A proposal for a new Australian arts organisation to support writers

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The Sydney Symphony Orchestra employs around 97 musicians on a full-time basis. Above we can see the 2015 cohort, according to the SSO’s 2015 Annual Report. In addition to chief conductor David Robertson and several concert masters, there are around two score string players, two dozen brass and woodwind players, and a percussion section. The SSO obviously also pays guest artists such as sopranos and pianists.

In other words, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is a very important provider of salaried jobs for artists. This is an economic difficulty for the orchestra, because musicians’ wages are a significant cost. But it is a wonderful outcome for the musicians employed, who have steady jobs with salaries paid every fortnight, plus superannuation, sick leave and all the other normal conditions of full-time employment.

There is no comparable organisation that pays writers in this way in Australia. Why not?

The answer, as so often in these discussions, is essentially that it has ever been thus. Like most artists, writers have traditionally been paid as fee-for-service contractors, providing a literary work in return for a fee. For a novel, this is an advance, around $5,000 or less in the current conditions of the Australian publishing industry. For an article online, this is a one-off fee. The going rate is around $100 to $150 an article. Unless they are journalists writing for news publications, writers are almost never formally employed under the definitions of Australian employment law. They therefore are not paid superannuation, and receive no sick leave or other entitlements. Some small streams of copyright royalties do accrue, but these are negligible for the majority. Most writers are simply ABN-holding small businesses. Exposed to ruthless market forces as small traders, they have little pricing power and small recourse to enforce payment on publishers who decide not to pay.

In this, writers are no different to many other artists. In contemporary music, business models are also flexible and precarious. There are essentially no salaried jobs for musicians playing in rock bands or DJing clubs. Instead, musicians are a precariat, paid by the gig, often in cash, with no expectation of ongoing employment. The entire labour market in advanced economies appears to be heading this way. It is no coincidence that one of the synonyms for the precarious new economy of Uber and Fiverr and zero-hours contracts is the “gig economy”, a term explicitly taken from the contemporary music scene.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The labour market conditions for writers (just as the conditions for doctors, politicians and CEOs) are not simply fixed by the natural law of supply and demand. They are the result of conscious decisions made by policymakers and powerful industry figures.

Other models are available. As the example of the symphony orchestra shows, it is possible to imagine a cultural organisation that pays writers appropriately. Australia maintains a number of publicly-funded symphony orchestras that do pay artists. While many Australians may decry arts funding, and some artists are justifiably critical of the current distribution of that funding, I have never heard anyone complain about artists being paid appropriately, except those who decry the very notion of culture itself.

A new organisation that pays writers

It is possible to imagine an organisation that pays Australian writers in an analogous way to a symphony orchestra.

With appropriate resourcing, an organisation could advertise for a series of full-time fellowships for writers at a reasonable wage. Writers could be selected by a panel of respected peers and then employed on 3-year contracts, with superannuation, sick leave and all the rest. In return, we would expect them to write. At the end of their contracts, a progress report would be submitted.

You could take the analogy further. Why shouldn’t the funding organisation provide non-monetary resources, like working space, library access and perhaps even a small budget for things like travel and research? Tools of the trade could be acquired, like laptops and audio recorders for interviews. A disused space in a cheap suburb could be transformed into a hub for literary production.

There is no a priori reason why such an organisation could not be created. Yes, it needs money. But Australia is a very rich country. There are philanthropists, government funding bodies and ordinary citizens who support such organisations in other artforms. Why not literature?

Indeed, on current funding distributions, there is a compelling case to support something like this. Story-telling is at the heart of what makes us human. Narrative is a core aspect of nearly all forms of culture. Reading is the second-most popular form of cultural consumption in Australia, after screen entertainment. But literature receives just 2.7% of Australia Council grant funding. Symphony orchestras receive 32%.

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Above: Australia Council funding distribution by artform, 2015-16.

The need for such an organisation is demonstrably great. Before winning the Man Booker, Richard Flanagan considered working in the mining sector. Before she won the Stella and Prime Minister’s Prizes, Charlotte Wood told me in an interview she could not make a living from her fiction. But most writers never win a prize. According to economist David Throsby, the average literary income for writers in 2007-08 was just $11,100, and the median literary income was just $3,600. Both figures were the lowest for all the artforms in Throsby’s survey.

What would it cost?

A modest beginning would see 20 writers funded for 3 year fellowships at a living wage with entitlements. I have calculated this using ABS data for the average annual full-time wage in the arts and recreation services industries. In November 2016 this figure was $42,026. Including super, this equates to a total package of $46,018 a year. It would hardly be luxury. But you might pay the rent.

