marcus westbury

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Updates from the world of arts policy

September 23rd, 2010 by marcus

I have been absolutely useless with keeping things up to date around here. I put it down to a combination of events at Renew Newcastle (where events in the city have forced us to bring forward a few medium term plans), the embryonic development of a Renew Australia (a national scheme to seed local “renew” and empty spaces initiatives as is already happening in places like Townsville and Adelaide), and the need to make a living from none of the above. Actually it might also be the rather exciting development that i’ve become a dad for the first time that makes everything else seem much, much, much less important.

For the last few months Ben Eltham and I have been rather gently pressing the case for a 21st century approach to cultural policy in Australia. It may have seen to some like a concerted campaign but has actually been a series of responses to commissions from others and some engagement with the resulting discussion. I thought i should probably try and summarise the various contributions in one post here.

Mid year we were commissioned by The Centre for Policy Development to write an essay for their pre election policy book (and e-book) More than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now. We wrote a chapter on Cultural Policy in Australia was very widely talked about. I’d encourage all of you to read it if you haven’t but the conclusions we came to were relative straight forward.

Specifically, we suggested that we need to:

1. Recognise that “cultural policy” is about more than funding for the arts.

2. Abandon the false divide between high art and popular culture.

3. Create a new cultural agency for contemporary Australian culture.

4. Cut the red-tape that affects culture.

5. Fund artists and production, not institutions.

Following on from that Ben and I wrote various other pieces of commentary and opinion summarising our arguments and attempting to further a debate. I wrote this piece, Has the Australia Council had its day, in my regular gig at The Age [observant readers will note the slight discrepancy between what the subs wrote at the top and the content of the piece], Ben wrote additional pieces at The Drum and Inside Story and most recently he has gone a step further and provocatively called for the abolition of the Australia Council over in Overland. I don’t actually go that far but i’ll save my thoughts on the future role of the Australia Council for a future post.

In response to our essays there has been something of a debate generated with contributions of varying levels of quality and insight. The most “official” came in the form of an essay by Richard Mills (the Director of West Australian Opera) that was commissioned and published by the Australia Council and also summarised in The Age that offer up a bizarre and gratuitous denunciation of new media as “”meretricious, self-serving claptrap” and went as far as to suggest that theatres and concert halls were full of the extraordinary while other artforms “can be done by any reasonably intelligent person with a modicum of application and training.” Well at least he suggested some are reasonably intelligent i guess. Still, why the Australia Council is commissioning essays that boast about defunding Australian art forms and go out of their way to insult Australian artists is slightly beyond me.

The Australian published something of a summary of the debate but didn’t talk to either Ben or I. They subsequently ran a correction from me pointing out that i wasn’t calling for the abolition of the Australia Council. A minor but fairly significant point i would have thought.

Meanwhile, apparently responding to a rumour that one article by two Melbourne writers and bloggers somehow constituted a major shift in government policy the heads of the MSO and the Australian Chamber Orchestra somehow managed to convince the ABC to run a prime time TV news report about an entirely fictional threat to their very existence.

Still, it hasn’t all been slightly insane. Fortunately Opera Victoria’s Richard Gill writing in The Age provided a sane and nuanced counterpoint to some of the noises coming from the classical music community.  There was also a critical but quality response from Christopher Madden at his blog. Most recently Fee Plumley who runs the Australia Council’s excellent Arts in the Digital Era program chimed in with an excellent contribution on that program’s blog.

I could respond point by point to every comment and criticism but i think it’s best to let a lot of it pass. I do want to pick up on one thing though. It’s the mentality that it is Orchestras, Opera and Classical music under siege in Australia right now. Frankly, that’s either ignorant, disingenuous or a bare faced lie. As a simple look at the numbers reveals even after years of gently raising these issues opera and orchestras are by far the biggest recipients of Australia Council funds, they get 98% of all music funding, and they receive several times more Australia Council funding than every other artist in every other artform in Australia combined. If the directors of those companies can not respond to the idea that other artists in Australia are being shut out of a system that is stacked absurdly in their favour with a response other than insults, scare campaigns and offensive diatribes their position will become increasingly untenable.

