Today is Jennifer Bott’s last day in the job after seven and a half years as head of the nation’s cultural cash cow.
As the Bott era comes to a close, it’s worth asking whether the Australian cultural landscape is any richer (or poorer) as a consequence of her stewardship of our principal arts funding body.
Bott is leaving her post as CEO of the Australia Council to run the fundraising arm of the University of New South Wales.
She makes no secret of the fact that she got her new gig because of her close association with David Gonski, Chancellor of the UNSW and the recently departed Chair of the Australia Council.
“Of course there is a connection,” Bott told me when I asked whether her university appointment sprang from her relationship with Gonski.
“He is well aware of my interests and skills. I have this wonderful opportunity to go into a new field and I am looking forward to working with him again.”
For my ever-so-brief audience with Bott (25 minutes, no tape recorder allowed), I am ushered into a boardroom adjoining Bott’s executive suite at OzCo’s sprawling headquarters on the fringe of Sydney’s CBD, a much more corporate-like setting than the organisation’s previous home in a recycled factory in Redfern. The current address is appropriate given that the OzCo, under Bott’s control, has become much more corporate (some would say bureaucratic) in its outlook and language.
For an insight into the change of culture in the Bott era, check out this piece by Lauren Martin in The Sydney Morning Herald, in which she details the language used to justify last year’s restructuring of the organisation. Here’s a taste:
The plan positions the Australia Council as Australia’s arts catalyst to be better much [sic] informed and more flexible in responding to creative opportunities as they arise. Operational flexibility is critical as the arts in Australia become more diverse and complex. We need to build in more responsiveness to changing situations, and be more decisive and strategic about what we can and can’t do with our resources.
This jargon and the mindset that drives it has attracted much criticism, with past OzCo chair Hilary McPhee complaining that artists have been removed from the centre of cultural debate in favour of “comfort of output managerialism and corporate smugness”.
If Bott is sensitive to this criticism, she doesn’t show it during our encounter, happily waxing lyrical about “all-of-government initiatives”, “strategic pools of money”, “locking in overlapping priorities”, “putting the arts on the broader social and political agenda” and the unremarkable but clumsy declaration that the Australian community is “one of our stakeholders”.
Not allowed to use a tape recorder (no reason given) and forced to rely on rusty Pitman’s shorthand, I scribble madly as the minutes rush by. This is not like any interview I’ve done before. Instead, I feel I’m engaged in a weird form of speed dating. I get nothing that I couldn’t have read in a press release. There’s long list of initiatives and, to be fair to Bott, some of them are truly significant. There was the major performing arts inquiry back in 1999, through to reviews of funding for the visual arts and the state orchestras. These have all delivered more money, and there has also been special funding for commissioning new work as well as programs aimed at youth and regional Australia. But there is also the perception that the OzCo – set up in the early 70s as a way of delivering money to artists – has become just another big bureaucracy, increasingly disconnected from the creative communities it is supposed to serve. I want to talk to Bott about this but my time is up. Now that her time is also about to pass, here’s hoping her replacement (widely tipped to be Kathy Keele from the Australian Business Arts Foundation) learns to speak less like a bureaucrat and more like someone passionately committed to nurturing creative endeavour.