Australia’s soon-to-be-released National Cultural Policy promises so much more than a reflection on our diverse arts culture and a recognition of its vibrancy and innovation. As a much-needed national framework, it presents that rare opportunity to be as confident as we were when the Australia Council was founded, empowering and connecting it with the full breadth of what the arts means today. With responses to the Review of the Australia Council having just closed last Friday, an intensity of behind-the-scenes arts thinking is happening in government right now.

When Arts Minister Simon Crean called for responses to his 2011 National Cultural Policy discussion paper, a large number of submissions focused on the Australia Council instead. In turn, Crean commissioned a review of the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body. Within that reactive context, the terms of the Review were bound to be narrow, and its timing tight. And yet the last few years have seen an extended focus on the arts at the national level: as well as two National Cultural Policy consultations led by two successive arts ministers, we’ve seen the Convergence Review, the Mitchell Review of Private Sector Support for the Arts, and the Arts and Creative Industries Report among others.

That last report sought 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 was advocated, while indicators of wellbeing and creativity were recommended as measures of success to justify increased public support. The report concluded that “support for infrastructure and the enabling of creative producers to produce is a more appropriate direction for any cultural policy.” That is, we needed to understand and support the conditions that sustain independent practice, and doing so would power the arts as a whole.

While the Australia Council Review picks up some of these threads, recommending frameworks that support the “national artistic lifecycle,” on the whole the report takes us further away from the possibility of that consolidated national approach. The Review proposes welcome developments such as increasing peer review, rethinking the artform board structures, uniting other arms-length government arts organisations, and devolving service delivery to independent arts organisations who work directly with artists. In other areas, constraint and not convergence is proposed.

While “supporting the national artistic lifecycle” is posited as an objective for the Australian Government’s approach to the arts, an operational split is proposed for this objective between the Office for the Arts and the Australia Council, drawing a line between the former’s focus on “access” to works and performances, and the latter’s focus on “excellence” in artistic practice.

Such a distinction is out of step with contemporary arts practice, which breaks down the barriers between artworks and audiences, particularly in technology-driven, site-specific, durational and live art. Likewise, for creative practice among many Indigenous and culturally diverse Australians, art is communication, custom, community. Arts and culture are a complex ecology; access and excellence are two moments, two possible events along a complex array of trajectories and experiences. While the Review states that the concepts “are not mutually exclusive,” a focus on excellence over access limits the scope of the Australia Council’s potential impact. The true challenge for the Australia Council is to develop a comprehensive approach to the creative industries as a whole.

The review’s proposed new purpose for the Australia Council to support and promote work that is “distinctively Australian” is also problematic. The character of what is “distinctively Australian” is the critical mass of what is created by Australian artists and enjoyed by Australian audiences. A highly competitive application process will self-evidently select the applicants with the most merit according to the advertised selection criteria. What we understand as “excellence” and “distinctively Australian” emerge from that process; to pre-empt their measure is to constrain what we expect of our artists and arts organisations, rather than offering enabling frameworks imbued with a confidence in what our artists will make of them.

Currently there is no national body whose mission is to create and sustain the conditions conducive to the artistic lifecycle. An Australia Council reimagined as a creative industries body could unite other arts and cultural areas strategically, achieving the Review’s purpose “to increase the social and economic dividend from the arts, culture and the creative industries.” This can only be done by explicitly recognising the role of the arts in community development, education, design, urban and regional place-making, tourism, employment, health… as well as explicitly uniting policy and program areas currently sitting across multiple government departments.

With intense, behind-the-scenes policy thinking underway, the opportunity is there to bring together the findings of recent reviews in private giving and creative industries, reframing the Australia Council as a leading voice: connected to the complexities of arts practice, understanding the independent sector as its driving force, extending tax and investment incentives available to some creative industries. Supporting the national artistic lifecycle means developing a sophisticated understanding of our diverse and distinctively Australian arts excellence – from what artists themselves are making and doing.

Let’s not miss this opportunity to reimagine the Australia Council as a national cultural body for a national cultural policy.


This article was first published in The Australian on Monday 11 June 2012.