Paying 20 writers this amount costs around $920,000 a year, or rather less than the marketing budget of many large performing arts organisations (Opera Australia’s marketing budget was $10.7m in 2015). Even if we assume that an office must be kept and a part-time administrator and book keeper must be paid, plus some ancillary costs, it seems reasonable to assume the whole thing could be done for not much more than $1 million a year. Paying 20 writers for 3 years would come out to a bit more than $3 million.

The model has the advantage of being highly scalable. As more funding becomes available, more fellowships could be offered.

By way of comparison, in 2015, the federal government took $6 million over three years from the Australia Council for the purposes of setting up a new body for the literature sector in the form of a Books Council. The government changed its mind, however, pulling the funding before the Council even formed. The money disappeared from the Australia Council’s budget — just another of the many insults and injuries inflicted on the agency by the Coalition since 2013. In other words, there is certainly federal funding available, and there is a strong case for the government to return funding expressly promised to the literature sector.

Who would fund it?

As argued above, there is a strong case for federal funding from the taxpayer. But this project is small, scalable and easily fundable through philanthropic means. Once up and running, it could well attract considerable support in the form of micro-philanthropy and crowd-funding. It is certainly feasible that paid subscriptions or memberships could be issued. A series of talks and workshops could also generate own-source income, although these have their own costs and should be carefully constrained so as not to overtake the primary purpose of the organisation.

The obvious needs to be spelt out: this is not a for-profit business model, and should never be confused for one. The goal of the organisation should be to pay writers, not to reach some mythical state of “sustainability”.

How it would work

We are basically talking about setting up a small-to-medium arts organisation to pay writers living wages. There is a strong sector of such cultural organisations in Australia already, delivering impressive returns on government investment in the form of cultural production and audience reach.

A lean organisation would consist of a board of eminent authors, editors and publishers, with the requisite directors enjoying business, legal and accounting experience. A fully fledged staff is probably not necessary to begin with, and the company could get by with a project officer to administer day-to-day activities, with appropriate part-time help in the form of book keeping, back office, a website and so on. Small arts organisations are incredibly lean beasts, and can be run very efficiently. As the organisation grows, it could eventually hire a skeleton staff to leverage the organisation’s reach, such as a development manager, marketer, and extra project officers as necessary.

Fellowships would be advertised for nationally; there would be considerable interest. The majority of fellowships should go to mid-career and established writers, but some should be reserved for young and emerging writers. Diversity should be a key criterion, with specific targets such as gender parity and appropriate representation of minorities. There should be a mix of fiction, non-fiction, writing for the stage, and poetry. Applications should be short and the process should be simple and transparent.

Successful applicants would be asked to focus on long and ambitious projects that a period of stable employment could support. This doesn’t need to be a big book: it could, for instance, take the form of a series of essays, a number of poetry collections, or the sustained pursuit of short-form criticism.

Fellowships should be acquitted quite simply: in short reports penned annually, with a longer report submitted on completion. Publication outcomes, international markets reached, and prizes won would soon demonstrate impressive results for the metrically minded.

Why do it?

To reiterate, the idea is to pay a number of writers a stable wage. Unlike the lotteries of literary prizes, grants or advances, fellowships offer stable income. Writers would be paid fortnightly for three years. They would be able to pay the rent, buy food, and to save for a mortgage or for old age.

Proponents of culture tend to assume that art is a simple and unadulterated social good, and that more of it is better. You need not believe that to support this proposal. You need only ask whether a mature and diverse democracy would benefit from the ongoing employment of professional story-tellers. In a world that grows ever more complex, the need for sensitive interpretation of the interior lives of our fellow citizens has never been greater.

The extrinsic benefits to Australia of fostering such understanding will be very large. The mere fact that such an organisation exists will also engender huge goodwill. The knowledge that important writers are being supported will quickly give tens of thousands of Australian readers immense pleasure and pride.

But the real reason to do it is simpler even than that. Literature is a good in and of itself. The telling of stories is a fundamental human need. As I argued in my book last year, culture is central to who we are as modern Australians. Supporting it is good for our democracy and our society, because literature enriches not merely separate individuals, but the common good.

I wrote a book


It is remiss of me not to mention it here, but last month I published a book. Available now from various Australian bookstores, my first monograph is entitled When the Goal Posts Move: Patronage, power and resistance in Australian cultural policy 2013-2016. It is published by Currency House as part of their long-running Platform Papers series.