There is a false argument being pedaled here,  that people like Ben and I are somehow suggesting that arts funding needs to be either/or and that we need to destroy the old to usher in the new. If as Kathy Keele, the CEO of the Australia Council suggests “It’s not either-or… it’s about doing it all” i wholeheartedly agree. I have never suggested anything more than we should resource living artists at least as well as we resource major companies and bring our artform definitions out of the 19th century.

But the status quo IS either/or. In Australia right now you can either  have a secure income working for a Major Performing Arts company OR you can’t have a secure income as an artist. It’s as simple as that. Any move to introduce more equitable support for living contemporary artists is not introducing an either/or dynamic it is actually remedying one.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Nick Herd Sep 23, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Hi Marcus

    I want to comment on your statement about opera and orchestras that ‘they receive several times more funding than every other artist in every other artform in Australia combined’. This is not at all accurate. Let me demonstrate.

    The ABS gathers and publishes annually data on cultural funding across the three tiers of government. The latest data was published last month for the 2008-09 year and is avaliable on the ABS website at

    The global figure for cultural funding across Commonwealth, State and Local government was $6.777 billion. An increase of $491 million on the previous year. About 57% of this funding goes to museums and heritage.

    At the Commonwealth level Music Performance recieved $59.3 million and Music Theatre and Opera received $24 million out of a total of $1.8 billion of funding for the arts. The latter figure includes funding for radio and television services of $1.3 billion i.e. ABC and SBS.

    At the State level Music Performance recieved $58.8 million and Music Theatre and Opera receibved $16.9 million out of a total of $719 million of funding for the arts. The latter figure includes $241 for performing arts venues.

    At the local government level the ABS puts all performing arts together at $87.6 million.

    If one only looks at Commonwealth and State funding for the arts, and removes radio and television and performing arts venue funding, then funding for Music performance and for Music Theatre and Opera represents about 17% of all arts funding.

    In fact the art form that receives the most funding is film and video production, which received $238 million from the Commonwealth and the States, even without taking into account Commonwealth support for the ABC and SBS.

    Nick Herd

  • 2 marcus Sep 23, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    HI Nick, Apolgiges for the inaccuracy. It should read “receive more Australia Council funding than” not receive “more funding than.” I have corrected that.

    Obviously there’s a long debate about what should and shouldn’t constutute art funding but i do note whether film and television qualify as an art form or not seem highly dependent on how convenient it is to the argument at hand :)

    I wouldn’t mind unpacking this statement:

    “If one only looks at Commonwealth and State funding for the arts, and removes radio and television and performing arts venue funding, then funding for Music performance and for Music Theatre and Opera represents about 17% of all arts funding.”

    Can you link to the raw data on that because those numbers do surprise me. Have you excluded the venue funding from other forms to come up with that comparison?

  • […] the debate is starting to gather steam. Over at his blog, Marcus has a post summarising the various work we’ve done together to highlight the inequities […]

  • 4 Nick Herd Sep 24, 2010 at 11:00 am

    The data is on the ABS website at

  • […] see that Marcus Westbury has been linking up all his recent articles on arts policy (which I blogged about earlier this week) and pointing out some of the attention he’s been […]

  • 6 marcus Sep 24, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    Nick: after looking at the raw numbers i’m not sure that extracting the venue numbers (which is the largest single expenditure apart from “other”) provides a particularly fair comparison.
    There would have to be a venue component in the visual arts numbers for example (e. ARI support, studio rents, etc – although i note museums are accounted for elsewhere most visual artists aren’t exhibiting in or based in “museums”). Venues are a key source of subsidy to the performing arts and to the major performing arts in particular. Having said that, from the headline numbers its almost impossible to break it down to that level.

    Nonetheless, more useful numbers to muse over. I am tempted to send Mr Mills and Tognetti the “Multimedia” numbers. While Federal funding for Music Performance and Opera grew by 25.5% and 19% respectively over the year “Multimedia” (which i must confess looks like a useless category) actually fell by more than a third!