Failures of funding thwart cultural ambition
In the history of Australia’s cultural understanding of itself, the past five years have been some of the most turbulent and interesting. A federal government in a holding pattern of self-interest, unable to cope with climate change, infrastructure investment or human rights as the great cultural challenges of our time. A National Cultural Policy focused on the arts, created from rigorous national discussions and then lost to political change. An Australia Council evolving to the point of leading a comprehensive approach to the nation’s creative future, one able to invest long term in small-to-medium organisations as well as in artistic pathways and practice development. An arts minister so afraid of the prospect of a culturally ambitious nation1 that he slashed its budget without warning, on the very day he told the crowds at the Venice Pavilion opening that this was ‘a very important day in Australia’s national story … yet another step in the emergence of Australia as a culturally accomplished nation … an emphatic statement of Australia’s cultural confidence’.2
Why is the Australian Government so afraid of public policy expertise? Why have two experts recently been forced to resign from the Climate Change Authority, with one lamenting that ‘the vital issues of climate change and energy security [had become] an opportunity for political point-scoring and culture war rhetoric’?3 Why have Gillian Triggs and Tim Soutphommasane been subjected to personal attack by politicians while carrying out their Human Rights Commission duties? Why has the future of Australian creativity been jeopardised by cuts to the Australia Council made without expert examination and indeed without notice? And if even Australia’s climate change inaction is being identified by experts as a culture war, what are the cultural assumptions behind these actions?
No document expresses a nation’s cultural confidence more clearly than its cultural policy. A cultural policy is a commitment to empowering artists to develop their practice, make work and reach audiences. It recognises and celebrates the risks artists take in creating, interpreting and challenging our culture. It sets out the means that government has to stimulate this work, without privileging the art forms and platforms that would prescribe the work. As the articulation of a framework designed to inspire unintended consequences with confidence, a cultural policy is a statement of what government is for.
For governments not undermined by entrenched silos, a cultural policy has the opportunity to inspire not only the arts but also news media, broadcasting, broadband, film, television, intellectual property, philanthropy and tax incentives, education, sport, public space and licensed-venue regulation—indeed, all the infrastructure and programs that support us in the creation and the practice of our diverse culture. Human rights, including racial discrimination, gender and marriage equality, fall within this scope, and insofar as it requires a shift in identity and behaviour, addressing climate change is very much about addressing our cultural practices and the way we see ourselves as Australians. Unsurprisingly, it is artists who are developing some of the most urgent and useful responses to climate change, such as Arts House’s collaboration with the State Emergency Services and the Australian Red Cross for Refuge.4
A fascinating precursor to the National Cultural Policy was the Australia Council’s 2011 Arts and Creative Industries Report.5 For the first time, Australia Council–commissioned research made explicit ideological connections between arts policy and nation-building, giving historical and contemporary accounts of the ways in which governments seek to align themselves with aspirational middle-class values in order to achieve their aims. As social and technological changes diluted governments’ capacity to lead a single national discussion, so was their capacity to privilege certain art forms and practices diminished, because artists were increasingly leading the way. Australia’s next cultural policy, the report’s authors argued, would need to collapse the distinction between makers and audiences, reasserting the legitimacy of the Australia Council to determine a national cultural direction.
An independent review of the Australia Council was also released at this time, alongside the Convergence Review on media regulation and the Mitchell Review of Private Sector Support for the Arts. It made recommendations for the Australia Council’s strategic plan, many of which were implemented. Fostering an arts sector that was ‘distinctively Australian’ was a policy aim to which I took exception. To entrench this expectation at policy level was to prejudge or predetermine what Australian culture is and can become. We can’t expect audiences, peer assessors or politicians to designate individual works as distinctively Australian without reducing those judgements to stereotype. National cultural identity is made and remade with every new work, every individual interaction; it is the sum total of all of our cultural practices that makes us distinctively Australian.
