$7 billion of neoliberalism

The Stationers' Company mark

The Stationers’ Company: an early example of government cultural policy. Image: Wikipedia.

Australian economist Jason Potts has restarted an important debate about cultural policy in this country with an article entitled “You’ve got $7 billion – so how will you fund the arts?“. I just wish he hadn’t analysed Australian cultural policy from the sort of instrumentalist, neoliberal position we find so familiar in many other spheres of policy debate.

I’ll say right up the top that I’m a fan of Potts’ work, and think him a pretty clever fellow. His work on evolutionary economics is in its own way quite heterodox, and a far cry from the sort of automatic and reflexive market worship we often associate with both the RMIT Economics school, and the Institute for Public Affairs, which he is apparently doing some work with.

On the other hand, his op-ed in The Conversation on cultural policy  is not one of his more perspicacious efforts. Justin O’Connor has already written a useful response, but I thought I’d add a few points of my own, set forth below.

Let’s start by setting forward Potts’ argument. Then we’ll move on to a critique.

Last year the Australian Bureau of Statistics did the maths – government spends about A$7 billion annually in Australia on arts and culture. The exact dollar figure varies depending on what we count, but it includes heritage, broadcasting and botanical gardens, along with all the usual suspects: performing arts, literature, film, visual arts, and so on.

This is apples, oranges and all sorts of random fruit.  “Heritage” funding, for instance, includes such things as war memorials, botanical gardens, zoos and some national parks expenditure. That’s a pretty different sort of thing to grants to game design companies or tax incentives to Hollywood movie studios. Does it actually make sense to treat all of these things as the same sort of expenditure?

Anyway, moving on:

To make this exercise fun, let’s suppose that no political horse-trading was involved in reaching this figure. Let’s assume this figure is the result of disinterested economic calculation of the size of the positive externality in the production of a public good, all wrapped in willingness-to-pay studies, and tied with a big bright cost-benefit ribbon.

So what’s next?

Do we put away our box of shiny economic tools and turn to grubby political compromise to allocate the exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding?

In Australia, as in Europe, this is more or less what we do. Economics to justify an economically efficient level of spending – and politics to implement it.

Really? Last time I looked, in most nation-states, including most democracies, politics is almost always the over-riding factor in the way  budget priorities are set. Sure, politicians and lobbyists and ordinary citizens use economic arguments to make the case for this spending increase or that tax cut. But the process is always and by definition political. On the really big picture stuff, economics arguably can’t really help us. For instance, how much should Australia invest in national defence, or climate change mitigation? The answer depends on inherently political judgments, such as whether you think global warming is real, or the likelihood of a major war.

Indeed, ‘economic efficiency’ is itself an inherently political argument, because it applies a very particular set of assumptions to public policy — namely that Pareto efficiency can actually hold in the first place. In markets in which there is imperfect information — and cultural markets are amongst the most opaque of all — Pareto efficiency may well be impossible. Potts knows this, which is why his quip about the “exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding” strikes me as disingenuous.

So let’s get to the guts of Potts’ argument:

… modern economics suggests that it would be better if we turned the process upside down. Let politicians determine the level of funding in a given area – and let economists determine the allocation.

Why? The political model of funding allocation is very bad at creating – or even recognising – new knowledge. In fact, political allocation mechanisms cause incentives that reward lobbying and punish experimental or innovative thinking.

Only by weakening those incentives can arts and cultural funding seek to be more than a rearguard preservation exercise or sinecure for vested interests.

I suppose it’s something of ad hominem attack to point this out, but it’s just a tad ironic that the person making this argument is a Federation Fellow of a publicly funded Australian university. A person writing for a website, by the way, also funded by universities and the government, using a medium — the internet — that was created almost exclusively by public investment in research.

“Political allocation mechanisms”, by which I think Potts means governments making budget decisions, certainly create incentives that reward lobbying. Then again, so do market mechanisms. Markets require the state to provide a level playing field via such basic institutions as property rights, police forces and courts of law. All of these create incentives for vested interests to plead their cause.

