Spare a thought for the people derisively labelled as “arts bureaucrats” by many a starving artist (including, at various points of his life, your correspondent).

Unlike their colleagues in the more precarious sectors of artistic and cultural endeavour, public servants in arts agencies enjoy a steady pay cheque and some nice super. But in return for the public service day job, they earn the contempt of many in the art world. The rest of the public service doesn’t appear to take them too seriously either — especially not policymakers in the central departments of government, who mainly encounter “the arts” when an arts agency comes begging for a bailout for this or that orchestra or festival.

But we don’t often hear from the public servants entrusted to dole out ever-scarce public funds for the arts. In general, they’ve been content to stay backstage during the fits and starts of recent cultural policy debates.

Which is why the forthcoming publication of a long essay by Leigh Tabrett is all the more intriguing. Tabrett, a former boss of Arts Queensland has penned a “platform paper” for Currency Press entitled “It’s Culture, Stupid!”. In it, she writes frankly about the challenges of mediating between desperate artists, anxious arts organisations and clueless arts ministers. It’s an eye-opening account which has even led her publisher to describe Tabrett as a kind of whistle-blower.

While there is no single anecdote to compare with Andrew Podger’s notorious tale of Commonwealth statistician Bill McLennan threatening to “biff” John Howard’s public service supremo Max Moore-Wilton, Tabrett is particularly open about dealing with arts ministers:

“Ministers coming to an arts portfolio often do so with little knowledge of the arts and cultural sector, its traditions, funding history, and policy challenges. They will have a conceptual framework of the traditional art forms (orchestra, ballet, opera, musicals) and the major institutions (galleries and museums) but little of the rest.”

Tabrett, appointed head of Arts Queensland in 2005, came from a senior role in Queensland’s much-larger education department.

“As I got further and further into it, what I discovered was it’s a whole system that doesn’t have what I would regard as well-developed policy underpinnings,” she told Crikey. “One of the things about education, for example, is that there are very clear statements of goals for schooling in Australia. I talk about the Melbourne, Hobart and Adelaide declarations on schooling, which were negotiated between all the jurisdictions, including the Commonwealth, and are statements on intent for schooling.”

Arts policy has nothing like this, Tabrett points out, especially with the nascent National Cultural Policy currently in limbo.

“At one stage we were looking at writing, and we asked the question: is it better to invest in the front end, in writers, or is it better to invest in the demand end, with publishers and causing things to be produced? So much of that seems to be trial and error. There would be libraries full of research on what works and what doesn’t work in education,” she said.

Tabrett spent much of her time convincing sceptical bean-counters in Treasury of the worth of an arts agency. She says she had to constantly negotiate the purpose and value of an arts agency with the central government agencies. “Instead of us having an establishing act describing why the government is investing in this area and what its purpose is, we would get sucked back in to negotiate,” she said.

Tabrett argues the arts industries play a role in their own marginalisation, by failing to advocate for a fuller, more expansive definition of culture and its role in everyday life.

“We always retreat from the idea of culture and go back to the arts,” she explained. “Even within the arts, we retreat back to the known and familiar art forms, and then it becomes easy to isolate that as being about something that a very narrow band of people are interested in.”

The worst part of the job, she said, was dealing with the hostility towards arts bureaucrats from artists and other public servants: “Everyone talks about arts bureaucrats as if they are the lowest of the low, the most loathed species on the planet, in government and in the sector. You have to look enough like government to be recognised by government, but the message you have to take out of that to the sector is rarely one that the sector wants to hear.”

Tabrett describes it as a “painful” experience. “It’s not just a whole lot of nice gigs at the expense of the host organisation,” she laughed.

Tabrett related being asked by a CEO of a major company what Arts Queensland’s vision for the organisation was; she was “horrified”.

“I understand why people ask that question — they’re desperate to be on the right side of the funder and to get the money they need. That’s such a toxic thing that it should come to that point,” she said, a view that illustrates a crippling relationship of funding dependency. “If an organisation can’t take charge of its own vision and its own positioning, then nothing will shoot it in the foot more than trying to please two or three different funding bodies.”

Nor is it easy dealing with arts ministers. Tabrett writes that some politicians struggle to see the value of art in the first place — particularly public art. She writes:

“The inconvenient truth is that some [ministers] see artists as indulging in their hobby.”

“Politicians are interpreting what they think is the public view and they’re always running any proposals through that lens,” she said. “People accept weird stuff in galleries, people will even say ‘it’s an art gallery, they’re entitled to do that’, but when they see public money creating something in their street, there’s a much more visceral response.”

Had Tabrett seen any inside mail on the languishing National Cultural Policy? “I’m sure the government hasn’t given up on it,” she said. “Everyone underestimated the complexity of the task”. She says expect an announcement soon — she might be the only person in the sector still waiting.

*Leigh Tabrett’s “It’s Culture, Stupid!” will be launched by former Queensland premier Anna Bligh at Damien Minton Gallery in Sydney on February 13