Two important new research reports from the Australia Council

With the excitement of Australia’s hung Parliament and everything I have been giving cultural policy matters a back seat for my writing on Australian politics itself.

Indeed, the election campaign has also obscured the release of two important research reports from the Australia Council on the state of artists’ incomes and career prospects in Australia.

On August 17th – in other words, during the last week of the election campaign – the Australia Council released the new reports, which it claims “offer a comprehensive picture of the working lives of Australian artists.”

The first, Do You Really Expct to Get Paid? is the latest in the long-running artists’ income survey conducted by eminent Macquarie University cultural economist David Throsby.  This is an important and extremely rich research research project, as it has been running for nearly three decades across five separate surveys.  The latest installment is particularly rewarding, offering fascinating insights and precious hard data on issues like artists’ basic demography, income levels, working hours, employment patterns, professional challenges and use of new technology. It’s a treasure trove of sociological information which I’ll be exploring here in more detail over the next few weeks.

Stuart Cunningham and Peter Higgs’ What’s Your Other Job?: A census analysis of artists’ employment in Australia is a very thorough and interesting dissection of available Australian Census data. But it inadvertantly shows up of one of the biggest policy  problems posed by the Australia Council by the methodological definitions it employs. Presumably at the request of the Australia Council itself, census definitions  used are not those the ABS uses in it Employment in Culture series, but rather a subset of those classifications that deal only with the artforms currently funded by the Australia Council: Chiefly literature, music, visual arts and crafts, theatre and dance, “cross-artform” arts, and design.

The relevant definitions are carefully explicated – but what it is significant is who is missing. If I read the definitions correctly,  whole swathes of the cultural sector are missing. There are no film-makers, no animators, no game designers or developers, no broadcasters or book or magazine publishers, no librarians or archivists, no journalists and no bloggers – nor any of the related professions that might be snobbishly considerd “non-artistic” but in fact are vital to the production and performance of the arts – jobs like sound recorders and producers, festival promoters, museum curators and film and TV producers.

In fact, the film and television sector appears to have been excluded altogether – a strange and arbitrary decision which appears to have more to do with existing policy ambit of the Australia Council than the relevance or cogency of this definition to the broader debate. After all, what is it exactly makes design more “artistic” than cinematography?

None of which is to criticise Cunningham and Higgs’ report, which still has some really interesting things to tell us – data I’m going to explore over the course of the next week or so.


My analysis of the ALP’s arts policy

Today in Crikey, I’ve got an analysis of the arts policies of the major parties in the run-up to the 2010 Australian federal election, which will be held this Saturday.

Or at least I would, if the Liberal Party had released an arts policy. It hasn’t.

Barely a week before the election, the ALP has finally released anarts policy. It won’t frighten the horses.

There’s a grand total of $10 million over five years in new money, plus some reshuffling of funding responsibilities between Peter Garrett’s Department of the Arts and the nominally arms-length funding and policy agency, the Australia Council. Garrett has also pledged to implement the National Cultural Policy that he began taking submissions on this term, complete a contemporary music strategy, and review the progress of film funding under the new body, Screen Australia. Continue reading

Why are orchestras so worried?

From my article on the ABC’s The Drum/Unleashed website today:

… when we talk about cultural policy in this country, the debate is always dominated by one issue: funding for cultural institutions. That’s not because they’re more worthy, more noble or more excellent than all the other things a cultural policy might fund or regulate. It’s because a noisy and well-organised arts lobby has made cultural policy all about funding for a small number of privileged organisations.

And how they scream when someone – anyone – suggests that perhaps we should take a second look at the status quo.

In late July, for instance, prominent composer and opera director Richard Mills let loose a cannonade in The Age, blasting attempts to “to advocate a radical reallocation of government funding” and launching a bizarre assault on the cultural validity of art forms like jewellery and new media arts, which he memorably described as “meretricious, self-serving claptrap.” The article was apparently an excerpt from a piece commissioned by the Australia Council itself, and is due to appear on its website soon.

The tirade was picked up by The Australian a week later, in an article by Rosemary Sorensen which gave Mills’ views a prominent splash in the national daily’s arts pages.

