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Keele laughs off the idea that an orchestra playing Bach or a theatre company performing Shakespeare is somehow out of date because the composer or the playwright is no longer with us.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 In it, we don’t actually say that Shakespeare or Bach are “out of date” because they are “no longer with us”, but we do point out the Australia Council’s overwhelming funding bias towards a small number of cultural organisations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.

Marcus Westbury on why the Australia Council doesn’t get digital culture

Was the Australia Concil’s abolition of the New Media Arts Board the single worst decision by an Australian cultural agency of the last decade? It’s certainly beginning to look that way.


A screenshot from "Escape from Woomera". Speculation persists that the funding of the game by the Australia Council's New Media Arts Board led eventually to that Board's abolition

Cast your mind back to 2004. John Howard is ensconced in power after comprehensively defeating Labor’s self-destructive Mark Latham. The culture wars rage on the op-ed pages of Australian daily newspapers (remember when people still read daily newspapers?). And in the arts, internal political machinations lead to the axing of two of the Australia Council’s most progressive and innovative funding boards: the Community Cultural Development Board and the New Media Arts Board. It all happens late in the year, with a brusque announcement by the CEO of the Australia Council, Jeniffer Bott, that the Australia Council would be “refocussing.”

At the time, Keith Gallasch called it a “devastating failure of nerve.” The CCD sector organised some relatively feeble protests, while OzCo’s power play steamrolled internal opposition. In response to the criticism, an amazingly poorly briefed Bott organised a series of largely symbolic “consultation meetings” which did little to allay fears that any “consulation” was merely window-dressing. Dark rumours circulated in the sector that the abolition of the New Media Arts Board in particular was payback for its funding of the controversial game mod Escape from Woomerra, which implicitly criticised the Howard Government’s highly politicised refugee detention policies.  Artworld insiders like Michael Snelling rallied to Bott’s cause, giving self-serving interviews to arts journalists like myself.

Five years on, what’s the wash up? Bott has moved on, replaced by Kathy Keele, and the Australia Council is playing a desperate game of catch-up with this whole “‘digital culture” thing. But, as we’ll explore in this post, OzCo doesn’t get it. It’s not even close. Continue reading

Artists versus Blight: Newcastle, Australia and Cleveland, Ohio


Marcus Westbury in

Visitors to Newcastle’s Hunter Street Mall in recent weeks have noticed a sudden abundance of new activity. Since February the not-for-profit company Renew Newcastlehas been taking over some of the 150-odd empty shops in the Newcastle CBD and making them available to artists, cultural projects and creative enterprises.


Renovating a shop front, Newcastle. Courtesy of

Renovating a shop front, Newcastle. Courtesy of



We’ve convinced private property owners — from the large and publicly-listed GPT Group down to local small business people with only one empty shop — to lend us their vacant spaces. We take them on a rolling temporary basis, keep them clean, spruce them up and fill them with creative initiatives. In Newcastle we’ve placed 15 projects by artists, craftspeople, artisans, jewellers, architects, designers, and publishers. What were until recently empty shops and eyesores are now full of original, local, creative activity. We have about 10 more projects in progress that will open later this month or early next.

Alexandra Alter in the Wall Street Journal:

Artists have long been leaders of an urban vanguard that colonizes blighted areas. Now, the current housing crisis has created a new class of urban pioneer. Nationwide, home foreclosure proceedings increased 81% in 2008 from the previous year, rising to 2.3 million, according to California-based foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac. Homes in hard-hit cities such as Detroit and Cleveland are selling for as little as $1.

Art City

Greg Ruffing/Redux for The Wall Street Journal – An opening-night event at the Arts Collinwood gallery in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood.

Drawn by available spaces and cheap rents, artists are filling in some of the neighborhoods being emptied by foreclosures. City officials and community groups seeking ways to stop the rash of vacancies are offering them incentives to move in, from low rents and mortgages to creative control over renovation projects.

$1 billion to renovate the Opera House

Both Marcus Westbury and Nick Pickard lead their blogs with strongly critical posts about recent reports that the NSW government is about to commit to spending $1 billion to renovate Joern Utzon’s iconic Sydney Opera House.

As Westbury writes, “this decision is one that is so staggeringly out of touch with the realities of cultural policy at the moment that it is scary.”

As usual, I find myself in agreement with much of what Marcus writes (more of that below). However, I think there is every reason to be far more optimistic about this decision than the initial outrage from the various unfunded parts of the arts community suggests. It may be that this decision will actually materially advance the cultural policy debate in Australia, by motivating the various forgotten voices in the arts community to finally coalesce into a coherent movement for change.

Continue reading

Culture in hard times: Cowen and Westbury

Hannah Arendt once wrote a fine book of essays called Men in Dark Times. As the economic storm clouds gather, we appear to be entering a similarly difficult time (though let us hope it is not as bleak as inter-war Europe). 

Two items of interest in this sphere of thinking:

1) Tyler Cowen’s early February article in the New York Times on the cultural and social effects of recessions:

In today’s recession, we can also expect to turn to less expensive activities — and maybe to keep those habits for years. They may take the form of greater interest in free content on the Internet and the simple pleasures of a daily walk, instead of expensive vacations and N.B.A. box seats.

In any recession, the poor suffer the most pain. But in cultural influence, it may well be the rich who lose the most in the current crisis. This downturn is bringing a larger-than-usual decline in consumption by the wealthy.

The shift has been documented by Jonathan A. Parker and Annette Vissing-Jorgenson, finance professors at Northwestern University, in their recent paper, “Who Bears Aggregate Fluctuations and How? Estimates and Implications for Consumption Inequality.” Of course, people who held much wealth in real estate or stocks have taken heavy losses. But most important, the paper says, the labor incomes of high earners have declined more than in past recessions, as seen in the financial sector.

Popular culture’s catering to the wealthy may also decline in this downturn. We can expect a shift away from the lionizing of fancy restaurants, for example, and toward more use of public libraries. Such changes tend to occur in downturns, but this time they may be especially pronounced.

2) Marcus Westbury on the culture of hard times:

It is probably a good time to remind myself just how much of the culture that i find interesting is the product not of the big budget top end of town but of the unique possibilities of the down side of the economic cycle. It seems obvious to me that in cultural policy – as with almost everything else – changing times call for changing approaches.

Yet the impending new realities have not gained much traction in our cultural debates. Over the last few months, I’ve been travelling up and down the east coast and dealing with arts agencies and organisations at various levels. I’ve been a little surprised at how little recognition there is that cultural policy – like most forms of government policy – can and must adapt and respond to economic conditions.