2026 Census: Making sure artists are counted

Last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the first of its 2021 Census releases and although employment and occupations data won’t be released until October, we still won’t be any closer to understanding how Australian artists live and work.

Why? Because census taking is notoriously indifferent to the projects and practices that fuel our passions – even though that work is far more meaningful to our lives and relevant to policy makers than our day-to-day jobs.

What does the census ask for?

A census is an exhaustive survey: whereas surveys aim to reach a statistically significant sample of a given population as a basis for understanding the whole, a census aims to reach the entire population.

Australia’s quinquennial Census of Population and Housing asks questions about our homes, families, jobs, culture and religion. Participation is compulsory and penalties are provided for in the event of refusal or false or misleading answers.

Probably for the sake of brevity, the census only asks for our “main job”, their “main duties” and the “main goods produced or main services provided by the employer’s business”.

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Despite the rise of the gig and the creator economy, which the ABC has identified as one of the five most impactful trends for the next decade, the census offers no way to record how many Australians maintain a creative practice – or how many nationally and internationally acclaimed Australian artists can only achieve this recognition by occupying this ‘main job’.

So how do we know how many artists there are and how they make a living?

The definitive research into how Australian artists live and work is being conducted by Professor David Throsby of Macquarie University and his team. Commissioned by the Australian Council since the 1980s, the sixth and final report is Making Art Work: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia (2017) by Throsby and Katya Petetskaya.

Make a work of art estimate that ‘[t]There are 48,000 working professional artists in Australia – a number that has remained relatively stable since the 1990s – and whose average earnings have remained largely unchanged over this period.

To estimate the number of artists, Make a work of art takes an approach consistent with the team’s previous research projects, but with some changes to account for census shortcomings. In the past, the team has undertaken surveys in cooperation with “arts service organizations, arts companies, directories, unions, professional associations and similar organisations”, which were then cross-checked with the census. This time, the project began with “an open-ended question asking artists how they identified their main job in the 2016 census.” (The report details its research methodology in Chapter 2: The Artist Population.)

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This approach allowed researchers to circumvent the limitations of the census, including:

  • The focus on this “main job” during Census week overlooks the inconsistent ways in which artists make a living, as well as the “day job” that many artists take on to support their practice.
  • The lack of distinction between professional and amateur artists.
  • A lack of clarity about what “artist” means when we identify our “main work”.
  • Problems in how ABS occupational categories understand and capture creative professions – in particular, researchers point out, dancers and ceramists are unknowingly caught up in category definition issues.
  • The unavailability of some census data at the time of writing the report, meaning that its conclusions are based on 2011 and not the more recent 2016 census.
  • Additionally, the ABS acknowledges that there is “a severe undercount” of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, despite recording a 25% increase in population.

While Throsby’s team can draw on many, many sources for their research, the team analyzing the census results only has what we can tell them in response to the questions they ask us.

What can we do to improve the census?

Next year, the ABS will consult on the types of questions they should ask in the 2026 census. This is an important opportunity to help Australian statisticians, demographers and policymakers better understand who we are and how we are working.

The census could improve its understanding of artists and creators through questions that:

  • Find out what work – whether paid or unpaid – is secondary to the “main” work of the past week.
  • Ask if last week’s work is typical of the year’s work – a useful way to identify gig economy workers across industries.
  • Distinguish between a career and work this week – a great opportunity to gain valuable insight for education and training policy, also relevant far beyond the arts.

More immediately, however, we have the opportunity to contribute to the National Cultural Policy consultation, for which the Australian Council helpfully released its scoping submission last week. More information on this process soon.

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