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Australia’s Cultural Revolution – it’s time to remake the Australia Council

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In 2015, George Brandis inadvertently catalysed the cultural revolution the Australian arts needs to have if it is to drag itself kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Aided and abetted by a Senate Inquiry, a Federal Election and the dumping of the aforementioned Attorney-General as Arts Minister, the landscape continues to transform. The decades-long hierarchy that has the Major Performing Arts organisations (MPAs) collapsing as the arts sector develops the intelligence to read culture outside the agendas and received wisdoms of our arts agencies and cultural institutions.


So as the dust settles on the recent Federal Government decision to dissolve Catalyst and return the remaining funds to the Australia Council, it is worthwhile considering the impact of the decision on the revolution’s progress.

Alternative Facts

There is a strong desire within parts of the arts sector to frame the Government’s backdown on Catalyst as the end of a book they would prefer to close.

One of these is the Australia Council itself whose CEO Tony Grybowski last week attempted to wrest control of the narrative by saying “I would challenge anybody to say that our advocacy has not worked.”

This statement is as close as we’ve recently got to a ‘Kellyanne Conway’ moment. Grybowski pretends that what has happened, has not. The fact is for two years, the majority of the active arts sector, the cultural media and the political culture has said exactly that: the Australia Council’s advocacy has not worked, or worse still, was non-existent.

Here are the facts

Fact 1:

Senior political leaders formally criticised the Australia Council’s lack of advocacy

In a Senate Estimates hearing in February last year, Greens Senator Scott Ludlum asked Grybowski for the Australia Council’s response to the Senate inquiry into the budget cuts. Grybowski said he didn’t have one. To which Ludlum replied: “You’re not just sitting back and taking it. Is that what you’re telling me?” Labor’s Senator Catryna Bilyk added: “I think the Council’s been conspicuously silent about the Coalition’s savage attack on it and the arts sector in general.” Grybowski agreed to prepare a response ‘on notice’ – in stark contrast to his readiness to take a performance bonus in a year the agency lost 15% of its budget.

Fact 2:

The Australian media persistently reported challenges and itself challenged the Australia Council on its lack of advocacy

Across the spectrum from Ben Eltham in Platform Papers to The Australian’s Mathew Westwood, the consistent view in mainstream and independent media is that the Australia Council failed to advocate on behalf of the arts. Public commentators repeatedly criticised Council’s failure to petition the new Minister Fifield on his appointment. In early 2016, Westwood wrote “the response from the Australia Council was circumspect in the extreme”. In the same broadsheet just two weeks ago, Michaela Boland reported philanthropist Neil Balnaves called for a clear-out of Australia Council leadership for its advocacy failure, a call that inspired Grybowski’s desperate attempt to re-cast history in his favour.

Fact 3:

The advocacy of #freethearts directly resulted in the return of the Australia Council funds

Borne out of the small-medium and independent sector in response to Brandis’ incursion, the #freethearts campaign initiated the 2015 Senate Inquiry and activated ArtsPeak as a national advocacy platform which then organised the 2016 National Arts Debate. In between, its nascent, unrelenting advocacy was applauded by Greens Arts spokesperson, Adam Bandt, at a National Sector Meeting for taking down Brandis as Arts Minister. The former Shadow Arts Minister, Mark Dreyfus publicly and privately communicated the primacy of #freethearts in securing the return of the first tranche of funds.

As a member of the #freethearts National Strategy group, I was keenly aware of the Australia Council’s deafening silence and, worse, its reluctance to release statistics favourably comparing the small-medium sector to the Majors before the Senate Inquiry into the Arts.

Grybowski’s assertion that the Australia Council’s advocacy ‘worked’ is an affront to the many Australian artists and cultural operators whose tireless advocacy really did work.

The Australia Council is right to want to close the book on its most ignominious period but attempting the high moral ground when one occupies the lower depths is not the correct way forward. Its behaviour over the course of the saga has seemed, at best, morally wayward and strategically bereft. It would be wiser to admit the truth and give credit where its due.

The Australia Council is the recipient of change brought about by the successful advocacy of others. It is not itself an agent of that change.

The alignment of these facts do more than set the record straight, they circumscribe a narrative of Australia’s arts scene characterised by long-standing fault lines and alliances. Between the Ministry for the Arts and the Australia Council, a relationship cut from arms-length to shoulder-length with devastating results. Between advocacy platforms, on one side the MPAs constituent body AMPAG and, on the other, ArtsPeak and ArtsFront inspired by #freethearts, which find themselves supporting systems with contesting values.

Between the Australia Council and the MPAs, a wholly incestuous alliance founded on privilege and entitlement, and where we find the narrative element most corrosive to the other players.

