marcus westbury

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Australia Council should burn some midnight oil

March 22nd, 2010 by marcus


There is something slightly disingenuous about the spin that came with the Australia Council’s More than Bums on Seats: Australian Participation in the Arts survey released last week. At the very least, it’s a double-edged sword. At the superficial headline level, the report shows that Australians love and value the arts. But dig a little deeper and it asks some pretty tough questions of the Australia Council’s priorities and the federal government’s role.

The core of the problem is that by the Australia Council’s usual standards, the report takes an improbably broad definition of “the arts”. It shows that a massive majority of Australians value and participate in the arts, from reading to music to theatre to visual and digital arts.

For lovers of the arts and creativity in all its forms, the report is a vindication. In surveying more than 3000 people, it finds that most Australians genuinely love the arts: they love writing, music, visual arts and crafts. As such, it provides great ammunition in the case for governments taking art seriously and investing in it.

Yet, for the Australia Council, this also presents a challenge, namely because what the survey reveals is that the public often disagrees with it about what “art” is. As such, it serves to seriously undercut the council’s own funding priorities. While it demonstrates Australians have an obvious passion and engagement with a wide spectrum of creative and cultural pursuits, it fails to justify a policy that elevates, nurtures and funds such a tiny proportion of them. In effect, recognising that Australians are enthusiastic participants in the arts does not justify policy priorities that exclude most of them from the council’s dated and deeply dysfunctional definitions.

Take music as an example. Australians love music. The report finds that nearly two-thirds of us “participated” in music last year. Slightly more than one in 10 attended classical music, more than two in 10 attended music theatre or cabaret, yet more than four out of 10 attended “other live music”, which covers everything from pop to rock to country and dance. Where, then, is the justification for the Australia Council spending more than 80 per cent of its music budget and nearly a third of its total budget on orchestras?

Orchestras have a role, but if contemporary music is what Australians value, who is taking up the real role for government here?

At a federal level we’ve dropped the ball on the continuing crisis and upheavals of the music industry. Peter Garrett should recognise this. How much of the informal infrastructure that supported Midnight Oil’s rise to critical and commercial success has been obliterated?

For decades, the very pubs and live-music and cabaret venues and small theatres through which Australians engage with live music have been lost to poker machines, real estate prices and rampant regulations. Yet the Australia Council has done almost nothing.

Local radio stations have vanished and are lost to networking risk-averse and formulaic content, and technological upheaval has upended the music industry. Even now, new technology is offering up new opportunities and threats, yet the nation’s leading cultural policy body struggles to identify let alone engage with them.

The Australia Council should not be guided by simple populism, but it should at least be attuned to what is culturally significant. It should strive to make the full spectrum of Australian culture as successful as it can be. It is not about subsidising commercial markets but recognising that the market fails to support many forms and infrastructures not just opera and orchestras and arts centres.

This report is being presented as a marketing tool for arts agencies. But it’s not; it’s a road map of cultural values to be taken seriously in forming new policy approaches and priorities. It shows that the world is changing. It shows participation in the arts — particularly the digital arts — is surging. It shows that patterns of consumption and production are far more diverse than the funding programs and policy approaches currently cater for.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 john walker Mar 22, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    The Ozco was modeled on the British arts council.
    There has been a running scandal in the UK about the extraordinary, bloated management costs (in some cases well in excess of %50) of the UK funded sector.
    One report highlighted the fact that even when tickets to “arts’ events were given out free, few (sometimes none) of the managers in the British system bothered to go.

    The most arguable claim implicit in the report is :that the OZCO has much to do with the ‘arts’, elite or popular, at all.

  • 2 Peter Anderson Mar 31, 2010 at 9:13 am


    After I’d skimmed the ‘More than Bums on Seats” report I pulled down a 20 year old copy of the journal “Culture & Policy” and reread a review I wrote of a number of similar reports back in 1990. I think that many of the arguments I made then would find echos in your comments now. In other words, not much has changed when it comes to this sort of research … The core point is not that the cultural field has changed radically, but that the Australia Council continues to interpret the data it collects in a very particular way. Your point about music would have made perfect sense 20 years ago (and there’s a good chance you could find very similar arguments in the literature).

