Arts Minister Simon Crean has released the findings of the Review of the Australia Council. While Crikey was still reading and digesting the report as we approached deadline, it’s clear from a first reading that the review has major implications for the future of the Australia Council and federal arts policy generally.

The review was conducted by merchant banker Angus James and corporate communications expert Gabrielle Trainor, and will feed into the forthcoming National Cultural Policy.

The review’s most important recommendation is undoubtedly the abolition of the Australia Council’s existing artform boards: the legislatively mandated artform silos such as dance, music, theatre and literature that have defined the way the council has supported artists and organisations for the past 40 years. The review says that under the existing arrangements, “funding via artform is historically based with no clear reference to audience participation, practitioner numbers, or artform cost”. It recommends an entirely new model for funding the arts, that:

a) Replaces the standing artform board structure with a general stream for grant applications across all artforms; and

b) Maintains the centrality of peer assessment but promotes flexibility and breadth by adopting, but adapting, the model employed by the Canada Council for the Arts that allows for more peers to become involved in assessment and thereby diversifying the mix of peers.

The review also recommends about $21 million in new ongoing funding to the council, primarily to go to artists and organisations outside of the major performing arts sector.

Other key findings include:

  • The Australia Council is still relevant, but its role needs to be updated to reflect the realities of 21st century contemporary culture. While “excellence” should remain the core priority of the council, what this means needs to be better defined, and the council’s governance and funding procedures need to be made more flexible and nimble.
  • Funding arts practice should be the role of the Commonwealth, while funding arts access should be the role of the states and local government.
  • The council should operate with four guiding principles:
  1. support work of excellence, at all stages of the artistic life cycle
  2. promote an arts sector that is distinctively Australian
  3. ensure that the work it supports has an audience or market
  4. maximise the social and economic contribution made by the arts sector to Australia.
  • The major performing arts sector should be “opened up to peer review on a competitive basis, consistent with the recommendations of the 1999 Nugent Report“.
  • The bulk of the new funding — $15 million in all — should be directed towards supporting  “unfunded excellence” outside the major performing arts sector.
  • A new grants process is proposed: artform silos will be abolished, while an expanded and more diverse group of peers will support peer-assessment made by a whole-of-council “investment group”.
  • Funding should be opened up more widely to commercial practice: “Artists who pursue commercial outcomes from their work should not be unfairly disadvantaged in applying for support from the Council”.
  • A new grants process is proposed: artform silos will be abolished, while an expanded and more diverse group of peers will support peer-assessment made by a whole-of-council “investment group”.
  • The Council’s unwieldy governance structures need to extensively reformed and modernised, with a nine-member “conventional, skills-based Governing Board” established to replace the current governing council.
  • “Sector Advisory Panels”, which would be the “custodians of artform practice within the sector”, will act as peer reviewers for the new governing board and management, reporting to the board.

Arts Minister Simon Crean has stated that “the Review’s 18 recommendations include the need to refine the Council’s legislative purpose, to ensure a modern governance structure and to introduce a new grants assessment model that is focused on funding work of the greatest artistic excellence, regardless of artform”.

“Importantly,” he added, “these reforms retain the Council’s operation at arm’s length from government, with competitive funding decisions made on the basis of peer assessment.”

*Crikey will publish in-depth analysis of the review’s recommendations tomorrow