“From where I sit,” says Mills – the composer is also artistic director of West Australian Opera – “these don’t seem to be friendly times for the major performing arts sector and there is, in the industry, a perception of subliminal disapproval of our work emanating from Canberra that is puzzling and frustrating.”

On ABC1 News in Sydney this week, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Richard Tognetti went even further, whipping up a non-issue into a frenzy of fear and loathing. In one of ABC News’ less balanced efforts, viewers were informed – literally while violins played in the background – that “leading orchestras fear for their future because of potential government funding cuts”. There are no cuts announced, of course – but that didn’t stop Tognetti from warning that “one of the orchestras or leading companies might be destroyed.” Wearing his hippest flannelette shirt, Togentti was given just enough rope to say some very silly things indeed… such as “it’s a bit like saying we’ll burn all the books because we’ve all got iPads now.”

The heritage wars heat up

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra plays Mahler in 2007. Source: Victoria Anderson

Well well, who would have thought an essay about cultural policy would generate so much heat?

A book chapter for the Centre for Policy Development by Marcus Westbury and myself has started to gain some serious attention in the high arts in Australia. I’ve already covered Richard Mills’ reaction to it here. But today in The Australian, there is a long article from Rosemary Sorensen about the debate, which includes the first formal response from Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele:

Australia Council chief executive Kathy Keele agrees that the dichotomy is unhelpful. “It’s not either-or,” she says, “it’s about doing it all.”

While she welcomes the debate, Keele does say that Westbury, who has created festival events under the Australia Council’s banner and also helped write one of its arts guides, has not done his homework well enough.

“He’s talking about an Australia Council that does not exist,” she says. “This whole conversation about heritage is not relevant: it’s really that we need more funding for the arts across the board.”

Keele laughs off the idea that an orchestra playing Bach or a theatre company performing Shakespeare is somehow out of date because the composer or the playwright is no longer with us.

“The people going to see it are not dead,” she says.

“Those performances are still about today.”

Of course, regular readers of this blog will know that this is in turn a misrepresentation of Marcus’ arguments, and I humbly suggest Keele should have a careful read of our essay. In it, we don’t actually say that Shakespeare or Bach are “out of date” because they are “no longer with us”, but we do point out the Australia Council’s overwhelming funding bias towards a small number of cultural organisations and a narrow range of cultural expressions.

As we point out in the essay, while there is substantial funding for organisations to perform works by Bach or Shakespeare (including funding for an entire company devoted to Shakespeare), only 2% of Australia Council music funding goes to contemporary music, only 5% of the arts funding in this country is devoted to living artists making new work, and the Australia Council gives five times as much funding to one opera company as it does to its entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board.

The debate is set to continue, so stay tuned.

Why we need to reform the Australia Council

Protests over a government decision to close the The Tote showed cultural policy matters. Photo: The Age / James Boddington

Marcus Westbury has an article in The Age today in which he asks whether the Australia Council has had its day.

We need a real debate about whether the well-intentioned but increasingly archaic central role of the Australia Council has had its day. Formed in the 1970s by the Whitlam government, the ”OzCo” introduced meaningful support for artists and organisations across theatre, dance, visual arts and literature for the first time. But times have moved on – or forward, as some slogans might prefer. The Australia Council’s structure and artistic focus are still hard-wired in an act written for it almost four decades ago. It defines both what culture is and how it should be administered in ways that are hopelessly out of date. As a result the Australia Council is increasingly irrelevant. It has had little meaningful engagement with the digital cultural revolution.

From today, Marcus and I are going to be campaigning for Australia COuncil reform. We’re calling for real and much-needed reform to the way the Australia Council operates, and to its funding responsibilities, and in more general terms, the entire cultural policy paradigm in this country. Specifically, we argue Australia needs a new cultural agency that will fund the new and contemporary cultural expressiosn the Australia Council won’t.

We’ve authored a book chapter for an upcoming Centre for Policy Developement book on the issue, which is up on the CPD website in full here.

Let the debate begin!

