Michael Volkerling

Institute for Culture and Society, NSW

Michael VolkerlingMichael Volkerling is Principal Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney. He was previously Director of Research and Evaluation at Arts NSW. Prior to this he held positions as Director of the Centre for Creative Industries at Wellington Institute of Technology; Director of the Leisure and Heritage Studies Programme at Victoria University; Executive Director of the New Zealand National Art Gallery and Museum and Director of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand. He is a member of the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Cultural Policy and The Asia-Pacific Journal of Arts and Cultural Management. He also serves on the Scientific Committee of the International Conference on Cultural Policy Research.

Cultural Policy Research and the ‘Known Unknowns’

In 2009, Arts NSW decided to establish an in-house policy research and evaluation unit. Among the reasons for this decision were an increasing emphasis on evidence-based policy within the government sector and the desire to strengthen thought leadership in an organisation which had recently undergone a comprehensive program review and fundamental structural reform. The establishment of this unit extended the scope for cultural enquiry in a context which is comparatively well resourced in terms of base data and regularly compiled statistics.

A primary task in the unit’s establishment phase was to make sense of this data for purposes of policy and evaluation. Arguably, facing the implications of these facts was vitiated to some extent by siting this research activity within a government cultural agency. ‘Interpretation by policy agencies is subject to ministerial sensitivities and transparency issues, and is limited to the agencies’ own specific strategic priorities’ (Madden, 2010(a): npn).

Developing a research agenda in these circumstances is both challenging and instructive. On the one hand, there is a need to document the ‘known knowns’ – what the agency is doing and the impact of these programs. At the same time, the availability of rich data sources hints at a range of ‘known unknowns’ – cultural activities and developments which have been documented, but which are beyond the scope of existing policy settings. As these two aggregations of cultural activities, goods and services were brought into sharper focus through the research and evaluation effort, a number of issues were revealed which are significant to wider constituencies than those in the immediate Australian context. To appreciate the sources of this significance and understand these issues this paper locates the origin of the policy models which underly the ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ paradigms and measures their scope and significance.

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