Around this time, I was one of the Australia Council’s most vocal critics. In the Age, I hoped to see the end of art-form boards that undermined artists’ own capacity to determine the future of art-form practice.6 In Arts Hub, I challenged policymakers to identify and support the conditions that power artistic risks.7 And in the Australian I called for a national body that was committed to developing a sophisticated understanding of how artists work, as well as working effectively across government portfolio areas—under the headline ‘We need a reimagined Australia Council’.8
Through commissioned research, independent reviews and public critique, the work of David Throsby, Justin O’Connor, Ben Eltham, Gabrielle Trainor, Angus James and other academics and consultants informed what was indeed a reimagined Australia Council. When ‘A Culturally Ambitious Nation’ was released in 2014, it proved to be a constructive document, asserting the primacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait culture, and outlining the Australia Council’s determination to drive risk, experimentation, cultural diversity, creative mobility and art in unexpected places. The expectation of art that is ‘distinctively Australian’ did not survive the policy recommendation process; instead, the document asserted a welcome confidence in Australian artists to determine their own direction.
In launching the Strategic Plan, then minister for the arts Senator George Brandis expressed ‘an emphatic endorsement by the Australian Government, both of this plan, of our support for this sector, and our shared ambition with you to give effect to the goal, to make Australia not just a culturally ambitious nation, but a nation that is recognised as being one the great arts nations of the world’.9 Months later, and with the annual budget process kicking in almost the moment he and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stepped off that Opera House stage, Brandis switched that emphatic endorsement to another setting, violently undermining the Australia Council’s capacity to deliver its expertly developed plan.
The cultural assumptions underlying Brandis’s ministerial approach presented a basic understanding of the arts as experienced through their most conventional form: the work of the Major Performing Arts, the nation’s 28 recurrently funded opera, ballet, theatre, dance and orchestra companies. We know from his diary—released in extract as the result of a three-year freedom of information request by shadow attorney-general and former shadow minister for the arts Mark Dreyfus—that when Brandis does go to a show, it’s always the opera, ballet or orchestra performing works from the European canon.10
A couple of months before his remarks at the Australia Council’s strategic plan launch, Brandis had told the Australian, ‘Frankly I’m more interested in funding arts companies that cater to the great audiences that want to see quality drama, or music or dance, than I am in subsidising individual artists responsible only to themselves.’ Nor could he resist a dig even when representing the nation at that world stage of world stages, the opening of the new Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale: he began his remarks by characterising that day—not only the day of the pavilion’s opening, but also the day of the unannounced attack on the Australia Council—as ‘a day on which we mark … a nation whose artists speak not just to themselves but to the world’.
This perplexing resentment of artists as collegiate experts had found earlier expression in Brandis’s and Malcolm Turnbull’s responses to the Sydney Biennale protests, in which artists criticised or boycotted the event because of sponsor Transfield’s work on offshore asylum-seeker prisons responsible for human rights violations. In March 2014 the Australian reported that Senator Brandis ‘has signalled a significant shake-up of arts funding to avoid political “blackballing”’.11 As communications minister, and with close personal ties to Sydney Biennale board members, Malcolm Turnbull remarked: ‘This is disastrous … it’s extraordinary … the sheer vicious ingratitude of it all.’12 Only a few years earlier, in defending Bill Henson against political attack after police raids on his work, Turnbull had told Sky News, ‘I think we have a culture of great artistic freedom in this country.’13
Brandis’s and Turnbull’s remarks belie a cultural assumption that would sit uncomfortably with most Australians: that of patronage. Australians don’t like class distinctions, and we don’t like being told what to think. In my response to the National Opera Review,14 which curiously asserted opera to be ‘part of the national psyche’, I characterised the national psyche as complex, curious, anti-elite, anti-entitlement, and unreconciled with its foundational Indigenous culture.15 Opera doesn’t feature in the top six art forms enjoyed by Australians,16 but with Opera Australia receiving the same amount in Australia Council funding as all 128 of the triennially funded small-to-medium organisations combined, it’s easy to make the assumption that proportion of funding correlates somehow with cultural significance. In its most conservative conception, patronage imagines a specific power relationship to the work that it funds: one of cultural and political compliance.
