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“No matter what the economy does, art and culture will continue to function”

David Throsby, Specialist in the Economics of Art and Culture, Distinguished Professor of the Department of Economics,
Macquarie University (Australia);

Economist Throsby responds to questions such as the role of the institutions, public and private alike, and their active participation in promoting culture as well as the impact of such phenomena as globalisation, the digital era and new technologies on the economic behaviour of culture and art.

In his discourse, Throsby highlights the concept of “sustainable cultural development” which refers to the use of cultural resources to satisfy our needs so that art and culture may be perpetuated for future generations, an especially relevant concept when we think about cultural, tangible or immaterial heritage. Certain key principles that provide the foundation of sustainable cultural development and that Throsby considers vital and essential for conserving cultural and artistic manifestations of quality are the following: non-discrimination in access respecting equality, free access and the protection of their diversity.            


How do you define the cultural value created by the arts and cultural sector?

If I make a distinction between cultural value and economic value, cultural value is something we can’t measure in monetary terms, although it may have a relation in monetary terms. I’ve proposed that the only way really to think about cultural value is to try to deconstruct it into component elements. What makes it up? That would mean things like aesthetic value. If we’re talking about artwork, for example a painting: its aesthetic value, its social value, its symbolic value, its historical value perhaps, its value as an authentic piece of work… These are all components of something we have come to call cultural value, which is a way of expressing the cultural significance of an art object. Or not just of an object, but of the arts in general.


What are the differences between the intrinsic and extrinsic value of cultural expressions?

There’s a long debate in philosophy about whether or not cultural objects have intrinsic value. That there’s something that’s contained within them and exists, whether anybody appreciates it or not. If you think about some of the great artworks of music, or visual arts or literature, that they have their own internal value, aesthetic qualities, cultural qualities… You don’t need anybody to recognize them or experience them for those to exist, they exist like that. Otherwise you could say, “This only comes into play if there is some extrinsic, external sort of force which happens to make the intrinsic values come out”.


So, they’re both equally relevant?

It’s hard to say, I think, because the balance depends on one’s point of view. Yes, I suppose I would have to say they’re both equally relevant in the sense that they are both important.


Should public institutions lead investment in arts and culture?

Public institutions? Yes, of course public cultural institutions do, like museums and galleries. Other sorts of public institutions…. Do you mean like public buildings that might have commissioned artworks to display in the foyers or something like that? Then of course, yes. One of the things which we know that the public authorities can do is to have what we call a percent for art, that is, in a new institution, in a new building, to have a percentage of the construction costs to be spent on artworks and that can be quite an important source of not just income for artists and new commissions, but also a way of making art available to the public.


What role should the private sector have in this investment?

The private sector has a very strong role to play because we live in an economy which is, in a sense, dominated by the private sector in economic terms. If the arts and art in general is to flourish, then some involvement by the private sector is important. There are commercial reasons why the private sector might be interested in art, like acquiring art for boardrooms which might be valuable and become part of the assets of a company. But there’s also the more general question about the private sector’s involvement in funding the arts through philanthropy, etc. And that is another whole area, which is very important and is, if you like, complementary to the public support for the arts and culture, which, of course, is still fundamental. It varies a lot between different countries, but nevertheless, the notion that there is a public responsibility to fund the arts and culture is there. But the private contribution to that can be, and indeed is, very significant.


What does the concept “culturally sustainable development” mean?

That’s a relatively new concept and in order to understand it you really have to think in terms of the whole development about the debate of sustainable development. That goes back to the 1980s when the World Commission on the Environment and Development set up by the United Nations, which was chaired by Mrs. Brundtland, so it’s known as the Brundtland Commission, and that put forward the idea of sustainable development. Sustainable development was defined as development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs. That was put forward in terms of ways in which humanity uses the environment or natural resources. It was very much related to the fact that we were in the 1980s, and even today we’re exploiting the natural resources and we’re going to run out of oil, going to pollute the environment, we’re going to have global climate change… And these are all issues that have to be dealt with through environmentally sustainable processes. So out of that came a concern for the over-arching notion of sustainability, and within that, culture plays an important role because it’s talked about that there are three pillars of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. There’s also the proposition that there’s a fourth pillar which is culture. Culture is important for development because it provides the context within which development happens. And even it can be a driver of development because the cultural industries can contribute to economic growth and so on. So, out of all of this, this is a sort of preamble to answering your question about culturally sustainable development… Just as there is a notion of environmentally sustainable development, we can also talk about culturally sustainable development, which means using cultural resources in a way which satisfies our own needs but doesn’t compromise the continuation of the culture for the future generations and so it has particularly to do with the creation of art and the preservation or protection of cultural heritage.


