Australia is blessed with an abundance of talented and enthusiastic young writers, video artists, performers, media makers, musicians, designers, publishers, painters, sculptors, poets, cartoonists, animators, dancers, photographers, illustrators, creators, curators and catalysts. A small number of them work within our well-funded arts institutions. The majority do not. Most operate and create in ways and at scales that are very different from the ones that our arts agencies were designed for.
I’ve spent much of the last decade in roles that involve collaborating with and advising artists and creators who are operating in a diverse, complex and rapidly evolving cultural landscape. In numerous conversations with street-level practitioners, the recurring theme is that the cultural funding and policy making system is broken. Australia’s bewildering array of government agencies and organisations that promote and support our culture are creatures of history and closed to possibility. They are formed to service the needs of large, fixed organisations and not the contemporary demands or desires of artists or audiences. They reflect the logic of bureaucracy rather than that of artists. They can and do fund vital work but are as often irrelevant or even counter productive when it comes to the task of enabling cultural production in Australia. I’ve sat on committees and advisory panels of the Australia Council, the nation’s largest arts funding and advisory body; I’ve worked for and with our public broadcasters; I’ve worked for the now defunct Australian Film Commission; and with arts agencies in almost every state and territory. But despite having worked for, advised, and operated within many parts of the system I still struggle to understand the complexities, contradictions and cultures of Australia's cultural agencies.
Responsibility for Australia’s arts, media and cultural priorities is diffused through dozens of other agencies, councils, departments, initiatives, strategies, schemes, corporations and associations. They are all full of passionate and knowledgeable people endeavouring to do good work. Yet collectively they are dysfunctional. Each operates with limited resources, governed by an internal logic rather than a larger strategy. Each is accountable to a self-defined sector or a narrow set of priorities and pressure groups. Despite several decades of the most profound cultural and technological changes, the structures and strategies of our cultural agencies have remained largely unchanged and unchallenged since the 1970s. So, while the artists and creators whose work I value embrace rapidly evolving modes of production, distribution and collaboration across disciplines, the agencies designed to nurture them remain paralysingly fixed.
Australia’s cultural agencies were largely devised when the number of places in which cultural production and distribution took place was small and relatively fixed. While they have evolved at the margins at their core they are still rooted to the idea that a small number of elite artists produce and present large-scale culture based on a classical European model. The Australia Council spends as much on opera and orchestras as on all other forms of cultural production combined, the public broadcasters struggle to redefine themselves in an era of user-generated content and Screen Australia seems to be supporting fewer, larger, more experienced creators to the exclusion of small-budget but innovative film-makers.
At the national level, most cultural funding goes to symphony orchestras, main stage theatre companies and a handful of key organisations across a variety of art forms. Much state-based funding goes to major cultural institutions—a major gallery or galleries, performing arts centres, libraries, museums and a collection of their shrunken regional and suburban equivalents. Cultural production that does not fit this model is largely unfunded and - more importantly - struggles to register in policy debates.
Yet the dominant trend of our era is that culture is diversifying and moving away from this model. The globalisation and digitalisation of culture challenges traditional hierarchies of creation, curation and criticism. The boundaries between producers and consumers, professionals and amateurs are becoming increasingly blurred. Local audiences now have access to vast reservoirs of images, music, words, ideas and inspiration from around the world. Australian creators no longer face the tyranny of distance but growing competition for attention and accessible international mass and niche audiences. Most Australian creators now make work that finds its audience without passing through any of the infrastructure offered by our cultural agencies.
Our funding bodies are designed for the mass scale and based on the idea that culture comes from a relatively small number of large places. It costs more to administer small amounts than to provide them. Amounts of only a few thousand dollars can make a great difference to an individual or a small team of creators and yet have become impractical if not impossible to administer. Applications are often based on annual deadlines, take months to process, are labour intensive and expensive to acquit. They come with complex obligations that cover everything from logo sign-off, complicated operational policy requirements and creeping political requirements to ensure that governments are not embarrassed. Australia’s funding agencies are divided between, or internally organised around, archaic art-form definitions. True innovation often takes place outside and between categories and happens quickly while funding bodies respond slowly. Notions of excellence are often fixed while the expectations of audiences and creators evolve rapidly. The idea of ‘professionalism’ becomes increasingly problematic when the majority of traditional artists still work a day job and a sudden abundance of pro-am creators and curators up-ends traditional notions of hierarchies and career paths.
Australia’s arts and cultural agencies are reluctant to engage. They remain focused on the domains that they already control and the communities that they already service. They occasionally - faddishly - grasp at passing trends with targeted initiatives but regard them as peripheral to their core responsibilities. It is an approach characterised by the assumption that the culture itself does not change and that it is merely the tone and marketing of existing programs that need updating.