To imagine that artists work in a politically inert space is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of artistic practice. To imagine that audiences expect artists to be politically inert is fundamentally to misunderstand the Australian culture. What Brandis and the Prime Minister expressed indicates that, while each has a passion for the arts, they see their Australian parliamentary role as affording them the entitlement of determining the nation’s cultural direction. Far from offering an emphatic endorsement of a culturally ambitious nation, such remarks convey a fear of the consequences of artistic transgression and political expression—a fear that relegates artists to the supplicant position of creating work for patron favour rather than creating work with public and philanthropic support because this is a public good. Perversely, in seeking to contain it, this is a fear that explicitly affirms the power of the artist.
Also in 2014, Brandis wrote to Rupert Myer, chair of the Australia Council, demanding that the Australia Council introduce a policy that would prevent publicly funded artists from rejecting corporate sponsors—and threatening to mandate the development of such a policy should the Australia Council fail to take the initiative.17 In response, Rupert Myer publicly acknowledged the letter the following day, and then responded to Brandis in private. When you’ve been unable to influence experts, or to find experts who think your way, all that’s left is to attempt to exercise executive power—as Donald Trump’s daily petulance affirms. In Australia, however, we like to think we’re a little more sophisticated than that. We rejected the ‘politicians’ republic’ back in 1999 because we couldn’t agree on a model and didn’t want to see a president given too much power. We don’t elect politicians to act without a mandate and we punish those who do, as Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey experienced after the 2014 budget. Brandis and his colleagues have demanded the resignation of the president of the Human Rights Commission, and they achieved the resignation of the solicitor-general when Justin Gleeson SC refused to tolerate unreasonable impositions on his public duties.18 And yet despite sustained public attacks on the Australia Council, Brandis was unable to remove the chair or the CEO of the Australia Council. Because of their distinct style of private advocacy, we will never know the lengths that the board of the Australia Council have gone to ensure that artists and the arts have not been exposed to the arbitrary vilification that we’ve seen in the areas of climate change and human rights.
What are the consequences of these cultural assumptions? What are the impacts of a sense of patronage, a distortion of the national psyche, a fear of artists’ power? While the National Program of Excellence in the Arts and then Catalyst have since come and gone, and some funds have been returned to the Australia Council, the massive disruption to the Australia Council’s work has not been undone by this transaction. Wrongly characterised by many as a win that ends a damaging chapter in public policy, the disruption continues as a depleted Australia Council now becomes responsible for at least 200 Catalyst funding relationships—and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this disruption has been deliberate. In 2014 the nation’s arts funding and advisory body stood ready to offer its most comprehensive ever approach to fostering the entire arts ecology: one encompassing First Nations and culturally diverse arts; one affording small-to-medium organisations the industry recognition and the financial stability of long-term funding status previously reserved for the majors; one addressing the entire artistic lifecycle from emergence and experimentation to established practice.
That strategic plan was fatally thwarted, almost as soon as it was announced and endorsed, by the minister. Today there are no programs to support young and emerging artists, no experimental arts programs, very few youth arts organisations funded and in some states none at all, very few literary organisations funded, no six-year certainty for impactful small-to-medium organisations, and hardly any sector service organisations funded. Further piecemeal changes such as the unexpected efficiency dividend application19 have compounded the Australia Council’s inability to forward plan—something that had been the greatest strength of the new corporate model that led the development of ‘A Culturally Ambitious Nation’.
