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Save the Australia Council, at least for the music: academic

Ben Eltham’s piece on my report for the Australia Council — picking up themes raised by Marcus Westbury in The Age — sparked some lively comments.

Much debate concerned classical music. Both suggest that the Australia Council had not promoted my report and this indicated their reluctance or inability to follow its themes to their logical conclusion. I have no knowledge of what treatment similar reports got from the AC but I did not encounter any attempts to smother mine.

It was more of a think piece, and a complex one at that, so possibly quite difficult to ‘launch’. It never set out to provide specific recommendations, something that was mutually agreed at the beginning. Nor does it does have any headline figures as in David Throsby’s or Stuart Cunningham’s recent reports.

What the report tries to suggest is that the idea of ‘art’ has come in for a sustained battering over the last 20 years, often from what could be considered its ‘natural’ supporters. Accusations of elitism and social exclusion aimed at widening our idea of art and culture have ended up as grist to the mill for those who would see its only justification in the generation of economic outcomes.

I suggested that an institution set up to support and promote the arts should be much less defensive and assert the value of art in a more positive way in the face of overly economic interpretations of the creative industries agenda. I also suggested that the notion of ‘the arts’ and how these might be supported needs to be rethought, and that this would demand new kinds of connections to other social, economic and urban planning agencies.

I welcome all such attempts to pull conclusions from these ideas and Ben and Marcus are very well placed to do a lot of this work. My concern is that they seem to want to attack the AC head on; Eltham has called for the body to be abolished altogether.

It might be that (very) radical surgery is needed. There was a similar debate in the UK on the role of the Arts Council recently, including proposals to split its functions into two. These arguments proceeded from the need for restructuring in changing circumstances, and there are a lot of substantial points on these lines in Westbury and Eltham’s writing.

But I can’t help thinking that linking these changes so explicitly to charges of cronyism and to the excessive funding given to classical music does the argument no service. Abolition in these terms would not serve to produce a new all-singing, all-dancing Australia Council engaged with modern culture, but some agency subject to constant political demands for ‘relevance’ and ‘value for money’.

I might be wrong; Ben and Marcus suggest it can’t be worse than we have now. But surely the predication of such a radical forward-looking New Australia Council on the death of classical music in this country (which is the logical conclusion of what they are saying) is a starting point that will rapidly end up in a space very uncomfortable for all.

3
  • 1
    Marcus Westbury
    Posted Friday, 25 February 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Just need to jump in here with a quick correction. I am a fan of Justin O’Connor’s work and i welcome this debate however it’s probably worth clarifying that i have not actually called for the Australia Council’s abolition!

    I have certainly suggested it should reorientate its priorities, update its Whitlam era act and make a few other concessions to the latter half of the 20th century (if not the 21st). I have also suggested we may need a whole of government approach to cultural policy that they Australia Council may not be the right entity to deliver that. However - unlike Ben - I’m not actually calling for the abolition of the Australia Council and never have. In part that’s for many of the reasons outlined in this piece - i think we need an agency charged with supporting art for arts sake but it has to encompass a more contemporary set of definitions.

    The Australia Council does some things very well. The problem is that there are many other things that need doing that it is currently outside its ambit and therefore no one’s job to do.

  • 2
    Ben Eltham
    Posted Friday, 25 February 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    If you’re interested in reading through my argument about abolishing the Australia Council, you can explore my arguments in this Overland article.

  • 3
    JohnofOz
    Posted Friday, 25 February 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Justin O’Connor’s statement “the notion of ‘the arts’ and how these might be supported needs to be rethought, and that this would demand new kinds of connections to other social, economic and urban planning agencies” acknowledges one of the core emphases of Marcus Westbury’s point, made strongly in his Cultural Policy paper, that to look at the arts alone without cultural context in policy development is less than productive. O’Connor’s references to those who argue it is all about generation of economic activity draw this out in a wider sense. Where major events funding is used to support the arts and entertainment (Oprah, Dr Zhivago) is just one example of political decisions taken for, presumably, purely economic reasons, as was the decision to pump $40 million of Federal funding, plus an injection from NSW, into The Great Gatsby (thank you Crikey). It could be argued that had these decisions been considered in the context of an overarching cultural policy it may have been seen that the money would have been better spent on, for example, arts education, nation wide, in primary and secondary schools.

    The argument that bureaucrats know the cost of everything and the value of nothing rings louder in times of budgetary constraint. In their defence, it is difficult to evaluate the long term benefits of, say, music education for disadvantaged children, notwithstanding short term anecdotal evidence of positive behavioral change. Or the effects of a higher allocation of monies to emerging aboriginal artists and performers. Don’t hold your breath waiting for anyone to tell us, in five years time, what have been the economic and social returns from the injection of funds in the Oprah visit.

    No matter how much funding is available there will always be arguments about allocation. Particularly in an era of tight budgets, it may be better for arts practitioners and organisations to have a number of different sources to go to, all evaluating benefits from a different perspective. So consolidation would not seem to be a good idea. Surely therefore we do need an Arts Council, among others. But unless these various funding sources have that umbrella, all encompassing, policy framework to guide them, the allocation failures may well continue to be seen to be egregious.

    One of the keys to good policy development is to seek to improve the environment (social, cultural, economic) so that benefits flow from that, rather than the simple, and often very inefficient, injection of funds. How then do we improve the cultural productivity of the nation? Just think of the interdepartmental committee: Tax, Finance, Attorney General’s, Arts, Communications, Education, DFAT, PM&C, Immigration and the rest. Maybe even COAG might have to become involved. That would surely never work! But perhaps, just perhaps, a perceptive arts minister might understand the complexity and start something a little smaller, with a view to a new paradigm, by taking action on some of the existing constraints to a fuller, more all embracing, arts environment for the nation. He and the arts establishment might find out it is about more than just appropriation size.

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