ABS cultural data

Outside the Western Australian Museum. Source: WA Metropolitan Development Authority.

Anthony Veal, Adjunct Professor, Business School at University of Technology, Sydney What ABS cultural participation data tells us about cultural policy, The Conversation, 27 February 2015

With the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in the news over possible plans to abandon the five-yearly population census, we might recall that a program of cuts to the ABS budget started under Labor – and then accelerated under the Coalition’s 2014 federal budget.

In an article on The Conversation last year, my colleagues Simon Darcy and Bronwen Dalton drew attention to the revision of the ABS work program which resulted in the cessation of the ABS’s periodic national surveys of cultural and sporting participation. At the time of those announcements, the latest versions of the surveys were already in the field, and the results have now been published in cut-down form by the ABS on its website.

The purpose of this article is to summarise the key results from the cultural participation survey to demonstrate the usefulness of the data in relation to cultural policy . . .

Measuring the success of cultural policy

Neither base-data starting points nor future participation targets are presented, but participation was to be tracked by the Cultural Ministers Statistics Working Group (so-named even though no Australian government has a Minister of Culture) which supported a “national program of cultural data collection, research and analysis … underpinned by the National Centre for Culture and Recreation Statistics”, the latter being a unit of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which was disbanded in the 2014 round of cuts.

In 2010, the Cultural Ministers Council had published Vital Signs: Cultural Indicators for Australia: First Edition for Consultation , which included cultural attendance and participation as two of 16 indicators designed to “support strategic planning and investment in the provision of arts and cultural resources and services” and to “inform evidence based decision making and evaluation of public policy”, and included relevant ABS data. However, there appears to have been no second edition.

It seems unlikely that the new ABS data will be publicly used by the Ministry for the Arts to evaluate progress in the implementation of Creative Australia: it is, after all, early days, both for the government and the cultural policy . . .

How hungry are we for the arts?

In its only apparent reference to the ABS data, Creative Australia boasted:

Today, Australian audiences engage with arts and culture at an unprecedented rate. Each year, more than two thirds of adults visit the cinema; one third attend a live music event, and just more than one-quarter visit a museum or gallery.

But what if we present this information in a different way?

A third of adults do not attend the cinema in the course of a year and two thirds do not attend any sort of live music event. The figure for cinema is about what most people might expect. The music figure is perhaps disappointingly low, which may be due to cost, and may be an underestimate if classical music and opera/ musicals are taken into account as well as pop concerts.

But three quarters of adults do not visit a museum and three quarters do not visit an art gallery, even once in the course of the year, even though they are mostly free. Each of the performing arts attracts less than 20% of the population.

These low participation rates surely stand as an indictment of the effectiveness of cultural policy, the culture itself and its education system, and possibly the managements of cultural venues. It should be kept in mind that in the 20 years from 1995 to 2014, GDP per head in Australia grew by almost 50% in real terms and the proportion of the population with a bachelors degree more than doubled: there should have been a boom in all art forms …

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