Dr Justin O’Connor is a professor in the ARC Centre for Creativity and Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology. In January, the Australia Council released his report entitled Arts and creative industries, which outlined the development of the creative industries in Australia and discussed the role of economics in arts and cultural policy debate. He spoke to arts interview about the report and his ideas of how the industry could move forward.

Interview by Kim Goodwin

What implication do the differences between cultural industries, arts and creative industries have for the creation of industry policy in Australia?

The first problem is that nobody quite knows what creative industries are. Sounds great at first, but does not mention the word arts (that is always a good thing for economic policy makers). As we drilled down into what it meant, no one really knew. What areas of the economy aren’t creative? Are we saying medicine isn’t creative? We are saying creativity is an input into this particular sector of the economy, but it is also an input into many other sectors of the economy. What then is included? Consequently it is a challenge to develop industry policy when the industry itself is not defined.

The second element is that creative industries are defined increasingly in economic terms. All those who will read this will make arguments about the economic impacts of arts and culture. But policy makers are turning around and saying ‘if you are economically successful then let’s invest in this because of the economic returns’. In attempt to sell the whole idea of a thriving and growing sector it has also done a bit of damage to it.

In terms of cultural policy, was the last true attempt Keating’s Creative Nation?

Very much so. Remember that Creative Nation was not just about the economic aspects of culture and markets, the private sector was important too. It was also about a new Australia, a multicultural, forward looking country with an identity that would engage with the modern world. Creative industries have dropped all that and become the economic residue of these sorts of discussions.

According to the interviewees in the report, what are the weaknesses in the current Australian system?

One issue was the way in which the different systems, whether federal or state, could not handle the complexity of what practitioners were doing. Could not handle the fact that people were doing cultural things AND economic things. Those who were operating commercially were saying ‘people think I am commercial, but I am also doing it for artistic and cultural reasons’, and those in the subsidised sectors were saying ‘I also work in a very commercial space, using resources in an economically rational way.’ They felt caught on either side of the divide, either as a starving subsidised artist, or a commercial, hard-nosed, profit driven operator. In reality most fell right in the middle.

How has the report been received?

It is a think piece; it is meant to get people to review where we have come to. It has, however, touched on a desire for a bigger debate, questioning ‘What is the meaning of art and culture? Why do we do this? How can it be improved?’

I am hoping that it feeds into a growing concern that we are a bit rudderless, a bit directionless in this area. I think we have lost that moment, that Creative Nation moment, where we could link the economic aspects of culture with its wider implications for the identity and future of Australia.

You have said the challenge now facing the mainstream arts institutions is how to enter the policy debate without feeling the arts are threatened by the changes. What can be done to support this?

We have to encourage arts bodies to think about the broader picture. What shape should the Australia Council be? How can it best engage with the sector? It is not about abolishing, or suggesting they have done a terrible job; it is what kind of vision do we want for arts and culture in Australia and what role can the Australia Council play? The arts institutions have to think about engaging with the non-publically funded sectors, thinking about infrastructure funding, about engaging with more complex fields, things like small bar policy or how best to regulate or encourage private capital investment into the sector, how best to engage with urban planners and community policy makers.

If I was to write the report again I would be more forthright in the idea of critiquing economics. What is the economic? Most of it is just a myth, do we mean the financial markets? Do we mean the everyday economics of how people live? I would say it is a paper tiger, but it is a real tiger, suggesting there is an economy out there which is the ultimate arbiter of everything, but when you look closely it is actually smoke and mirrors.

Further reading on the politics of creative industries below: