What is a Cultural Asset?

by Professor Ross Gibson, Sydney College of the Arts:

In every community that manages to sustain or revive itself over time, there are cultural factors that contribute to the vitality and robustness of the people living there. These factors are shared and creative, which is to say they are cultural and they are assets that make life valuable, that make life worth living. These cultural assets can be material, immaterial, emotional, or even spiritual. They can be 'solid' things like concert halls, galleries, gardens, parklands and stadiums. They can be special tracts of the natural environment which encourage particular types of cultural activities. Or the climate itself might be a cultural asset if it encourages special kinds of creative and communal activities that bind people together in a place over time. Stories too might be cultural assets if they are attached to particular peoples and places if they are powerful enough to encourage people to care about and care for their place. In these stories, values can circulate, and special memories often reside in particular locations mentioned in the tales. Thus the places mentioned in the stories can be regarded as cultural assets if people tell of these places and visit them regularly and develop regular practices or rituals or ceremonies to care for them.

There are numerous ways to define the cultural assets that are at the heart of the CAMRA project. As we work with each particular region, we will take a pragmatic approach, looking to identify the assets, issues and potentialities in each community. As we work with the specific details of every region we will keep in mind the more general history of ideas about cultural value that we can now bring to the research. This general history might be quickly summarised as follows:

In an early phase of research on the economic dimensions of culture and creativity, authors identified the emergence and significance of 'cultural industries' such as music, film and visual arts (e.g. Hirsch 1972; Landry and Bianchini 1995), and the manner in which these enabled the transformation of creative expressions into viable industries through the production of certain kinds of commodities (recorded albums, films, artworks and designs) and catalysed economic activity through live performances, exhibitions, events and displays. Subsequent analyses refined definitions of the 'cultural industries' and measured their size, impact and regional variation (Driver and Gillespie 1993; Pratt 1997; Gibson et al 2002; Hesmondhalgh 2002; Roodhouse and Taylor 2000). A closely related conceptualisation was of the 'cultural economy', a new form of economic activity centred on symbolic content. Scott (2000: 2) explained it as a product of how 'capitalism itself is moving into a phase in which the cultural forms and meanings of its outputs are becoming critical if not dominating elements of productive strategy' and how 'human culture as a whole is increasingly subject to commodification » supplied through profit-making institutions in decentralized markets'.


While the literature on 'cultural industries' was usually more concerned with specific industries, their sizes, employment and export potential, geographical distribution and internal industrial structure (e.g. Pratt 1997; Hesmondhalgh 1998; Banks et al 2000), literature on the 'cultural economy' engaged at a more theoretical level with the relationship between 'the economic' and 'the cultural' (e.g. du Gay and Pryke 2002; Barnes 2005).
More recently, the phrase 'creative industries' (and related concepts such as 'creative class', 'creative clusters' and 'creative cities') has encompassed many of the activities documented in 'cultural industries' research, embracing a broader notion of the role of innovation and creativity in all forms of economic development (Cunningham 2001). Catalytic here was the work of Florida (2002) in defining the relationships connecting workers in the creative industries to the migration of the 'creative class' to changes in regional economic performance. Arts activities and specific sectors such as film and music that were central to 'cultural industries' analysis have remained important, but have been subsumed within a wider interpretation of the contributions of innovation and creativity to regional development. In recent years, the phrase 'creative industries' has been widely adopted by researchers (e.g. Yusuf and Nabeshima 2005) and by policy-makers and urban planners (see for example, Auckland City Council 2002; DCITA and NOIE 2002; Hong Kong Trade Development Council 2002; and Singapore ERC Report 2004; for critique, see Kong et al 2006).
Irrespective of differences in definition and scope, these approaches have consistently shown that cultural activities and assets - including those of specific sectors such as visual arts, music and film - are increasingly significant to local communities, to the economic performance of cities, and to the export potential of nations (Scott 2000). Such activities can propel the knowledge-based economy and the shift from manufacturing and the rural economy to the services sector more generally. Estimates vary, but certainly the creative and cultural industries account for somewhere between four and eight percent of the national GDP of Australia (Gibson et al 2002) and up to 25 percent of the workforce of cities like Sydney (Florida 2004).

The CAMRA project seeks to identify these activities and assets in a carefully chosen set of regions in non-metropolitan Australia.  By defining assets in each region we can then begin to measure their value from a number of different perspectives, ranging from the hard numbers of economics through to the deeply felt emotions that are often contained and re-enacted in stories, songs and rituals. As we develop an textured understanding of all these different ways of identifying cultural assets and generating and measuring their values, we will also develop better abilities to sustain these assets and to plan for their future deployment in maintaining or reviving the vitality of the several different regions under investigation.


To see the references in this text, and many more, please visit our Extended Bibliography . . .