Why culture is bigger than the arts: Rebutting Christopher Madden part 2

The main thrust of Christopher Madden’s recent article in response to my criticism of the Australia Council can be summarised by his title, “An arts council by any other name.”

To quote Madden:

Eltham calls for the Australia Council to be ‘abolished’. Yet the agency described in his ‘new model’ – what I will refer to as a ‘culture council’ – looks suspiciously like the Australia Council with a new name and a different focus. The new agency is not described in detail. Is it at arm’s length like the Australia Council? Would it support all of culture, from Facebook to historic places? What powers would it have? How would its ‘radically strengthened and diversified’ peer review processes work? Whatever the details, I would caution that an arts council by any other name would smell as sweet.

Today, an online survey popped into the inbox of my partner Sarah-Jane which, I think, proves exactly why what I’m calling for is not “an arts council by any other name”. It’s a survey of emerging artists who have applied for or been funded by the Australia Council in the past twelve months. Sarah-Jane is a film-maker: a director and producer who has received funding through OzCo’s Story of the Future initiative (an initiative which has since been discontinued). And yet, what are the types of artforms that the survey asks about? Here they are:

A7i. Which types of artistic work have you been practising in over the last 12 months?
If you don’t think these options describe your work, please select the best options and add a comment in the box below.
Please click all that apply
Music
Theatre
Dance
Writing
Visual Arts
Crafts
Hybrid Arts
Community Arts
Other

Notice how there are no film related categories here? That’s because the Australia Council doesn’t fund film-makers – Screen Australia does. Nothing wrong with that.

But what is an issue is the result of that distinction: the fact that OzCo only collects statistics about the things it already funds. We saw exactly the same issue in the Australia Council’s recent research about artists occupations.

You can see the problem here. If OzCo doesn’t fund it, the Australia Council does not consider it an “artform”. The reason for this is not any coherent theory of cultural practice – which is probably just as well, because just exactly what makes jewellery more artistic than cinematography anyway? No, the distinction is all about bureaucratic demarcation.

The result is that things that OzCo doesn’t fund, like game design or film-making, are not part of the Australia Council’s statistics, its evidence base, or its policy advocacy. This alone demonstrates why Madden is wrong: a different council, by another name and with a different ambit of cultural practice, would be a very different organisation, with very different policy imperatives.

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