NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Confessions of a Cultural Economist

By Dr Bronwyn Coate — It’s interesting how labels can shape perceptions. Often, we pay special attention to these as important pieces of information that become amplified in their relevance to reveal something about ourselves as well as the object to which they are applied. To illustrate: Say we are told that a certain artist is represented by a certain gallery.

Does this influence what we then expect the artist’s work to be like and whether we will be impressed, envious or otherwise when we do see their work? To the extent that we can recognise within the art world the importance of how art is valorised, this extends to shape perceptions about artists as well as various private galleries and public institutions that support the arts which may be compared relative to each other to reveal a type of hierarchy or pecking order that characterises the art world and the gatekeepers who maintain its order.  Or perhaps, if I tell you now, that I am an economist. Does that conjure an image of a neo-liberal zealot in your minds eye…if it does then I’m pleased to disappoint.

The point is that ancillary information that is ascribed to labels shapes, sometimes rightly and other times wrongly people’s perceptions. Labels like those described are what behavioural economists call a heuristic that is used to inform people’s assessment. The danger with reliance on mental shortcuts such as these is that it can result in discrimination, if for instance regardless of artistic talent we prefer the work of one artist over another only because of the gallery they are represented by. Perhaps dear reader, you are an artist balancing multiple jobs in the face insecure employment and receive low pay for creative endeavours and wonder how things might be different in your career if you could just get a lucky break. The truth is within the arts talent is often cheap where outcomes are also dependent upon luck and connections meaning that ‘know who’ can matter more than ‘know how’ to aid career advancement.

At this point, I should confess that rather than label myself as an economist I see myself as a behavioural cultural economist. This means I am especially interested in psychological insights that help explain all the peculiar aspects of human behaviour that often defy what orthodox economics based on strict assumptions of people being rational predicts. When it comes to making sense of the economic decisions made by artists and creative practitioners really there is not too much that conforms to what might be described as rational. I know from my observations of the cultural industries and research I’ve been involved in that has focused upon artists, what readers will know all too well – that creative labour is low paid and precarious. Artists and creative practitioners pursue their craft for love not the money.

Engagement in creative practice is associated with people who are obviously creative, but also creative people tend to be highly intrinsically motivated. Being intrinsically motivated means that the pursuit of art becomes its own source of reward, which in a strict market context makes artists vulnerable to exploitation. In so far that society values the arts and benefit from having artists in their midst, the public at large do not necessarily have to pay for creative content if artists are willing to provide this for free or provide it below cost, or even so long as there are some artists are willing to do so. This makes the arts sector prone to fierce competition and also making matters worse for artists in trying to pay the rent the public can potentially ‘free ride’ on the benefits generated by artists and creative individuals.

Recognising this has previously been an important basis for justifying public support from governments in funding the arts to ensure their ongoing ability to flourish and prosper.  Yet while we know the arts and culture are important to everyone and we hear business and government talk of the importance of creativity, the willingness to engage with artists in a meaningful way as the natural practitioners predisposed to creativity is lacking.

The arts and artists play a special role in helping society understand itself and helping us confront difficult truths and find peace. Never has there been a time we need to support the arts and artists more than now.


Dr Bronwyn Coate is a cultural economist with expertise in the economic analysis of the arts and creative industries. Bronwyn’s research applies a range of economic and econometric techniques to cultural data. Bronwyn incorporates approaches from behavioural economics into her research to study topics well suited to policy nudging and actively engages with the arts and cultural sector and arts funding bodies to generate meaningful collaborations. She has worked on projects with the City of Melbourne to explore the economic impact of their arts programme as well as with the Australia Council for the Arts investigating how artists’ participation in the Venice Biennale influences their careers.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Dr Jenny Wilson — Although governments and funding bodies seem determined to place academic teaching and research into neat (measurable and quantifiable) boxes, academics themselves are starting to breach the historical silo walls that have constrained collaboration and understanding.
By Dr Kaya Barry — The social sciences have had a fruitful relationship working closely and collaboratively with creative artists. Practice-led approaches to ‘doing’ research are becoming more widely accepted and permitted in disciplines beyond the arts, and are increasingly seen as a valuable way to build engagement with communities and public audiences. But as enthusiasm for ‘creative’ modes of knowledge gain traction, the role of creative researchers, and the levels of their involvement in collaborations needs to be carefully considered.
By Dr David Pearson — Even before the COVID-19 crisis gripped the globe the creative arts were facing serious challenges. In the UK there was widespread dismay at the Augar report proposal that university tuition fees could be linked to graduate income, a move that would massively disadvantage arts and humanities courses [1].
By Professor Craig Batty and Dr Claire Corbett — How might creative writing help a group of counter terrorism officers go about their job? This might sound provocative, but it was a real outcome of a recent workshop that we ran for the 2020 Sydney Festival.
By Dr Peter Charles Taylor — Since the Age of Enlightenment, which gave birth to the modern scientific worldview, education systems have engaged students of science in learning to understand objectively - at arm’s length - the world out there: the material world of naturally occurring objects and events.
Editor’s introduction — Professor Ben Shneiderman is one of the leading researchers in the US. He is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Computer Science, Founding Director (1983-2000) of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory and a Member of the UM Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) at the University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the AAAS, ACM, IEEE, and NAI,  a Member of the National Academy of Engineering and  holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Melbourne.