A view from middle Australia: Perceptions of arts, culture and creativity
This report explores current attitudes to arts and culture amongst middle Australians, with a particular focus on swinging voters and marginal electorates in suburban and regional areas. It provides a window into the living rooms, workplaces and hearts of a group of Australians whose interests feature strongly in much of our political discussion and debate. This research finds that middle Australians are passionate about the role of arts and culture in their lives, and have clear views about the opportunities that arts and culture create for them, for their families, and for society more broadly.
This report, A view from middle Australia: Perceptions of arts, culture and creativity, comes at a strange time in Australia’s history.
Just weeks before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, A New Approach (ANA) commissioned qualitative research to talk about arts and culture with “middle Australians”—that is, middle-aged, middle income swing voters from suburban and regional Australia. We wanted to know whether they valued arts and culture, if they made space for it in their lives, if they thought it was important to their kids and to society, and what they would and would not be willing to lose from the Australian cultural terrain.
The report draws on conversations that occurred during eight focus groups in February 2020, with men and women living in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Townsville.
Finding 1: Middle Australians consider arts and culture to be essential to the Australian way of life; without them, Australia would be like authoritarian or war-torn nations. The value of arts and culture was expressed through two key themes: 1) creativity, imagination and inspiration; and 2) participation, belonging and community.
Finding 2: Using “arts and culture” together, rather than “arts” or “culture” separately, broadens middle Australians’ emotional response and evokes a wider range of imagery. The word “arts” alone prompts imagery of the high arts, which are seen as elitist and as being more for other (wealthier) people, not them.
Finding 3: Middle Australians directly connect participating in arts and cultural activities with experiencing better mental health, as well as with improved creativity and lateral thinking in the workplace.
Finding 4: Middle Australians believe arts and culture help bring communities together, break down barriers between different groups within society and encourage greater communication. Participating often means opportunities to socialise with friends and family. Consequently, the most valued activities involved attending and participating in local activities, such as festivals, live performances and local libraries.
Finding 5: Middle Australians believe that children develop better when broadly exposed to arts and culture both in and out of school time. Arts and culture help children to: enhance their self-esteem; find new ways to express themselves; build social and intellectual skills; and prepare for the future—both socially and in terms of their career opportunities.
Finding 6: Middle Australians are not consistent in what boundaries they place around activities that can be categorised as arts and culture. They recognise that different people have different definitions and values in this area, and are generally comfortable with this. This extends across generations, with parents acknowledging that their definitions of arts and culture are narrower than their children’s definitions, and that what they value does not always align with what their children value.
Finding 7: Middle Australians believe that Australian content and cultural heritage icons should reflect Australians’ (all Australians, in all their diversity) stories back to them, while also being an important tool for representing Australia on the world stage.
Finding 8: Middle Australians are largely unaware of the contributions that arts, cultural and creative activities make to the economy, including to employment.
Finding 9: When activities are seen as purely profit-driven, they are considered superficial, and this erases them from most middle Australians’ definition of arts and culture. This, along with the belief that access to arts and culture is essential to the Australian way of life, indicates that middle Australians believe arts and culture are what economists call “a public good”.
To communicate more effectively with middle Australians about arts and culture:
Opportunity 1: Use both words—“arts and culture”—together to demonstrate relevance, make them feel welcome and evoke a positive emotional response.
Opportunity 2: Discuss the value of arts and culture in terms of the themes of a) imagination, inspiration and creativity; and b) community, connection, diversity and acceptance of all Australians.
Opportunity 3: Note that discussions about the value of arts and culture to a) children’s development, and b) maintenance of the Australian identity, can evoke emotional and passionate positive responses.
To ensure relevant and effective investment and policy settings:
Opportunity 4: Continually review investment in, and diversity of, arts and cultural activities so as to increase opportunities that will bring individuals together and build community. For example, festivals, community arts and cultural development initiatives, and local and regional events and experiences.
Opportunity 5: Increase opportunities for Australian children to experience arts and culture at school so as to encourage children’s development and overall well-being, through actions such as: reviewing the time allocation to The Arts learning area (and reframing it as Arts and Culture) at the primary level; improving preservice teacher training in how to teach arts and cultural activities; and investing in artist-in-school programs.
Opportunity 6: Prioritise incentives, requirements and schemes that support production and distribution of diverse Australian content and iconography that will help to build a unified national identity and represent Australia to the world.
Opportunity 7: Review pathways and mechanisms that connect and embed arts and cultural activities in mental health and social inclusion strategies, particularly those related to recovery from natural disasters and significant social and economic disruptions.
Opportunity 8: Establish a strategic mechanism to make policy and investment recommendations about Australia’s employment and other opportunities emerging from the Creative Economy in the 21st century, leveraging the dependencies between the media, creative and tourism industries.
Opportunity 9: Address the drop in per capita public expenditure on arts and culture, with respect to the other opportunities presented here.
Opportunity 10: Create a National Arts and Culture Plan, in the same vein as the existing National Sport Plan Sport 2030, that identifies the enduring and non-partisan principles and responsibilities that could inform more coherent arts and cultural policy settings and investment at all three levels of government.
Opportunity 11: Celebrate the role of arts and culture more explicitly and consistently to reflect the value that middle Australians place on arts and culture.
This report has been prepared by A New Approach (ANA). The primary research and analysis which underpins it was completed by the qualitative market research firm Visibility Consulting and was led by Tony Mitchelmore.
Expert analysis and input was provided by ANA’s Research Working Group, chaired by Professor Malcolm Gillies AM FAHA, with Distinguished Professor Ien Ang FAHA, Professor Tony Bennett AcSS FAHA, Distinguished Professor Stuart Cunningham AM FAcSS FAHA and Professor Jennifer Milam FAHA.
ANA Reference Group members led by Chair Rupert Myer AO, ANA Steering Committee members led by Chair Professor Joy Damousi FASSA FAHA and members of the Australian Academy of the Humanities’ Council also provided helpful comments and input.
The opinions in this report do not necessarily represent the views of ANA’s funding partners, or the individual members involved in the governance or advisory committees.
Suggested citation: Fielding, K., Trembath, J.L., 2020, A view from middle Australia: Perceptions of arts, culture and creativity, Produced by A New Approach think tank with lead delivery partner the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Canberra.
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