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Attendance is up but Australia Council chief calls for a demystification of the arts

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The Australia Council’s chief executive Tony Grybowski has called for the arts to be “demystified” despite the fact that eight in 10 people engage with the arts online, one in five attend literary festivals and theatre and dance attendances have jumped in 2016.

Speaking on the release today of the Council’s third ‘National Arts Participation Survey’, he said the latest results show that while 98 per cent of people engage in the arts, many have a skewed view of what the arts are.

“Many Australians have a narrow view of what the arts include, often dismissing the things we enjoy most frequently, such as listening to music, reading or going to a festival,” Grybowski said. “As a result, they are underestimating the vital role the arts play in the quality of their everyday experience. Gaining this clarity is important so that when talking about the value of supporting the arts we all understand what is at stake.”

“As the third survey in the series, the research identifies important trends. Engagement with First Nations arts has doubled since 2009, reaching seven million Australians last year. Creating, accessing and sharing the arts online is booming – expanding new and additional arts experiences rather than replacing live attendance which remains strong.

“The report also reveals the importance of the arts in the lives of younger Australians. They create and experience the arts at the highest rates, especially online; they love festivals and over half engage with the arts as part of their cultural background. This gives the arts a unique role in shaping the future of our national culture”, he said.

“The research is responsive to changes in the way we create and experience art. For the first time in 2016 the survey collected data on Australians’ engagement with the arts as part of their cultural background, community arts and cultural development, and festival attendance.

Key Research Findings:

      •   98% of Australians engage with the arts and since the 2013 survey there is significantly increased recognition of their positive impact on our wellbeing and ability to develop new ideas.
      •   More Australians now believe the arts reflect Australia’s cultural diversity and that they shape and express Australian identity.
      •   3 in 4 Australians believe the arts are an important way to get a different perspective on a topic or issue.
      •   7 million Australians experienced First Nations arts last year, double the number since the first survey in 2009. 4 in 5 believe they are an important part of Australia’s culture.
      •   Three quarters of us think the arts are an important part of the education of every Australian and are proud when Australian artists do well overseas.
      •   Younger Australians (15-24 years) create and experience the arts at the highest rates, especially online; they are big festival and First Nations arts attenders; and over half engage with the arts as part of their cultural background.
      •   Online and live arts experiences both remain important to Australians, creating greater access and new experiences rather than one replacing the other.
      •   8 in 10 people engage with the arts online, increasing from 7 in 10 in 2013, and 5 in 10 in 2009 – with music streaming the largest contributor to this growth. Online activity is creating new opportunities to collaborate and share, and connecting artists and audiences directly.
      •   9 million Australians attended an arts festival in 2016. Arts festivals are diverse and accessible, bringing local communities together in immersive experiences and encouraging regional and international tourism.
      •   This survey saw a substantial increase in the number of Australians attending theatre or dance from 2013 (42% to 53%), as well as increases for visual arts and craft, and new data which shows 1 in 5 Australians attend literary events such as book clubs, talks and festivals.
      •   The downward trend in the proportion of Australia who donate money generally is not reflected in arts giving. 1 in 4 Australians give time or money to the arts reflecting their value in our lives.

Read the survey results here

5 responses to “Attendance is up but Australia Council chief calls for a demystification of the arts

  1. Somewhere buried in a box of reports and papers I have a copy the “Australian and The Arts” report prepared by Saatchi & Saatchi for the Australia Council in 2000. If I recall correctly, that report also argued that the arts needed to be ‘demystified’. The question of how Australians defined the arts was also an issue back then. As you might expect from Saatchi & Saatchi, one of their suggestions was that there needed to be a rethinking of the ‘brand image’ of the arts in Australia. The 2000 report called for a broad promotional strategy suggesting that the definition of what counts as ‘the arts’ should be broadened, and that social and practical barriers to wider participation be addressed. Perhaps when reports like the National Arts Participation survey are released, they should also be accompanied by a summary of what has already been done in response to earlier reports. I look forward to the establishment of a new “art demystification unit” within the Australia Council (insert appropriate emoji here to demonstrate that this is a flippant remark, rather than a serious suggestion).

