The Australia Council’s recent Arts and Creative Industries report

The following article appeared in Crikey on February 4th. There’s been quite a bit of debate over at Crikey in the comments pages of this article, so head on over to see the discussion.

The plan to provoke a profound shake-up to the arts

In a week where so much has happened in the world, it’s not surprising a report from the Australia Council has not made the news. But in the rarefied atmosphere of arts policy, the release of a report entitled Arts and creative industries will make waves — the document, if followed to its logical conclusions, implies a profound shake-up to the current status quo. 

Authored by a team of QUT academics led by Professor Justin O’Connor, Arts and creative industries is a long, detailed and rigorous examination of the context, shape and setting of arts and cultural policy in Australia. It’s not quite the Henry Tax Review, but it’s certainly the most academically informed piece of research to be released by the Australia Council in a long time.

Beginning with a historical overview of 19th century culture and the genesis of “cultural policy” in postwar Britain, the report then examines each of the issues that has bedeviled the arts debate: the role of public subsidy, the growth of the industries that produce popular culture, the divide between high art and low art, and the emergence of the so-called “creative industries” in the 1990s. It’s as good a summary of the current state of play as you’re likely to find anywhere, including in the international academic literature.

O’Connor and his co-writers conclude that “the creative industries need not be —  indeed should not be — counter posed to cultural policy; they are a development of it” and that economic objectives (in other words, industry policy) should be a legitimate aim of cultural policy.

Taken as a whole, the argument has big implications for the way Australia currently pursues the regulation and funding of culture. For instance, it argues that “the ‘free market’ simply does not describe the tendencies of monopoly, agglomeration, cartels, restrictive practices, exploitation and unfair competition which mark the cultural industries” and that this in turn justifies greater regulation of cultural industries like the media. That’s a conclusion that few in the Productivity Commission or Treasury — let alone Kerry Stokes or James Packer — are likely to agree with.

The report also argues the divide between the high arts and popular culture has now largely disappeared, and that therefore “it is increasingly difficult for arts agencies to concern themselves only with direct subsidy and only with the non-commercial”. This is an argument which directly challenges the entire basis of the Australia Council’s funding model, in which opera and orchestral music receives 98% of the council’s music funding pie. No wonder the Australia Council’s CEO, Kathy Keele, writes in the foreword: “This study proposes to challenge many of our current conceptions, definitions, and even policies.”

Intriguingly, the report stops short of any concrete policy recommendations. Perhaps this is because some existed, but were excised from the report. Or perhaps it’s because any recommendations that genuinely flowed from this report would imply the break-up or radical overhaul of the Australia Council itself.

As Marcus Westbury this week observed in The Age: ”While the Australia Council isn’t backward in promoting research, reports and good news stories that validate the status quo, there is not much precedent for it challenging it.”

That’s because the real guardian of the current funding model is not the Australia Council, but the small coterie of large performing arts companies and high-status impresarios that are its greatest beneficiaries. It won’t be long before a coalition of high arts types, from Richard Tognetti to Richard Mills, start clamouring to defend their privilege.

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