 (volume 30, issue 1-2).  

This impressive work of scholarship analyses 86,000 musical performances by 27 major US symphony orcehstras over more than a century. There’s a lot of fascinating discussion in this paper that draws on the work of Paul DiMaggio – but in terms of the data, the take-home message for me is that “the canon” is both more diverse and more stable than you might expect. Take the following data points, from Table 2 of this paper:

Top five composers accounting for the most performances in a given time period:


Mendelssohn (14.4); Beethoven (12.1); Weber (10.6); Mozart (8.6); Spohr (6.6). Combined percentage: 52%


Beethoven (15.0); Wagner (8.1); Liszt (7.4); Mendelssohn (7.1); Schumann (5.1). Combined percentage: 43%


Wagner (10.2); Beethoven (7.3); Brahms (4.9); Mozart (4.1); Strauss, R. (4.0). Combined percentage: 30%


Beethoven (8.8); Mozart (7.2); Brahms (5.5); Wagner (4.2); Tchaikovsky (3.4). Combined percentage: 29.1%


What does this tell us? What do you think?


Organizing the musical canon:
the repertoires of major U.S. symphony
orchestras, 1842 to 196