Is the vision of a confident, creative, environmentally sustainable nation with a proud human rights record just too much for our political leaders to imagine? If no document expresses a nation’s cultural confidence more clearly than its cultural policy, the absence of such a document must be equally as telling. We can—and, indeed, we must—look to the other artefacts of government’s cultural vision if we are to have confidence in their leadership. But where to start? The Produc-tivity Commission’s recent report into intellectual property arrangements should offer a resounding commitment to supporting the rights of Australia’s creators; instead, it asserts that ‘Australia’s copyright arrangements are skewed too far in favour of copyright owners to the detriment of consumers’, denying artists the right to control the contexts in which their work can be presented or manipulated.20
The National Opera Review should present a grounded understanding of the place of opera in the Australian culture; instead, it ignores the work of innovators such as Chamber Made Opera, indicates that opera companies that are presenting musicals should have their funding increased, and even goes so far as to suggest that primary school children be acculturated to rebuild opera’s dwindling audiences. Each of the problematic cultural assumptions we’ve discussed—a sense of patronage, a distortion of the national psyche, a fear of artists’ power—comes through in each one of these documents.
Artefacts of a government’s cultural vision come in many guises. While Brandis as attorney-general infamously championed the rights of Australians to endorse bigotry,21 Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton attacked the rights of leading Australian CEOs to endorse equality.22 The entitlement to dictate what should or shouldn’t be said, made, performed, exhibited or defended expresses a very particular kind of cultural vision: a radical one, not a conservative one. Enumerating the cultural policies enacted by the Howard government, Waleed Aly argues in his 2010 Quarterly Essay23 that while liberalism and conservatism are essentially opposing ideologies, Howard’s approach was neither liberal nor conservative; instead, it revealed ‘a reactionary form of monoculturalism that violates the first principles of the liberal conservative tradition’. Nurturing cultural leaders who are confident enough to challenge a government on climate change, asylum-seeker human rights and marriage equality is consistent with liberalism, and while conservatism would prefer not to touch these issues, it is a radical government that directly intervenes—contradicting free-speech liberalism as well as free-market conservatism.
A nation that champions its experts—even, or indeed especially, when they present critical advice on the great challenges of our times—is a resilient nation with an auspicious future. A nation that is able to articulate its cultural vision is a mature nation, able to negotiate complexity without anxiety, and able to negotiate dissent without petulance. A nation that can express confidence in its artists is a democratic, optimistic and flourishing nation.
What will a culturally ambitious Australia look like? As the Australia Council recasts its strategic framework, the government’s response to those next steps will be telling. Expressing a sincere confidence in artists and in artist-led decision-making is a thoroughly liberal gesture, championing the liberal arts as foundational to active citizenship and to a democratic culture. Expressing insecurity or fear risks undermining our international standing in the cultural diplomacy efforts so favoured by the Turnbull government; culture wars only ever score own goals. Whether formulated or unwritten, the next iteration of Australia’s cultural policy will have enormous power to inspire our future—one whose embrace or denial will indicate whether our politicians are up to the task.
1 The Australia Council strategic plan, ‘A Culturally Ambitious Nation’, was launched by Senator George Brandis, minister for the arts, at the Sydney Opera House on 18 August 2014, <http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/news/media-centre/media-releases/a-culturally-ambitious-nation/>, accessed 25 March 2017.
2 Venice Pavilion opening remarks by Senator Brandis, <https://www.attorneygeneral.gov.au/Speeches/Pages/2015/SecondQuarter/5-May-2015-Remarks-at-the-opening-of-the-Australian-Pavilion-at-the-Venice-Biennale-Italy.aspx>, accessed 25 March 2017.
3 As reported in the Guardian on 23 March 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/23/two-quit-australia-climate-change-authority-john-quiggin-danny-price>, accessed 25 March 2017.
4 Refuge is a five-year transdisciplinary project that brings together artists, community members and emergency services to investigate arts and culture’s role in developing preparedness and building community resilience for climate-related disasters: <http://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/arts-and-culture/arts-house/whats-on-arts-house/Pages/refuge.aspx>, accessed 25 March 2017.
5 See my response to the report, which is no longer available online: <https://estheranatolitis.net/2011/02/28/plan-unintended-consequences-a-response-to-the-australia-councils-arts-and-creative-industries-report/>.
