Counting the value of SA’s culture

Mortlock Chamber. Photo supplied by State Library of SA
Mortlock Chamber. Photo supplied by State Library of SA

As the preeminent Festival State, South Australia has an international reputation for its arts and culture, yet the broader impact of our bustling arts scene is often overshadowed by an emphasis on the bottom line.

For the first time, researchers from Flinders University are developing a set of tools that events and organisations can use to assess the total cultural value of SA’s arts calendar and its contribution to the life of the State beyond the economic dollar.

Funded by a $321,000 Linkage grant from the Australian Research Council, “Laboratory Adelaide: The Value of Culture” will explore the overall worth of three organisations crucial to Adelaide’s cultural life; the Adelaide Festival, the State Theatre Company of South Australia and the State Library of South Australia.

In partnership with these organisations, the three-year project will look for practical ways to action a more wide-ranging notion of public value in assessment reporting.

While the economic flow-on effects of festivals for the hotel, tourism and hospitality sectors is well-established, Flinders University Research Fellow Dr Tully Barnett, who is working on the project, said the total cultural worth of Adelaide’s arts scene is largely unknown.

“The value of culture tends to be constructed around its economic impact but this only tells one side of the story,” Dr Barnett, based in the School of Humanities and Creative Arts, said.

“For example, the State Library is frequently asked to report on how many books they have and how many people come through their doors. But we’re thinking about ways to go deeper and look at the real value that cultural experiences offer society beyond these immediate statistics,” she said.

“Economic impact statements calculate dollars that come to SA from outside the State. But this gives the impression that the value of Adelaide’s cultural events lies in attracting interstate visitors when really the core users are its residents. We need ways of assessing their value for the people who live here and in ways that go beyond the dollars.”

The research team, led by Flinders Strategic Professor of Creative Arts Julian Meyrick, will use both quantitative and qualitative methodologies to look at the total cultural value of the arts and cultural sector.

“One of the difficulties with current measurement exercises is that they have such a short cycle – the annual budget, the forward estimates – so we’ll also be looking for ways to measure the value of cultural experiences over a longer time span, for example how interacting with the State Library as a child has an impact when you are an adult,” Dr Barnett said.

The aim of the project, Dr Barnett said, is to provide the Adelaide Festival, the State Theatre Company and the State Library of South Australia with a set of tools they can use to articulate all the benefits they generate for the community.

Dr Barnett hopes the tools will be used both locally and nationally, to provide a more complete picture of the total value of cultural activities and events.

“Every cultural organisation has to produce impact reports but these are very formulaic exercises that only allow space for all the usual statistics.

“We want to help cultural organisations talking about their value on their terms: cultural terms as well as economic ones.”

The project, also involving Flinders Associate Professors Steve Brown and Robert Phiddian, and Associate Professor Stephen Boyle from UniSA, builds on a pilot cultural value study on the 2013 Adelaide Festival led by Flinders University. This was the first of its kind in Australia and found that South Australians who weren’t festival-goers still valued it at $16.4 million.

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