This is no trivial point, by the way: the cultural industries are completely dependent on intellectual property rights such as copyright and patents. The very fact that many cultural goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable creates huge incentives for content industries to lobby governments to create and strengthen IP regulations — as has been well documented by researchers such as Lessig. When property rights become unenforceable, digital goods become a whole lot less valuable. Anyway, Potts’ claim was that public spending creates lobbying, which is bad. On this analysis, many of the cherished market mechanisms of the cultural industries must also be bad, because they were created via lobbying.

This points to a further naievete: the implicit belief that cultural goods and services are just like any other industrial product.

Even a moment’s reflection shows us this isn’t true. The products of cultural industries are not like any old widget or commodity: they are not even really the same thing as an iPhone or an operating system. Cultural industries produce symbols, and symbols are powerful (or at least highly influential). An aluminium ingot or a wind turbine cannot affect the democratic judgment or voting intentions of millions of citizens. A newspaper empire or television network can.

It doesn’t really matter whether you think that the power of media companies to swing elections is illusory. The history of modern media policy tells us that governments certainly do think symbols are powerful. Media has generally often been heavily regulated, sometimes on the grounds of public interest, but more commonly for naked reasons of political expediency. Even in the US, with its famous First Amendment, successive Washington administrations have had no qualms about controlling spectrum, imposing stringent copyright regulations, and spying extensively on their citizens’ communications. Hosni Mubarak turned off the internet in Egypt for a reason. Whether it’s internet filters or the Stationers Company, the political nature of cultural industries means they can’t be divorced from questions of power.

This curious ignorance of the symbolic reality of culture is often found amongst unsophisticated approaches to cultural economics — much as economics as taught in the modern university tends to ignore key aspects of sociology. As a result, when economists issue prescriptions for cultural policy, they tend to propose cures that are far worse than the supposed disease.

Perhaps this is why Potts misconstrues key facts about real-life cultural policy. For instance, he seems to think arts funding is about “inputs, not outputs”, when in fact nearly all Australian government arts grants are legal contracts specifying outcomes, allowing the government to recoup the funding if not properly acquitted. He also equates prizes as some sort of gold standard of outcome, which is strange because prize committees show exactly the sort of “bullshit” he decries in grant panels.

Similarly, when he argues for “tax credits to anyone – private citizen, corporation, foundation or NGO alike – for spending on arts and culture”, he seems to imply these don’t currently exist. In fact, they do. An individual donating to a DGR-status cultural organisation already receives a tax credit, while a non-profit NGO or foundation already pays no tax beyond the GST.

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The minefield of cultural measurement

First published at artsHub, 14 August 2013

Arts strategist Julianne Schultz says we need to start measuring the value of culture, an important but risky venture.

In a speech as part of the Currency House Art and Public Life series in Sydney today, Professor Schulz called on the arts sector to be more ambitious in measuring the intrinsic value of the work produced by artists.

Schultz, who chaired the Reference Group on the National Cultural Policy, said the arts should take advantage of new measuring tools.

For very good reasons we have been diffident about measuring the value of culture. It feels wrong in many ways. We have accepted as a mantra that there are some things that are so intrinsically valuable that they defy quantification. I am not unsympathetic to that view. Robert Kennedy expressed it with great eloquence many years ago, when he decried that we know measure the value of everything except that which is most valuable. In the intervening years new ways of measuring some of these things of value have been created – and that is important. In the arts and culture sector we have opted for a proxy measurement of value, the number of tickets sold, the number of visitors and their multipliers, the profitability of organisations and so on. These are important tools, but not sufficient to capture the public value that accrues from engagement in cultural activities. Thirty years ago environmental value was not something that was measured, now it is. We have to be more ambitious and smarter in finding a way to measure the public value of culture. We know it exists, but we have not yet found the right way to measure it. We have to be more ambitious in measuring the intrinsi’c value of the work produced by artists and the costs that fall disproportionately on them and their families because their work is not properly valued; the institutional in terms of a national ethos which draws visitors or inspires productive innovation; the instrumental value, like the well documented legacy for children of exposure and involvement in arts and culture to successful and engaged lives, and the commercial value which is contributing more to the national economy than many other sectors.

 

It’s not easy being an arts policy nerd. As policy fields go, the area is a lot smaller and less influential than key political battlegrounds like economics, climate change or asylum seekers. Public intellectuals with clout in the field are few in number, and there is no high profile think-tank with easy access to media outlets, like a Climate Institute or an Institute for Public Affairs. Even the vested interests are not particularly organized: industry bodies such as APRA or SPAA don’t strike quite the same fear into a minister’s heart as the Minerals Council of Australia, the Pharmacy Guild or the AI Group.

