WHAT HAPPENS when the Federal Government puts a call out to the public to make suggestions about a cultural policy? After a few hours of reviewing some of the submissions, it would be fair to say that the quality and usefulness of the submissions so far have been decidedly mixed.
Despite its rather wonkish description, a national cultural policy may be the most significant development in arts and culture in Australia for a long time. While governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on the arts and billions more on other activities that generate Australian culture, Australia hasn’t had anything like a cultural policy since the Keating Creative Nation era.
Why do we even need a cultural policy? There is a legitimate argument that government should butt out of culture entirely. But for those who support or accept the idea that governments fund and regulate the arts, it is difficult to argue that they should do so without a policy.
If you hold the view — as I do — that the structure doesn’t work particularly well, an eternal frustration is the lack of a stated explanation of what we should be trying to do.
Without a cultural policy, Australian Government funding, regulation and activity in the arts can be hopelessly ad hoc. Cultural agencies such as the Australia Council, Screen Australia and even schools, universities and the ABC are often acting without a larger framework or co-ordination. They are often doing so without broader objectives. Arts funding, policy and support can easily degenerate into a set of big fiefdoms and an even larger set of gaps.
To his credit, Federal Arts Minister Peter Garrett has recognised that a policy is required. He kicked off the consultation process with a speech at the National Press Club and has put forward discussion points, asked for submissions and created a web forum where the public beyond the usual suspects can post ideas.
While the usual processes — including some that I’m involved in — will take place behind closed doors, the Government has also gone directly to the public through a website and asked three main questions: “What positive steps would you like to see to advance Australian culture?”; “What do you think should be priorities for a national cultural policy?”; and “What other issues do you think are important?”
The responses show that if you call for submissions from everyone, you will get gems, but you’ll have to hunt for them.
There are more than 100 submissions and suggestions ranging from the practical to the promising to the practically insane.
The comments are dominated by artists working outside the mainstream-funded arts. There are many complaints that the model is now too Sydney-centric, top-heavy and a little out of touch with contemporary culture. There are plenty of suggestions, although they often seem a little self-interested.
There’s also more than a little misinformation. A proposal to establish artist residencies in regional areas has been explained by some bright spark who says residency “is handled by the Immigration Department” and that artists should take it up “the old-fashioned way, by waiting in line”.
Someone else, undeterred by the fact that this isn’t Sweden and noting the role played by Nobel prizes in promoting the sciences, has asked “Why is there not similar recognition (or a comparable prize?) for our artists, poets, writers, designers, [and] musicians.” OK. Perhaps we could start with literature and poetry, and call it the Patrick White award?
There is a great passion for the arts in the comments, but not much background or context. Many people love the arts but aren’t very aware of how it works.
Providing a little more fact-checking, some figures, and some context about the history of federal arts policy would go a long way to focus the debate — as would providing some explanation of the priorities, and options for future ones.
Still, if you have an opinion or even an observation, this is the best opportunity in a long time to put it out there.
The process of engaging people is worth the obvious pitfalls. Of course, the ultimate test is not about what goes into the process but about what comes out. For that, we must all wait and see.
Originally published in The Age.You can read a detailed history of arts funding in Australia here or join the discussion here.
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