Australia has not had a cultural policy or anything particularly resembling one since Creative Nation at the end of Keating years. During the Howard years, even those who felt passionately as I do that the nation’s arts and cultural agencies were adrift largely opted to keep their heads down, for of fear of drawing any attention from a government perceived as hostile to state support for the arts. Even under the Rudd government, this journal is reliant for its existence upon several of the funding bodies mentioned.
Any debate about the nature and role of arts agencies has long been an extension and at times a parody of the wider culture wars. Opponents of arts funding have portrayed it as an extension of inner-city leftism. They delight in finding the absurd, pretentious and overtly elitist examples of everything that is wrong with ‘grant fed’ art and artists. The conservative columnist Andrew Bolt, for example, has taken particular delight in finding small grants for seemingly ridiculous outcomes and highlighting them—while never being challenged on his love for the far more heavily state-subsidised orchestras and opera companies. Those who defend flawed models of state subsidy and the agencies through which they are delivered often do so on principle. They treat policy questions as a microcosm of some larger principle that has to be defended. This tendency can be seen whenever the arts community rallies as it did recently around the Australian National Academy of Music. Lost between the two poles is any serious debate about the nature and role of arts and cultural support in the 21st century.
Serious debate about the nature and role of arts and cultural support in the twenty-first century is also difficult because it is about much more than mere dollars or organisational models: a cultural policy debate is fundamentally about the heart and soul of Australia. It is a subset of industry policy, a call to greater imaginations, and an articulation of how our diverse people, our complex history, our isolated but changing cultural geography and our tools and technology combine to make Australia unique.
Our culture is a prism through which we see and illuminate so much of the rest of our society. It is a refraction of personal identity and nationalism, of tradition and possibility, of export industries and much more than mere markets. Debating it—or even acknowledging it—brings us into uncomfortable proximity to issues of class and elitism, notions of identity, access and excellence of the type that few but the most ideologically certain of us are ever entirely comfortable with.
Cultural policy – perhaps more so than any other form of policy – defies simple copying or modelling from elsewhere in the world. From the Keynsian origins of Australian arts funding after the Second World War, to the recent move in many states towards ‘creative industries’ approaches inspired by the UK, Australia has long looked abroad for models and approaches. While there is much to take from international reference points, Australia’s culture is unique. If there is any place on earth or any parallel universe where the role of the state in enabling, sponsoring, subsidising and supporting culture and creativity has been reconciled then it is uselessly unlike here.
Yet for all the difficulty of the task it is vital and overdue. If the slate were wiped clean tomorrow, would we set cultural priorities or build cultural agencies that even vaguely resemble those that we continue to take for granted? A combination of inertia, self preservation, self referentially, and the odd bit of benign political neglect mean Australia has evolved a system where absurdities, inequities, incongruities and inconsistencies are rarely questioned. We spend far more money reproducing European music than creating Australian music. The Australia Council spends as much on a single opera company than it does on over 400 separate organisations across music, dance, literature and media arts. Across the cultural ecology some parts of the landscape are immaculately manicured and lovingly tended or aggressively fertilised. Others lie fallow, some run feral and others are systematically ignored.
From the point of view of creators the system of arts funding in Australia can be diabolically confusing. A graphic novelist—neither an artist nor a writer—is shunted from board to board and agency to agency. A musician who is internationally renowned within a genre can fall into the gap between the grant-funded and the commercial, yet her needs may be less about funding than the poker-machine and regulation-driven reduction of places to play. A growing and renowned Australian community at the conjunction of art and design produce great innovation and experimentation yet exist outside the traditional boundaries of the visual arts. Grassroots community projects whose dynamism and lack of bureaucratic structures are their great strength discover they are ineligible for or unable to manage burdens of financial support. Writers find their body of work fails to meet strict genre requirements or has been built up through publications in online and niche publications that fall outside the acceptable prerequisites. The most obvious example is in burgeoning world of video. A video-maker could fall within the domain of film and television funding agencies such as Screen Australia (as a film or television maker), arts agencies such as the Australia Council (as a visual artist or perhaps under the impenetrably named ‘inter arts agency’) or their state-based equivalents. She may find an outlet for her work at the public broadcasters such as ABC or SBS or through any number agencies and entities. Yet the proliferation of professional-quality cameras and editing suites means that the new majority of successful video-makers are neither professional film and television makers, self identified as visual artists, nor making work suited to the limited formats of the public broadcasters. In such an environment it is far more likely to be their skill in dealing with bureaucracy than creative talent that determines whether they are funded or given a policy voice.
Exploring the online community of video-makers quickly reveals everything from indigenous dancers, video game reviewers, animators, dramatists, diarists and hobbyists—many of whom have audiences measured in the millions. There is no one place to find them or organisation to represent them. Yet in many cases their audience can easily exceed that of many visual art galleries, events or cinemas. Collectively their audience surpasses that of the majority of programs produced for Australian television. In interviewing such people for the Not Quite Art ABC TV series I was aware that the television audience would be far smaller than those they had already reached.