The thin and patchy nature of cultural policy debate has a number of consequences. One is that discussion tends to languish for long periods. The fitful progress of the national cultural policy towards its eventual outcome in Creative Australia is a good example. First mooted by Peter Garrett as opposition Arts spokesman in 2006, the policy was finally delivered this year.

But the threadbare nature of the cultural policy discussion can have positive consequences too. One is that prominent artists and intellectuals have an unusually strong influence. While the big debates about economic policy are fiercely contested by powerful players, and correspondingly crowded with talking heads, cultural policy is comparatively empty. The few players of significance that do take the field have unusual freedom to move.

Amongst this small coterie, one figure has reached an unquestionable position of influence: Julianne Schultz. From her seemingly peripheral position as the editor of a small but respected magazine, Schultz has spun a web of influence that places her firmly at the centre of the Australian artistic and cultural debate. A key consultant to a succession of Labor arts ministers, Schultz co-chaired the creative stream of the 2020 Summit and went on to lead the reference group for the Creative Australia policy. She’s on the board of the ABC and the Grattan Institute, chairs the Australian Film Television and Radio School, as well as wearing a haberdashery of other hats. When The Australian’s Matt Westwood profiled her last year, she described her intellectual background as ‘broadly cultural, but … from a journalism-media background.’

This breadth of interests and networks makes Schultz a voice worth listening to, especially when, as she did this morning, she advances a bold new policy agenda to build on Creative Australia.

The take-home message of Schultz’ speech this morning concerns the need for an expanded Ministry of Culture. This new super-department would bring together existing federal programs and agencies in a cabinet-level Department. The precedents are strong for such a body overseas: France’s Socialist government of the 1980s was famous for its swashbuckling culture minister, Jack Lang. As Schultz observed today:

At the moment not even all the national collecting institutions answer to the same minister, heritage is in environment, cultural diplomacy and UNESCO are in DFAT, industry assistance for the creative industries is in innovation and climate change, tourism and sport are elsewhere, trade is not linked in any consistent way, broadcasting is in broadband and the digital economy, there are programs in education and health, and regional affairs funds the building facilities and gives prizes for regional arts.

[…]

Such a department would be able to address the cultural sector as a whole, bring a fresh and critical perspective to the sustainability of the component parts with rigorous economic analysis by taking the lead on developing the tools to measure public value.  Its ethos would be sympathetic to cultural potential. It would complement not replicate agencies, like the Australia Council and Screen Australia that allocate funds – so that the arm’s length relationship between cultural production and government, which is so highly valued would be maintained.

Schultz’s proposal is both bold and sensible, and echoes my thinking on the subject; in 2010, I proposed a similarly structured portfolio.

Other aspects of Schultz’ speech are just as interesting, though they will perhaps receive less attention. One argument she makes that could potentially be a game-changer is the need for a much broader and deeper set of cultural statistics and indicators.

‘Thirty years ago environmental value was not something that was measured,’ she points out. ‘Now it is.’

‘We have to be more ambitious and smarter in finding a way to measure the public value of culture. We know it exists, but we have not yet found the right way to measure it.’

There’s no doubt that measurement drives public policy, as the long-running evidence-based policy debate inside the public service amply demonstrates. The ‘poor cousin’ status of the arts and culture within government agencies stems, in part, from the fact that it remains very hard to measure the community value of a beautiful artwork or a provocative documentary. As former top bureaucrats like Leigh Tabrett have told us, the all-powerful central agencies of government – especially Treasury and Finance – are still highly skeptical of the value of the arts and culture, seeing it as warm and fuzzy window-dressing compared to the serious stuff of roads, schools and hospitals.

Echoing an important stream of the academic debate about measuring culture, Schultz says there should be much more effort devoted to measuring the so-called ‘intrinsic’ value of the arts, for instance by using sophisticated tools from economics to measure the ‘contingent valuation’ of the arts by ordinary citizens. So, for instance, the public could be polled and asked what they would be willing to pay for a new art gallery in a regional city, or whether they’d like to spend more on public broadcasting than the ABC’s famous “eight cents a day’. When such exercises have been tried I other countries, they have consistently yielded answers in excess of current government funding levels.