The book is a short history of Australian cultural policy in the years 2013-2016, encompassing the end of the Rudd-Gillard Labor government and the first term of the Abbott-Turnbull Coalition government.

This was a tumultuous period in Australian cultural policy. Significant austerity was imposed on federal arts and cultural funding. Around $400 million was cut from the budget of the ABC, and around $300 million from the budgets of federal cultural agencies like Screen Australia the Australia Council for the Arts.

Most controversially, at least for the purposes of readers here, the federal government under former arts minister George Brandis, launched an audacious funding raid on the Australia Council in 2015. $105 million was subtracted from the Australia Council and given to a new cultural slush fund, revealingly entitled the National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

Brandis’ funding raid was about more than just moving the budget line around: it was nothing less than an assault on the institution of the Australia Council itself, and with it a four-decade tradition of arms-length funding decided by artistic peers. The politics were just as blatant: Brandis wanted to punish what he saw as undeserving (and politically suspect) art funded by the Australia Council, and redistribute the money to a palette of works and artforms that he liked: classical Western music and opera, by and large.

The pain of the Excellence raid fell squarely on the parts of Australian culture that many consider to be the most creative and innovative: the so-called “small-to-medium” sector of smaller arts companies, and the great bulk of individual artists and small collectives applying to the Australia Council’s grant programs. In a decision of remarkable cynicism, Brandis specifically ruled that the Australia Council must protect the funding of the 28 so-called “major performing arts” companies that make up the bulk of the Australia Council’s budget, thus making it inevitable that the funding cuts would fall on smaller players.

The Excellence raid revealed major schisms within Australian culture. The Australia Council and its board were shown to be impotent, even supine, in the face of the calculated political assault. Major cultural institutions that many thought would defend their colleagues were conspicuously silent; Opera Australia even welcomed the decision. The Australia Council’s board, which features media celebrities and well-known former artistic directors, said nothing.

The raid sparked national protests from artists and led to a Senate Inquiry, which took 2,700 submissions and issued a scathing report on the government’s actions. It also spurred a remarkable grass-roots protest movement from affected artists and small companies — one that proved surprisingly politically effective — called Free the Arts.

Why was the Australia Council so vulnerable? And what is the future for Australian cultural policy? This paper explores the broader socio-political environment that allowed a conservative government to launch the most damaging attack on the integrity of the Australia Council for forty years. It argues that Australian artists and so-called “cultural leaders” have largely lost or forgotten the vocabulary of public value that might be used to defend the public policy of culture here, a development not unlike that which has occurred in other parts of the public sphere, like universities and public science agencies.

The essay ends with a call to arms to rediscover the ethical and moral imperative of culture making, and the opportunity of convincing fellow citizens of that imperative.

Philip Schlesinger on the “creative industries orthodoxy”

This blog is a long-time fan of the University of Glasgow’s Philip Schlesinger, so it was with great interest that we stumbled across his 2015 lecture to the London School of Economics on that most controversial of cultural ideas, the “creative industries”.

I’ve embedded the video of it below but I’ll make a couple of quick points here:

  1. Schlesinger’s analysis is not new (there have been plenty of descriptions of the way the idea of the “creative industries” has infiltrated many aspects of cultural policy making from the last 1990s onwards)
  2. But it is an excellent summary of the development of the idea and the current state of play. (No doubt critics of this kind of analysis like Terry Flew might beg to differ).
  3. Make sure you watch to the end, because you get a bonus discussion from Angela McRobbie.


Back up and running


Well, it’s been quite some time, but I’ve decided to get the Cultural Policy Blog back up and running.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been heavily occupied in a series of shorter- and longer-form projects, including a book and way too much time on Twitter.

But it’s time to get the band back together. I was particularly inspired by the high quality of cultural policy scholarship still being published in the academic and popular journals, and by the continuing example of awesome bogs like Crooked Timber.

So, here goes. I’m sure there aren’t too many regular readers left, but I’m hoping that with some diligence over coming months, I can again contribute to a vibrant international conversation about cultural policy.

– Ben

The “three faces of time” in arts participation

Andries van den Broek has a really cool new paper in Cultural Trends this year. It’s entitled “Arts participation and the three faces of time: A reflection on disentangling the impact of life stage, period and socialization on arts participation, exemplified by an analysis of the US arts audience

It’s a really neat way of thinking about the temporal aspects of culture, and completely original as far as I know (though van der Broek points out that analysis of generational cohorts goes back to Comte).

