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.

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

The legacy and troubles of the Warburg Institute


Pages from Aby Warburg's Mneomysyne Atlas. Source: Mathias Bruhn


In The Burlington Review, Christopher S. Wood has a careful dissection of E. H. Gombrich’s famous 1960 opus Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation.

Gombrich was a prominent member of the Warburg Institute – but is the famous London institute under threat from savage cuts to British higher education funding. Anthony Grafton thinks so.

The value of the Warburg Institute to the study of art and ideas has been a recurring theme in my studies. Works such as Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology and Frances YatesThe Art of Memory have remained touchstones in fields such as art history and form a large part of the intellectual inheritance of currently important fields such as cultural studies.

But apparently the Warburg Institute and its remarkable library face significant funding and administration issues, no doubt as a result of the ongoing crisis of the British public sector and the UK university system. There’s an excellent interview with Grafton from ABC  Radio National here.

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.

Richard Mills tries to defend the heritage arts; fails

I couldn’t let this one go … distinguished composer and WA Opera Director Richard Mills had a wonderful defence of the heritage arts in The Age last week. Sounding like a critic trampled in the riot on the first night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mills thunders on about the new media arts in a tone that would be shocking if it were not so risible:

Some recently emerging mumbles in the national conversation appear to advocate a radical reallocation of government funding to various enterprises seen as exemplifying greater diversity of engagement, relevance (to whom or what is never stated) and, of course, innovation. I suppose I should begin by nailing my colours to the mast through making this confession.
I was a member of the Australia Council for the Arts in the 1990s when the New Media Fund was set up. I opposed it vehemently – and in vain – as it seemed to me just another example of meretricious, self-serving claptrap, which confused content with process, masquerading to the weak-minded as new, with a healthy sense of entitlement to whatever funds might happen to drop from the perch of government.
To educate and enlighten my misguided ways, I was taken to an office in Melbourne by an earnest, believing colleague. This office was the hub of revolutionary “new media” enterprise. I was ushered in and shown, in an atmosphere of hushed reverence, some examples of “new media” which, so far as I could tell, consisted of pictures of yellow flowers changing and moving about a bit on a TV screen.
“Humbug,” I exclaimed, “this belongs to the visual arts” – only to be howled down by the entire clutch of councillors of the day (except, if my memory serves me correctly, Christopher Pearson).
Thankfully, this nonsense, and other things like it, were recognised in their true colours some years later when my esteemed colleague Jonathan Mills (no relation) encouraged the abolition of the New Media Fund with enthusiasm – and final success.

Apart from the important new revelation that we can sheet home some responsibility for the abolition of the New Media Arts Board to Jonathan Mills, the article is an amazingly short-sighted defence. I’ve responded over at Inside Story:

Like the best satire, Mills’s essay skates close to the ridiculous. (When was the last time someone cried “humbug” in a policy discussion?) As spoof, Mills’s essay is a near-masterpiece. As sincere argument, it’s a train wreck. Mills gloats over the destruction of the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board in 2004, as though it were some victory in the culture wars. He advances factually wrong statements – for instance, that grassroots music depends on musicians trained by symphony orchestras for the supply of expert teachers. He makes frankly embarrassing comments about jewellery and computer programming. More generally, in his rage against the dying of a light, he reveals himself to be as reactionary and ill-informed about other artforms as he is proficient in his own.

Mills’s essay is destined to become an important source document for those studying the current shape of Australian cultural policy. Sadly, one of Australia’s finest living composers has shown himself to possess a narrow critical mind. But Mills has also done us a favour, because he has been honest enough to reveal a widespread attitude among influential decision-makers in the Australian arts: the attitude that some forms of art, particularly their own, are more meritorious than others.

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!

Well-funded art museums cry poor, again

Christopher Menz has taken his bat and ball and gone home. So why should we care? Source: Fairfax.

The news that the Art Gallery of South Australia’s director, Christopher Menz, has declined a contract extension because the South Australian government has not increased the gallery’s funding has brought predictable squeals of outrage from the champions of the entitlement culture at Australia’s large cultural institutions.

Now art critic John McDonald has weighed in with a mendacious opinion piece in the Fairfax newspapers in which he claims that Menz’ dummy spit “represents one of the few occasions a senior figure in an Australian public art museum has shown the courage of their convictions.”