Schultz also says there are a range of other measurements that could better capture the value of the arts, including instrumental value, ‘like the well documented legacy for children of exposure and involvement in arts and culture to successful and engaged lives,’ as well as economic factors, ‘which is contributing more to the national economy than many other sectors’.

It all sounds very useful, and arts advocates would no doubt love extra arguments with which to persuade skeptical razor gangs in Finance and Treasury. But by stepping into the minefield of cultural measurement, Schultz – and Australian culture in general – will need to tread carefully. The most recent attempt to develop such measures in the UK, for instance, developed detailed proposals to measure the value of the arts in Britain using contingent valuation [pdf]. Sadly, they were little help when faced with George Osborne’s austerity drive.

Not all metrics are created equal. Just yesterday, for instance, Essential Research released an opinion poll in which those surveyed said they were unhappy about Australia’s ongoing budget deficit, and would like to see cuts to arts funding to help pay for it. And if there’s one measurement every politician understands, it’s a poll.

Austerity and the social construction of economic knowledge

In a rich and wonderfully detailed 2011 article for the American Journal of Sociology, Donald Mackenzie lays out a case for “The Credit Crisis as a Problem in the Sociology of Knowledge.”

The global financial crisis, Mackenzie argues, was partly the result of particular and contingent “knowledge-generating arrangements”, which allowed the wildly mis-allocated risks of the US mortgage securities industry to accumulate and eventually implode. Research for the paper included detailed interviews with 87 financial market participants. Continue reading

Responding to Steve Kates: more zombie shuffles

RMIT economics lecturer and weird Australian defender of the Romney 47%-thesis Steve Kates has a new blog up called Law of Markets, which is unsurprisingly devoted to Kates’ laissez faire economics and far-right political opinions.

You might recall that I wrote a post a few years back entitled “Don’t study economics at RMIT”, a rather tongue-in-cheek critique of Kates’ baroque views about economics, and the apparent concentration of libertarian economists at that institution.

The original post was in reaction to an op-ed by Kates in the Australian Financial Review, in which he argued that Labor government’s 2009 stimulus package was crowding out private business activity, and therefore causing inflation:

The RBA is continuing to raise rates because the government is taking up domestic savings more rapidly than we are able to generate those savings through productive activity.

In this economy at this time it is the government that is the single most important cause of rising rates. The RBA is only doing what it can to ensure the resources available for investment are properly priced.

As I argued in my original post, Kates’ ideas are highly neoclassical. Dr Kates is a well-known proponent arguing for the resurrection of Say’s Law, a largely discredited economic theory that suggests that demand and supply, by definition, are essentially always in equilibrium.

I criticised it at the time by pointing out that:

One of the implications of Say’s Law is the crowding-out theory of investment, namely, that government investment necessarily diverts the investment in productive capacity of an economy away from private firms. This is why Kates argues that “it is the government that is absorbing our national savings and raising the cost of capital.”

I further argued that there didn’t seem to be much evidence that the government was raising the cost of capital. I pointed out that the government was largely borrowing foreign money through sovereign bond issues, and that Australian firms were having no problems getting access to foreign capital via their own bond issues. So we should expect inflation and therefore interest rates to stay low.

So let’s just fast-forward and ask ourselves: has government stimulus in Australia crowded out private savings and raised the cost of capital?

No. Since Kates’ article, and since my response, Australian inflation has stayed remarkably contained, and interest rates have been lowered, not raised.

But how does Kates react to this reality? By denying it.

Here is his argument:

For me, schooled in the classics as I am, it was as obvious as a cloudless day that the stimulus could never achieve its ends. For virtually the rest of the profession it was not. Why the difference? I base my understanding on the classical theory of the cycle; they base their understanding on Keynes. That’s it. Nothing else.

Kates is so reflexively anti-Keynes that he simply can’t admit that a) stimulus can stimulate, and b) austerity can contract. This means he keeps getting things wrong. In 2010, for instance, he thought stimulus must lead to higher inflation and interest rates. Of course, it didn’t. Now, he believes that austerity is not really contractionary. Of course, it is.