MPAs: Precedent or Opportunity

In directing the return of the funds, Minister Fifield’s statement ‘provides scope for the Australia Council to address specific recommendations from the National Opera Review’. This has been distilled into allocating $3million to struggling members of the MPAs. Such action sets a dangerous precedent in the post-Brandis world: whenever an MPA organisation finds itself in financial difficulty, the funds for its salvation come directly from the Australia Council’s uncommitted funds, the pool that services the independent and small-medium sector. This situation provided an excellent opportunity for a display of leadership from the MPAs whose silence and inaction over the last two years has been interpreted by some commentators as shameful and by others as complicity.

In the interests of re-building confidence and a sense of community in the arts scene, the MPAs, through AMPAG, should have immediately refused this offer and been advised to do so by the Australia Council. To date, there is no indication that this has even been considered. It would require a degree of evolution that seems not to exist in this space. Today, the MPAs, their supporters in Government and their minder, the Australia Council, do not have the capacity or vision to appreciate the meaning of such a gesture.

They are the dinosaurs in Australia’s Jurassic Arts Park. A protected species. Brandis’ buddies. Trump’s elite.

Unsurprisingly, and apart from a couple of MPA-wannabes, for Australian artists and cultural operators the MPAs symbolise all that is wrong and inequitable in the current rendition of Australian culture and its funding apparatus. The implicit relationship between the MPAs, the Australia Council and the Ministry for the Arts – underwritten by last century’s Nugent Report – is the mechanism by which the independent and small-medium sector is subject to ever-decreasing funding poverty. It should be noted that Nugent also chaired the National Opera Review.

Ultimately, this nexus exhibits those characteristics that separate the arts from the rest of society and leads to the ‘elite’ descriptor. More importantly, it prohibits the arts from doing its job: creating significant, progressive social change. If it is to keep up with the rest of society, if it is to develop the capacity to create broad-based changes in society, the cultural revolution now underway within the arts scene needs turbo-charging.

Progressing the Revolution

Let’s start with some fundamentals

Step 1: Dismantle the current funding system

Let’s dissolve the protection and privilege that the MPAs currently enjoy, and create a system based on equity and fairness employing fundamentals such as artistic merit, social influence and agency, international reputation, audience numbers and reach. If the evidence put on record at the 2015 Senate Inquiry into the Arts is anything to go by then according to these criteria a far greater share of funds will be distributed to the independent and small-medium sector.

Step 2: Re-make the Australia Council

This is now non-negotiable. The 2012 Australia Council Review failed to re-structure the agency with the resilience it needs to deal with a Government attack on the arts sector, which no longer has confidence in the Council’s capacity to navigate the terrain ahead.

What is required is a new approach that acknowledges the forgoing of two key platforms – policy development and advocacy – and allows it to execute the more straightforward task of funding. This will of course require it to revise its current corporate values, a condition which did not cause but certainly enabled the astonishing inequity in the existing funding model.

Step 3: Campaign to Value The Arts as a Public Good

Arguments for funding the arts as a public good are numerous and powerful. However, few have real traction in the cultural imaginary. The effort of the arts sector in the 2016 Federal Election made some headway but a broad-based, long-term public campaign is required to groove into the Australian mind-set the value of the arts as a public good. A corollary is the idea that the arts is an adhesive that sticks society together, particularly in the educational sector but also the economic. This interconnectedness is what distinguishes the arts from most other human activities. It is not a reductive agent. It is an amplifying one. This needs to become received wisdom for the arts to evolve.

Step 4: Think Big

Underscoring these steps is the need to attract and discuss big ideas. Whether it be Brazil’s scheme of providing a Culture Stipend for all workers to expend on cultural activities, or abolishing all funds to institutions and allocating the whole arts budget to artists or imagining a cultural policy in which money plays no part which Ben Eltham proposed at a Dance Massive Conversation.

The intellectual deficit the arts has laboured under for decades has stunted its growth. This deficit lies as much in the quality of listening as it does in the quality of ideas.

Listening, campaigning, advocating, dismantling, re-configuring and creating, these are the key action words for the cultural revolution the arts needs to undertake on its own account, if it is to have any agency in 21st century Australia. Oh yeah, and courage.


[box]Main image: Artist John Kelly’s Big Foot, 2005 published in Daily Review in the story John Kelly asks the Australia Council to fund a project critical of the Australia Council in March 2016.[/box]

13 responses to “Australia’s Cultural Revolution – it’s time to remake the Australia Council

  1. One of the most articulate assessments of the quagmire the Australian arts scene has found itself in for many years.

  2. The Australia Council has a rare gift in its legislation, an authority to advocate to government on behalf of its constituency, unlike, for example the Dept of Communication and the Arts whose role is to ‘ develop Australian Government policies and deliver programs that encourage excellence in the arts’ etc. Departments operate at the direction of the minister, but sometimes enlightened departmental management can make a difference

    The once most vocal advocate on behalf of its sector was the old Australian Film Commission, especially under the chairmanship of Phillip Adams. Unfortunately, it had no legislated authority to do so and when its advocacy on behalf of the film industry in the lead up to the US-Aust. free trade agreement began to cut through, the then, Minister Ron Kemp, had no difficulty silencing it.

