marcus westbury

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Evolution and Creation: Australia’s Funding Bodies (Meanjin Essay)

July 6th, 2009 by marcus

I was commissioned by Meanjin late last year to write an essay about the role that funding bodies play in Australian culture.  It appears in the current edition of the magazine and is now available online. Meanjin is one of Australia’s oldest and most esteemed literary journals and one that is currently enjoying a renaissance under the editorship of Sophie Cunningham.

The opening of the essay is below and you can read the full article through the link at the bottom. The aim to write a systemic critique rather than a good guys versus bad guys narrative. I hope it gets there.

Evolution and Creation: Australia’s Funding Bodies

Australia is blessed with an abundance of talented and enthusiastic young writers, video artists, performers, media makers, musicians, designers, publishers, painters, sculptors, poets, cartoonists, animators, dancers, photographers, illustrators, creators, curators and catalysts. A small number of them work within our well-funded arts institutions. The majority do not. Most operate and create in ways and at scales that are very different from the ones that our arts agencies were designed for.

I’ve spent much of the last decade in roles that involve collaborating with and advising artists and creators who are operating in a diverse, complex and rapidly evolving cultural landscape. In numerous conversations with street-level practitioners, the recurring theme is that the cultural funding and policy making system is broken. Australia’s bewildering array of government agencies and organisations that promote and support our culture are creatures of history and closed to possibility. They are formed to service the needs of large, fixed organisations and not the contemporary demands or desires of artists or audiences. They reflect the logic of bureaucracy rather than that of artists. They can and do fund vital work but are as often irrelevant or even counter productive when it comes to the task of enabling cultural production in Australia.

I’ve sat on committees and advisory panels of the Australia Council, the nation’s largest arts funding and advisory body; I’ve worked for and with our public broadcasters; I’ve worked for the now defunct Australian Film Commission; and with arts agencies in almost every state and territory. But despite having worked for, advised, and operated within many parts of the system I still struggle to understand the complexities, contradictions and cultures of Australia’s cultural agencies.

Responsibility for Australia’s arts, media and cultural priorities is diffused through dozens of other agencies, councils, departments, initiatives, strategies, schemes, corporations and associations. They are all full of passionate and knowledgeable people endeavouring to do good work. Yet collectively they are dysfunctional. Each operates with limited resources, governed by an internal logic rather than a larger strategy. Each is accountable to a self-defined sector or a narrow set of priorities and pressure groups. Despite several decades of the most profound cultural and technological changes, the structures and strategies of our cultural agencies have remained largely unchanged and unchallenged since the 1970s. So, while the artists and creators whose work I value embrace rapidly evolving modes of production, distribution and collaboration across disciplines, the agencies designed to nurture them remain paralysingly fixed…

Read the full essay here.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Rebecca Cannon Jul 6, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    I’d add to your list orgs which are trying to be economically sustainable (by proving this in a for-profit model) which are unable to receive any arts funding because of their for profit status, even if they are going to benefit culture long term.

    I’d like to see start-up funding initiatives for building economically sustainable cultural businesses which don’t rely on funding long term.

  • 2 marcus Jul 6, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    The question of what is and isn’t for profit is a perenial one and one that is rarely resolved. Most artists are essentially micro for profit enterprises in that they intend to make a living from what they do but often don’t. Similarly there are a whole range of for profit gallerists, producers and publishers who are direcetly and indirectly funded from the public purse. It is a question that needs some serious looking at as it ends up being more than just a for profit v. not for profit question but becomes one of resourcing beaucracy v. iniative.

  • 3 Andrew Mac Jul 6, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    Rebecca, Marcus you are both making so much sense here. Marcus, this is some of your best work.

    The industry feels stagnant, I feel stagnant, the Culture is stagnant.

    Personally, I don’t want funding and all it comes with, but there is zero incentive to keep sustaining initiatives – and taxes, administration and compliance are killing a lot initiatives and stunting growth.

    I wonder that there could be more incentives to the commercial and corporate world to get involved (ala USA), alongside a complete overhaul of State funding of arts. Many orgs and artists are funded to a level that engenders failure and low ambition, doesn’t encourage EXPORTING and interaction with international networks. The web is only so good, physically Australia is a cul-de-sac.

  • 4 Peter Briscoe Dec 5, 2011 at 10:19 am

    I live in regional nsw where we have built a large contemporary entertainment centre The Glasshouse which currently successfully hosts many & varied productions which generally play to full or near full audiences. Many of these are city based & in this sense we are financially supporting large city based art. Because of the very high maintainence costs this building is causing a substantial financial burden on the local shire . Where do we fit into the dysfunctional arts funding money scramble ? No where that I can see as we are a long last on the gravy line which operates on the basis that funding goes first to those that are already have the head in the trough & especially the large cities or Canberra . Art funding in the regions operates on hand me down ad hoc grants which prevent building & sustaining worthwhile arts initiatives .