The Arts

Feb 4, 2011

The plan to provoke a profound shake-up to the arts

A new report from the Australia Council has big implications for Australian cultural policy, says Ben Eltham. Its conclusions imply a profound shake-up in the current status quo.

Ben Eltham — <em>Crikey</em> arts commentator

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

In a week where so much has happened in the world, it's not surprising a report from the Australia Council has not made the news. But in the rarefied atmosphere of arts policy, the release of a report entitled Arts and creative industries will make waves -- the document, if followed to its logical conclusions, implies a profound shake-up to the current status quo. Authored by a team of QUT academics led by Professor Justin O'Connor, Arts and creative industries is a long, detailed and rigorous examination of the context, shape and setting of arts and cultural policy in Australia. It's not quite the Henry Tax Review, but it's certainly the most academically informed piece of research to be released by the Australia Council in a long time. Beginning with a historical overview of 19th century culture and the genesis of "cultural policy" in postwar Britain, the report then examines each of the issues that has bedeviled the arts debate: the role of public subsidy, the growth of the industries that produce popular culture, the divide between high art and low art, and the emergence of the so-called "creative industries" in the 1990s. It's as good a summary of the current state of play as you're likely to find anywhere, including in the international academic literature. O'Connor and his co-writers conclude that "the creative industries need not be -- indeed should not be -- counter posed to cultural policy; they are a development of it" and that economic objectives (in other words, industry policy) should be a legitimate aim of cultural policy. Taken as a whole, the argument has big implications for the way Australia currently pursues the regulation and funding of culture. For instance, it argues that "the 'free market' simply does not describe the tendencies of monopoly, agglomeration, cartels, restrictive practices, exploitation and unfair competition which mark the cultural industries" and that this in turn justifies greater regulation of cultural industries like the media. That's a conclusion that few in the Productivity Commission or Treasury -- let alone Kerry Stokes or James Packer -- are likely to agree with. The report also argues the divide between the high arts and popular culture has now largely disappeared, and that therefore "it is increasingly difficult for arts agencies to concern themselves only with direct subsidy and only with the non-commercial". This is an argument which directly challenges the entire basis of the Australia Council's funding model, in which opera and orchestral music receives 98% of the council's music funding pie. No wonder the Australia Council's CEO, Kathy Keele, writes in the foreword: "This study proposes to challenge many of our current conceptions, definitions, and even policies." Intriguingly, the report stops short of any concrete policy recommendations. Perhaps this is because some existed, but were excised from the report. Or perhaps it's because any recommendations that genuinely flowed from this report would imply the break-up or radical overhaul of the Australia Council itself. As Marcus Westbury this week observed in The Age: "While the Australia Council isn't backward in promoting research, reports and good news stories that validate the status quo, there is not much precedent for it challenging it." That's because the real guardian of the current funding model is not the Australia Council, but the small coterie of large performing arts companies and high-status impresarios that are its greatest beneficiaries. It won't be long before a coalition of high arts types, from Richard Tognetti to Richard Mills, start clamouring to defend their privilege.

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22 thoughts on “The plan to provoke a profound shake-up to the arts

  1. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx for this report. I agree that the big performing arts companies have too much influence over the allocation of public funding of the arts. Of course they derive their power from being able to mobilise their wealthy patrons, so I suggest that any attempt to change cultural arts policy be directed to the wealthy patrons. One might seek to persuade them that, for example, to maintain the vitality of excellent music one must go beyond the traditional classical repertoire and even that is best supported beyond the big symphonies.

  2. Holden Back

    The problem being that when Richard Mills says:

    “Remove, say, a symphony orchestra from a city and you will kill concert life but also youth orchestras, school music programs, tertiary training and fine teaching for the general community – in effect, the capacity to enrich lives with real music.”

    He’s right. Sadly the big orchestras and opera companies are now even less likely to be adventurous in their programming. Mills might have added to that list the host of smaller ensembles which do provide more adventurous programming whose members are largely drawn from orchestral players. But if you don’t allow there is a particular value in the skills and cultural contribution made by the high art musical tradition that wouldn’t be much of a point.