It would be pretty funny, really, if it wasn’t so serious. Basic textbook IS-LM has been remarkably predictive in the current crisis. Pre-Keynesian neoclassical theory has been remarkably useless.

I tried to respond to Kates’ blog post, by the way. He binned my comment in moderation. Classy.

The “three faces of time” in arts participation

Andries van den Broek has a really cool new paper in Cultural Trends this year. It’s entitled “Arts participation and the three faces of time: A reflection on disentangling the impact of life stage, period and socialization on arts participation, exemplified by an analysis of the US arts audience

It’s a really neat way of thinking about the temporal aspects of culture, and completely original as far as I know (though van der Broek points out that analysis of generational cohorts goes back to Comte).

Here’s a taste of his argument:

This is the history of the arts participation of a fictitious character, Pete. At the end of 2013, he’ll be 50 years of age, which implies he was born in 1963. He is not particularly keen on visual arts or theatre, though he visits the odd exhibition and performance. He is more into rock concerts, but also attends the occasional classical music concert and art house movie.

How come his cultural repertoire is like that? Is this typical of his being 50? (Do other people at the same life-stage typically display a pattern like that?) Or, is this typical of 2013? (Does it reflect what is the cultural offer that year?) Or, is it typical of someone who grew up in the 1970s? (Does it relate to a taste pattern acquired in that era?) It’s probably the case that Pete’s cultural repertoire is affected by all three (and, of course, by many other factors too). But, which aspect of Pete’s cultural repertoire can be attributed to the fact that he is 50; which aspect relates to it being 2013, and which aspect to his having grown up in the 1970s?

van der Broek goes on to do some stats on the effects of these three frames, using US data from the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. This allows him to tease out the differences between, say, the formative cultural experiences of generational cohorts from, say, the effects of their life-cycle in determining their participation patterns. Overall, he finds that people are not participating in as much culture as they used to, and that the composition of artforms does change.

And what is that change? One of the main ones is that fewer people are interested in classical music. Younger generations are not replacing the cohorts of classical lovers that are slowly dying.

Most importantly, though, van der Broek finds that arts participation (at least as measured by the NEA) is declining in the US. “All in all, the upshot is that the future of arts participation is not threatened by the cultural behaviour of recent (or future) as compared to earlier cohorts, but by a general decline in arts participation irrespective of cohort (and of age).”

In summary, a really interesting paper and one that I expect I will be returning to.

Back in business

I’m pleased to announce that A Cultural Policy Blog will be returning to regular posts in 2013. 

backinbusiness

It’s been a long hiatus while I prepared and submitted my PhD, but now that’s done, I plan to resume regular posts this year. As well as my weekly column on the Australian cultural industries for Crikey, I’ll be focussing on keeping abreast of recent papers in the field, particularly in relevant academic journals like the IJCP, Cultural Trends and the rest. 

All posts here will also be cross-posted to my personal website over at beneltham.be

Time for a break

I’m taking a couple of months or so off this blog in order to complete my PhD thesis. I’ll be popping up from time to time with a short post or link here or there, but until I finish my thesis I won’t be blogging in earnest. I promise I’ll be back in early July some time with a bunch of new posts!

Until then, you can continue to read my arts column in Crikey every Friday and my regular twice-weekly column about Australian politics in New Matilda.

Australian federal budget 2011: wrap-up of arts and cultural funding

The following article appeared in Crikey on Friday May 13th 2011. 

The 2011 federal budget contained some modest announcements for the arts and culture.

In the Arts portfolio, the government delivered on its 2010 election promise for $10 million over five years in new grants for artists to create work. The funding will support “up to 150 additional artistic works, presentations and fellowships over the next five years through the New Support for the Arts program.”

As well, $400,000 has been found for the federal government’s Contemporary Music Touring Program, a successful program which supports popular mid-level contemporary music acts to tour regional areas.

In broadcasting, $12.5 million has been provided for the proverbially penurious community radio sector, an increase of 25% for a critical area of broadcasting that generally receives very little government support

There was also a package for the screen industry, with a headline figure of $66 million (as we will see, it is actually less than this). Much of the extra money goes to production subsidies through the tax system in the form of lower qualifying thresholds for the Screen Production Incentive. According to Screen Australia, the changes include:

  • Lowering the threshold for Producer Offset eligibility from $1 million to $500,000, for features, TV and online programs

  • Replacing the Producer Offset for low-budget docos with a Producer Equity payment

  • Converting the 65 episode cap to 65 commercial hours for TV

  • Exempting documentaries from the 20% above-the-line cap

  • A reduction in qualifying Australian production expenditure thresholds, and allowances for a broader range of expenses to be eligible for QAPE.

