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Dire straits: Culture, value and the State

Heather Robinson, Dire straits: Culture, value and the state of South Australia’s institutions, InDaily, 22 May 2024

South Australia’s cultural institutions have suffered from a narrow view of their value to the community by decision-makers. New local research shows a pathway forward.

Our arts institutions deserve a long-term, holistic view of their value. Photo: Liam Jenkins / InReview.

A survey of recent news concerning cultural institutions in South Australia should sound alarms.

Over the past months, we have seen questions around the future of Edmund Wright House, one of Adelaide’s most beautiful and architecturally significant heritage buildings. In an astonishing reversal of fortune, the National Trust is to return to Ayers House, its home for more than five decades from which it was abruptly evicted by the previous government.

And it’s been impossible to escape the conversations around the proposed redevelopment of the South Australian Museum. Then there are the rumours of staff rushing for buckets to catch rainwater ingress at the Art Gallery of South Australia, because the roof leaks. Because there is no money in the budget to fix it.

The fate of Tarrkarri, the overdue and in-demand Indigenous cultural centre proposed for North Terrace, still hangs in the balance.

Efficiency dividends have become normalised, leading to inadequate funding for cultural infrastructure compounded over decades (like an inverse form of interest on absent investments). Leaders of institutions struggle to perform even the most basic services for the public while facing the ongoing challenges of maintaining suitable storage, research, and curatorial care of the state’s collections.

But what caused the breakdown in understanding between cultural institutions and their state government ministries? I believe it has been a lack of understanding of what cultural value is and what it means to the South Australian community.

Without this understanding, there can be no long-term view, one that extends beyond election cycles. Without a long-term view, there can be no sustainable and supportive policy framework to deliver what is expected of cultural institutions.

No policy framework means no rationale for changing funding arrangements. And without these changes, our cultural sector will remain stuck in a feedback loop of inadequate funding that dooms it to survival mode, job insecurity, and constant restructures to make the most of what scant resources remain.

Without a major shift in our perception of the real contributions made by our cultural institutions to the community, there can be no vision for the cultural sector in South Australia. And the public will remain the poorer for it.

Another complicating factor is that cultural value may not be realised for days, weeks, or even decades. This is a long-term relationship, not a short-term fling.

Through my research into the cultural value of the State Library of South Australia, and as a practitioner with experience across the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums), I’ve found evidence of the complex, committed and, dare I say, dogged relationship between members of the public and “their” cultural institutions. This relationship demonstrates what’s known as cultural value, a term that is not as simple as it may sound. I think it’s time to reinforce what it is so we can see what it means for South Australia.

The first corner of Holden’s value triangle is intrinsic value: the capacity and potential of culture to affect us spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. Intrinsic value is created when the individual member of the public encounters the object, performance or archival document that rocks their world in a way that nothing else can. This form of value is highly subjective, often very personal and often hard to describe. However, it matters deeply to the public and practitioners in the sector. We see how much it counts when, say, a museum cannot afford to fund both scientific research positions and public engagement adequately – both equally critical functions of a museum – and something’s gotta give. Any changes are perceived as a threat, as we’ve seen in recent weeks regarding proposed changes at the South Australian Museum.

The second corner of Holden’s value triangle is instrumental value. This is recognisable to anyone who has read an impact statement about the economic outcomes of, say, an arts festival. Instrumental value relates to the coincidental or “other” outcomes that came about because of the cultural event funded, such as an increase in tourist numbers, hotel bookings, educational outcomes or lower crime rates. These numbers are used as evidence of return on government investment. The problem is that they are very difficult to prove to be direct consequences of the event and impossible to authentically predict.

Instrumental values provide a limited indicator of impact, but they are not the entire reason why the arts and cultural sector should be funded. The sector deserves funding for its core functions of collections research and maintenance, artistic innovation, exhibition development, et al, not only for what they can do to bolster numbers for other policy areas such as, say, tourism.

Institutional value, the third corner of Holden’s cultural value triangle, describes how an institution creates value for the public, how it engages with everyone who walks through the door. In Holden’s view, “institutions become active agents in the creation or destruction of what the public values” because ultimately, like politicians, institutions answer to the public. This form of value reflects the old-school concept of public service, whereby public monies are invested to create value and experience for the public, to serve their needs – be they family history research, a place to access wifi or explore a train of thought – not necessarily for economic impact.

