The Australian Performing Arts Centres Association conference is being held this week in Darwin, part of the Darwin Festival, which winds up this weekend. (Crikey‘s spies tell us that Mary Anne Butler’s new show Highway of Lost Hearts has been creating plenty of buzz).

APACA is Australia’s peak body for performing arts centres — a more interesting sector than many realise, with representatives right across the nation in hundreds of venues and centres small and large, particularly in regional Australia. Performing arts centres are particularly important in terms of regional touring infrastructure, often representing the only venue in a regional city that can accommodate theatre or dance. According to APACA executive director Rick Heath, there is a lot of slack capacity in the sector. APACA estimates performing arts centres are vacant about 40% of the time.

As part of the conference, Arts Minister Simon Crean was beamed in to speak to delegates in a video cross from Canberra (it was a sitting week in Parliament). Crean had some announcements to make: several funding programs currently housed in the Arts Department will be moved to the Australia Council.

Those of you unfamiliar with the bureaucratic demarcations of the federal arts portfolio will probably be surprised to learn that large aspects of federal arts funding exist outside of the Australia Council. It includes some pretty important programs, such as the Contemporary Music Touring Program, Playing Australia, Festivals Australia, Visions of Australia, the Contemporary Touring Initiative  and the Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy.

This week’s announcement means all these programs will move inside the Australia Council. “The recent review of the Australia Council recommended a number of significant changes to the structure and operations of the government’s major arts funding body,” Crean said on Wednesday. The minister described it as “the first step in readying the Australia Council for the challenges of an arts sector that is transforming, and to help deliver on the goals of the national cultural policy”.

Arts industry representatives that we spoke to were broadly supportive of the move. Heath told Crikey that “whether you like it or hate it, this is the sort of change that will open the debate and encourage our industry to rethink, and certainly reshape, the way we do touring in this country”.

“This is a well overdue and much needed prod for the performing arts touring industry,” he said in an email. “For APACA in particular, this move is completely consistent with the changes afoot as a result of our own review, where we’re aiming to better connect art with audiences.”

Nicole Beyer, from the Theatre Network of Victoria, thinks the move “is great for the performing arts industry”.

“We are pleased in particular that it may mean some changes to the guidelines so that artists can stay in communities for longer when they are touring, instead of the current push for very short tours,” she added. “This would help to increase engagement between the touring companies and the audiences.”

The reshuffle comes as speculation builds about whether the forthcoming national cultural policy will include a major restructure of the Australia Council, as recommended by Gabrielle Trainor and Angus James in their review of the council earlier this year.

Not everyone is happy. This week in The Australian, novelist Rodney Hall — a former chair of the Australia Council — attacked the findings of the review, arguing the move to abandon legislated artform boards and reform the structure of the Australia Council amounts to “the corporatisation of the council, and the emasculation of the peer assessment panels”.

In a long and at times confused assault on Trainor’s and James’ recommendations, Hall argues removing the artform boards and their specialist chairpersons amount to the “tail wagging the dog”:

“The fact is that, no matter how many hybrid arts projects are on offer, 90 per cent of submissions still fall into the traditional categories of music, theatre, dance, visual arts and crafts, literature, indigenous arts and community cultural development. These, after all, are the disciplines taught by our training institutions and they are the main career paths for professional artists.”

Hall goes on to blame sweeping corporatism for “precipitating a global financial crisis with such reckless dishonesty that it wiped off a third of the world’s wealth”, cautioning that “the minister should be warned that the proposed model will destroy more than it delivers”.

This column places little credence in these arguments. Many of them are tried re-runs of the same old debates mounted in the 1980s during Barry Cohen’s tenure as arts minister (a debate that also featured plenty of long-winded columns in The Oz). While Rodney Hall blusters, the rest of the industry has largely ignored his bombast, and is looking forward to the release of the national cultural policy.

But when will we finally get to see it? A spokesperson for Crean again assured Crikey this morning the policy would be released “this year”. The clock’s ticking, Simon …

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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