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On the value of the cultural sector

I had an animated discussion with a friend from the big end of the finance sector recently about the value to society of art and culture.

In short, he argued that ‘value’ only existed (and therefore should only be supported) if the value can be put into economic or dollar terms, and the value outweighed the cost.

This is an issue economists have been arguing over for years, with little agreement. I argued back to my friend that the value was intrinsic and not easily able to be quantified; that this is best seen in the correlations drawn by Richard Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class (2012), which show that cities with a strong creative and cultural life have a strong economy.

We agreed to differ, but my friend did concede that one of the things he most values about living in Sydney and indeed in Australia is its cultural scene, even though he could afford to live anywhere.

My friend’s focus on a dollar justification worries me, and I think it’s symptomatic of change in Australia, and most of the western world, driven by increasing government budget deficits and the consequent squeeze on culture funding. And simply asserting that the arts deserve more money– while true – cuts little ice with governments.

Our need to get more creative about how we are funded, how we make the case for funding, and making the funding we achieve go further, shaped much of 2015, and will increasingly shape our future. Both of these issues got much of Museums Australia’s attention, and my attention in particular, over the last year.

One positive thing to come out of the controversy surrounding the move of money from the Australia Council to the NPEA – now Catalyst – was that galleries and museums can now apply for project funding, whereas we are largely barred from Australia Council funding.

The compromise outcome created by Minister Mitch Fifield is on average better than the previous situation. Museums Australia is in the process of seeking funding from Catalyst for two projects to benefit our sector. One is digital and one is Indigenous. More of these below.

I’ve argued in various places that the more the world goes digital, the more people will want to see real things. In 2015 we saw the consolidation of a peak group of the galleries, libraries, archives, and museums sector (the wonderfully acronymed GLAM group) with Museums Australia taking a leading role, and focused on increasing the digital engagement of the broader community with our collections.

The GLAM peak group is bidding for Catalyst funding to enable our sector to better engage with the digital world, and in particular to enable small-to-medium museums and galleries make an informed and affordable choice about how they create digital access to their collections. We will know about how this goes in the first half of 2016.

Availability of digital images of, and information about, our collections is one way we are getting more creative, but this increased access has another, more fundamental impact. I firmly believe that the impact will be demands for greater access to stored collections so that people can indeed engage with the ‘real’.

This can be achieved several ways. The obvious one is making collection stores accessible to the community, ‘open storage’ if you like; and I also believe that new storage must be designed with this in mind.

A less obvious but lower-cost approach is one recently advocated by some regional gallery directors in the UK, who argued that the large art museums should put much more of their stored collections on tour to regional galleries, rather than locking them away in expensive, inaccessible storage. I tend to agree.

Still on the attraction of the ‘real’, 2015 also saw vigorous discussion around just what it is that certain cultural institutions should exhibit.

There is a certain group in our cultural sector that supports what I consider to be a conservative cultural stereotyping. Galleries should only do art; museums only stuff that isn’t art; and design centres should stick to craft.

The NGV has been doing a great job of blowing those stereotypes out of the water, featuring not only ‘art’ but fashion, design, and cars! Many of our regional art museums have also been doing a fine job of blurring the boundaries, and some of our major State libraries are seriously into the exhibition business.

This is all for the good. I think it’s about time we in the cultural sector got over this pigeon-holing, and really focused on what our visitors and communities, in both the real and virtual realms, really want.

It seems to me that the digital world is really driving a demand for innovation and diversity of expression from our sector, which we should embrace.

A little over a year ago, Museums Australia members asked the National Council to look at whether we should have a Reconciliation Action Plan (a RAP) for our organisation, or indeed for the whole sector.

This is a complex question, to say the least! During 2015 we have created an Indigenous working party facilitated by National Council Secretary, Mat Trinca, and Executive Director Alex Marsden, and including a widely representative group of Indigenous Australians, to explore how Museums Australia and the gallery and museum sector can better engage with past and present Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia.

This is a very significant process for us, and we will report further as it goes on through 2016.

Finally, I, the National Council, and Museums Australia staff are continually looking at better ways of working for you and the sector. In 2015 we began a process of exploring how to better represent the diverse and vibrant public gallery sector; this will continue through 2016.

It’s also timely that we take a step back and look at the overall structure of Museums Australia. Our current structure is complex, and in my view that complexity makes it harder for us to really focus on sector issues and priorities quickly enough. And issues can move fast, as the saga over Australia Council funding demonstrated.

We will examine potentially better options to enable Museums Australia to do a better job during 2016, and talk more about them at our joint national conference with Museums Aotearoa in Auckland in May. See you there!

(This article originally appeared in Museums Australia magazine, Summer 2015/16.)

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