  2. In response and support of Peter Anderson’s views above – Below is what I wrote back in 2003 and was published in Art Monthly Australia.

    John Kelly
    C/- The Piccadilly Gallery
    43 Dover St
    London W1S 4NU
    The Australian Prime Minister
    The Right Honourable John Howard, MP C/- Parliament House Canberra

    Re:Australians and the Arts – An Open Letter to the Prime Minister

    Dear Prime Minister,

    “Branding the Arts” was one of the key strategies developed from ‘Australians and the Arts’, a report by the British advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, commissioned on behalf of the Australia Council. In your speech to launch the report, you expressed the expectation it would, “…mould the presentation of the Arts, the content of what is produced, the way it is communicated…” The report helpfully advised; “The arts sector might well take a leaf out of the modern Australian cookbook.”

    Ms Bott, C.E.O of the Australia Council, described ‘Australians and the Arts’ as a “seminal report” and a “line in the sand”, before declaring that the Australia Council would “re-brand”. They set about “…measuring the ‘value of the Arts’ and developing strategies to promote this value” describing these twin tasks as “demanding, though not impossible”.

    Australian art has never before pursued a general brand image for what I would have thought were obvious reasons. ‘Branding’ is about homogeneity and conformity and therefore I object to the concept of ‘Branding the Arts’. It is entirely at odds with our rich, diverse
    heritage and artistic culture. It raises the question; What will happen to all the art that does not fit the image of the new brand?
    I am not alone in questioning ‘Branding’ and the methodology of the research report undertaken by Saatchi and Saatchi. Mr Kevin Roberts is a name, which may be familiar to you. He has strong views on ‘Branding’. Since 1997, Mr Roberts has been the worldwide C.E.O. of Saatchi and Saatchi. He is also an expert on this subject. He has stated; “The word ‘Brand’ has become virtually meaningless”. Saatchi & Saatchi themselves no longer support ‘branding’ as a strategy.

    In recent speeches given around the world, and available at (), Kevin Roberts raises some questions about brands and brand management describing the latter as; “…a ‘wannabe’ science that never was and never will be. It’s made up of definitions and charts; an obsession with metrics; researching to cover its ass instead of dreaming to innovate. Research vampires are running amok – they’re like Descartes on acid.” As if to illustrate Roberts’ point ‘Australians and the Arts’ was 450 pages of written text plus “more than 150 graphs and charts…” However, it is possible to summarise the $300,000 report in seven words; “…some Australians love the arts, others don’t…”

    Kevin Roberts goes further stating; “Brands have been strangled by too much information, explanation and analysis. Their special friends, the research vampires, try to measure and manage emotion and behaviour with proprietary tools, programmes, matrices, hi- tech vocabulary. The fools.” He also thinks that; “…Brand Management is dead as a marketing practice.” Another well known corporate chief Michael Eisner of Disney has said that the word brand is “over-used, sterile and unimaginative.” Is this an appropriate approach to Australian art?
    Australians and the Arts was supposedly a ‘quantitative and qualitative’ research report which was unable to define exactly what or who ‘the Arts’ were; “…there was little, if any, agreement about exactly what ‘the Arts’ comprised.” However they were able to define the term ‘the Arts’ a ‘brand’. They further elucidated; “From the perspective of philosophical, academic debate, there may be no need to be definitive about what constitutes the arts as long as no action follows such debate.”

    Earlier this year, Ms Bott wrote; “The Saatchi and Saatchi report was a benchmark on Australians attitudes to the arts and has led to significant strategies in education and the arts, arts-media relations and other changes…” As Saatchi and Saatchi have destroyed the credibility of their own report and the Australia Council have not released any subsequent definition of what or who the arts are, these “significant strategies” must now surely be open to question.