Here’s a taste of his argument:

This is the history of the arts participation of a fictitious character, Pete. At the end of 2013, he’ll be 50 years of age, which implies he was born in 1963. He is not particularly keen on visual arts or theatre, though he visits the odd exhibition and performance. He is more into rock concerts, but also attends the occasional classical music concert and art house movie.

How come his cultural repertoire is like that? Is this typical of his being 50? (Do other people at the same life-stage typically display a pattern like that?) Or, is this typical of 2013? (Does it reflect what is the cultural offer that year?) Or, is it typical of someone who grew up in the 1970s? (Does it relate to a taste pattern acquired in that era?) It’s probably the case that Pete’s cultural repertoire is affected by all three (and, of course, by many other factors too). But, which aspect of Pete’s cultural repertoire can be attributed to the fact that he is 50; which aspect relates to it being 2013, and which aspect to his having grown up in the 1970s?

van der Broek goes on to do some stats on the effects of these three frames, using US data from the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. This allows him to tease out the differences between, say, the formative cultural experiences of generational cohorts from, say, the effects of their life-cycle in determining their participation patterns. Overall, he finds that people are not participating in as much culture as they used to, and that the composition of artforms does change.

And what is that change? One of the main ones is that fewer people are interested in classical music. Younger generations are not replacing the cohorts of classical lovers that are slowly dying.

Most importantly, though, van der Broek finds that arts participation (at least as measured by the NEA) is declining in the US. “All in all, the upshot is that the future of arts participation is not threatened by the cultural behaviour of recent (or future) as compared to earlier cohorts, but by a general decline in arts participation irrespective of cohort (and of age).”

In summary, a really interesting paper and one that I expect I will be returning to.

Back in business

I’m pleased to announce that A Cultural Policy Blog will be returning to regular posts in 2013. 


It’s been a long hiatus while I prepared and submitted my PhD, but now that’s done, I plan to resume regular posts this year. As well as my weekly column on the Australian cultural industries for Crikey, I’ll be focussing on keeping abreast of recent papers in the field, particularly in relevant academic journals like the IJCP, Cultural Trends and the rest. 

All posts here will also be cross-posted to my personal website over at beneltham.be

Time for a break

I’m taking a couple of months or so off this blog in order to complete my PhD thesis. I’ll be popping up from time to time with a short post or link here or there, but until I finish my thesis I won’t be blogging in earnest. I promise I’ll be back in early July some time with a bunch of new posts!

Until then, you can continue to read my arts column in Crikey every Friday and my regular twice-weekly column about Australian politics in New Matilda.

Moebius on his art, fading eyesight and legend: ‘I am like a unicorn’

A fine article in the Los Angeles Times surveys the life and work of this ground-breaking artist:

"La Chasse au Major" by Moebius. Image: Los Angeles Times.

The name on his passport is Jean Giraud and he was born in May 1938 (just one month beforeSuperman arrived in a small rocket from another planet in the pages of “Action Comics” No. 1)  and he has long been regarded as the most important cartoonist of his country. That phrase, however, falls wildly short of capturing the essence of his career and breadth of his influence through comics, book covers, paintings and movie work.  As filmmaker Ridley Scott said last year of the Moebius influence on contemporary sci-fi film: “You see it everywhere, it runs through so much you can’t get away from it.” Perhaps, but the artist is still caught off guard by the breathless reception he gets these days.  In late November, Giraud made a relatively rare visit to the U.S. to speak at the Creative Talent Network Animation Expo and again and again he was approached by fans and younger professionals who gushed.

Read the rest.

What’s new in the International Journal of Cultural Policy: the creativity issue

It’s the only international journal of cultural policy, so it’s not surprising I cover it here regularly.

Even so, the most recent issue is a cracker – dealing with one of the hottest (and least understood) topics in cultural research: creativity.

Unfortunately, readers who don’t have access to institutional subscriptions will be unlikely to read it. So I’ve saved and made available Chris Bilton’s introduction to the issue below. As Bilton notes:

… the purpose ofthis special issue is to revisit the definition and implication of creativity in culturalpolicy, focusing on three considerations.