What are the most important principles behind culturally sustainable development?

One of the things that we found with the whole notion of sustainable development is it can’t so much be defined as specified in terms of a set of principles. And so the principles of culturally sustainable development I could say would be, first of all, what we call intergenerational equity, which means what I’ve been talking about: taking care of resources so they will be available to future generations. So concern about the future is essentially the first principle. The second principle has to do with the ways in which culture is provided and access now for our own generation and for our own people. There should be non-discrimination, we should have free access to cultural participation, there should be freedom of artistic expression… These are all contained within this notion of equity for the present generation. Then, on top of that, there are some further principles which we could say, but the most important is protection of diversity. Cultural diversity is understood as something which is to be celebrated and not something which is to be feared. We have to accept the fact, and we do accept it, that the human mosaic, as the phrase is, the sort of variety of different cultures, people, skin colours, ethnicities, religions, etc. is part of what makes us human. We can celebrate the different aspects of that, but I think there’s always the idea and the underlying principle that it should be done in a way which is tolerant and accepting rather than fearing or being aggressive or violent.


How can cultural industries contribute to sustainable development?

That really comes to the question “How is culture actually perpetuated?” or “What do we do to make culture happen?” if you like…. We have music, we have performance, we have cultural goods, we have literature which we write, we have works which we create and some of these things are purely artistic, but they’re really very useful and contribute a lot to people’s well-being.... They define cultural industries, nowadays, quite broadly as industries that produce cultural goods and services, and that means cultural goods which have some sort of meaning, some sort of symbolic qualities. That includes not just artworks but also film, television, music, video games and even includes the media... Cultural industries are quite a broad conglomeration of industries. The proposition is they can contribute to economic development because they produce employment, they produce output, they produce incomes, etc. At the same time, they also contribute to cultural development because every time we make a film or something like that we do something for our culture. Perhaps, something innovating, something fresh, interesting, new… Cultures never stay still. They continue to change. That happens through this process of cultural participation, cultural production and so the cultural industries contribute to sustainable development because they can do exactly that. They can link economic development and cultural development together.


What kind of strategies and measures can governments and other stakeholders implement to facilitate the generation of social benefits produced by the cultural sector?

There’s a very broad canvas now for what we understand as cultural policy. As we were saying, there’s the sort of things that governments can do, but governments are not the only players in the game, of course. Nevertheless, governments do have an important role. The question is that cultural policy has grown up, as it were, in the last 10, 20, 30 years to be much more clearly defined as to what constitutes a policy towards culture. And it’s very much a multidimensional thing because it’s not just support for the arts or support for cultural industries or something like that, but it extends right across the board to things like education… How do we use culture and education? How do we educate kids to be creative? How do we give them opportunities for that sort of thing? It means cultural trade… How do we have international trade in cultural products? It means intercultural dialogue, regional development, industrial development, innovative policies…. Almost every ministry in the government has some connection with cultural policy and, although in any government situation, it varies, of course, between different countries, in most countries there’s something like a ministry of culture or something like that and that takes the responsibility for being the centre of cultural policy. But it extends right across the board into all of these other areas. In each of those areas, there are particular strategies which might be used. In education, for example, a strategy to introduce more cultural understanding and creativity into school curricula…That sort of thing. In another area, it might be cultural exchanges with other countries, sending the artist and performing companies abroad. These are all different strategies that might be used within the different areas of cultural policy.


What are the remaining challenges for integrating a cultural dimension into sustainable development frameworks?

That’s an interesting question because it’s very easy to say that we should integrate culture into sustainable development. But it’s much more difficult to know just what we should do. I could refer here to the Cultural Diversity Convention, the UNESCO convention in 2005, which is probably the most important international instrument, which provides a framework for cultural policy. A key part of that convention is to say that countries should make every effort to integrate culture into their sustainable development policies. What we find in most countries… I’ve done a lot of reviews of different countries about the policies in this respect on behalf of UNESCO. What we find is that some countries have a national development plan, a 5-year plan or 10-year plan. Some have specifically sustainable development plans that try to do something about environmental issues, and so on. What can be done is to think about the ways in which culture generally but particularly the cultural industries can be included in a national development plan. It’s really through the planning process, I think. It is the answer to the question. It’s really through the planning processes that can stand back and say, “What do we really need to do to understand how culture can participate in the development process and provide the context for development and can actually drive the development process?” That comes through the planning mechanisms.


How do you think that economics contributes to a better understanding of arts and culture?