  3. Simon Loveless

    Funny how these discussions always seem to revolve around bashing classical musicians.

  4. Marcel Dorney

    The problem that Simon Loveless points out is real, though perhaps a bit more complicated on both sides than ‘bashing classical musicians’ (in Simon’s phrase) or ‘defending their privilege’ (in Ben’s).
    People employed as professional musicians in Australian orchestras and opera companies , without exception, undergone an large amount of rigorous training, which training was, in itself, no guarantee of employment. The arguments mounted by Ben (and Marcus Westbury, to whose position he cleaves closely) tend to brush over that, with Westbury equating orchestras with ‘cover bands’. (
    The question of whether the public should fund bodies that create professional pathways in Australia for those who undergo such high-level training – as with the training of dancers, or for that matter, any elite sportsperson – should be asked, continually, and penetratingly. Such questioning should, as Marcus points out elsewhere, take into account that most Australians’ experience and enjoyment of culture is more firmly rooted in participation than the admiration of a distant elite.
    I do suggest, however, that rather than ignoring the fact – and it is a fact – that it requires more dedication and, yes, talent, to play Mozart (let alone the works that form the ACO’s main repertoire) than it does to play ‘April Sun in Cuba’, we should ask how these skills can better flow into – and have their choices informed by – the wider, more ‘participatory’ culture championed by Ben and Marcus (and not simply in print – they’ve both organised independent arts festivals).
    At those same festivals, I’ve observed that Australians respond strongly and positively to talent that’s been painstakingly trained into virtuosity: the feeling that ‘I didn’t know that was possible’ *can* actually complement the very different artistic excitement of ‘anyone can do it’.
    Simon Rattle’s experiences in pushing the Berlin Philharmonic into engagement with the wider community point one demonstrable way forward. Rather than calling for the heads of the classics scholars, perhaps Ben could prove himself an enlightened Red Guard cadre, and suggest how they might serve the culture of the people, in ways that he (and I) cannot.

  5. dr diversion

    Bashing big orchestras and opera companies is a small-minded approach of those who have no real understanding of the significance of classical music and opera to the world. WHere would the entertainment industry be without the performances of big orchestras? Goerge Lucas’ “Star Wars” would still be attempting to leave the realm of of the Sci fi fanatics book club, James Cameron’s “Avatar” would have simply lacked the magnificence that has seen so many flock to it around the world and the motion picture industry would simply die through lack of availability of competent classically trained musicians.

    As for the opera companies, imagine the last James Bond film without the opera “Tosca” overlying the themes of deceipt and betrayal by those in unopposed power. For the classical music and opera bashers, that was the underlying themes of Daniel Craig’s “James Bond” in the most recent movie. It is all too easy for those who are not “in the know” on such matters to vomit forth their ignorance and use unsubstantiated criticism to silence those who are knowledgible in these areas and who constantly fight to save the Australian arts industry from small-minded Gen Y’s who thing that vulger obscenity-spewing rap artists articulate the real meaning of art in the modern world.

    Orchestras and classical music have been used to sell everything from televisions to soaps in this country, to support aging rock stars and withering country music performers who can only pull a crowd when they appear with a well know classical group such as MSO and QSO. If not for opera, most of the modern cinematic successes would be performed without credible story lines.

    So, lets destroy the real classical arts in this country and then watch as pimple-faced teenagers are employed to strum guitars and beat drums to accompany the visual images while “classical” music is viewed as aging cocaine-selling gangster rap artists advocate the use of drugs and “bashing you bitch” and killing cops as a solution to society’s problems. Without real art, this country will die a rapid and rather monotone death. How fitting for those who knock the arts industries.

  6. AR

    If’n yer not starving in a garret you lack commitment.

  7. Angel_Trumpet

    Thanks for the post Ben.

    Although I haven’t yet read O’Connor’s whole report, it indeed appears to be informed and insightful, and yet provides little concrete suggestion as to how greater economic and cultural value may be achieved through the distribution of OzCo’s funding.

    Perhaps he was concerned not to step on too many toes.

    O’Connor writes that subsidy ‘is … in short supply, it is cumbersome to administer and it fails to deal with the proliferation of individuals and micro businesses who now make up the majority of the arts sector’ and he is correct in that regard.