    Incredibly the Saatchi report advised the Australia Council to; “Make every effort to demystify the arts.” Art is a beautiful mystery! What would the Mona Lisa be without that ‘mysterious’ smile? Art evolves, grows, changes, surprises, subverts and challenges. It is by nature rebellious of ‘Branding’ and categorization. Again Kevin Roberts’ views clash with his company’s report for he says; “When nothing is sacred there is no mystery. And without mystery you are close, very close, to the end game. To misery.”

    Australians and the Arts was published three years ago but according to Roberts; “Five years ago Saatchi & Saatchi figured that something was very wrong. It’s old news that brands are under pressure from commodification…” Sadly, art in Australia has been injured by this attempt at bureaucratic foolishness. Three years of art resources have been wasted on this report and subsequent strategies. This can never be retrieved. Kevin Roberts may have had the Australia Council in mind when he said; “It was weird to see so much brand-speak swallowed whole during the last few years.” If the Australia Council senior management continue on this path they risk being ‘branded’ fools themselves!

    So this is a plea for diversity, against the out-of-date ‘Branding’ concept with its attentive bureaucratic hegemony that decides whether art fits its arbitrary mould and is good enough to display the official Australian art logo. From my experience with how the Arts are successfully promoted in other countries, there are a number of practical alternatives to “Branding the Arts” and I’d be more than willing to share them with you or your colleagues.

    Finally, after much reading, I found something within the report that might explain the bizarre cookbook quote at the beginning of this letter; “…to promote the value of the arts to all Australians will have the associated benefit of helping to bake ‘new audience cakes’.” Indeed something is cooking in the Australian Arts but before it becomes a ‘bland brand’ meal I think the chef should be replaced.

    Yours sincerely

    John Kelly

  3. Thanks Mr Kelly. How’s the weather in London? Look I was going to reply to your text from 2003 with something that I wrote in 1993 but I can’t find the darn floppy disk. Oh well I’m sure it’s just as interesting!

  4. If a small portion of the very small amount of funding that the Australia Council receives (topped up perhaps by some generous state, or patron assistance) was spent on advertising the arts in Australia in a very simple way (but expensive), it would create a series of 30 second commercials (online, teev) that provided a snippet of really diverse Australian arts experiences with the tag ‘Wanna see more? Get involved in the Arts.’ There you go. At least the slogan cost zip. MONA has marketing all wrapped up. Lessons there.

    Despite the massive engagement of the populace with the arts in Australia, much of it is not paid for. An elitist perspective is not the issue. Poverty stricken artists is! Value and respect are! There’s a massive difference between the number of ‘consumers’ of the arts and the due recompense for providers. That’s what needs addressing. And what artists can do for everyone else – the sciences and techs needing innovators, maths and literacy needing better brain power, industries needing creativity – still enslaves artists to another cause (usually deemed ‘more worthy pursuits’). Since 98% of the population engage with the arts, maybe, just maybe, we could acknowledge that they are worthy in and of themselves and we might stop with the exploitation thing.

  5. I spent some years studying visual art part-time in middle age – it helped me rebuild after a series of illnesses and setbacks, but during that time the cost of enrolling in TAFE visual art classes increased hugely, and most other art classes were beyond the reach of eg. pensioners. I could see that those coming after me had fewer opportunities to pursue art – and I knew that I wasn’t the only one who found art engagement very helpful when processing some difficult life events. One thing I decided to after finishing, was to volunteer in a community setting providing art activities for people who couldn’t really afford art classes. We found there was a real hunger to participate from people who often did have a range of difficulties or barriers to paid participation, however the community group had struggles with the local authorities who were not interested in freeing up spaces that could have been used for activities. Thus, trying to run activities in an environment that was being used for multiple other things at the same time made it hard to sustain. It annoys me that every suburb has a pub with pokies, but it can be hard to find space for supported creative engagement that is not restricted to the well off. I strongly believe from my observations over the years that arts can play a role in solving or at least helping to process and address problems in ordinary peoples lives, and potentially promote greater social cohesion and community connection. I found a lot of good information from

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