marcus westbury

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Time to think beyond the arts funding system

September 24th, 2010 by marcus

Just catching up on some old updates around here. This one was in The Age before the election.

NOT long ago, 15,000 people gathered in front of the Victorian Parliament to protest against an unpopular government decision. They chanted and marched, sported placards and listened to speeches. They weren’t protesting about refugees, climate change or Afghanistan — they were protesting about cultural policy.

It’s unlikely this federal election will be won or lost on cultural policy, but the protests inspired by the closure of the Tote and the bureaucratic ineptitude that led to it is a reminder that it has a constituency. The tale of the Tote is a perfect case study in why an attitude that sees culture almost exclusively in terms of arts funding rather than the much bigger area of cultural regulation is in dire need of overhaul.

We need a real debate about whether the well-intentioned but increasingly archaic central role of the Australia Council has had its day. Formed in the 1970s by the Whitlam government, the “OzCo” introduced meaningful support for artists and organisations across theatre, dance, visual arts and literature for the first time. But times have moved on — or forward, as some slogans might prefer. The Australia Council’s structure and artistic focus are still hard-wired in an act written for it almost four decades ago. It defines both what culture is and how it should be administered in ways that are hopelessly out of date. As a result the Australia Council is increasingly irrelevant. It has had little meaningful engagement with the digital cultural revolution.

The Australia Council today has morphed into the cultural equivalent of the National Trust. What we need desperately is something more like a planning department. Australia doesn’t have a cultural agency practically engaged with copyright laws, media regulation and censorship, urban planning and public liability laws, or the design and technology that impact every day on the viability and diversity of cultural expression.

The heritage aspect of the current Australia Council’s role is important but it doesn’t belong at the centre of cultural policy. We need an agency in government whose primary concern is contemporary cultural dynamics, opportunities and developments, not merely heritage preservation.

We need an agency with a contemporary brief, to ensure that we are a nation that is a creator and not merely a consumer of culture, and that Australians are active and enabled participants in the increasingly globalised cultural pool. That isn’t and can’t be the Australia Council.

This is not an argument about throwing culture on the mercy of the free market. It’s the reverse. It’s recognition that right now the market decides everything by default. We need an agency with a brief that is primarily cultural, not economic, but that recognises that culture has an economic and social component. Culture is ethereal and beautiful but it’s also constantly subject to market forces, and can bring great economic benefits.

Australia needs an agency that understands and can effect the market regulations for the cultural industries. The design of cultural markets, the rules and regulations that govern them and the incentives that they provide are often created by government. They have profound cultural consequences that no agency is currently charged with addressing. It’s not about public subsidy for commercial markets or protectionism, but a belated recognition that the market fails to support many art forms beyond just orchestras and arts centres. Right now less than 2 per cent of Australia Council music funding and little policy expertise goes to jazz, rock and other forms of contemporary music while we spend vast sums on orchestras and opera companies.

It’s time to think beyond the funding paradigm, to ensure the tax system, intellectual property laws, social security regulations, compliance costs in the built environment and other policy areas take into account the realities of contemporary cultural production. Australia needs to ensure that contemporary Australian culture is prioritised, funded and resourced at least as well as heritage arts, and that its policy priorities are elevated to at least the same level.

Whoever wins this election needs to be concerned with the creation and promotion of contemporary Australian culture — in all its diverse forms. Most Australian artists and creators do not work for or in large funded arts companies. It’s time to promote policies that support and respect this reality.

This is an edited extract from Cultural Policy in Australia by Marcus Westbury and Ben Eltham from the book More Than Luck: Ideas Australia Needs Now (Centre for Policy Development).

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jon Bonfiglio Sep 26, 2010 at 8:03 am

    A view from a non-Australian not in Australia with no Australia flag to wave in any sense on this (which many will no doubt dismiss on that basis alone), two things are immediately apparent:

    (i) All discussions have to be made on the basis of logical, accurate statistics and thought, which is actually all that Marcus Westbury is arguing. It strikes me he’s not arguing for or against anything, simply stating that he’s in favour of cultural policy being based on rational, progressive thought. This, of course, has to be correct.

    (ii) That we irrefutably live in a world that has never moved and developed so fast. If one of the (primary) roles of culture is to reflect and make sense of the world in which in we live, then it has to move rapidly too. This is culture’s challenge, and also the challenge to those funding bodies that purport to be its propagators.

    Ot course ‘culture’ is about legacy and memory, but to consign it to that service alone is to necessarily consign it to irrelevance.

  • 2 Rosie Clare Sep 26, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Hello Marcus,

    please visit my blog to see my response to your article which appeared in the SMH yesterday.