Australian cultural policy: an essay by me at NewMatilda.com

Over the 2008-09 summer break, my colleagues at NewMatilda.com ran a special series on the state of Australian culture. It’s one of the best short courses you can find online on the Australian cultural sector, including some fascinating pieces by noteworthy writes such as Andrew Frost, Ben Gook, Robert Miller, Jeremy Fisher and Scott Rankin.

At the end of the series, I was able to write a long essay drawing some of the threads together with a particular view on cultural policy.  You can find the essay here: http://newmatilda.com/2009/01/07/your-cultural-policy-has-expired

In this essay, I argue that cultural policy in Australia is about bureaucratic fashion, and history, and tradition — but not evidence. Absurd inconsistencies in who we fund and how we regulate cultural expression are not the exception, but the norm.

So, for instance, we fund large companies of professional musicians to play the musical treasures of the European world — but not of the Islamic, Pacific or Chinese traditions. We spend hundreds of millions a year supporting Australian films, but not Australian games. We have exhibited contemporary graffiti and street art in the hallowed halls of our key public art galleries, while vigorously prosecuting and even jailing graffiti artists. We enforce some of the most stringent and punitive copyright laws in the world, without examining the costs of these special industry protections to consumers, schools, libraries and the public sphere.

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Australia Council Theatre Board triennial funding decisions

Below is an article I wrote for yesterday’s Crikey:

The Australia Council, an organisation in almost constant flux, has again spun the bingo barrel and pulled out a new round of surprises in its funding announcements — this time in the theatre sector. Eleven new companies have been granted triennial funding by the Council’s Theatre Board, while the same number have had their funding axed.

The announcement continues a recent history of wrenching change in the Commonwealth’s arts funding agency. In 2005, then-CEO Jeniffer Bott pushed through an organisation-wide restructure (labelled a “refocussing”) that led to two of the Australia Council’s funding boards being abolished. Out went specific Boards to support new media and digital arts, and community arts. In came some impressive-sounding “community partnerships” and a special department called the “Inter-Arts Agency”.

As respected ANU academic Jennifer Craik has argued in her book Re-Visioning Arts and Cultural Policy the Bott restructure was not really about addressing the major issues facing the Australia Council and its client organisations. Instead, “the restructure was more about bureau politics than policy reform.”

The current upheaval dates back to 2006, when the Australia Council’s Theatre Board announced a sweeping new policy reform called “Make It New”. “Make It New” was a comprehensive look at the Theatre Board’s funding arrangements in an environment where much of the most exciting work was being made by companies who couldn’t get a look in amongst the Board’s established clients. Theatre Board Director John Baylis acknowledged this problem, and sought to reshape the Board’s funding arrangements towards “contemporary performance” and to allow room for new organisations — “artistic explorers” in the Theatre Board’s jargon — to access three-year funding agreements.

Unfortunately, you have to throw out some babies when you change the bathwater. Take Polyglot Puppet Theatre, for instance, which was de-funded despite an apparently successful recent track record. Or Brisbane’s second theatre company, La Boite, which appears to have been punished for some safe programming in recent years. La Boite may or may not be artistically innovative, but it certainly performs a lot of contemporary Australian drama.

The Theatre Board’s John Baylis makes a good point when he argues that space needs to be made for fresh talent to enter the system. But in terms of the Australia Council’s overall operations, which remain dramatically skewed towards the support of the 29 so-called “major” performing arts organisations, there’s more than a little hypocrisy in the “Make It New” crusade. After all, how “contemporary” are the orchestras or opera companies?

The Major Performing Arts Board hasn’t kicked anyone off for decades and only allows new members on “by invitation.” Apparently, that doesn’t matter — the Major Performing Arts Board is a separate fiefdom of the Australia Council, where making it old is still quite acceptable.

Big challenges ahead for the major performing arts companies

The Australia Council has released its latest consultancy about the MPO’s. It’s a slightly shallow report full of catch-phrases from internaionally renowned consultancy AEA Consulting (home of some heavy-hitters in the British sector) entitled “Anticipating Change in the Major Performing Arts.”

It’s certainly good that the MPOs are anticipating change in their future – but I’m not sure how prepared they are. Indeed, some sections of the report reveal that some of the organisations are far from the kind of financial health that the Nugent Inquiry was meant to “secure.”

Interestingly, the report contains a sprinkling of statistics on new works, which may be useful for my thesis. It also confirms, anecdotally at least, the operation of Baumol’s cost disease in this sector of the Australian performing arts.

The fuil report is available here.