Creative participation and representation: Towards equity in Australia’s art sector

Christopher Marcatili

3 November 2021

During a time of increased isolation and disconnection, the arts have proven essential, not only in providing a much welcome distraction through entertainment, but also in growing empathy and bridging social divides. Christopher Marcatili delves into a recent report from the Australia Council for the Arts on equity and representation in Australia’s arts and cultural sector.

The arts and cultural sector has been hit hard by recent lockdowns, but it continues to be an essential and increasingly diverse cornerstone of Australian society. The Australia Council for the Arts—the federally funded arts investment, development and advisory body—recently published Towards Equity: A research overview of diversity in Australia’s arts and cultural sector. This report provides an overview of the state of diversity and equity in the arts sector in Australia in order to improve data collection, better inform future research, and achieve greater representation in the sector. Among other findings, it suggests that people with diverse backgrounds and identities are not proportionately represented in the sector, even though they are more likely to participate in creative activities.

The arts are especially important during times of change and stress. Engagement in the arts has been linked to increased prosocial behaviours and decreased divisiveness and hostility among different people within a social group (see, for example, Konrath & Kisida 2021; Lähdesmäki & Koistinen 2021; Rathje, Hackel, & Zaki 2021). At a time when our cities have been divided and borders have been closed, strengthening the arts sector must be a central focus to rebuilding our communities. Diversity in the arts makes them ‘more relevant, more just, more globally connected and, simply better’ (Australia Council 2020, p. 2).

The Towards Equity report focuses on eight key demographics: First Nations people, people with cultural and linguistic diversity (CALD), people with disability, gender identity, LGBTIQ+ people, regional, rural and remote Australia, children and young people, and older people. Against each of these demographics the report compares the overall population in the Australian workforce with participation in the arts sector, as well as the proportion of Australia Council grant recipients. Missing demographics include socio-economic status, religion, and people with diverse genders, due to either a lack of clear data or small sample sizes.

Some groups are clearly poorly represented in the arts workforce. People with disability made up 18% of the population in 2016, but only 9% of the arts sector workforce and, worse still, only 3% of people in leadership roles identified as living with disability. With other groups, the picture was more complex. First Nations people, for example, made up around 3% of the population in 2016, and they were only 1% of the arts sector workforce. However, they made up 4.2% of artists in Australia and received around 7% of Australia Council grants. At least 12% of those working in leadership roles in the sector identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. Even where representation is essentially equal—there are about as many men as there are women working in the sector—this has not necessarily led to equity. Women who work in the sector earn 25% less than men (the overall gender pay gap is 14%), while women artists earn on average 30% less than men.

Intersectionality further complicates the picture. In the case of First Nations Australians, those with disability were less likely to creatively participate (23%) than those without (31%), and those who lived in remote Australia were more likely to creatively participate (33%) than those in the cities (27%). First Nations women are more likely to creatively participate than men, but for those women living in remote areas creative participation has been decreasing since 2008.

A trend across many of the demographics emerged regarding creative participation. In this report, creative participation includes both professional and casual creative practice—everything from a photography hobbyist or community choir singer to professional dancer or actor. In most cases where data was available, people in the demographic groups were more likely to participate in creative practice than people outside those groups. Of First Nations people, 78% reported creative participation, against 42% of non-First Nations people. Among CALD respondents, 66% participated in creative activities, against 38% of non-CALD people. A similar trend was true for young people, and for people with disability. Women were slightly more likely to participate creatively than men, as were those in remote areas compared to those in metro areas. Older people were the only group less likely to participate in creative activities than other Australians, and there was no data for LGBTQI+ people.

There are many reasons why people may engage in creative practices. Certain cultural groups may, for example, engage in creative practice as part of their cultural participation: 55% of CALD Australians engaged in ‘arts of their own cultural background’, whereas this was only true of 24% of non-CALD Australians. The Australia Council report does not offer any theory or explanation of this trend. It may be the case that some who do not fall into the social mainstream use creative practices as a way of communicating or navigating their experiences. Regardless of the reason, it’s striking that those who come from these demographic groups are more likely to participate in creative practices and yet, in many cases, have not yet achieved proportionate representation in the sector’s workforce, in leadership roles, or as grant recipients.

Another key factor raised in the report is the challenge of working with diverse people in a context where language is frequently contested and changing. Many of the recommendations relating to data collection and use directly address the importance of nuance and sensitivity in terminology, urging future researchers to be ’flexible in response to evolving definitions’ (p. 7). This arose, for instance, in relation to the use of the term First Nations, contestations around the ‘CALD’ acronym, and an increasing awareness of different terms in relation to gender identities and sexualities. Changing language introduces specific challenges for data collection and long-term analysis as it becomes difficult to ensure consistency across collection and reporting. Yet, as the report recommends, it’s necessary to understand and approach research with a ‘discussion of nuance’ that understands how aspects of identity are complex and intersect, and to ensure that the way terminology is used ‘does not reinforce structural inequalities or inhibit our ability to fully understand and change them’ (p. 114).

The Towards Equity report delves into some of the challenges, opportunities, and the current state of play for eight demographic groups in relation to the arts sector. While incomplete, the report provides a tangible example of the importance of collecting data relating to diversity in the arts and cultural sector and provides practical guidance on how to do so. The report offers a complex and nuanced view on each of these demographic groups, including the intersectional nature of identity among participants in the arts sector, and their differing levels of access to the sector as practitioners and professionals. The resilience of the sector is, in large part, due to the capacity of its practitioners being able to work and think creatively and, therefore, to adapt to challenges and work within constraints. But much has to be done to create the equity so necessary to ensure creative practitioners with diverse identities can pursue a career as artists or professionals in the sector. Doing so will not only enrich the arts sector and give voice to new and diverse talent, but also help to build and strengthen connection across the community at a time when we need it most.



Australia Council for the Arts. 2020. Towards Equity: A research overview of diversity in Australia’s arts and cultural sector. Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts.

Konrath, Sara and Brian Kisida. 2021. ‘Does Arts Engagement Increase Empathy and Prosocial Behavior? A Review of the Literature’ Engagement in the City: How Arts and Culture Impact Development in Urban Areas, London: Lexington Books, pp. 7–38.

Lähdesmäki, T. and A.K. Koistinen. 2021. ‘Explorations of Linkages Between Intercultural Dialogue, Art, and Empathy.’ Dialogue for Intercultural Understanding: Placing Cultural Literacy at the Heart of Learning. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, pp. 45–58.

Rathje, Steve, Leor Hackel, and Jamil Zaki. 2021. "Attending live theatre improves empathy, changes attitudes, and leads to pro-social behavior." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 95: 104138.


Christopher Marcatili is the Project Officer for the Freilich Project. Christopher is also a professional editor and writer


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