Some really good news is the restoration of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ screen industry survey, which provided gold-standard data on the state of the industry and which hasn’t been performed since 2007-08 (shortly before the Rudd government slashed funding to the ABS in its first budget).

But how much new money for screen is really here? Go to Budget Paper 2 and you will find that the total extra funding is only $8 million. This is because, quoting from the budget papers, “these changes will be partly offset by $48 million in savings over four years from 2011-12 by removing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) amounts from [qualifying production expenditure] for the film tax offsets and increasing the minimum expenditure thresholds for documentaries to $500,000 in production (from the current threshold of $250,000).”

Money is also being clawed back from cultural agencies through the increased efficiency dividend. Rising to 1.5% in future years, the efficiency dividend hits smaller agencies much harder than big ones. And everything in the arts is small.

The efficiency dividend measures mean the Australia Council is being asked to save $3.3 million over the forward estimates, the Australian Film Television and Radio School will have to find $1 million, the National Film and Sound Archive $1.1 million, the National Gallery $1.4 million, the National Library $2.1 million, the National Museum $1.7, and Screen Australia $759,000. That’s more than $12 million in funding cuts for cultural agencies over the forward estimates.

If we look a little closer at the portfolio budget statements, for instance from the Australia Council, we can see the effects of the efficiency dividend in falling support for artists and cultural organisations. This year there will be “a decrease of approximately $2.5 million in forecast grants expenses compared with 2010-11.” Australia Council grants funding will be only 2% above 2010 levels in 2014-15. But CPI is forecast to run at 3% annually, meaning Australia Council support for artists and organisations will fall in real terms — by perhaps as much as 10%.

In other words, the “New Funding for the Arts” money announced in this budget will be almost completely clawed back by the effects of static funding and the increased efficiency dividend on the Australia Council.

The one really big-ticket spending item in culture was of dubious policy value: the $376 million spend on helping pensioners and senior Australians to make the switch to digital TV. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has already pilloried the program as “Building the Entertainment Revolution”, while our own Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer have pointed out “the political imperative of ensuring pensioners aren’t left without television as analog signals switch off”.

Personally, I’m sympathetic to the argument that television represents an important human service that allows older Australians to stay connected with the broader community. But the spending program should also be seen in the context of the broader budget, in which $211 million in spending is being “saved” from aged care itself. The government appears to be prioritising access to daytime television over places in aged-care facilities.

Money for art and culture is often spuriously disparaged by critics as diverting resources away from the critical services that governments provide. In reality, of course, the numbers are tiny compared to the investments annually in roads, schools and hospitals. But in this case it really does seem as though the owners of television networks are getting a subsidy at the expense of much-needed investment in aged care infrastructure.


Moebius on his art, fading eyesight and legend: ‘I am like a unicorn’

A fine article in the Los Angeles Times surveys the life and work of this ground-breaking artist:

"La Chasse au Major" by Moebius. Image: Los Angeles Times.

The name on his passport is Jean Giraud and he was born in May 1938 (just one month beforeSuperman arrived in a small rocket from another planet in the pages of “Action Comics” No. 1)  and he has long been regarded as the most important cartoonist of his country. That phrase, however, falls wildly short of capturing the essence of his career and breadth of his influence through comics, book covers, paintings and movie work.  As filmmaker Ridley Scott said last year of the Moebius influence on contemporary sci-fi film: “You see it everywhere, it runs through so much you can’t get away from it.” Perhaps, but the artist is still caught off guard by the breathless reception he gets these days.  In late November, Giraud made a relatively rare visit to the U.S. to speak at the Creative Talent Network Animation Expo and again and again he was approached by fans and younger professionals who gushed.

Read the rest.

New art is popular

This article appeared in Crikey on April 8th.

Celeste Boursier-Mougenot "From here to ear (v. 13) 2010". Mixed media, exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. Image: Queensland Art Gallery.