A bunch of links: casualised higher education labour, Hollywood movie betting, collapsing business models in TV, whingeing arts administrators, Siva Vaidhyanathan lecture, and more

From around the blogosphere and the web – some links:

1. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Conn argues we need to acknowledge that “full-time tenured and tenure-track jobs in the humanities are endangered by half a dozen trends, most of them long-term.” Heading the list is casualisation, followed by older faculty who refuse to retire, the rise of for-profit higher education and a university system that continues to pump out PhDs.

2. Clay Shirky calls on the guru of complex systems theory, Joseph Tainter, to explain the current predicament of television production as a business model. Bottom-line:

The most watched minute of video made in the last five years shows baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger. (Twice!) That minute has been watched by more people than the viewership of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and the Superbowl combined. (174 million views and counting.)

Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken.

3. The high arts lobby starts to get shirty with the lack of hand-outs from Peter Garrett, as a number of arts administrators whinge to Michaela Boland in The Australian. Notice the parade of usual suspects, including a festival director, a couple of theatre company managers and the CEO of the Australian Council. Because that’s what “the arts” is for journalists like Michaela Boland.

4. Siva Vaidhyanathan is giving a lecture at Vanderbilt University, which be podcast on Thursday. I’ll post something about that this week.

5. Lyn Gardner in the Guardian profiles artist-led communities.

6. By way of Tyler Cowen, a New York Times article about Hollywood’s quest to prevent betting markets. Both the Cantor futures exchange and Veriana Networks would allow investors to buy or sell — or “short” — contracts based on a movie’s box-office receipts, in essence betting on how well a film will do when released in theaters.

When cultural policy is “bullshit”

Former UK culture minster Chris Smith, who freely admitted using dubious cultural statistics in order to argue for more money for his portfolio. Source: The Times.

My friend Jana Perkovic recently alerted me to one of the most bracing recent contributions o the field of cultural policy, by the University of Warwick’s Eleonora Belfiore.

Belfiore researches at the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at Warwick and is a frequent and respected contributor to the field. She’s also more than a little fed up with the spin and window-dressing that passes for “cultural policy” in Britain. Hence, her recent paper in the International Journal of Cultural Policy is entitled “On bullshit in cultural policy practice and research: notes from the British case.”

Belfiore’s central point is that the policy documents of New Labour are deeply misleading, based on a research project that is at best flawed, and at worst yielding data that directly contradicts the claims made for it. “The article aims to show that many of the key actors in the cultural policy debate indeed display the ‘indifference to how things really are’ and the cultivation of vested interests,” she writes.

In some ways, Belfiore’s paper is similar to Andrew Pinnock‘s recent work attacking rent-seeking in cultural policy-making and questioning the incongruity between extant cultural policy and the evidence (or lack thereof)  underlying it.  Her essay draws on US philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit, but then applies his teachings to the contemporary field. As Belfiore observes, “since the very beginning of politicians’ renewed interest for the social impacts of the arts, the question of evidence has been a delicate one.” She also cites a speech by former DCMS Secreatry Chris Smith, in which he freely admits that:

that when I was Secretary of State, going into what always seemed like a battle with the Treasury, I would try and touch the buttons that would work. I would talk about the educational value of what was being done. I would be passionate about artists working in schools. I would refer to the economic value that can be generated from creative and cultural activity. I would count the added numbers who would flock into a free museum. If it helped to get more funds flowing into the arts, the argument was worth deploying.

Belfiore concludes by observing that bullshit is not just the province of politicians. She argues that much research in the field is in fact tainted by the unexamined assumptions of cultural policy researchers about the positive value of th arts and culture: “one of the problems with large portions of research that has so far been carried out into the social impacts of the arts is its being marred by a profound confusion between genuine research and research for the sake of advocacy.”

This is an important essay with wide implications and resonances in the Australian context, especially for much of the Australia Council’s research.

The Australia Council turns its back on contemporary culture … again

The Australia Council has just released a major new piece of audience research. Entitled More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts, it’s a weighty and significant contribution to the field which features statistically significant market research surveys of more than 3,000 ordinary Australians.

Unfortunately, it suffers from some of the typical prejudices and problems of so much Australia Council policy and research.

