Census fails artists

The 2016 Census will fail to record the work of the majority of artists who are not working full time on their creative pursuits.
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The official tagline of the 2016 Census is “Your moment to make a difference”. And it’s true: if knowledge is power, then data is money. Data collected from the Census informs policy and planning and the way resources are allocated across all aspects of the community. But what about the artists, writers and thinkers? The contributions of the people who weave the rich cultural fabric of our society is largely ignored in data collection, perhaps an indication of the sidelining of the arts ecology in the whole economy.

The 2016 Census collects information on occupations, but only provides space to describe one “main job”, defined on the survey as “the job in which the person usually works the most hours”. The census will do a fair job of recording the people it defines as ‘arts and media professionals’, those who are currently employed full time as actors, producers, editors or production workers, for example.

But if, like many creatives, you have a collection of day jobs and occupations to support your artistic practice, then these will take precedent over your work and identity as an artist.

The Census form is a microcosm of a traditional wage-earning society: the main job, the money earning job, the job which contributes financially to society, is the only one that counts. Literally.

If you are a barista by day and a playwright by night, or a high school teacher who sells sculptures on the weekend, then nowhere in the Census is the existence of your artistic practice recorded. You might see yourself as an artist who supports yourself with an additional occupation but to the Census you are only a barrista or a teacher.  The Census records the total hours worked across all jobs, but we can only select one main job as our occupation. This means that a writer may spend 25 hours at their part-time teaching role and 20 hours as a freelance writer, but only the teaching role counts, despite spending 45 hours working in total.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is under constant pressure to add additional metrics to the Census but there are inherent limitations about what any single form can achieve.  That’s why the Australia Council is so essential to understanding the arts economy. As Kate Clarke, Director Communications for Australia Council points outs in all data gathering there are limitations to the amount of information that can be collected.

 ‘This means that it is critical to each industry that more detailed research is undertaken to better understand the trends and issues in that sector. As the Australian Government’s national arts funding and advisory body, the Australia Council has a responsibility to contribute to new research and data analysis. This should supplement the work of the ABS in providing an evidence base for the arts sector and to inform decision making,’ she told ArtsHub.

Evidence of the arts economy and the reality of artists’ working lives is dependent not on the Census but on the Individual Artists’ survey, which Professor  David Throsby from Macquarie University  has conducted for the Australia Council at approximately seven year intervals since 1983.  Planning is underway for the sixth Individual Artists’ survey to be undertaken later this year, with results published by the Australia Council and Macquarie University in 2017.

This research is widely used in industry and government and is key to the Australia Council’s advocacy for artists. Statistics on artists’ incomes, in particular, are essential to arguments around grant allocations.

The Australia Council is continuously working to develop the evidence base to support informed decision making and advocacy.

Also essential to our understanding of the real value of the arts are ABS surveys which record population engagement with cultural life. As Ben Eltham pointed out in his recent Platform Paper, a financial measurement is a completely inappropriate lens for measuring the value of the arts.

Read: Proving the real value of the arts

While the Census is of little value to the arts, ABS surveys on cultural participation provide important data, showing, for example, that nearly five million Australians in 2013–14 spent time participating in the performing arts, singing or playing a musical instrument, dancing, writing, visual art activities and craft activities.

That’s information you won’t find anywhere in the Census but it may tell you more about what matters in the lives of Australians than anything you will.

Emma Clark Gratton
About the Author
Emma Clark Gratton is an ArtsHub staff writer.