Your correspondent was in Brisbane last weekend, where he was able to spend a couple of afternoons at the Gallery of Modern Art’s latest contemporary art exhibition, 21st Century: Art in the First Decade.

The gallery was filled with people from across the demographic spectrum: young hipster couples, tourists, senior Australians, and families. So many families. This is an exhibition that seems to to capture the imagination of kids, as well as those who refuse to grow up.

And who can blame them? This particular vision of art in the 21st century could be criticised for many things (some have even used that most devastating of artworld barbs: “safe”), but one thing you can’t fault is its sense of sheer, innocent joy. GOMA’s take on the art of the past decade is filled with the interactive, the relational and the funny, from Martin Creed’s room filled full of purple balloons (Work No. 965: Half the air in a given space (purple)) to Carsten Holler’s signature slippery dip Test site, and from Rikrit Tiravanija’s key relational work — a Thai meal for four — to Olafur Eliasson’s giant Lego play pen, The cubic structural evolution project.

Martin Creed, "Work No. 956" (2008), exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. Image: Queensland Art Gallery / Natasha Harth

Of these, Holler’s Test site is something of a signature work of the show, dominating the gallery hall over two levels as visitors enter the space. Crikey’s correspondent was struck by the long stretching lines of kids queuing to go on the slides.

Two of the most popular works at the show were interactive and tinged with a sophisticated play of emotions: Rivane Neuenschwander’s wall of ribbons with wishes printed on them, I wish your wish, and the indoor finch aviary of Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s From here to ear (v.13). Neuenschwander’s work knowingly winked at the unattainability of so many of our hopes and dreams (Crikey particularly enjoyed “I wish I was a famous cricket player”), while Boursier-Mougenot’s work echoes some of the best installation work of the past two decades, such as Hirst’s 1000 Years, and takes it in a sadder, quieter and more sublime direction.

The exhibition certainly has several potential flaws. As a show substantially built up from the gallery’s own collection, it has an unashamedly Asia-Pacific focus; many of the works chosen to represent important artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Julian Opie and Chris Ofili are far from the best examples of their ouevre. On the other hand, this Asia-Pacific collection is the gallery’s obvious strength, and has taken on a chilling importance with the recent imprisonment of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose Painted vases are a part of the show.

A show such as this is something of a risk for a big gallery — or at least once might have thought to have been — especially in comparison to tried and tested blockbuster exhibitions of old masters. Hence, it must be gratifying for the gallery to mount such a well-attended show, despite the devastating floods of summer. Brisbane’s Gallery Of Modern Art/Queensland Art Gallery complex is now themost popular art gallery in the country, according to recently released figures.

It’s indeed interesting that two of the most exciting recent exhibitions in contemporary art in this country have occurred at Brisbane’s GOMA and in Hobart, where the Museum of Old and New Art, or MOMA, continues to wow Australian contemporary art lovers with a collection whose breadth and vision is unmatched in the country (for a recap, have a look at Andrew Frost’s episode of Artscape for ABC-TV).

According to Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Elwood, speaking on a panel discussion as part of 21st Century’s talks program: “We are a soft target because we are innovative and because we are in Brisbane. We work twice as hard to get half the recognition because we are in Brisbane.”

Pointing to criticisms that the exhibition is something of a “fun park”,  he answers: “It’s just disappointing that … by demonstrating just how much we want to reach out to whole ranges of audiences, that we then become a target. Contemporary art is always going to be the most critiqued and the most misunderstood of all the different art histories.”

As a result, Elwood says the gallery worked particularly hard on the ancillary aspects of the exhibition: its didactic panels, itscomprehensive blog and the handsome catalogue. The catalogue is notable for a typically clever essay on the theory of contemporary art by the inimitable Rex Butler, who canvasses the Duchampian nature of the exhibition in a few stylish paragraphs, before declaring, in a wonderful double movement, that “the new motto for art in the 21st century should be ‘Please don’t touch’.”

He means that, as art “increasingly heads towards a condition of total immersion, of a psychedelic or even neurological model”, it also embodies a contradiction: “It would be something of the hand … in an age of digitality.”

Of course, you don’t need to understand the history of modern art to enjoy 21st Century — and that’s precisely the point. In its large-scale installations for children, in particular, the exhibition demonstrates just how vibrant and enjoyable a commitment to new art can be. This really is living art.