In response to Kathy Keele

Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele has formally responded to my article in Overland about the future of Australia’s art funding body. In this post, I continue the dialogue.

Firstly, I should acknowledge Keele’s engagement in the debate, and I welcome the fact she has taken the opportunity to respond.

Secondly, there are some specific points Keele raises which I should address. These relate to my imprecise phrasing in certain sections of the Overland article. Basically, where I’ve said the Australia Council “doesn’t fund” certain artforms, I should have written “the Australia Council contributes tiny or negligible funding”. You can see what I mean below. Keele’s points first, then my response:

  • [Eltham] states that the council ‘funds opera but not musicals (except when opera companies mount musicals)’. This is incorrect. The music and theatre boards have an initiative called Music Theatre which supports the development of musicals.

This is true in the narrow sense, but in the broader sense my point holds. The Australia Council does fund a Music Theatre Initiative, but at a risible level. The Initiative distributes a tiny proportion of funding compared to that devoted to opera. In 2009, the Music Theatre Initiative gave out $288,000 to 9 projects. Opera Australia received $17.9 million and Opera Queensland received another $318,000. Hence, music theatre totalled less than 1.6% of opera funding. In fact, the extra money Opera Australia received to produce Bliss nearly totalled what the Music Theatre Initiative distributed!

  • He argues for the artistic importance of gaming, and asks ‘why doesn’t the Australia Council support gaming?’ It does. The council has over many years funded artists who create game art works and explore game culture as an artistic practice.

The Australia Council’s support for game art and game culture is tiny. There is no game art board, in the way there are Theatre, Music, Dance or Major Performing Arts Boards. The Council has over many years funded all sorts of things with very small amounts, but that doesn’t change the big picture, which is that the Australia Council overwhelmingly funds a very narrow palette of artforms and practices – gaming is not one of them.

  • He states that the council supports ‘serious novels, generally, but not genre fiction or online writing’. Not true. The Literature Board has funded genre novels, interactive media writing, websites, iPhone apps and graphic novels through our New Work and Write in Your Face grants programs. The board recently completed a three-year initiative called the Story of the Future and published the Writer’s Guide to Making a Digital Living.

Again, this is true in the narrow sense, and these intiatives are important. Unfortunately, they are also comparatively minor. Indeed, Keele’s response only reinforces my point – Story of the Future, for instance, the Literature Board’s most substantive effort to support these practices, has finished and has not been renewed. The Write In Your Face initiative, while worthy, distributes tiny grants of only $5000 to a lucky few applicants. Go through the New Work Assessment Meeting Reports and you will see mainly literary writers working in traditional forms sch as novels or literary non-fiction.

In fact, the Literature Board itself recognises that it is not really addressing digital literacy and writing in its Sector Plan. One of the goals of the Sector Plan is “Targeted support for multimedia writers by the end of 2011” –  suggesting that not only is there a need for such support, but that the Literature Board does not currently meet that need.

  • Eltham states that the council ‘funds companies that only produce a few works a year but not festivals that produce hundreds’. In fact, each year the council funds dozens of works that are presented at festivals all over the country. We also fund the Major Festivals Initiative which commissions new Australian work for presentation at the seven capital city festivals.

Again, while it is true that Australia Council funds works that appear at festivals, it is stretching the truth to argue that the Australia Council provides much meaningful funding to the festival sector. Key festivals like the Melbourne Fringe and Adelaide Fringe receive nothing from the Australia Council, despite their key role in presenting small-to-medium work. The Major Festivals Initiative, at $3 million over four years, is a tiny fraction of the funding given to Opera Australia or the orchestras, and largely funds major performing arts board organisations anyway.

Where does the money go? We know where the majority goes: to the big companies in the Major Performing Arts Board.


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