Most notable is the definition of “the arts.” Perhaps for reasons of funding, or perhaps for political reasons, the research has defined “the arts” in a very narrow sense, essentially confining “the arts” to music, writing, visual arts and performance. Film and television – according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the most popularly consumed form of culture – are ignored, and, astonishingly, so are the digital arts and cultural expressions, like gaming.

It’s hard to believe that after all the debate and criticism of  the Australia Council’s recent history by people like Keith Gallasch, Marcus Westbury and myself, when it comes to the most significant piece of audience research by the agency in a decade, vast swathes of Australia cultural participation are simply ignored. But it’s happened. Again.

Here is the relevant paragraph, on page 13 of the report:

The focus of the study is upon the art forms that are supported by the Australia Council (visual arts and crafts, music, dance, theatre, literature). The definitions were agreed after a thorough consultation within the Australia Council and with key stakeholders.

So there you go: “the arts” are what the Australia Council funds. Unfortunately, this not only leaves out the most important cultural expression of the 20th century (cinema), it also ignores many of the important emerging cultural expressions of the 21st (gaming and digital culture). Sure, there are some cursory reference to “digital/video art” in the visual arts section, but you won’t actually find the words “games” or “gaming” anywhere in the report. Gobsmacking.

Moreover, it seems like a step back from recent well-intentioned efforts by OzCo to address digital culture. After looking at today’s  effort, one has to ask why the Australia Council even bothers with its “Arts Content for the Digital Era” strategy if it’s not going to bother to measure the most important forms of interactive digital culture.

It’s not that this isn’t a highly informative piece of research. Like the last such exercise, the Saatchi research report from the early 2000s, More than bums on seats represents important new data on the state of cultural participation in this country. I”ll be delving into it in more detail this week.

Still, it’s another piece of evidence of the ostrich-headed policy direction of the Australia Council under Kathy Keele. More than bums on seats is rather less than the full picture of cultural participation. What a shame.

Right-wing literary magazine cries foul over Australia Council funding cut

If it wasn’t so deliciously ironic, you’d struggle to believe it. Quadrant, the staunchly conservative little magazine, has had its funding cut by the Australia Council. Who is to blame?  Lefties, of course! As Crikey and the Sydney Morning Herald have variously reported, the journal’s controversial editor Keith Windschuttle has written an outraged letter to subscribers slating home the funding cut to the perfidious progressives on the Literature Board (the drop-quote is from the SMH):

Quadrant’s editor, the historian Keith Windschuttle, a key protagonist in the history wars who denies that the removal of Aboriginal children from their families was racist or deliberate policy, has written to subscribers saying the decision by the council’s literature board was ”patently political”.

”Throughout the 11 years of the Howard government, its appointees never reduced the funding of overtly left-wing publications like MeanjinOverland and Australian Book Review,” Mr Windschuttle says in the letter. He says the entire Australia Council grant is used to pay writers and does not fundQuadrant’s political commentary.

While I agree with Windschuttle that Overland is overtly left-wing, it’s hard to describe Meanjin under current editor Sophie Cunningham in the same terms. As for the generally poker-faced ABR – well, it’s actually difficult to pick up any “overt” political discussion at all in what remains a journal of book reviews. Guy Rundle had great sport with the story yesterday in Crikey (the link is firewalled), pointing out that:

… the even funnier thing about Windschuttle’s letter is that, since the departure of Robert Manne from the editor’s chair, Quadrant has made its economics firmly neoliberal, and come down hard on the whole notion of subsidised culture at all. Here’s Michael O’Connor,Quadrant’s online editor, in a ringing jeremiad (about 65% of which I agree with)on cultural policy and funding:

“Whitlamesque pork-barrelling of the arts obtains the artists’ vote (of minor importance) and their amplified voices (of incalculable benefit). Public money flows to culture, and its associated artists and carpetbaggers, from all levels of government—local councils, state governments and federal governments. Even individual government departments give away money and undermine the workings of a free market.”

Ah, the good old free market – ever the friend of the neo-liberal, except when he’s applying for government grants.

UPDATE: Imre Salusinszky has fired back in today’s Crikey comments. Salusinszky is understadably annoyed at Rundle’s insinuation that his political views contributed to Quadrant’s funding increase while Salusinszky was Chair of the Literature Board, pointing out that in 2008, “all the major literary magazines supported by the Board, not just Quadrant, received a boost to their funding,” and that “the Chair is one of seven members of the Literature Board, and that all decisions are taken on a majority basis.”

