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.

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Peter Fray
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