marcus westbury

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The ABC and Ozco: Cultural change and how (not) to adapt to it

November 2nd, 2009 by marcus

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THE Australia Council and the ABC provide two radically different examples of how cultural agencies can deal or fail to deal with technological change. Where the ABC has spent the last decade experimenting, making and learning from mistakes and innovating with digital technology, the Australia Council has retreated further and further away from engagement in contemporary culture. The results are on the board to see.

Today and tomorrow in Sydney, both organisations are hosting Revealing the Arts: creative conversations and solutions for the digital era. The aim is to explore questions such as what’s happening to arts and culture in the new digital world? Where will the money come from? How will we manage rights? Where do we find creative partners? And what works and what doesn’t?

It is a conversation well worth having. Yet it is one the Australia Council in particular is coming to rather late and in serious danger of missing the point. A cursory glance at the program makes it clear it is aimed squarely at the major cultural institutions that dominate the Australia Council’s budget and its thinking.

That the Australia Council is interested at all is a positive. Their recent “Arts content for the digital era” strategy is a step forward. Yet there are vital basic assumptions that are rarely questioned: that the culture, the cultural organisations that deliver it, the cultural needs and infrastructure of Australia will remain more or less fixed. Technology is merely about the marketing, the branding, the language, the revenue and the education programs. The idea that the culture itself is changing and evolving is rarely considered. Technology merely changes the hype and the pitch to keep the kids interested.

The ABC has long moved beyond that. The broadcaster has realised that in order to justify its continued existence, it needs to keep questioning and evolving its roles. Since the handful of hobbyists built the first ABC website in the 1990s, ABC leadership — to varying degrees — has recognised the importance of experimentation, innovation and branching into new areas. It has not been easy. They’ve got it wrong at times and done so against a background of constant sniping that resources were being drawn away from core areas.

The Australia Council has largely taken the opposite tack. They’ve retreated towards a heritage rump. They’ve engaged occasionally, mostly faddishly, with experiments in new media — they created with much fanfare a new media arts board. They subsequently abolished it. They’ve acted defensively, not inquisitively, strategically or even opportunistically.

As the ABC has invested in new audiences, new ways of doing things and new initiatives, it has largely paid off. Parts of the ABC are growing, parts in decline but on the whole it’s a healthy and — most importantly — a culturally relevant system to most Australians.

Meanwhile, the Australia Council sits on narrow terrain that has seismically shifted. The entire world of professional and amateur creation, of ad hoc exhibitions and global audiences opened up by the internet, has been ignored. Changing forms have clashed with archaic art-form definitions. The result is that proportionally less and less Australian art and culture has anything to do with the Australia Council.

As the ABC was divesting itself of orchestras the Australia Council was acquiring them — to the point where they now dominate its budget. As the ABC was opening new media initiatives, the Australia Council was closing them. As the ABC was diversifying into innovation, experimentation and decentralisation, the Australia Council was investing in fewer, more established and more traditional companies. The contrasts could not be more stark.

The reality is that culture is evolving at rapid pace. Artists increasingly work in ways that the Australia Council has little understanding of or interest in. By default, the Australia Council has decided its role lies with protecting and defending the heritage arts and not with being an active participant in an evolving culture. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a legitimate role, but it should be recognised for what it is. No one thinks the National Trust does urban planning and I doubt anyone would suggest they should.

ABC chief Mark Scott is speaking to the forum tonight. Last week he gave the AN Smith Memorial Lecture in Journalism at Melbourne University. Speaking of the media landscape, he chided the growling demands of old empires in decline, he criticised those who lack innovation, and painted a future vision of a culturally relevant ABC that evolves and adapts. It was controversial and both praised and criticised, but it was built on a solid platform that goes back long before his own time at the ABC. It will be interesting to see if the same themes get a mention tonight.

Disclosure: Marcus Westbury is currently working with the ABC on new media projects.

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