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Slicing up the pie chart of happiness

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Why do we paint or write poems, bake or bust out our dance moves?

This is a question that Patrick McInytre, incoming CEO of the National Film and Sound Archive, has spent many hours contemplating.

Patrick believes we need to do a better job of articulating the value of arts and culture—and he’s devised a brilliant template, dubbed the “pie chart of happiness”, to help.

It was once “a doodle in a margin” but he recently joined an online Salon Canberra session to reveal all.

Patrick has worked in the Australian arts and cultural sector for more than two decades, most recently as Executive Director of Sydney Theatre Company. He’s held key roles with The Australian Ballet, the Sydney Film Festival, the Sydney Dance Company and the Sydney Opera House Trust. He is truly a coup for Canberra.

Patrick is in a continual discussion with people about the value of culture, “and it can be hard to land on the right language,” he told the online Salon Canberra audience.

Pie Chart of Happiness illustration supplied by Patrick McIntyre.

Words like “improvement” and “better” can alienate some people. “Nourishing” or “enriching” make the arts sound like medicine. But regardless of the words people use, and irrespective of their personal or institutional mission, the value of culture boils down to three words: happiness, togetherness and understanding.

We all appreciate the value of culture—to our personal happiness, to our connection with community and to our sense of understanding of the world around us—because we all engage in some form of culture. It may be painting or praying, bushwalking or baking, but “culture is everything,” Patrick said. “Once we are fed and sheltered, everything beyond that is culture.”

Patrick McInytre.

It’s not always easy to quantify that value. We can’t say with any authority that a certain amount of theatre exposures will make a person happier or that reading novels will decrease absenteeism in the workplace, Patrick observed. But there are some compelling pieces of research that can help us weigh the value of culture.

Joining Patrick for the conversation was Arup’s very talented Senior Arts and Cultural Consultant Chris Mercer. As a production manager, Chris has worked for the National Theatre of Great Britain, the Sydney Theatre Company, the Belvoir Theatre and more. Now he’s helping Arup with strategy, feasibility and design advice.

Chris pointed to the UK’s ‘Arts on Prescription’ program, which was designed to address mental health, and which led to a 37% drop in GP visits and a 39% reduction in hospital admissions.

The creative and cultural economy makes an outsized contribution to our nation, Chris said, generating $111 billion a year—or 6.4% of GDP—and employing close to 600,000 people. “Arts and culture help us stay connected. It tells our stories and it can transform our cities.”

Montreal Government’s investment in the Quartier des Spectacles, the city’s primary arts district, is an inspiring illustration. An initial investment of $200 million catalysed more than 60 mixed-use developments, representing $1.5 billion in construction and $449 million in tax revenue, Chris said.

But the greatest value of arts and culture is its ability to “create social cohesion” by forging new channels for us to understand each other. Through the arts, barriers are breached and bridges built.

We shouldn’t shy away from calculating the economic benefits of culture, but the “extrinsic benefits” shouldn’t be in the driver’s seat, Patrick added. “It’s of more value to the community to see a great play in a clapped-out fibro community hall than it is to have an amazing brand-new theatre with nothing in it.”

As COVID-19 upends the world, we’ve turned to culture to keep us sane during lockdowns, Patrick noted. We have the empirical evidence to prove this.

In 2020, social data analyst Neighbourlytics tracked the increase in local engagement with art and design during lockdowns. In Melbourne, this engagement increased by 42% in Melbourne and by a massive 100% in Sydney. People posted photos of their own art when they couldn’t take a selfie at the latest gallery opening, for instance.

But culture isn’t about survival or utilitarianism. “It’s about pleasure and discovery, and about bringing people together to create functional communities,” Patrick said.

As British musician Brian Eno says: “Art is everything that you don’t have to do… You have to eat, for example, but you don’t have to invent Baked Alaska. We have to move, but we don’t have to do the rumba.”

So, as you slice up your own pie chart of happiness, the question to ask yourself is: What’s my Baked Alaska?

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