Some thoughts on cultural innovation and cultural policy, via the Victorian election

I’ve been away from the blog for the last little bit, but the break has given me the opportunity to do some sustained reading and thinking about some of the bigger philosophical issues that revolve around the ideas of “new work”, originality and innovation, and what these might tell us about cultural policy and the everyday experience of creating and experiencing art.

Rather than mount an entire academic paper’s worth of argument here, I’m going to take things from the particular and work my way back to the general … which might well be putting the cart before the horse, but should chart a course for you (and me).

Let’ s tart off with a bit of real-world cultural policy: today’s announcement by the Victorian Labor Party that it plans to amalgamate all of Victoria’s “cultural” agencies into a new mega-department called “Creative Victoria”:

“Under Creative Victoria, cultural organisations and industries currently overseen by Arts Victoria and those relating to screen, digital games and design that reside with the Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development will be brought under the one banner.”

Those who’ve studied a bit of the recent history of cultural policy will know this is thoroughly reminiscent of the formation of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport by Tony Blair’s government in 1997 – the administrative move which is generally considered to have started the whole “creative industries” ball rolling.  There is now a pretty deep literature about the DCMS, it’s lofty intentions, actual actions and the sociological and theoretical underpinnings of the move. A few of the best papers have even been covered here in this blog – Phillip Schleshinger’s paper on think-tanks, Justin O’Connor’s literature review, Toby Miller’s anti-creative industries critique, and Nicholas Garnham’s “From Cultural to Creative Industries” paper of 2005.

As Garnham observes in his paper,

… the use of the term “creative industries” … draws its political and ideological power from the prestige and economic importance attached to concepts of innovation, information, information workers and the impact of information and communication technologies drawn from information society theory.

Garnham puts his finger on the critical point: that creative industries policy is a political idea that can be traced to ideas championing the economic value of creative innovation. Richard Florida and Australia’s CCI centre, while they would not see themselves as fellow-travellers, are indeed partly responsible for promoting to policy-makers these ideas.

Innovation is one of the key terms here, because it the mechanism through which this school of thought connects creativity to economic growth. A case in point is Paul Stoneman’s recent book Soft Innovation. A ‘soft innovation’ is roughly an aesthetic innovation that can be fitted into existing neoclassical concepts of ecocnomic innovation, such as the so-called “technological, process and product” (or “TPP”) innovation defined and insitutionalised by bodies such as the OECD. Stoneman is an economist, and his project aims to carve out a meaningful space for aesthetic innovations in the cultural industries (like books, films and games) in the existing economic theory of innovation. (This poses a few problems, because his models are neoclassical ones which assume things like perfect comeptition, rational consumers and markets that always clear … that doesn’t sound much like the music industry in the era of The Pirate Bay to me.)

Another line of research comes from the CCI’s Jason Potts, who sees the creative industries from an evolutionary economic perspective in which the act as a kind of meta-industrial economic cluster that provide transformative innovations to the broader economy … a sort of storm-cell generating constant gales of Schumperterian creative destruction, if you will.

Both Potts and Stoneman are interested in innovation in a specifically economic sense, which is interesting in itself. They are not overtly interested in, for example, the social consequences or preconditions of cultural innovation, and you would be hard-pressed to fit them into any kind of sociological understanding of innovation such as the social production of art or the social reception and consumption of art.

This matters, because by the time these ideas get bowdlerised and compressed into an election promise, cultural policy begins to force ideas of art and culture into a highly reductionist framework. As they are understood by governments, the value of the creative industries then begins to look like large matrices of employment and income data, and probably of a less-nuanced nature than the gold-standard data like that collated by Peter Higgs.

What we could expect in Victoria under this policy, then, is some sort of gradual skew of cultural policy away from ideas of participation and access, and towards economically-validated special pleading for various well-connected organisations and firms within the creative sector, much as Garnham described happened in Britain. Festivals and “flagship” performing arts organisations are probably best-placed to benefit from this skew, because of their media profile and the social capital they enjoy amongst well-connected board members. Paradoxically, independent artists and small collectives might also benefit, perhaps, out of a general realisation that they provide essential seed-beds of start-ups necessary for the generation of “innovation” – understood as bringing a cultural product to market, of course. Community arts organisations and service agencies may not find the new paradigm as easy to manage.

I’m going to sketch out some more ideas about what I think are some of the problems of innovation theory as it is being applied to cultural policy in a future post.

Foremost among them will be the contention that we need to rescue the idea of innovation from the economists, because the creation of new ideas and artworks often occurs outside markets, for anti-rational reasons, and produces harms as well as benefits. Indeed, there is a strong case that can argued in analogy from theories  in science and technology studies that ideas like “innovation” and “new work” are themselves socially constructed and open to contestation, resistance and subversion – one reason perhaps that Rosalind Krauss famously described “the originality of the avant-garde” as a “modernist myth“.