Was Menz asking for an outrageous sum of money? He wanted only another million. Over the past two years, even allowing for its slender budgets, the gallery has initiated important shows such as The Golden Journey, Hans Heysen, and Misty Moderns. There could be no questioning the quality of the staff’s work and commitment.

Well, there are obvious questions about at least one staff member’s commitment. The director has effectively resigned.

But what really annoys me about these kinds of articles is the utter detachment they show from the on-the-ground conditions in which actual working Australian artists ply their trade. Recall that the average Australian visual artist can’t even earn a wage above the poverty line from his or her art. Meanwhile, art galleries spend millions on acquiring thhe masterpieces of dead foreign artists.  “Only another million” writes McDonald, without realising that this is by no means a trivial sum in terms of funding for individual visual artists.

Actually, the South Australian government injected more than $2 million in recent years to pay for renovations, but McDonald doesn’t let that get in the way of his spray,  dismissing it as merely about “air conditioning” – which I would have thought was a rather significant investment in a city where summer temperatures regularly get into the 40s.

I’m sorry, but McDonald and Menz are nothing but whingers. Let’s examine the facts. Menz enjoyed a healthy salary to run a major cultural institution with a budget that would comfortably exceed all but a handful of Australian arts organisations. If this wasn’t commensurate with his talents and abilities, he is free to take his bat and ball and go home. But let’s not mourn his departure. The board of the AGSA should immediately get on with the business of appointing a young and dynamic director who can take the institution forward. For his part, McDonald should stop whinging.

Jane Rankin-Reid, in a devastating quote I have often cited, had this to say on the issue way back in 2002:

“It is time Australian visual arts bureaucrats faced the fact that although they are professionally dependent on artists for their raison d’etre, the guy in the paint-splattered suit may never enjoy quite as high a standard of living as an arts management desk jockey. Ideally, artists are here to promote these and other truths, but the politesse of the Australian arts funding system often muffles these dangerous voices in our society.”

Lyndon Terracini on “why our art’s in the wrong place”


Lyndon Terracini (source: Opera Australia website).

The former Director of the Brisbane Festival and incoming Artistic Director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, has orchestrated a well-publicised spray at Australia’s major performing arts sector in today’s Australian.

In an article by Michaela Boland, Terracini previews a speech today to the Australian Business Arts Foundation, which will dovetail with a forthcoming publication with Currency House:

Lyndon Terracini, the former artistic director of the Brisbane Festival, has arrived at the opera company with a bold vision to make it more accessible and more representative of the community. He believes storytelling in Australia has become predictable and conservative, and is concerned it lacks creative inspiration.

Even productions acclaimed as visionary, such as Benedict Andrews’s epic War of the Roses and the plays of Barrie Kosky, fall short of his expectations.

“I don’t think they have the element of daring that Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll had,” Terracini told The Australian on the eve of his speech.

Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, staged at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 1955, was the first mainstage Australian production, and signalled the end of British domination of the Australian theatre. Such a landmark effort is difficult to replicate.

“The work we are doing now is much more professional, even sophisticated, but where is our core ethos?” Terracini said.

“What has happened to the boldness and cavalier daring of our performing aesthetic? We’ve become comfortable, the art we’re making is very comfortable and we’ve become mean-spirited.”

In a speech in Melbourne hosted by arts publisher Currency House and the Australia Business Arts Foundation, which will be repeated in Sydney next week, Terracini will accuse contemporary artists of lacking courage in their work. He intends to pour scorn on the major performing arts companies for selecting performers from a limited ethnic pool.

“How many indigenous faces do you see in the SSO, MSO, Brisbane’s orchestras or the ACO? We’re not seeing them, and we should ask why,” he said.

Terracini intends to rectify the racial sameness that is obvious at Opera Australia.

“Opera companies have remained the same since their inception and the world has changed dramatically,” he said. “Yet 200 years ago the role of an opera company was very different to now. Opera used to be what the movies are now. People for all sorts of reasons may have had a prejudice about coming to opera, but once they come you can bet they will adore it,” he said.

Oh really? I’m not sure  if the stats would back that assertion up.  Continue reading