First, creativity is an essentially paradoxical process. Since 1997, when the UKgovernment endorsed ‘creativity’ as a central aspect of cultural policy, creativity hasindeed been associated with an individualistic, spontaneous and ungovernable freespirit – closely allied to Romantic theories of art and to the myth of individual creativegenius. This western theory of individual creativity has been exported to other countries with very different intellectual and cultural traditions, such as China. However, the consensus in scientific and academic studies of creativity has shifted definitions of creativity from an individual trait to a collective social process. Since the 1990s most of the literature on creativity has been concerned with sociocultural context, systems theories, networks and organisations – not with creative individuals. It is the combination of these two apparently contradictory aspects – individual personality and social process – which can cast fresh light on cultural policy. Seen from this perspective, ‘creativity’ becomes a touchstone through which we can interpret contradictions in policy. As Jonothan Neelands and Boyun Choe indicate, these contradictions are especially revealing in the UK, where the rhetoric of creativity in cultural policy first took flight. They can also expose flaws and contradictions in organisations as in Philip Schlesinger’s account of the BBC, or in general theories of management. And the tension between individual freedom and socialstructure is especially pertinent to discussions of creative labour.

The second consideration for this special issue is that the paradoxical, contradictorynature of creativity extends into contingent legal, social and economic aspects ofcultural policy. The tension between individual and collective forms of creativity areespecially pertinent to questions of copyright, where legal definitions of intellectual property reflect western theories of originality and individual authorship, in marked contrast both to eastern traditions and also to the expansion in open source, Web 2.0technologies and user-generated (or user-distributed) content (Kawashima). Individualand social forms of creativity also challenge approaches to education, and mightlead us towards an alternative model of cultural policy based on ‘social creativity’ (Wilson).

Finally, creativity in cultural policy further extends the disciplinary base ofcultural policy studies. Whilst cultural studies and sociology have already broadenedour understanding of this field, psychological theories of creativity have tended to lieoutside current cultural policy debates. Robert Weisberg has been writing criticallyabout the ‘myth of genius’ since the 1980s, but his work is little known in cultural policy studies. Legal definitions of authorship and copyright also bring a fresh perspective to cultural policy studies – as Nobuko Kawashima indicates, much is to be gained by looking at copyright from a cultural policy perspective rather than as a purely technical, legal issue. And management perspectives on creativity and innovation, whilst often considered to be alien or even antithetical to cultural policy, can address policy questions from an unexpected angle. Erich Poettschacher approaches creative organisations from the pragmatic perspective of a business consultant, yetimplicitly opens up alternative methods and policies for intervening in the creative economy.


Cultural blogging in Australia

Yesterday, I participated in a fascinating full-day “unconference” at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas on the topic of cultural bloggers and online criticism.

As the Wheeler Centre’s website notes:

Unconferencers set the agenda on the day of the event so it kicked off with a discussion of the “amateur” status of bloggers. This was inspired in part by Alison Croggon’s article “The Return of the Amateur Critic” asking why bloggers are often thought of as amateurs. This led into a discussion of money and how bloggers can monetise their places on the web.

Games writer Paul Callaghan led a discussion of how criticism could be applied to video games, including concepts such as establishing what makes a “good” game and how appropriate it is to create a canon of games or get non-gamers to review games because they bring ideas from film or arts criticism. Reference was made to New Yorker article by Nicholson Baker in which he looks through the eyes of a gamer and non-gamer.

Angela Meyer led the discussion on Twitter and how it can be employed as a critical tool. She’s had some success getting followers to write reviews and then retweeting them.

Croggon’s recent piece for the ABC is worth drawing your attention to. For those of you who don’t know her work, Croggon is one of Australia’s most widely-respected (and yes, even feared) online theatre critics. In her piece, she observes that those forecasting he death of Criticism, Literature and The Humanities As We Know them are profoundly mistaken:

I’ve been a keen netizen and observer since the mid-90s, and I figure that, as with the Bible, everything you might say about the internet is true. Yes, it is a bewildering sea awash with trash, populated by subterranean creatures with the social graces and charm of Darth Vader’s TIE fighters. Yes, it represents late capitalism at its most pornographically decadent. Yes, its crassness and illiteracy can surpass belief.

And yes, the internet is where I can find some of the most dynamic and intelligent commentary on art and society. This is especially true of discussion about theatre, which as a sub-section of Showbiz has always been poorly attended in Australia’s daily press. As a nexus for various arts – music, performance, visual art, literature, digital design and so on – theatre is an outward-looking culture. Unlike literature, its public is always present in the flesh. These immediacies mean that some of the most stimulating and profound thinking about art, culture, literature and society I’ve been reading in recent years is going on in the theatre blogs.

Interested readers should also check out blogs such as those of Richard Watts,  Angela Meyer and Paul Callaghan.

UPDATE: Noises Off, The Guardian’s theatre blog, weighs in.