Sep 23, 2011

Arts policy converging into a government hash

Government arts policy is a hash. The now its Convergence Review -- which is posing serious questions about the future shape of cultural policy -- is making the National Cultural Policy irrelevant.

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

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

The government this week released one of the most important discussion papers about the arts and culture in years, and almost no one in the arts sector noticed. It might be because the arts and cultural industries have stopped engaging with the government's tortuous process of developing a National Cultural Policy. After all, Peter Garrett announced the government would develop a cultural policy in 2009, and current Arts Minister Simon Crean is now promising to deliver one in 2012, a mere three years later. Perhaps people are confused. You can hardly blame them, given the content-less gobbledygook served up by Crean's office in its latest national cultural policy discussion paper. Or perhaps people have simply stopped listening. When the Office of the Arts released its Strategic Digital Industry Plan in August, almost nobody noticed. Believe it or not, this plan was actually one of Garrett's 2007 election promises, but the final document, entitled Creative Industries, a Strategy for 21st Century Australia, is neither a plan nor a strategy. It contains no recommendations and no funding or regulatory announcements. Instead it simply collects together a grab-bag of current programs and initiatives, many of them only vaguely related to each other, as though listing them all in the same document somehow suggests a way forward. In arts and cultural policy, it is ever thus. While the Arts Office issues a series of glossy brochures, the big decisions about the big industries and the important policy questions are made elsewhere in the government. And right now, some big questions are being asked by the Convergence Review. This week, the Convergence Review released  an entire series of discussion papers that pose major questions about the future shape of Australian cultural policy. The discussion paper about "Australian and Local Content" ranges all over the cultural policy landscape, examining everything from media ownership and the decline of local journalism to Screen Australia's funding levels and the performance of the Producer Offset. For those who read closely, there are plenty of potentially exciting proposals hinted at. For instance, the discussion paper asks: "Whether there are forms of content that should receive access to an indirect incentive from government but currently are ineligible, such as interactive entertainment." Translation: should the gaming industry also get tax rebates? Even the long-neglected community broadcasters get a mention. The discussion paper pointedly asks: "What should be the role of community broadcasters in producing and delivering local content?" Other issues canvassed by the various discussion papers include doing away with much of the current system of local content regulations, the possibility of introducing a fourth commercial TV network (this columnist says "Yes! Do it!") and introducing a public interest test for media mergers in order to protect what little diversity the Australian media still retains. In summary, these papers represent a wide-reaching and incisive arm's-length analysis of much of Australia's current cultural policy settings. The contrast between them and the guff coming out of the Arts Office is telling. On current indications, the Convergence Review risks making the National Cultural Policy process irrelevant. If that's the case, then Australia's established arts sector will largely have itself to blame. For a long time, the Australia Council and many other parts of our local arts sector have turned their backs on new media and digital culture -- indeed, most forms of popular culture -- instead pulling up the drawbridge to try and keep the barbarians at bay. But digital convergence means that approach is becoming untenable. We seem to be nearing a moment of truth for government policy in regards to the arts and culture. All of a sudden, Australia's cultural policy settings are up for grabs. Perhaps most interestingly, the legitimacy of the Australia Council as a key policy-making body has begun to be questioned (and not just by Crikey). Just yesterday, for instance, respected and influential Adelaide Festival director Paul Grabowksy delivered a speech to the South Australian Press Club in which he attacked the current programing of of the symphony orchestras and bluntly stated that the Australia Council has failed artists. "Something is wrong, there's a lack of mettle," Grabowsky said, according to The Australian's Rebecca Puddy. "It could also be a defensive posture taken by the entire culture, trying to protect itself in a more competitive, less cosseted financial environment in which they need to be seen balancing their books and forcing them into the grotesque kind of organisations in which they have to be backing bands for rock'n'roll stars." Grabowsky is here describing the common practice of the state orchestras to play concerts with acts such as Deep Purple or Roberta Flack. He's also right to point to the defensive posture that the Australia Council and many of the organisations it funds seem to have adopted in recent times. The contemporary music industry has also started to organise itself to lobby against the current distribution of music funding, overwhelmingly weighted towards orchestras and classical music. Culture is changing. So, finally, is the atmosphere of cultural policy.

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3 thoughts on “Arts policy converging into a government hash

  1. Eric Sykes

    Good article Ben thank you, many are called but few get up, you remain the only arts journalist I know who regularly tackles this stuff and wrestles it to the ground.

  2. AngelTrumpet

    Ben, it’s always a pleasure to read your articles and interpretations of the deep, dark secret corridors that formulate the Australian cultural policy mess. Thank you for your passion! However, it would be wonderful to read on occasion of some of the wonderful work the major performing arts bodies actually do! I can’t recall the last time you wrote a positive review of an orchestra, state theatre, opera or ballet company performing an innovative new work to an appreciative audience.

    It’s hard not to feel that you are on a crusade against the majors at times, in spite of the cold reality that they are now expected to be everything to everybody all of the time. Appeal to wide audiences? Tick. Play cutting-edge new repertoire that initially appeals only to a small audience by nature of its newness and the demands it presents on established audiences? Tick. Preserve the classics? Tick. Innovate by playing the old and new in new ways and commission new works on a limited budget? Tick. Perform new and large works (involving many highly-skilled and as a result expensive performers) whilst balancing the books? Tick. Community outreach and educational activities to encourage broader access to artistic programmes? Tick.

    Perhaps the orchestras of the 1970s which Paul Grabowsky referred to in his speech were exactly that? Just orchestras which played new orchestral music without prevalent accounting fears as a part of the larger ABC. As independent bodies they are now expected to innovate as well as preserve, make money from pops gigs whilst also not losing too much of it on new projects, perform at a high standard (which requires a permanent body of musicians in contradiction with Justin McDonnell’s recent pit services review) but also not publicly discuss the high cost of performing at an elite standard for fear of being slaughtered by a media body (including Crikey) constantly on the lookout for any perception of a wastage of public money…..

    More government money for digital artists, gaming, off-beat festivals, writers, visual artists and cutting-edge contemporary music? YES! Must this always lead to regular attacks of those bodies currently in receipt of higher levels of funding, such as orchestras, theatres, opera and ballet companies which have a valid place in their communities? NO!

    The level of funding for most art forms and artists in Australia (including live bands as you posted) is too low for a society so proud of and willing to engage with artistic achievement. All artists and their lobbyists (including yourself, Richard Mills, Richard Tognetti and Paul Grabowsky) should be working together and not against each other to ensure the size of the pie is increased over the long term, rather than fighting over the size of dwindling slices.

  3. Australia Council for the Arts

    Ben et al, if you’re interested, Andy Donovan, Director Inter-arts at the Australia Council for the Arts has published an article on ArtsHub discussing some of the media arts projects represented at ISEA 2011 which were supported by the Council. Please see “Digital Arts? The future’s bright” for more on how Council has supported Australian artists at events like ISEA.

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