Institutional value provides a sense of belonging for individuals and through this informs community identity. This form of value cultivates trust and respect between members of the public and policymakers, creates shared experiences and, in the words of one of my survey respondents, “makes Adelaide a place where I want to live”.

In recent years, too many decisions have been made based only on one type of value, and that’s usually instrumental value. This has undermined not only the relationship between the public and the institutions, but also the long-term responsibilities and operations of the cultural sector. All three forms of value must be accounted for.

Cultural institutions like museums, art galleries and libraries exist to serve their communities: the citizens who have donated objects (and even money), studied in their hallowed heritage spaces, and who come for shelter, respite, and inspiration. They serve the people of Adelaide who visit the State Library, for example, with their parents, grandparents and student colleagues, who left love letters among the stacks, and who now bring along interstate visitors to show it off. Tourists are great and contribute to the life and prosperity of the city, but they do not come to see their own reflections, as do members of the South Australian public who revisit time and again to draw on their own history and heritage to define themselves and their community.

Cultural value also defies many traditional economic principles, because even though it may be based on a transaction – say, between a visitor and security guard or librarian – there is often no money involved. But just because no money changes hands, there is still a gain. Value is created – you just cannot see it.

I also found as part of my research into the cultural value of the State Library that value creation is a two-way street: the experience not only creates value for the visitor, but also adds value to the collections. Items that may have been ignored or forgotten for many years may suddenly leap into relevance with a change of high school curriculum, new discoveries overseas, or just someone visiting the website to look up a member of their family.

Two and two become so much more when a collection’s latent value is activated by a simple catalogue enquiry. This custodial role of cultural collections for when the need arises is another characteristic of institutional value, one based on faith in the community and their trust in governments to provide adequate funding for the experts employed and entrusted with their care.

Another complicating factor is that cultural value may not be realised for days, weeks, or even decades. This is a long-term relationship, not a short-term fling.

Perhaps the solutions to many of our current problems are already in our possession, somewhere in the stacks, the storage rooms, or between the leaves of a long-forgotten journal?

Perhaps what is missing in these conversations is not just an understanding of what culture provides to communities, but a vision for what South Australians deserve from their institutions, what we want to see, but also how we’d like to see ourselves. This is why, according to another commentator, Ben Walmsley, any vision or planning for the future of cultural policy, funding and evaluation of our cultural institutions should have at its core the people who have the biggest stake in the game and the most to lose: members of the South Australian public.

Justin O’Connor has published recently that culture is a human right. I would add that providing spaces like the cultural institutions we have on North Terrace is also fundamental to our democracy. They are civic spaces where all should be treated equally, and where, as individuals and as a community, we can wrestle with and come to understand our unique past and make informed decisions about our futures. This is what the public expect and deserve. These institutions, often experienced together as a unified cultural hub, also require a constant level of adequate financial support and continuous renewal, if we wish to maintain them as the relevant, accessible, and dynamic spaces the city and our state deserve.

Despite some recent headlines, most of us still enjoy a democratic relationship between government and the public, one built on trust, which goes to some of the founding principles of public education. Cultural institutions, particularly libraries, were provided to serve democracy – if you are going to give people the vote, you want to make sure they know what they are voting for and why.

Today they struggle to survive as public spaces where people can gather to explore, discuss, argue for, and understand our unique history to formulate a shared vision for the future. They should be the common ground where politicians wish to be seen, participating in public discussion and informing policy for the future protection of these treasured public spaces that foster social cohesion and knowledge-sharing, on top of conserving and researching the evidence of the past.

Perhaps the solutions to many of our current problems are already in our possession, somewhere in the stacks, the storage rooms, or between the leaves of a long-forgotten journal?

I may be wrong and our policymakers perfectly understand cultural value and all it provides. Perhaps instead, they are fixated on other policy areas that always appear more pressing. However, providing a long-term and sustainable future for our cultural institutions requires courage, vision, and cooperation, and would provide hope for the future society we wish to live in.

So, the question should not be whether we can afford to adequately fund our cultural institutions, but how can we afford not to?

Heather Robinson completed her doctoral thesis in Cultural Studies at Flinders University (2020) and is a Research Associate (Hon) within the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. The book drawn from this research, Beyond the Books: how numbers are strangling our cultural sector and what we can do to save it, will be released in Spring 2024. Contact Wakefield Press for details.

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.