On February 21, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released a new data set on the cultural participation habits of ordinary Australians. It’s a fascinating snapshot into our cultural and artistic hobbies and pastimes.

According to the ABS, more than 4.7 million of us participated in at least one cultural activity in the 12 months before the bureau interviewed them, during 2010-11. More than a million participated in three or more activities.

And what was the most popular activity? Crafts. No less than 10% of the Australian population engaged in what the ABS calls “textile crafts, jewellery making, paper crafts or wood crafts” in that 12 months, or about 1.7 million people. “Glass crafts, pottery, ceramics or mosaics” accounted for another 294,000, taking the total for craft practice to just under 2 million Australians.

The data is surprising because it overturns many of the common misunderstandings about what are the most popular cultural activities. According to the ABS, 950,000 of us played a musical instrument, including singing, while dancing accounted for 652,700 and “performing in a drama, comedy, opera or musical” accounted for 279,200. In other words, craft is roughly as popular as all the performing arts put together. Writing, another popular activity that many Australians love, accounted for 840,800 — less than half the figure for craft.

The figures are not completely unexpected. Some inkling of the rapid growth of craft participation had been hinted at in previous ABS data. The bureau’s “Work in selected cultural and leisure activities” series is a different data set to the freshly released numbers and cannot be directly compared. On the other hand, it has been collected six times since 1997 and so gives us some idea of trends over time. Between 2001 and 2007, jewellery making grew exponentially, from 25,000 to 193,000, while the more general category of crafts (not including jewellery) nearly tripled, from 396,400 to 960,800.

In general, the ABS data tells us that visual arts and crafts are by far the main aspect of ordinary Australians’ every day cultural participation. If you combine the figures for visual arts, crafts and screen-based activities such as filmmaking and photography, close to 4 million Australians are participating annually.

These figures should have big implications for Australian cultural policy. After all, one of the goals of the government’s new National Cultural Policy discussion paper explicitly states the policy should “enable more people to access and participate in arts and culture”.

Given that, it’s curious the Australia Council, the nation’s peak cultural funding and policy agency, has just decided to defund Australia’s national craft body, Craft Australia. The organisation is an advocacy and research body that helps to encourage craft in this country by linking practitioners to resources, networking with craft and design centres and conducting and publishing education and research on the sector.

That’s all over now. After 41 years, the organisation is winding up. As Catrina Vignando told Crikey yesterday: “We’re tracking to shut down by April.”

Staff now have the melancholy task of archiving and storage, particularly of the organisation’s four decades worth of documentation and library materials, so that, as Craft Australia explains, “the historical and visual archives of the Australian studio craft movement that we have collected over the past 40 years are not lost to the sector”.

Several weeks ago we covered the defunding of dance company Leigh Warren and Dancers. That company was given several years of “notice” by the Australia Council’s dance board before its defunding. Craft Australia was given no such warnings: it was simply notified its funding application was not successful. There was no warning beyond a form letter sent in November 2010 to every organisation funded by the Visual Arts board, setting out the conditions for the 2012-15 round. Craft Australia in fact features in the Visual Arts board’s sector plan for 2011-13.

Craft Australia estimates the Australia Council has reduced funding to the craft sector by as much as $940,000 since 2002. This action will exacerbate the trend. Of the $1.2 million saved by the Australia Council by defunding the peak body, some $800,000 will not return to the craft sector but has instead been parcelled out to newly funded visual arts organisations within the Visual Arts board. The Australia Council is in fact drawing up a new craft strategy, but Craft Australia won’t be involved. “We’re shutting down,” Vignando confirmed.

Craft Australia’s funding was raised in recent Senate estimates hearings, when Greens Senator Christine Milne pressed Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele on the details of the organisations’ defunding. “Given the Australia Council’s ongoing work developing a strategy for craft, is it not an odd time to be defunding the national craft organisation?” Milne asked.

“The category was assessed on merit,” Keele replied. “It is a very competitive category. Unfortunately, in that group of applications, Craft Australia’s application was not successful. We do not fund based on non-excellence; we fund based on excellence, and they did not meet the board’s need for that.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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