    A contributing factor to the silence of the Australia Council is the make-up of its board and the process of appointment. Appointments are the gift of the minister and the government. Being on the Council is seen by appointees as an ornament of grace not an authority to innovate. And since 2005 (I think it was) it is no longer a council of the arts or of artists: a council for the arts perhaps.

    The legacy of John Howard was the re-balancing of power away for Whitlam’s vision of a council largely made up of artists not grace and favour political appointment, ‘community representatives’ and career administrators. When your financial welfare is dependent on political patrons you don’t rock the boat.

    It will take a better band of political leader than we have at the present to change things, but without continuing agitation nothing will happen.

  3. While the Brandis funding cuts provoked outrage from the arts sector, the general public hardly noticed or cared. If you want them to care more, might I humbly suggest:

    1 – Add the words “pleasure” and/or “entertainment” to the OzCo funding guidelines,
    2 – Decentralise: take OzCo HQ away from Sydney and spread the different departments across the smaller State capitals.

  4. I would add to David’s thoughts that close to $105Million left Australia Council programmes devoted specifically to small to medium sector organisations and to individual artists as a result of the Brandis initiatives. The only question, to my mind, is how much will be returned to those exact same areas over the four year period. We know that $3million is going back to augment programme in those areas for the 2017/18 year and yes some of the Catalyst monies have benefitted the small to medium sector. But in the end what is the scale of the monies that have leached out either to the majors for uplift and financial stabilisation, and to residual ministerial directives? By 2020 what will individual artists and small organisations be left with as a percentage ofAustralia Council funding allocation? And what is the scale of the loss?

  5. David, a view from the region beyond the regions, Tasmania, would emphatically agree with this analysis. We, like so many small regions, companies and project leaders, have learned to operate and produce quality, inspiring and influential local theatre and artistic work on the smell of the proverbial oily rag. But, this work comes at the cost of artists living below the poverty line and a small scale of accomplishment that frustrates and limits. How do we re-establish arts funding in Australia so that the grass roots can do what they do best, feed and lead the majors out of their habitual, cosy, self-referencing, middle class mediocrity to a properly challenging and inspiring role in the Australian cultural landscape? We’re up for the challenge, where is the leadership from the top that can seize this unique moment and make us all better than before?

  6. Yes it appears that arts sector advocacy worked. Maybe it increased the Government’s embarrassment at George’s ‘budget night swifty’ to create a fund to give rich arts patrons apparently so they would “like him”. Its pathetic that a politician thinks that giving grants to the privileged will somehow rub off on himself – to be adored, to be recognised as excellent perhaps? To support their drive to be a diplomat in London one day?

    Is there a resentment that the Australia Council thinks it too had some confidential advocacy impact? That the arts advocates want more praise? If so then I say “Great work everyone we are now right back where we started!” Except for the fact that the Brandis largesse that has now been spent and will never be crawled back. Its hardly grounds for huge celebrations is it?

    Sadly most Australians are not told how government really works.’ Some arts advocates asked why civil servants didn’t go public and say “we do not agree with the elected government of the day making a decision!” Police officers, ambulance drivers and (poor sods) Centrelink workers and all public servants sign up to serve the government of the day. Their contracts require them to assist to implement whatever stupid or enlightened decisions governments and Ministers make and not criticise them in public. You can always choose to resign your job to go public. Is that what anyone wanted the board and staff of the Ozco to do? Really? To be directly replaced with Brandis appointments? What about your public hospital emergency ward? A walk out? Peak bodies like Artspeak were formed to do the hard yards that we knew the civil servants are prevented from doing. And they do that work on top of miserable conditions and with little recognition. I know because I was in the room when Artspeak came into being.

    If you want the Australia Council to be protected from a Minister ambushing it on budget night you need to privatise it. How much money would a government give it then? Probably only what they give it not for both kinds of art: opera and ballet.

    There is room for a discussion about and argument for shifting the balance of funding away from european heritage arts organisations and toward other kinds of arts practice. Does it have to get down to ‘who won the last war’?

    I agree that when the Budget night funding cuts provoked outrage from the arts sector, the general public hardly noticed or cared. Might I humbly suggest that someone who suggests that we take OzCo HQ away from Sydney and spread the different departments across the smaller State capitals has not (a) noticed that each state and territory has an Arts funding HQ already and (b) put their hand up to sit on the Ozco Funding Panels where the Sydney based peers are always in the minority and sometimes are not even called to be in the room.

