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Australia’s cultural and creative economy

Australia’s cultural and creative economy: A 21st-century guide, Australian Academy of the Humanities, November 2020

This report gives an overview of our cultural and creative economy and highlights opportunities for Australia to adopt a 21st century approach in this industry sector. It outlines the scope, scale, and trends within the cultural and creative economy pre Covid-19, and highlights opportunities that respond to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) urging nations to ‘build back better’.

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Everything we’ve learned from completing four in-depth reports exploring effective investment and return in arts, culture and creativity tells us that Australia is ready for a National Arts, Culture and Creativity Plan — a plan that would provide a framework to efficiently address the policy, legislative, regulatory and investment settings that span the cultural and creative industries. The forthcoming report on the cultural and creative economy explains why making this plan now will unleash opportunities for Australians to participate in and contribute to the economy and society in the 21st century.

The purpose of this report is to give an overview of our cultural and creative economy and highlight opportunities for Australia to adopt a 21st century approach in this industry sector. It outlines the scope, scale and trends within the cultural and creative economy pre-Covid-19, and highlights opportunities that respond to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) urging nations to strive to ‘build back better’.

Key findings

Finding 1: In 2016, the total cultural and creative workforce (including embedded creatives working in non-creative industries) was 868,098 people, or 8.1% of the total Australian workforce. Within that, the cultural and creative industries employed 645,303 people, or 6% of the total workforce. Within these industries, the arts and entertainment workforce was 193,600 people (1.8% of total workforce). Within that, the creative and performing arts workforce comprised 33,035 people (0.3% of total workforce).

Finding 2: The cultural and creative economy, including activity in the wide range of cultural and creative industries as well as cultural and creative activity performed in other industries, was worth $111.7B to the Australian economy in 2016–17 (6.4% of GDP). Of this, the 12 domains in the cultural and creative industries contributed $91 billion.

Finding 3: There is a strong relationship between the success of subsidised and non-subsidised cultural and creative industries. International evidence suggests public and private subsidy of arts, culture and creativity has a positive impact on the success of commercial creative businesses and other businesses. Compared with other industries, the cultural and creative industries also have higher spillover effects into other industries in terms of total output, value-added and employment multipliers.

Finding 4: All 12 domains of cultural and creative activity contribute to Australia’s GDP, even when that contribution is numerically small. The largest contributors were: Design (49.8%); Fashion (16.6%); and Broadcasting, electronic or digital media, and film (11.3%).

Finding 5: Cultural and creative employment fuels 21st century economic growth now, and will continue to do so into the future. Demand from international students for formal training in Australia’s cultural and creative industries has steadily increased, indicating that these courses will be pivotal in rebuilding the international education industry post-pandemic.

Finding 6: ‘Literature and print media’ is the only cultural and creative domain to have experienced negative GVA growth since the initial ABS analysis of Australian cultural and creative activity in 2008–09. Despite its decline, this domain is still a significant contributor to GDP.

Finding 7: Digital disruptions are causing significant changes in some cultural and creative industry business models, with consequences for activities that have both private and public value.

Finding 8: Australia’s data collection methods are not keeping pace with the significant changes to the nation’s cultural and creative industries and employment classifications. As a consequence, Australia is missing emerging areas of strength and losing opportunities to strengthen the economy further. For example, there are no detailed analyses of Australia’s cultural and creative trade performance more recent than 2008–09.


Opportunity 1: A National Arts, Culture and Creativity Plan would inform more coherent policy settings and investment at all three levels of government. This could be achieved in the same vein as the existing National Sport Plan, ‘Sport 2030’, that identifies enduring and non-partisan principles and clarifies responsibilities. This should include measures to ensure all areas of Australia have reasonable access to, and can take advantage of, a wide range of different types of cultural infrastructure.

Opportunity 2: The current federal parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions is an important first step in considering effective and relevant policy settings and associated investments for 21st century Australia, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. This provides an opportunity to meet the challenge set by the OECD to not just re-establish the status quo, but to ‘build back better’ in our recovery.

Opportunity 3: More effective and relevant investments could be achieved by taking a whole-of-cultural-and-creative-industries policy approach across all three levels of government.

Opportunity 4: We should position Australia as an international leader in both formal and on-the-job training for future work skills, by proactively leveraging: the higher-than-average jobs growth in cultural and creative occupations and the transferable skills gained by working in these occupations; the growing demand for cultural and creative courses from both domestic and international students; and Australia’s capacity to be a Covid-safe environment.

Opportunity 5: Covid-19 has accelerated Australians’ familiarity with and access to digital modes of consumption, presenting an opportunity to diversify and expand income streams for goods and services underpinned by intellectual property generation and/or copyright protection. However, this also presents serious risk as existing value chains are disrupted. Ensuring we have a fit-for-purpose legislative, regulatory and investment environment is essential to a viable and relevant cultural and creative economy.

Opportunity 6: Investment in innovative approaches and new types of programming within existing areas of strength such as festivals and cultural infrastructure could make arts, cultural and creative activities more accessible to all Australians.

Opportunity 7: Given the scale of the cultural and creative industries and their importance to future employment, the ABS could produce a cultural and creative industries satellite account every year as it does for tourism.

Opportunity 8: With the ‘Cultural Funding by Government’ data series now being collected every second year, consider directing resources to pilot experimental or emerging methods of capturing and expressing economic and social value. This could include establishing a contemporary survey for wellbeing measurement, including data capture about the role and impact of arts, culture and creativity in respondents’ lives.


This report has been prepared by A New Approach (ANA) drawing on analysis commissioned from Pricewaterhouse Cooper, led by Johan Haris, Jeremy Thorpe and Henry Bills. For much of its fundamental orientation, it draws on key reports by the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research and published and unpublished research by Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre.

Expert analysis and input was provided by ANA’s Research Working Group, chaired by Professor Malcolm Gillies AM FAHA, with Distinguished Professor Stuart Cunningham AM FAcSS FAHA, Distinguished Professor Ien Ang FAHA, Professor Tony Bennett AcSS FAHA,  and Professor Jennifer Milam FAHA.

Expert feedback was also provided by Saul Eslake: Principal, Corinna Economic Advisory and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Tasmania; Professor Jen Snowball: Professor, Department of Economics, Rhodes University, South Africa and Chief Research Strategist, South African Cultural Observatory; Professor John Daley: Senior Fellow, Grattan Institute; Dr Marion McCutcheon: Research Associate, Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology; as well as members of the Office for the Arts and the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research (both of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications). The Australian Bureau of Statistics also provided some guidance to this report.

Helpful comments and input were provided by ANA Reference Group members, led by Chair Rupert Myer AO, and ANA Steering Committee members, led by Chair Professor Joy Damousi FASSA FAHA, as well as members of the Council of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Material in this extract may be cited as: Trembath, J.L., Fielding, K., October 2020, ‘Australia’s cultural and creative economy: A 21st century guide’. Produced by A New Approach think tank with lead delivery partner the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Canberra.

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