Behind the scenes: Drivers of arts and cultural policy settings in Australia and beyond

As a nation we are facing unprecedented challenges and there are some important opportunities and decisions ahead of us. Arts and culture are poised to play a significant role in helping Australia’s recovery. That is why understanding the drivers that inform our public policy settings for arts and culture is crucial for our future.

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This report, Behind the scenes: Drivers of arts and cultural policy settings in Australia and beyond, draws on 70 years of Australian and international arts, cultural and creative policies.

Four key policy drivers are brought centre stage, making them clearer and more accessible so that a wider range of people can take part in informed discussion about Australia’s cultural policy settings. If we want our public and private investments in arts and culture to be effective and relevant, then the motivations we have for that investment matter.

Four key cultural policy drivers

  • Collective identity

    The purpose of arts and culture is to help groups of otherwise disparate individuals to unite around a collective identity that builds on the things they have (or can be argued to have) in common.

  • Reputation-building

    The purpose of arts and culture is to help build the reputation of a country, region, organisation or individual, often by associating these entities or individuals with standards of excellence as defined by relevant stakeholders.

  • Social improvement

    The purpose of arts and culture is to provide spillover benefits in areas of societal concern (like education, health and disaster recovery) to the widest range of people possible.

  • Economic contribution

    The purpose of arts and culture is to contribute to the nation’s economic prosperity, either directly through income and/or employment generation, or indirectly by influencing innovation.

Key findings

Finding 1: Four key policy drivers underpin recent cultural policy around the world. These are collective identity, reputation-building, social improvement and economic contribution.

Finding 2: The four policy drivers can be deliberately combined in cultural policies to catalyse a range of specific effects emerging out of arts and cultural  activities.

Finding 3: When policy makers are not aware of the drivers they are using to create cultural policy, and inadvertently use various drivers in combination, they risk these drivers having contradictory goals. This makes it difficult or impossible for the policy to be successfully implemented.

Finding 4: Considering the drivers that underpin cultural policy can be useful in planning the implementation of policy. Otherwise, there is a risk that the policy intentions may not match the reality.

Finding 5: Neither of the two major Australian political parties has significantly prioritised public expenditure on arts and culture more than the other. However, different governments have been influenced more by some drivers than others. At times, this has led some stakeholders to feel that arts and culture are being prioritised or deprioritised, depending on whether those stakeholders value the same cultural policy drivers as the government of the day.

Finding 6: The most effective cultural policies underpinned by economic contribution drivers take a creative industries approach and demonstrate how arts, culture and creative activities interact with each other to increase creativity and innovation across the economy.

Finding 7: The last decade has seen a greater concentration of different policy drivers in a range of policy settings across all three levels of government, and this has made arts and culture an increasingly complex area of public policy.

Finding 8: COVID-19 has accelerated innovation in the production, distribution and consumption of arts and culture via digital means. These trends need to be specifically addressed when updating our cultural policy settings for the 21st century.


Opportunity 1: Determine the appropriate combination of drivers to underpin cultural policy settings for any given jurisdiction, and ensure that investment is effective and relevant in achieving that jurisdiction’s priorities.

Opportunity 2: Establish an inquiry investigating whether cultural policy settings and associated investments are effective and relevant for 21st century Australia. This should include a strategy and mechanism for better coordination between the three levels of government, and identify the policy areas that would create value through strategic investment.

Opportunity 3: Review pathways and mechanisms that connect and embed arts and cultural activities in education, mental health and social inclusion strategies, including those related to recovery from natural disasters and significant social and economic disruptions.

Opportunity 4: Create a National Arts and Culture Plan, in the same vein as the existing ‘Sport 2030’ National Sport Plan, 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 5: Increase the positive attitudes of internal stakeholders by demonstrating both the access to arts and culture provided by cultural policy and policy actions, and the value these actions have or will have to those stakeholders and their communities.

Opportunity 6: Continually review investment in, and diversity of, arts and cultural activities 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 7: Prioritise incentives, requirements and schemes that support collective identity-building through the production and distribution of diverse Australian content that will help to build a unified national identity and represent Australia to the world.

Opportunity 8: Consider the value of a whole-of-government creative industries approach to cultural policy that will strategically connect arts and culture to  innovation outcomes in the broader creative economy.


Expert analysis and input was provided by A New Approach’s (ANA) 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.

Helpful comments and input were also provided by 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 Council of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Suggested citation: Trembath, J.L., Fielding, K., 2020, ‘Behind the scenes: Drivers of arts and cultural policy settings in Australia and beyond’. Produced by A New Approach think tank with lead delivery partner the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Canberra.

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