Cultural policy in Victoria

Earlier this year, I was asked by the Arts Industry Council of Victoria to present an overview of the current state of cultural policy in Victoria, in the lead up to the state election. I’ve just tracked down the video of that speech, and here it is below. If you want to see the slideshow, you can link to it here [Victorian cultural policy presentation3].

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
Visual Arts
Hybrid Arts
Community Arts

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.

Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele replies

Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele has responded to my article in Overland. For the record, she does identify some factual errors in my piece which I freely acknowledge and will address in a subsequent post.

Here is the text of her reply:

Kathy Keele,  Australia Council CEO, responds to Ben Eltham’s Overland 199 article

Ben Eltham’s article raises a number of important issues worthy of further debate. I welcome his passion for the vitality of the arts in this country and the need for a dynamic approach to cultural policy.

I agree completely that culture is much bigger than the arts and indeed that the arts are bigger than ‘what the Australia Council funds’. We made this point in our submission to the National Cultural Policy consultation process. How we set the parameters of ‘culture’ so that it yields a policy that’s workable for government is a good topic for discussion.
But there are a number of points in his essay that need to be corrected.

One of Eltham’s key criticisms of the Australia Council is that its view of the arts is antiquated, remaining largely unchanged from the 1970s. As examples, he names arts practices that are not supported by the council’s art form boards – gaming, genre fiction, online writing, and musicals, to name a few.

The problem is that this isn’t true. For a healthy debate to proceed, it’s important to correct these and some other factual inaccuracies.

  • He 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Questioning the amount of funding allocated to these various new art practices is one thing. I worry, however, that his critique is based on an idea that the council doesn’t fund these arts practices at all.

What I want to make clear is that many ‘new’ art practices are currently funded by the Australia Council from within the existing art form boards, through our inter-arts section and, indeed, through programs and initiatives across council. The key criterion, no matter what its form, is that the art is excellent.

I also need to correct the impression left by Eltham that abolition of the Community Cultural Development Board in 2005 demonstrated that the council ‘turned its back on community arts’. He fails to mention that the Community Partnerships Committee, with an upgraded remit to support community arts practice across the nation, was formed the following year. This year Community Partnerships will be allocating approximately $10 million in funding.

Eltham also notes his objections to the funding allocated to the major performing arts companies. It is useful to note that while the Australia Council manages the distribution of this funding, decisions as to which organisations are funded and by how much are set by the six state arts ministers and the federal arts minister.

In spite of these errors and misunderstandings, I do believe Eltham’s piece raises a fundamental question: how do we most effectively fund the ever-changing way that art is created? This question needs to be constantly revisited by those sitting both inside and outside our arts funding agencies.

Kathy Keele
CEO Australia Council for the Arts


Rebutting Christopher Madden: part 1

Recently I had a piece published Overland magazine calling for radical reform, perhaps even abolition, of the Australia Council for the Arts. This week, the Overland website carries a response by cultural policy analyst Christopher Madden.

I think Madden’s rebuttal misguided in several important respects and so today I’m going to unpick his piece item by item … but before I do that I think it’s worth saying that we agree on many things. More than that, I welcome this debate – it’s exactly what I hoped to provoke with the piece. Madden’s response to my article is robust, informed, detailed and well-intentioned. It’s also, I think, quite wrong. Continue reading

Subsidising paid digital content: cultural policy, French style

Ars Technica notes that:

France has decided to try something… novel. The country will attempt to prop up the digital music industry by subsidizing legal music consumption by young people. Under the initiative, citizens between 12 and 25 years old will be able to purchase a “carte musique”—a prepaid card  usable on subscription-based music websites. The card will come with €50 worth of credit, but customers only have to pay €25. The rest will be paid by the French government.

It is interesting to see a national government try a subsidy where out-and-out regulation has failed. But will it work?

The arts policy debate in Australia

As regular readers of this blog will know, Marcus Westbury and I have been gently exploring the policy paradoxes of Australia’s arts funding regime for the better part of 2010.

Now the debate is starting to gather steam. Over at his blog, Marcus has a post summarising the various work we’ve done together to highlight the inequities and inconsistencies in the current Australia Council funding model.

As Marcus writes:

I could respond point by point to every comment and criticism but I think it’s best to let a lot of it pass. I do want to pick up on one thing though. It’s the mentality that it is Orchestras, Opera and Classical music under siege in Australia right now. Frankly, that’s either ignorant, disingenuous or a bare faced lie. As a simple look at the numbers reveals even after years of gently raising these issues opera and orchestras are by far the biggest recipients of Australia Council funds, they get 98% of all music funding, and they receive several times more Australia Council funding than every other artist in every other artform in Australia combined. If the directors of those companies can not respond to the idea that other artists in Australia are being shut out of a system that is stacked absurdly in their favour with a response other than insults, scare campaigns and offensive diatribes their position will become increasingly untenable.