It is easy to argue that such people do not need funding. It is probably a reason for their relative vitality that they do not. But that does not mean that they are without needs or that we can simply pretend that they do not exist. The viability of such a video culture is the product of policy settings across the whole of government. Copyright law, compliance costs, internet filtering, censorship regimes, tax law, and related and often unidentified issues impact upon that viability.
The disconnection between the agenda and the make-up of the Towards a Creative Australia: The Future of Arts, Film and Design stream at the 2020 Summit was telling. Although the agenda included sunrise ideas and referred to a creative Australia as offering ‘the capacity to lead the charge into the new, technology-rich emerging industries’, the delegate mix was almost exclusively people—including me—who intersect with Australia’s cultural agencies. There were no DIY video makers, no games designers, no animators, no innovative digital media makers, few contemporary musicians, architects or designers. Instead, the list was heavy with orchestral musicians, administrators of funded arts organisations, theatre and festival directors, and personalities from the world of film and television. While each participant had a legitimate claim to a role in a debate about cultural directions, collectively they illustrated the limits of the informal policy networks and institutional databases.
Such people are referred to simply as ‘the sector’. It is a fluid term occasionally formally defined for reports or consultation processes but often left casually ambiguous. In practice ‘the sector’ is the people with whom an agency talks and consults, those who contact and lobby them and whom they see as their constituency. ‘The sector’ is almost always self-selecting—those who manage funded organisations and to a lesser extent those individuals who have applied for or received funding in the past.
By default, cultural policy and planning processes are built around such a feedback loop. This is exacerbated by the fact that senior government staff are often drawn from and return to management roles within the various organisations large enough to have funded positions. Those artists and creators who are too busy making and scraping together a living, those without administrative resources and those who do not fit existing categories or that fall below the radar are excluded. Under a burden of limited resources, time pressures and an active and vocal community with a strong sense of entitlement, funding bodies can simply find it too complicated to address the needs and expectations of those who are absent and largely unheard.
The lack of a clear cultural-policy direction is largely a by-product of the fact that the arts agencies are often the custodians of the debates. The Australia Council is the nation’s arts funding and advisory body. A similar conflict exists within most cultural agencies. Debates about whether the structure, brief, role and relevance of cultural agencies are adequate come largely from within. There are no competitive pressures, little external scrutiny or checks and balances to quarantine the role of developing cultural policy from the agencies with vested interests in it.
Political leadership is often lacking. The post of minister for the arts is rarely seen as a plum job and often goes to a junior minister or is combined with far more time-consuming and politically sensitive portfolios (such as Communications for much of the Howard period or Environment in the case of minister Garrett). At state level the post is often the plaything of premiers or party apparatchiks attracted by the photo-op opportunities, opening night networking, or pet projects rather than the weightier questions of policy development.
Policy analysis and reflection come largely via tightly structured reports and reviews. Research is often used to highlight to government the plight of a particular art form or sector. The last decade has seen the Nugent Report into the Major Performing Arts, which secured an additional $70 million of funding by federal and state governments; the Myer Report, which successfully made the case for increased investment in the visual arts; and countless smaller reviews. Each had merit but they were all at least partially exercises in making cases for greater funding for their target areas.
These reports do not allow for any serious examination of wider cultural priorities. They quarantine the case for any particular sector from any wider debate about the aim and role of cultural policy. A strong case for an extra $70 million for the nation’s largest, richest and best-funded companies is made in isolation while any attempt to look at alternatives is effectively impossible. The question of whether this is the best use of limited resources is never asked. Remarkably, it has been almost a generation since we in Australia seriously asked why we support and nurture culture, artists and art forms. It has been decades longer since we asked a larger question about how best to do so. With each facsimile of a long forgotten rationale the reasoning has become increasingly unclear. In the absence of any clear direction, governments and the public are left with no clear standard against which to measure the results. The arrival of a new government and of an arts minister in Peter Garrett whose experiences are largely outside the funded arts system allows cautious optimism. While the outcomes of the 2020 Summit were debatable, the questions posed demonstrated that some people had begun to embrace these larger questions. Similarly, the embryonic Creative Australia ministerial advisory group—of which I am a member—has convened around an agenda that brings some of these questions to the fore.
It is the shift in the culture that will force these issues. Outside the walls of ministerial offices and policy papers the culture moves on. Isolated non-institutional artists are becoming networks of artists. The Facebook group aimed at such people took only three days to outgrow the Australia Council’s own group, which had been established for months. Gradually the informal networks of blogs, websites and publications that distribute so much of our culture morph into policy forums. Criticisms become campaigns and cultures change whether cultural agencies are ready or not.