Economics with impact

Pioneering an economics of culture and the performing arts

Distinguished Professor David Throsby is not only internationally renowned as an expert on the economics of culture and the arts, he embodies his area of expertise. An economic theorist of international standing, he is also a highly regarded playwright with a number of artistic works to his name. 

Professor Throsby came from an artistic background. His mother was a professional musician; his sister, Margaret Throsby, became a well-known ABC broadcaster. Although Professor Throsby’s academic career took him in a different direction – he studied agriculture at the University of Sydney before completing a PhD in economics at the London School of Economics – he remained interested in how economic theory applied in the arts world. 

“When I first came to Macquarie, I worked in agricultural economics originally but later my research focused on the economic problems of the arts,” he says. 

“From 1975, I was a consultant to a government inquiry on the finances of the performing arts together with a colleague from the Australian National University (ANU). When I started working in this field there were hardly any economists who were interested and it was seen as relatively marginal. Now, it’s grown into a big field.” 

During his work for the government inquiry, Professor Throsby had one of his plays performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London. For a playwright, it was an outstanding achievement. It was also a defining moment: Professor Throsby had to decide whether to give up his academic career and pursue writing full-time. He chose to continue his academic work, and pursue writing in parallel, drawing on his experiences as an artist to give his research even greater impact politically and academically. 

“As a playwright, I was more aware of the way artists think. I understood the problems they encounter. By the late 1980s, there were a lot of people pushing for change – arts policy was on the agenda for artists and politicians,” he says. 

“I was beating the drum saying, ‘We must have better arts policies.’ I was a member of the Arts Action group chaired by former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. We were very active in pushing the arts at that time.” 

Alongside his advocacy work, Professor Throsby was actively pursuing his research, examining the role of culture in economic development; the economic situation of individual artists; and the economics of the creative industries. In 1979, he co-authored a defining text, The Economics of the Performing Arts, with Glenn Withers who is now Professor of Economics at the ANU. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, Professor Throsby was also instrumental in devising economic models for non-profit theatres and other non-profit organisations. He designed economic frameworks for individual artists, writers and composers to support them in making a sustainable living; he also developed new models for the measurement of the economic value of heritage and culture. 

In the 2000s, Professor Throsby continued to provide academic leadership as the co-editor of two other key publications, the Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture Vol. 1 (2006) and Beyond Price: Value in Culture, Economics and the Arts (2008). He also wrote another defining text, The Economics of Cultural Policy, published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. 

In 2001, Professor Throsby authored another significant work, Economics and Culture. Published by Cambridge University Press, the book has since been translated into seven languages and is regarded as a leading reference work in the field. Both books continue to have a significant impact on the application of economic theory in an arts context. 

“In Economics and Culture I set out to change the perception that economics is one thing and culture is something completely different,” explains Professor Throsby. “I tried to build bridges between the two, and show that there are lots of economic problems in the arts amenable to the tools of economic analysis and economic theory.” 

“When you think about it, it is obvious because artists and arts organisations have to survive financially. They cannot ignore there is a financial dimension and a larger economic dimension to what they do. These are the issues that arise when you look at the economics of the arts.” 

Throughout his career, Professor Throsby has continued to advise governments both nationally and internationally. He has been engaged as a consultant by the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Union and UNESCO. He served on the expert committee that designed the UN Convention on Cultural Diversity and has helped to shape policy in European Union member states regarding cultural economics and cultural capital. His work has also had a significant impact in the Asia-Pacific region. 

A Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia since 1987, Professor Throsby has also served as Chair on a number of boards governing arts and culture. He was elected a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Cultural Economics International in 2008, and was appointed an Officer in the Order of Australia on Australia Day 2014. 

Currently, Professor Throsby is focusing his research on the publishing industry and its economic sustainability given the impact of new technology. His work at Macquarie – examining the future of books – is supported by a major grant from the Australian Research Council. Now, in his fourth decade at the university, he continues to value the academic freedom and opportunity that the university offers. 

“A privilege of being an academic is that you can choose what you want to concentrate on – for me it’s been an area that is very central to my personal life and it’s been terrific to combine that with an academic pursuit that’s had international impact,” he says. 

“I’ve had opportunities to go elsewhere but one of the reasons I’ve stayed here is that I’m able to get on with my work and be a scholar. Macquarie has given me the opportunity to shape and influence the disciplinary field of the economics of art and culture.”

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