    Some time back (in the late 1990s) the Queensland Government (though Arts Queensland) launched some programs to support contemporary (rock etc) music. At the launch I made an aside to the Minister along the lines of … “good to see the policy shift … I remember a time when Queensland government contemporary music policy was delivered by cops with dogs”. For a history lesson regarding music / art developments in the late 70s /early 80s … go see the Melboune Brisbane exhibition currently at the Potter Gallery at Melbourne University (its on until May).

    When you make a comment like this …”For decades, the very pubs and live-music and cabaret venues and small theatres through which Australians engage with live music have been lost to poker machines, real estate prices and rampant regulations. Yet the Australia Council has done almost nothing.” … I take it that you mean the Australia Council has done nothing in the face of the ‘decline’ you suggest has occurred … perhaps a better point would be that they have done nothing EVER in regard to this sector … no involvement in its growth, nor the shape it has taken, nor the percieved decline. What should it do?

    Peter A

  • 3 John Walker Apr 2, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Marcus– look forward to your thoughts in response to Peter Anderson’s Question

  • 4 Marcus Apr 2, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Peter and John: I guess the “what should the Australia Council do” question is one i am grappling with across the breadth of things that i’m doing rather than in a single blog post or comment. The answers aren’t simple and they are as much about breaking down the old ways, trying new ways of doing things to see what work as about me providing a proscriptive list. .

    Chances are that the Australia Council is the wrong structure and probably needs a major rewrite of the act with its archaic definitions of the arts and cumbersome structure. We need a much broader cultural agency at the federal level with a more expansive policy brief – i am not sure the Australia Council is ever going to be very good at getting beyond the culture it funds in its current form.

    What should it do about music? Well, it needs to look beyond the narrow funded forms and look at market failure across all forms and at issues that effect musicians rather than forms. As with all art forms the Australia Council has dropped the ball on the practical, coal face policy issues – regulation, licensing, access to space, etc. Someone needs to provide some advice to government, leadership and best practice policy in that regard. Ulitimatley the viability of all music (or theatre of visual arts) is the product of how easy it is to play, set up venues, perform, etc. While a lot of this is state government stuff it also has a big federal government component.

    There’s an obvious intersection between contemporary forms like music and communications policy and there’s a role to be played in shaping and developing that. Again, no one at the Federal level is even looking at that.

    Finally, there’s also a role for direct funding there – particularly in nurturing innovation and experimentation but i’d argue that it’s probably not the starting point.

  • 5 John Walker Apr 2, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    So in the Year 2010; What is the public purpose for public support and or funding of the arts, what is the intention? This is a question as old as the council itself.

    At the beginning was the unasked question – what is the council for. Many saw its role as funding “new advanced art” that did not have support in the wider community and/or for art that simply did not yet exist.

    The council of the ‘arts’ was banged together in 2- 3 years out a lot of not very compatible components, by people who did not have much of a idea about the strategic long term ( strategy is always about what you do not do).

    Many were well intentioned and naive- they did not see that the logic of the formulation:” art can be anything” and that “anybody can be an artist” when actually put into practice meant that actual funding of ‘art’ itself is: impossible. These people mostly left or were , often, thrown out.

    Those were not so naive realized that the situation developing in the council was a contest for power – to define what is: NOT ,”advanced art” and the power to say :”you will just have to get used to it”.

    The muddle was in 1975 made a statutory body largely exempt from government intervention in the way it ran things and so it remains to this day.

    The council is already way too big and also paradoxically it is also too ‘devolved’ (too split up). It covers too many disparate things and because of devolution it is impossible to for anybody to properly oversee the operations of the 191 sub-organisations that the council funds to actually manage its arts programs.

    The combination in the one authority of the roles of: a) advisor on policy ,b) manager of implementation of that policy, c) manager of the sub-contracting of the management of arts programs to other organisations, and d) evaluator of the effectiveness of both the policy and the management of the implementation of policy is obviously bad design .

    These roles need to be as clearly & sharply separated, as the powers of: law maker(parliament) , law enforcement(police) and the evaluation of the charges ; innocence /guilt (courts) are.

  • 6 John Walker Apr 12, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    whats your take on this JUMP mentor-ship thingo?

    Any idea how they decide who doesn’t get funded? 36 applicants got the money -124 did not-
    And any idea how much the program will cost to admin?