6 First published in the Age, 17 January 2011, <https://estheranatolitis.net/2011/01/17/state-of-the-arts-victorian-arts-policy-in-2011-must-make-the-most-of-our-creativity-and-diversity/>.
7 First published in Arts Hub on 28 February 2011, <https://estheranatolitis.net/2011/02/28/plan-unintended-consequences-a-response-to-the-australia-councils-arts-and-creative-industries-report/>.
8 Australian, 14 June 2012, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/arts/we-need-a-reimagined-australia-council/news-story/5c90ead2f6fb10f36d431a44370f83f6>, accessed 25 March 2017.
9 Australia Council Strategic Plan launch remarks by Senator Brandis, <https://www.attorneygeneral.gov.au/Speeches/Pages/2014/ThirdQuarter2014/18August2014SpeechatLaunchoftheAustraliaCouncilStrategicPlan.aspx>, accessed 25 March 2017.
10 Matthew Doran, ‘George Brandis vs Mark Dreyfus: Why should you care about the Attorney-General’s ministerial diaries?’, ABC News, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-20/why-should-you-care-about-the-brandis-diaries/8369070>, accessed 28 March 2017.
11 Chris Kenny, ‘Sydney Biennale “shame” risks funding, says George Brandis’, Australian, 13 March 2014, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/sydney-biennale-shame-risks-funding-says-george-brandis/news-story/28d6d9c2d7eeb4d1a3e18b0809fc9a83>, accessed 25 March 2017.
12 Joanna Heath, ‘Turnbull accuses Biennale artists of “vicious ingratitude”’, AFR Weekend, 11 March 2014, <http://www.afr.com/lifestyle/arts-and-entertainment/turnbull-accuses-biennale-artists-of-vicious-ingratitude-20140311-ixlsu>, accessed 25 March 2017.
13 Arjun Ramachandran, ‘Turnbull condemns Henson raids’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May 2008, <http://www.smh.com.au/news/arts/turnbull-condemns-henson-raids/2008/05/28/1211654081371.html>, accessed 25 March 2017.
14 Helen Nugent et al., National Opera Review 2016, <https://www.arts.gov.au/sites/g/files/net1761/f/national_opera_review_final_report.pdf>, accessed 26 March 2017.
16 ‘Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts 2014’, Australia Council, <http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/workspace/uploads/files/research/arts-in-daily-life-australian-5432524d0f2f0.pdf>, accessed 27 March 2017.
17 The full text of the letter was published by Arts Hub, <http://www.artshub.com.au/news-article/news/all-arts/if-the-sydney-biennale-doesnt-need-transfields-money-why-should-they-be-asking-for-ours-198432>, accessed 26 March 2017.
18 Henry Belot and Ashlynne McGhee, ‘Solicitor-General resigns over “broken” relationship with Attorney-General George Brandis,’ ABC News, 24 October 2016, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-24/justin-gleeson-resigns-as-solicitor-general/7960632>, accessed 26 March 2017.
19 See my analysis following the Senate Estimates hearing of 9 February2017, <https://estheranatolitis.net/2017/02/11/efficiency-dividend/>.
20 See <http://www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/completed/intellectual-property/report>, accessed 25 March 2017.
21 Gabrielle Chan, ‘George Brandis: “People have the right to be bigots”’, Guardian, 24 March 2014, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/24/george-brandis-people-have-the-right-to-be-bigots>, accessed 30 March 2017.
22 Jacob Greber, ‘Peter Dutton’s attack on CEOs over marriage equality splits Coalition’, AFR, 19 March 2017, <http://www.afr.com/news/politics/peter-duttons-attack-on-ceos-over-marriage-equality-splits-coalition-20170319-gv1e7u>, accessed 19 March 2017.
23 Waleed Aly, ‘What’s Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia’, Quarterly Essay, vol. 10, no. 3 (2010).