Salusinszky ends with this zinger:

I note, in closing, that the goateed little grub finds non-Anglo names hilarious. Is this what it has come to, for the far Left?

The culture wars. They shall not die.

How transparent is the Australia Council’s Annual Report?


Australia COuncil funding by category, 2008-2009. source: 2008-09 Annual Report

Over at Marcus Westbury’s blog, he’s posted a graph breakdown of the Australia Council’s funding by artform category, from the Australia Council’s 2006-07 Annual Report.

I was intending this post to be a detailed breakdown of Australian government cultural and arts funding, drawing on the public sources and drilling down into the detail of the funding to describe the distribution of that funding in various ways. But after glancing at this year’s Australia Council Annual Report, I am going to write instead about the decreasing transparency of that document.

While I mention cultural funding, though, here are some top-line figures. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, cultural funding across all levels of government in Australia exceeds $6 billion (it was $6,311.4 million in 2007-08, to be precise):

The Australian Government contributed $2,358.9m (37.4%) to total cultural funding while the state and territory governments contributed $2,952.2m (46.8%) and local governments provided $1,000.3m (15.8%).

Where does the money go? Mostly to parks and environmental heritage, broadcasting (the ABC and SBS), libraries and museums, in that order:

Environmental heritage was the largest recipient of funds, with funding of over $1.4 billion ($1,466.4m) or 27.6% of total cultural funding from the Australian Government and state and territory governments combined. The other major recipient of Australian and state and territory government funding in 2007-08 was Radio and television services at over $1.3 billion ($1,355.0m) representing 25.5% of Australian and state government cultural funding. Libraries received $1,036.4m or 16.4% of total funding, including $653.4m from local government while Other museums and cultural heritage received $630.4m (10.0%).

Once you drill further down into the figures, it becomes quickly apparent that the majority of cultural funding is channeled through relatively large government cultural departments and agencies, while grants and subsidies to artists and non-profit cultural organisations – the kind of thing most people would recognise as “arts funding” remains a relatively small proportion of total cultural spending by the government sector.

Part of the difficulty with reporting on this area is the aggregated nature of the statistics available. The Australia Council’s annual statement (this year branded with the embarrassingly Orwellian slogan “One Arts Sector: One Arts Council”, which must make the artists and organisations in parts of the sector not supported by the Australia Council feel wonderful) has become noticeably less transparent in recent years, and the Council has also had a less than consistent approach to which statistics it reports.

One glaring omission from the 2008-09 Annual Report is a breakdown of its grant recipients. You can find these breakdowns in earlier reports, and mighty useful they were too. It might seem like a minor point, but the list was in fact a key data source for my 2007 investigation of financial and governance irregularities in the Noise festival. Noise is a major initiative funded by the Australia Council as a national youth media ‘festival’ (even though it is no longer a festival), but which actually involved the payment of large sums of money to the private company of Sydney promoter Brandan Saul. Noise continues to receive funding, by the way, but you have to drill down into the entrails of the report’s financial statements to find reference to it.

The Annual Report has a few other notable omissions and unexplained inconsistencies . Owing to a new system for classifying artform data, there is a new category called “cross-artform” which is presumably the successor to the category which used to be called “multi-artform/other.” Is it the same category, or a different one? We don’t know because the Australia Council doesn’t explain it, or publish the funding breakdowns which would enable us to independently verify it. One of the highlighted projects from the Inter-Arts departmental description in the Annual Report is the commendable Splendid project, which included some real talents of the emerging Australian scene, like Alice Lang and Mish Grigor. Splendid is definitely a “cross-artform” project – but what else is? We don’t know.

Tomorrow, I’ll get around to that special post breaking down Australian cultural funding, and I’ll discuss some interesting factoids that fall out form it, like the fact that support for individual artists at the Australia Council appears to be falling, and that funding to public agencies and cultural organisations dominates cultural funding at nearly every level and category of funding program.

UPDATE: Marcus informs me the grants breakdown is to be forthcoming in a future document.