  7. We all know that arts funding in Australia is a complete waste of money and its us, the tax payers who have to watch silently as our hard earned dollars go to yet another dole bludger addict who gets thousands of dollars per year for his ‘artwork’ of a bouncing ball. Artist’s need to get off the dole and stop being lazy bludgers. Get a job like the rest of us and stop using my tax money to pay for your ‘art’.

    1. David’s suggestion of an artists stipend as they do in Brazil would be better! Then we could all get of the dole and the work we do be considered valuable to our society.

  8. Last week the death of an Australian artist, John Clarke was reported on the front page of many dailies and in the electronic media, sometimes leading bulletins. Widespread were expressions of shock and sorrow at his sudden death and admiration of his work. A great example of how an artist and and his work is important to the life of the country and why in some circumstances public support is valid.

  9. “…abolishing all funds to institutions and allocating the whole arts budget to artists…”

    “When your financial welfare is dependent on political patrons you don’t rock the boat”

    “1 – Add the words “pleasure” and/or “entertainment” to the OzCo funding guidelines,
    2 – Decentralise: take OzCo HQ away from Sydney and spread the different departments across the smaller State capitals.”

    ABOVE are my three picks from the texts here. Australian Art is Government Art. Only Govt has the funds to do anything meaningful at present, except in commentary on the Internet such as this. Commentary that is totally ignored. OzCo and the BIG Arts Institutions are not artist’s friends. These Institutions exist only to do their employer’s bidding and their employers are the Government of the day. Labor ignored the Arts as well as not cutting was only not causing OzCo and artists to GET LOAD! Labor now somehow trying to look Arts Friendly is now very dishonest and sad.

    There is an unholy alliance between Government, the Big Arts Institutions and the Mainstream Media. This alliance purposefully shuts out any dissenting voices. T

    However in Fine Art/ Contemporary Art I would say the small/ medium Arts Organizations are totally USELESS and a waste of money. All of these places “fudge” their audience figures. I’d say we MUST demand TOTAL TRANSPARENCY from where our tax dollars are spent from the Biggest Institutions to the Smallest.

    Let’s face it no one really goes to opera, its for the Elites. The Public fund Opera and Ballet etc that they never go to. No Govt funds Taylor Swift tickets at all! BUT far more people like Taylor Swift that Opera! It should be the other way around, the most popular should funded the most! The Revolution is coming as the Public are waking up to how they have been “culturally abused” by the Rich and the Public Service. All Arts funding to Institutions MUST end!! I am sick of funding the Institutions with my work and images I give them for free!!

  10. I was thinking about the issue of Individual artists and the Australian Arts Establishment which Australian Government Art on the whole. Basically Individual artists are an annoyance to the Mainstream Art World run by Public Servants. It may come as a surprise but Museums Australia has no policy at all to do with artists and instead suggested I contact NAVA, another Govt Agency! In Qld we used to have the Qld Artworkers Alliance which was…yes…a Govt funded agency which did so little for artists it was ended.

    Basically Individual artists are meaningless to the mainstream Australian Art World unless they are the 1% of artists chosen to represent all artists. AND often these artists are fully enmeshed in the art establishment by being lecturers in colleges etc. It would come as no surprise that two of our most favored Contemporary Artists, Callum Morten and Mikala Dywer are senior lecturers at major art colleges.

    There was a Insight program last nite on SBS about depression among sports people. The Art World LOVES The Van Gogh Syndrome of the tortured artist BUT the mainstream art world in reality hates to have to deal with any problems with individual artists at all. If an artist admits to any mental health issues they will be subtly but surely passed over for a more “normal” artist. The word always used is “difficult”. This is why we get so many absolutely dull artists in pinafores who make the most innocuous work get so much PR attention. These artists are easy for the public servants to control.

    For me I used to be “easy” BUT I found that being good meant in the end I was being totally used and abused, ripped off financially. Whatever happened to Government Institutions being accountable for DUTY OF CARE???!!! They just ignore this. When I asked Chris Saines the Director of QAGOMA a list of questions about how to make the experience of the Qld Artist better at his Institution Saines just dismissed me outright. How can this be occurring using Public Funds.

    In the end you get the Government YOU deserve and YOU get the Art World YOU deserve. Artists can change this but like the majority of the Public we are too ground down by Life and living hand to mouth to have the energy. The Art Public Servants would say same as they too are victims in an ugly and insidious Industry that is has developed into a middleclass soft entertainment zone of pram jams and cafes and “colourful” always colourful and….NICE!

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