Lucrative opportunities in arts research collaboration

A recent report showed that Australia was at the bottom of the list when it came to business-university collaboration. The arts is turning that around.
Lucrative opportunities in arts research collaboration

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When it comes to commercial returns from business-university research, OECD figures show Australia at the bottom of the list behind countries such as Norway, Slovenia and Ireland.

While Australia performed strongly on research excellence – delivering 3.9 per cent of the world's research output and ranking ninth in the OECD  –  it was 29 out of a list of 30 on the proportion of  businesses and enterprises collaborating with educational and research institutions. 


Arts and culture are largely off their radar of the OECD, a forum where the governments of 34 democracies work cooperative to promote economic growth. That is a great shame because arts and culture is an area where there is tremendous potential for just the kind of collaboration identified as lacking in the OECD figures, and there are several successful case studies that could show the business world how to get it right.

The Federal Government produced a discussion paper  in 2014 aimed at improving commercial returns from research. How does the arts fit into that innovation thinking, and is the arts doing better at commercialising its data - we are yet to see research that looks at those results.

Missing the value opportunity

One reason Australia has difficulty capitalising on its public investment in research is insufficient transfer of knowledge between researchers and business.

This is not the case with the arts. The last research data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (February 2014) estimated that in 2008 - 2009 cultural and creative activity provided a Gross Value Add (GVA) of $86.0 billion (6.9%) to Australia’s economy – outranking the retail trade ($57 billion – 4.9%), education and training ($53 billion – 4.6%) and more than double the contribution of agriculture, forestry and mining ($29 billion – 2.5%).

In 2014 the ABS cut reporting on the arts and the Australia Council of the Arts had a knockwhen its budget was cut by more than $120 million, potentially jeopardising of vital resources in gauging growth, success and sustainability of an industry that is less able to deliver quantitative data.

Read: ABS cuts valuable arts and culture statistics

An Australia Council spokesperson has confirmed in response to our article that due to industry demand in the wake of these ABS cuts, funding has been provided through the Statistics Working Group of MCA (representing the states, territories and commonwealth) to ensure that it continued. 

‘Despite the budget measure impacting the Australia Council over the past few year the research program is one of the areas we have strengthened, including a newly designed unit which includes applied research and a centralised evaluation and data function.

This is testament to our view that increasing the evidence base for the arts is critical to its sustainability and that we have a unique national role to play in developing it,’ said the Australia Council in a statement.

‘This doesn’t take away from the fact that there are indeed major opportunities not yet reaslied in commercialisation,’ they added.

Knowing who attends cultural performance and galleries, and what motivates them, is invaluable to programming and an organisation’s economic health. Current research is in high demand today given the quick-paced, event-driven, tech-savvy world, and increased climate of accountability.  

Read: Plugging the gaps in arts value research

Research is in fact good business. So why is Australia getting it so wrong, and lagging behind international standards when it comes to commercialising research?

Universities are fueling the problem

A key part of the problem may not be business or arts industries but rather education facilities.

Unfortunately, universities see little value in collating arts-based research as it has little economic return to the university. Today universities are big-business operations where lucrative courses and international enrolments are prioritised over research or industry-connections.

‘To encourage Australian researchers to drive and be involved in the commercialisation of their ideas, rewards must be both sufficiently likely and sufficiently lucrative. However, academic career progression is linked to citation/publication rates and grants success.

'Researchers face an opportunity cost if they spend more time on entrepreneurial activities such as business consulting or developing spin-off companies based on their IP,'  the discussion paper noted.

'Industry experience and past success in solving industry problems are not generally part of the metrics of academic excellence.'

There are also concerns about the disincentives created by the amount of bureaucracy at the university level associated with ‘going commercial’ in Australia.

There is a strong need in Australia for good arts research. Rather than looking at the commercialisation of business-university research, perhaps business should be partnering with the arts and culture sector in collating and commericalising arts data.

Read: How to play the numbers game

It is a no-brainer that content would not only advantage the sector, but would be incredibly salable to cities and governments as they develop cultural precincts, grow cultural tourism, reach out to creative start-ups. Leveraging the capacity of the arts to create links between ideas, education and industry through research would turn a losing situation into a win across economy and society. 

In response to our article, The Australia Council for the Arts clarified its current research activities:

  • In January (2017) The Council released a new interactive local arts engagement dashboard which draws on data we commissioned from the ABS. This looks at attendance and participation at a local region level across the country.
  • The Council will continue to release new research and data every month or two. This will include the next iteration of our Arts Participation Survey (the third in a series rolling out every 3-4 years) and the Artists’ Careers Survey (the sixth in a series carried out over the past 30 years).
  • The Council continues to be part of a number ARC Linkage partnerships with universities.
  • The National Local Government’s Cultural Development Network has been undertaking some great research to understand arts and culture in a local government context.
  • Creative Victoria is one of the leaders at the state level in arts and culture research and data, in particular a substantive piece of work which informed Victoria’s new cultural policy.
  • WA’s Dept of Culture and the Arts is doing a lot of work in this space, including their innovative Culture Counts, a digital application which has been commercialised. It allows for real time collection of data about arts experiences, audience attendance and range of other indicators.
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Gina Fairley

Monday 27 February, 2017

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW.

Twitter: @ginafairley
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