    It is next to impossible for many artists worthy of support to obtain subsidy through OzCo. This in spite of their perhaps broader appeal (computer game designers), pursual of innovative ideas and technologies (writers/playwrights/new media/cross media artists) that might provide greater economic benefits to society than those flowing from the status quo (see anything written by Monsieur Westbury or yourself in recent times).

    With audiences dwindling and aging for many (but by no means for all) of the major arts companies, there is no denying they will have to come down from their ivory tower and self-reflect. Without an audience, artistic evolution (new works, new works and more new works) and constant challenging of the status quo, many MPAB companies may run out of luck and eventually lose the support of their ‘constituencies’ and funders.

    That said, many benefits flow from having highly-skilled musicians, singers, dancers, actors etc in each of the capitals, not the least being their contribution to the wider arts scene, their education of young artists in schools and universities, and their contribution to the community arts scene, often as volunteers.

    Hopefully the trend among academics towards greater appreciation of the economic value of the arts and cultural industries will lead to a larger, but more equitably-awarded pie rather than a continued fight over the spoils of a smaller one, which remains the likely scenario at present. It should be interesting to see if any radical models are suggested as an alternative to the current form of subsidy in the coming months as a result of the report.

    In any case, artists who fail to innovate and evolve, lose touch with their audiences, or fail to add value to society should be allowed to fail. O’Connor’s suggestion that the larger arts companies are essentially exempt from the free market and exhibit characteristics of monpoly seems spot on.

    (Declaration of vested interest: I work for a major performing arts company and sincerely hope for Australia’s artistic vibrancy and cultural future that the larger, established companies will flourish alongside those who struggle under the current model)

  8. Ben Eltham

    It’s perhaps unfortunate that this discussion has devolved down into the usual “bashing classical music” fracas. As I usually have to point out in these situations, the issue is not the merit or worth of a particular set of organisations working in a particular artform, it’s the inconsistency and incoherence of the funding model as a whole.

    For the record, I’m *not* advocating defunding the orchestras, but I am arguing that the current distribution of funds by the Australia Council is manifestly unjust – for instance to those who don’t happen to play in orchestras or work in the major performing arts sector. There are similar issues over at Screen Australia, by the way, but this was an article about an Australia Council report.

    No-one is denying the merit of western art music played by orchestras. But the ABS statistics tell us that ordinary Australians enjoy many different types of cultural past-times. The very issue I pointed to – the tendency of those who support a certain type of art and culture to believe that is is more meritorious and “excellent” than all the others – is on display in these comments.

    Dr Diversion – I’m sorry, but I don’t think classical music was essential to the success of Avatar. I’m pretty sure James Bond fans still flocked to the cinemas when Shirley Bassey was the hit tune, not Tosca. But then, you seem to harbour some pretty impressive prejudices about certain types of music, so perhaps there’s little point in debating you.

  9. Angel_Trumpet

    Ben, not everybody who questions aspects of your posts is a revolutionary classical music guerilla. It is fairly obvious from my post above that I work for a classical music MPAB company (and am not allowed to comment as a condition of my employment), and yet happen to agree with you wholeheartedly about the inequity of the current model in my post.

    I am sure most of the classical-music-defending commentors on your blogs generally have 1) a vested interest in the survival of their industry through their employment (or other association); and 2) also consume artistic and cultural products from many other areas such as literature, television, film and online media.

    So the issue appears to be how those with a vested interest in the status quo can work together with people like yourself and Marcus to lobby for a larger pie, as well as a broader approach to cultural policy that crosses government portfolios and industries. Any suggestions as to how that might be achieved?

    Nothing is black and white 🙂

  10. Eric Sykes

    Marcel Dorney:

    …”and it is a fact – that it requires more dedication and, yes, talent, to play Mozart”

    “and it is a fact”…

    No MD it isn’t.

    Now, I know that’s worrying for you, that other creative practice can be just as demanding….I know that shatters your entire world view, but hey…..change happens, face it and get on with what you are good at. And try to show other artists the basic professional respect they demand and deserve.

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