Plan unintended consequences: a response to the Australia Council’s Arts and Creative Industries report

Not too many years from now, we’ll look back on 2011 as an arts and cultural turning point here in the state of the arts – across practice, and at every level of government. The National Cultural Policy consultation; the Victorian change of government; the City of Melbourne’s review of the triennial funding program; the inexorable rise of the independent arts; and the growing momentum of public debate. Add to all this the recent release of the Australia Council’s commissioned Arts and creative industries report, and it’s clear we’re in for substantial change.

Yet while the report’s conclusions offer no great surprises as to what needs to happen next, it’s the historical overview that’s truly explosive, challenging the legitimacy of the Australia Council itself while calling for that desperately needed new vision. In outline, the report seeks a new policy framework under the proposed nexus “art-media-design.” A bold new approach that takes us beyond the subsidy model and addresses the ecosystem as a whole is advocated, and when we look toward measures of success to justify that public support, indicators of wellbeing and creativity are recommended. Beyond a subsidy model, “support for infrastructure and the enabling of creative producers to produce is a more appropriate direction for any cultural policy.” That is, we need to understand and support the conditions that sustain independent practice, and to get there, we need to understand what has given rise to current models of support.

Why are the arts publicly funded? Because throughout relatively recent world history, the arts have offered governments a powerful nation-building tool. The emergence of mass communication media and early modern capitalism presented a challenge to governments whose authority was premised on shared, unitary economies and cultures. Being seen to align with aspirational middle-class values, while subsidising preferred artforms to constrain radicalism and diversity, was a common European move. Only a few hundred years later, the 1960s counter-culture and ever new mass communication media made any notion of unitary nationalism look confected, and by the 1990s, further arts and economic specialisation alongside the internet breakthrough fast dissolved hierarchies of artforms or high and low art. A lot more was going on, of course, and it’s worth noting that I’ve condensed over 35 pages of detailed analysis into that small paragraph. This is a paper that invites you to read between its careful, evidence-led sensitivity, and draw your own ideological interpretation.

The historical overview chapters are the bulk of the report’s work, making for a very interesting read – spanning the origin of the printing press, the churches, Hegel, the Bauhaus, Buckminster Fuller, Foucault, Appadurai… as well as the political circumstances for the emergence of public funding models, such as post-war rebuilding and Blair’s Creative Industries. Frustrating any such project, yet threaded throughout this one, is art’s wiliness: the way its impacts and influence creep across culture and economy and into place-making and gentrification, creative convergence and creative destruction, new specialisations and new labour models. In Australia, we didn’t experience this genealogy first-hand; we imported its outcomes into our institutional structures. And then, like the conservative migrant environment in which I was raised, we tended to cling to those imported values and treat them as eternal. Right now, we continue to give away the equivalent of the Australia Council’s entire competitive funding pool to just one company, because that’s the way things have always been.

When conspicuous change has come to the Australia Council, it’s been in the form of the removal of artform boards, as opposed to a re-examination of the whole model. So while the Crafts Board no longer exists, we have the Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy as a partnership between state and federal governments, following an independent enquiry under the leadership of Rupert Myer. The Community Partnerships Committee has replaced the Community Cultural Development board, while the Inter-Arts Office has replaced the New Media Arts Board. The Australian Government’s Arts and Culture site states clearly that responsibility for the arts now rests within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Film, Creative Industries and Cultural Diversity are prominent sections, yet there is no specific mention of the Australia Council – except for a link buried four deep into a small box headed “Organisations.” There’s no mention if it even on the “Grants and Funding” page. Surely the Australia Council is still “the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body”?

Questioning the legitimacy of the Australia Council is something the Arts and creative industries report does subtly, noting that most cultural policy and arts funding bodies now share “the sense that their legitimacy is unclear.” It’s true that justifications for publicly funding the arts are increasingly contested. However, in our era of privatisation and free trade agreements, it’s not just support for the arts that’s questioned, but rather all public goods. In the case of the arts, this simply lends more weight to a whole-of-government approach. However, if the question of legitimacy comes from within government, then we’ve strayed far from the embrace of arts and culture as a means towards greater affinity with the people. Many years ago, a former arts advisor told me that if arts wasn’t partnered with another “testosterone-fuelled portfolio,” then its ministers would have negligible capacity to champion it among parliamentary colleagues. On the other hand, we’ve had two prominent Victorian Liberals championing the arts in the media in the past week alone: first Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, then former premier Jeff Kennett. Both called for a broad understanding of the arts and its essential role in place-making, education and community development, understanding the arts as part of a complex ecology. Could this be an indication of things to come, with the arts portfolio now back in Premier and Cabinet at the state level as well?

Such high-level support for the arts gives us confidence that new policy approaches will be imaginative and comprehensive, balancing economic justifications with a more nuanced view. Yet before we throw out the market line for good, let’s look at what arts and the economy have in common: both are powered by risk, and premised on creative risk-taking. A work of art stakes a claim, seeks new expression, takes a risk. Distinct from the question of transgression, which is within the nature of some art but not all, an element of risk is essential to the arts. Sustaining artistic practice is about negotiating a range of risks – from determining the vertiginous liminal point between a work’s success and failure, to navigating the mundanity of building codes and permits. We recognise and reward financial risk-taking; we see a cumulative representation of the All Ordinaries on the news every night, but no such index exists for representing our extraordinary artistic talent. The report’s call for “indexes of wellbeing, creativity, empowerment and diversity” is crucial. The UK government, looking beyond the limitations of GDP as a national indicator of success, will be reporting to its people on a wellbeing index from April this year.

What are we asking of our policy makers? That they think carefully and comprehensively about what sustains the generative conditions for creativity, innovation, arts and culture. That they bring the full diversity of conditions within their scope, from independent artist and producer development to tax incentives, liquor licensing and planning regulations. That they plan unintended consequences. The tantalising question for policy makers is not how to build a unitary state, nor how to distribute subsidies most effectively, but how to support the conditions that support artistic risks. Australia’s next arts policy will take creative risk as its foundation, approaching support for the arts realistically and constructively.

In doing so, it is essential that the Australia Council is empowered to develop a view of the arts which has greater depth and scope than what it currently funds. One of the four framing questions put to Prof O’Connor and his team was: “Are [the arts] just a subsidised input to the creative industries?” That the overwhelming majority of the arts receive no government support whatsoever is lost here; from Arts Victoria’s research data alone, we see that 107 organisations are funded out of an estimated 7,800+ independent and small-to-medium organisations, and artist application numbers for project grants is low when we look at the size of the overall sector. A great deal of work is happening, a great many creative risks are being taken – too far out of government earshot. The report observes that “a combination of cultural, social, economic and urban expertise has been growing in cities and regions here and across the globe, and has been under-utilised by national policy makers.” Now is your time: maintain the momentum and join the national conversation. Let’s collaborate on the arts and cultural turning point of 2011.


First published on Arts Hub 28 February 2011.
Featured image from Plan Unintended Consequences.