We are currently facing an historic opportunity. As 2020 comes to a close, we can rethink, reset and reimagine as we rebuild. We can draw on what we have learnt from 2020’s global disruptions, personal challenges and ongoing crises, and on what has sustained us through them.
As we continue to count the cost of stopping in an economy designed around activity and growth, a different form of value has been highlighted: that of connection. And with it, different measures of the health of our economy and our communities.
Without connection, as the social isolation of a pandemic has shown us, we face pervasive crises of mental health, of loneliness, pressures on families, communities and the economy.
One of the key ways we foster connection is through creative expression and participation. Our National Arts Participation study, conducted just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, found that the majority of Australians saw engagement with the arts as having a strong positive impact on their mental health and in facilitating their connections with others.
When this powerful source of connection is denied to us, we feel its loss.
We crave it. And we find wonderfully imaginative ways to foster it. We sing from balconies and couches for each other. We reinterpret great artworks in our loungerooms, we read and share and commentate and recommend – posting images of our bookshelves and bedside tables laden with our next great reads. We find ways of performing mass socially distanced dance pieces. We watch together and apart – ballerinas in bathtubs, pared-down performances and bingeable screen stories.
Creativity and its consumption have often been thought of as solitary acts: the artist in the garret; the lone reader or audience member in the dark. The truth is creative work starts with the self, inevitably involves collaboration and connection to audiences, and has ripple effects into our communities, our collective behaviours, our culture and our economy. It builds confidence, it deepens engagement and it offers the opportunity for growth.
That is why it is so powerful.
It is my great hope that we can use what we have learnt this year to think differently about the drivers of our productivity and the engine of our optimism. It is not just bullish markets and jobs in traditional industries that enrich and sustain us. It is the power of our creativity, our capacity to innovate and an investment in ensuring the participation of our entire community that will take us to prosperity.
The cultural and creative industries employ far more Australians than mining, and have overtaken manufacturing as a proportion of GDP. They contribute $115bn to GDP each year and – prior to lockdown – made up one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy.
This is a story that needs to be taken seriously well beyond the cultural sector.
Partnerships with cultural and creative industries should be actively brought into sectors including health, education, tourism, community development and digital transformation. Creativity has the capacity to bring human expression, connection and engagement into the heart of all of these areas and to achieve better outcomes.
Cultural engagement drives domestic tourism, global connections and mobility – and will be a key part of getting us moving, participating and spending as we emerge from the 2020 lockdowns and limitations.
Prior to COVID-19, live attendance at arts events was thriving. Australians’ live attendance had increased nearly ten percentage points since 2016.
The Audience Outlook Monitor has shown tremendous appetite to get back into forms of cultural participation.
Of course, the norms of these experiences have shifted dramatically this year. The ‘new normal’ for live arts and culture will – for the foreseeable future – involve face masks, temperature checks and physical distancing.
Australian audiences are, however, feeling more comfortable than other global audiences about attending most venue types and 42% say they’ll go out ‘as soon as it’s legally allowed’. This is not just about a ticket holder in a seat in a theatre. It’s about the restaurant meal prior, the hotel room after and the inspiration, confidence and consumption that this kind of participation engenders.
It’s also about the many ways creativity, cultural production and engagement permeate our lives beyond these obviously cultural experiences.
We recently launched a fantastic research piece that exemplified this for me. It was a collaboration between the Sydney Opera House and the Australia Council on a program that took place in schools in Western Sydney called Creative Leadership in Learning. It empowered young people who wouldn’t necessarily have access to the arts with creative practice, culminating in a showcase at the Opera House. Everyone involved, from the kids, teachers, principals to the resident artists said it was transformative: increasing confidence, engagement and academic performance, as well as wellbeing.
Australians recognise this power. In our participation survey, 73% of respondents said that the arts should be an important part of education and 74% ranked as a high priority investment in arts and creativity in the lives of children and young people to support their learning and development.
We know our young people will need creativity, collaboration skills and adaptive problem solving to help them navigate this uncertain world.
We all need it.
It’s not elitist. It’s not a luxury. It’s fundamental to our human experience and we all mourn its loss when we can’t access it.
Fortunately, creative forces are generative and they are resilient. People find ways to keep creating and connecting, even in extremis – as has been abundantly evident through the digital outpourings throughout this year’s lockdowns.
For the whole country, our economy and our children’s futures to experience the many benefits that creative activity can offer, we must foster this energy. We must ensure that we cultivate and elevate our creative practice and support its ecosystems of collaborations and partnerships. We must ensure that
we cultivate and elevate our creative practice, support its ecosystems of
collaboration and partnerships and ensure the creative and cultural sector has
a seat at the policy table.
Creativity connects us, and 2020 has shown us just how vital that is.
Adrian Collette AM
Chief Executive Officer
Australia Council for the Arts
Learn more about Adrian Collette AM.