Tomorrow, I’m going to examine the policy record of the Australia Council more carefully, and try to explain why I think it should be abolished in favour of a new federal structure for supporting arts and culture in this country.

The Australia Council’s funding policies: bigger is better

Over at his blog, Marcus Westbury has done some careful analysis of the way the Australia Council slices up its funding pie.

It’s confirmation of a long-running trend towards the preferential funding of large performin arts organisations over … well … everything else:

The Australia Council's 2009-10 funding, by artform category. Large performing arts organisations are favoured over the other artforms supported by the Australia Council. Source: Marcus Westbury, using Australia Council data

As Marcus writes:

As you can see there is still massive discrepancy between the amounts of money that go into the major performing arts and how much goes intoeverything else combined.

My favourite little factoid: Opera Australia last year received more funding from the Australia Council than all the applicants for all 6 of the Australia Council’s major artform boards combined.  Opera Australia alone received $18.3 million. By contrast the Australia Council’s entire competitive funds for literature ($4.2m), music ($3.6m), theatre ($2.5m), dance ($1.8m) visual arts ($4.8m) and inter-arts or cross artform projects ($0.8m) combined totaled just $17.6 million. That’s one opera company receiving more than seven hundred and eighty one separate projects, organisations and individuals competitively funded across all those forms.

And the new media funding that is apparently all the rage if you believe the scare campaigns? Opera Australia’s budget could power the the “inter-arts” office for the next 23 years — there’s a pretty good chance new media will be heritage itself by then. Even if you add in the $386,000 from the positive but spread-rather-thinly “Arts in the digital era strategy” that figure reduces to about 16 years.

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.

The Liberal Party’s arts policy

Well, it’s four days after the Australian election and we still don’t know who will form government.

Over at the ABC’s website, I’ve published my general thoughts about the election wash-up, which I won’t repeat here.

But, given the Liberal Party remains quite likely to form the next Australian government, it might be worth having a look at their arts policy. (I had a look at Labor’s arts policy last week). This post was written in the last week of the campaign, but I didn’t quite get around to posting it.

The Liberal Party of Australia does, finally, have an arts policy. In 2007, it didn’t actually release one, although George Brandis did issue a ringing defence of the Howard Government’s arts policies in a speech to the National Press Club.

The Liberal Party’s arts policy was launched in the last week of the campaign at Jupiters Casino on the Gold Coast by Stephen Ciobo. It’s narrow and targeted at the screen industry and regional arts, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a significant engagement with those areas.

Regional arts organisations have long been the poor cousins of the big-city cultural institutions (which it must be said, got a very good run from the Howard Government), and cater to audiences that are desperately under-served for the kinds of cultural experiences that those who live in inner-city Sydney or Melbourne enjoy. The policy promises $10 million for regional galleries to buy Australian work, plus $3.85 million for the Regional Art Fund, and nearly $10 million for regional touring and exhibitions.

The Screen Producers Association is delighted with the screen announcements, including a $60 million “temporary” production subsidy that will top up existing commercial investment in mid-tier feature films with budgets in the $7-30 million range. That doesn’t sound like big money in Hollywood terms, but it effectively cuts out most Australian indie features, who have budgets in the $1 to $5 million range. Television apparently misses out.

Ciobo claims that the loans “will be recouped by the Commonwealth in line with the industry’s standard recoupment schedule,” but the dismal history of Australian government film investment suggests that most of this money will never return to Treasury coffers. Similarly, Ciobo’s claims that the new production subsidy will create 18 features and 1100 jobs must be taken with a grain of salt – the figures come from the Screen Producers Association itself.

A proposal to extend HECS-style loans to classical musicians is an innovative proposal that will help aspiring instrumentalists to acquire their very expensive trade tools. Again, however, questions must be asked as to why students of mainly classical music institutions get to benefit from such a scheme, while the practitioners of artforms that enjoy far more support in the free market, such as pop and rock, miss out. Much like the screen subsidy, it sounds a bit like picking winners to me.

None of the arts lobbyists have mentioned it, but the real difference between the major parties’ arts policies may well be Australia’s mooted National Broadband Network. As Marcus Westbury and myself have been trying to point out for some time now, the NBN is in fact a significant piece of cultural infrastructure. As readers here will be well aware, cultural content is already one of the most significant aspects of internet traffic, and this is only likely to grow as bandwidth allows Australians to access much faster video streaming, game playing and other forms of cultural expression and interaction. Labor’s NBN is the largest investment in cultural infrastructure ever announced by an Australian government.

All in all, the Liberals have at least got on the scoreboard in arts and cultural policy, even if they trail by some margin the party with the most comprehensive policy in this sphere: The Greens.