In Australia, the local government cultural sector of arts, libraries and heritage is made up of over 560 local governments servicing residential populations ranging from a few hundred to over a million. Such diversity within Australian local governments offers a large laboratory of ideas and innovation, with different councils finding new solutions to challenges within their local communities through cultural development activities. While the diversity of cultural, social, economic and environmental factors makes it hard to conceive of local government cultural development as a ‘sector’, all art and cultural activity delivered by councils, carry similar intentions and challenges. It was therefore conceivable that councils carrying out this work could recognise themselves as part of a national sector. This was at the heart of conceiving the National Local Government Cultural Forum (Cultural Forum) in 2012. The Cultural Forum gathered together cultural policy and practice managers from across the Australian jurisdictions, recognizing the diversity and the common challenges and goals among them. This was the first time capital cities managers had come together to meet each other, and the first time policy and practice in this field had come together nationally. The opportunity to bring a representative collection of local government policy makers, researchers and practice managers together created a valuable clearinghouse for the research and the development of new planning and evaluation frameworks and tools that could support evidence-informed practice.
At the time of the Cultural Forum’s establishment, the local government investment in culture and heritage was $1.2 billion or 18% of the total national investment by all governments (ABS, 2012). At the completion of the Cultural Forum in 2018, this investment was $1.7 billion or more than 27% of the total national investment by all governments, and still growing (ABS, 2018). The estimated base of cultural infrastructure was valued at around $7.5 billion. Despite this growth of expenditure on culture and heritage, the figure does not provide information of the impact of local government’s contribution to cultural life in Australia. Understanding the impact of the sector’s work therefore became a key objective of the Cultural Forum.
Through CDN’s research and a series of trials over the six years of the Cultural Forum, the first national collection of inputs (resources in) and outputs (activities out) was completed in 2018 through a sample of councils across the different council types in Australia. Led by the eight Australian capital cities (including the ACT), this small sample provided the first look at the scope of what that investment produced in terms of cultural activities and community participation.