I think one could say that art and culture have their own rationale, of course, and they’re quite independent of economics. We have art in our lives because art is important to the human soul and there’s nothing to say about economics in relation to that. It’s something that is absolutely essential to human existence. Our cultures define who we are; our art is the way we express them and that hasn’t anything that has a rationale, it is entirely self-generating and will happen anyway. But having said that, we could say that there are ways in which all of these processes have some economic dimensions. For example, an artist may be solely concerned with producing art, but they have to live, they have to make money, they have to sell their work… As soon as they start to sell their work then they are engaging in some economic process. There are economic processes right throughout this thing. So economics is the study of how these processes work in the general economy. They work as much for art and culture as they do for anything else. What we do find is that often, because of the peculiar nature of the arts, and the peculiar nature of culture some of the ways in which economics applies to phenomena in the cultural sector is rather different from the way it applies elsewhere. For example, in relation to artists… Now, we usually think of workers as being people who only work in order to make an income and the less work they did the better, and they would prefer to do less work. Artists are exactly the opposite. Artists like to work more because it’s their calling. We find that all the labour market economics, if applied to artists, get turned upside down because artists are different. We find that quite often in this area. Economics is really important to help us understand it and one of the intriguing things about working in the economics of art and culture is that we find constantly these sorts of peculiarities in particular characteristics of the arts and culture, which make it really interesting to do. Economics is a social science, it’s a philosophy… It has a lot to say about the way in which art is made and the ways in which we can facilitate the production of art. But you never want to say that’s all there is to it. We always understand that, of course, art and culture are essential to human life and that’s going to go on. Whatever economics does, that’s just going to go on.


Which topics do you think might be of interest to young researchers starting their careers in the coming years?

I guess I could say just about anything. One of the nice things about the culture and economics conference, the biennial conference, is it’s always amazing how much variety there is of work that’s going on that interests people and that they’re doing interesting and useful work. I think though, that if I have to sort of specify… I guess that one of the things which is influencing the arts, like the whole of the economy, is the phenomena like globalization and the emphasis on new technologies, and the rise of the digital economy…the ways in which the digital economy is affecting the arts and culture. That is throwing up whole other new questions, many of which have been grappled with, but there’s still an awful lot more that we don’t know about that. I think this is something that is going on very rapidly, the technological changes of the last 5, 10 15 years are… There’s been as much happening in that time as there was happening in the whole of the Industrial Revolution, or the entire 19th century. It’s a really interesting time to be alive and it’s throwing up all sorts of questions about art, culture, how we produce art, how we consume art particularly, and almost every day some new questions are coming up. So when you talk about young researchers, they tend to be the people who are on Twitter or Facebook. They use social media a lot or play video games, for example. They’re the ones who are engaged with this sort of new technology. The problems that come up through that is that they would be really well-placed to study. Having said that, I think that there are certain perennials that go on forever. How much would the state be involved in the production of art and culture? How do we value the arts? I myself am very interested in questions of evaluation, how do we evaluate things? These are questions that go on and the reason why they’re interesting is that we never actually solve them. They just keep on being… If we solved them they wouldn’t be interesting anymore. It’s something that will keep us going, I guess, forever.


Which topics do you believe are still undeveloped in academic literature?

The one that I’ve just been talking about I guess because the whole question is still evolving. Otherwise, I’m not sure I could say that anywhere particularly is undeveloped in the literature. Literature is very broad nowadays. To keep abreast of the literature is really quite a thing. In any area there’s so much going on. Of course, it’s also easier now because of Google and other forms of Internet searches help us to track stuff down much quicker than it used to be. When I was a student, if you wanted to find out what was going on you had to go to the library and get the journals out and look through them. Nowadays, we can do it all on Google and other search engines, databases, etc. So, that’s one area. I think the question of data, how we use data, how we use big data, for example, these are questions that haven’t been yet properly explored but it’s all related to this question of new technologies and new things.


Do policy makers and others stakeholders take into account the research produced by universities and research centres?

Yes, but probably not enough. I think the things that we do in universities and research centres… I think you have to make a distinction between, as you do in science, between pure research and applied research. In science we say that pure research goes on and we don’t necessarily know what it’s going to be useful for, but out of that comes something which will make the transition to applied research and become something really major in the scientific area. I think you can say the same in economics and the economics of the arts. That there is a sort of pure, theoretical research going on which doesn’t immediately have any application or relevance but which may provide safe methodological tools or analytical tools that will be useful in the future. Then there’s the applied stuff, which is more directed to specific problems and designed to produce answers. A lot of the applied stuff does get used. I don’t think there’s much doubt about that. There’s always the possibility that there’s more. One can always say that policy decisions are motivated as much by politics as by economics or other considerations. Sometimes we can give very good reasons why the decision might be made in this way but it will happen some other way because of purely political reasons, which we don’t have any control over. That’s often just the state of life. We continue to do it but I do think that research in this area has been effective and will continue to be effective.



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