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Why fund art? and what ‘excellence’ is really code for

Journalist Ben Eltham has been following the changing tides of arts funding over the last three years and today releases his Platform Paper WHEN THE GOAL POSTS MOVE: Patronage, power and resistance in Australian cultural policy 2013-16, tracing the changes and the forces at play over the course of the Abbott-Turnbull government. From the Sydney Biennale through to the transformation of George Brandis’s controversial National Program for Excellence in the Arts, Eltham’s paper is an essential and detailed account of a period of fundamental change in Australia’s arts sector. 

Here are two excerpts from the paper.



We have already encountered the word ‘excellence’ in this essay, courtesy of George Brandis’ 2013 election debate at the Casula Powerhouse. His enthusiastic adoption of the term reflects the victory of a certain view of culture in Australia’s political economy. ‘Excellence’, a code word, a handy signifier that equated to an unashamedly ‘high art’ view of culture. In policy terms it means support for the major performing arts sector. In this analysis, articulated by Brandis as about ‘the great audiences’, what matters in culture are the great works of the tradition. These are the canonical classics representing the pinnacle of enlightened humanity: Western orchestral music and opera, Shakespearian theatre and European old master painting. This view is not held by many artists themselves, who can be iconoclastic in their tastes. But it is widely held by Liberal politicians, by the Commonwealth arts bureaucracy and amongst the professional company directors of the corporate world who populate the boards of major cultural institutions. ‘Excellence’ is also an attractive value to those in the business community enamoured of neoliberal concepts like ‘competition’ and ‘risk’, as we shall explore in more detail below.

As I argued in Overland last year, the point about excellence was precisely not an artistic one. No national cultural policy can coherently articulate what ‘artistic excellence’ even is, let alone devise a policy which procures more of it. Instead, ‘excellence’ was simply the name given to the policy of supporting the major companies and institutions–those big companies that attracted the sup- port of the elite class of art-loving bank CEOs, company directors and merchant bankers. The Australia Council Review commissioned by Crean is the perfect example: it was conducted by Angus James, a merchant banker who also happened to be deputy chair of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Gabrielle Trainor, a company director and spin doctor who had previously sat on the board of the Sydney Symphony.

With the ‘excellence’ narrative firmly supported by the incoming Coalition arts minister, the suspicion was always that any funding cuts implemented by the Abbott Government would be deflected from the major companies, and would instead fall on the rest of the Australia Council’s client base. And that is exactly what happened.



Art can be bought and sold, mass-produced and exploited, but much that is best in art and culture is so self-evidently non-monetary that it is obvious even to lay people that it can’t be judged by the same yardstick as property values, stock options or commodity prices.

By their nature, their history and their example, the arts stand in colourful protest against the dominance of market forces (even if they provide lively instances of market activity); they are living proof of a higher good that makes policymakers, not to mention politicians, distinctly uncomfortable.

Artists are a motley crew at the best of times, but it is also true that they harbour few illusions about the mathematical inevitability of Pareto efficiency. Worse, they are often hostile to the interests of capital, even while demanding patronage. Such ‘vicious ingratitude’, as Turnbull said of the artists boycotting the 2014 Sydney Biennale, outrages the captains of industry and well-heeled scions of inherited fortune who dominate the board rooms of ASX 200 companies.

So what is the way forward? It turns out there are some rather good arguments for public support for the arts that need not slide into cultural elitism on the one hand, or special pleading and magical thinking on the other. In fact, the arts do have value, as the immense amount of enjoyment that they give millions of ordinary citizens every day shows.

More Australians make art or culture than play organised sport.

The argument is scarcely new—Aristotle articulated it 2,500 years ago—but in the current intellectual zeitgeist it is a newly radical proposition. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has collected fascinating data that makes this point. In 2013–14, 15.9 million Australians aged over the age of 15 attended a cultural venue or event—or 86 per cent of all Australians in that age bracket.

Table 1 below sets out some of the ABS data.

Table 1:Australians over the age of 15 attending a cultural venue or event, 2013-14. Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Of course, not everyone who turns up to a cultural event enjoys themselves. But millions do. The participation figures for culture in this country are striking, and deserve special examination. They show that around a quarter of all Australians make art or engage in artistic creativity. According to the Bureau’s long-running survey, ‘participation in selected cultural activities’, nearly five million Australians in 2013–14 spent time participating in the ‘performing arts, singing or playing a musical instrument, dancing, writing, visual art activities and craft activities.’

Australians also like making and supporting the arts: in 2006, Australian volunteered 30.6 million hours in arts and heritage organisations; another ABS survey in 2010 found that some 410,000 Australians volunteered for cultural organisations.

Table 2: Australians over the age of 15 participating in a cultural activity, 2013-14. Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

When you examine these statistics, the surprisingly widespread devotion of ordinary Australians to cultural pursuits comes into focus. Far more Australians engage in culture than engage in politics. More Australians make art or culture than play organised sport. More Australians attend an art gallery annually than attend a football game. And yet, the crude stereotype remains of the arts as a marginal, disreputable and even pathetic activity. The truth is the polar opposite: that engagement with culture is one of the foundation stones of Australian civic life.

This argument sometimes goes by the name ‘public value.’ While there is plenty of formal academic theory carried out under that banner, the phrase is useful for our purposes because it reminds us that culture happens in the public sphere. This, then, provides one powerful potential argument for state support of culture: the democratic value of cultural participation.

The fact that the majority of the citizens of the Australian State share a vivid and rich cultural involvement, means that culture is not some way-station on the road to the good life. It is the good life, a vision of a modern society where much of the meaning and value derived by individuals and families is expressed through cultural and artistic participation and creation.  As John Holden put it, back in 2006, a policy that supports publicly-funded culture can be one in which ‘culture is seen as an integral and essential part of civil society.’

This is a vision in which the state supports culture because it enriches civic, social and public values, and because it is central to who we are as modern Australians. It is a vision that is democratic and collective, because it enriches not merely separate individuals, but the common good. It is a vision for culture that shares much of what is valuable in other domains of the human spirit: in religion, in education, and in the humanities.

As the British political scientist Adam Roberts pointed out in 2010, these activities ‘explore what it means to be human: the words, ideas, narratives and the art and artefacts that help us make sense of our lives and the world we live in; how we have created it and are created by it.’

This an extract from Ben Eltham’s new Platform Paper, WHEN THE GOAL POSTS MOVE: Patronage, power and resistance in Australian cultural policy 2013-16, published today by Currency House

8 responses to “Why fund art? and what ‘excellence’ is really code for

  1. Whenever I hear the word ‘excellence’ (whether from the lips of George Brandis or the Vice Chancellor of the University of Syd) I think of Kylie Mole (‘So excellent, so good’)… However Inspector Gadget’s evil mastermind, Dr Claw would probably be more appropriate…

  2. Although I entirely agree with the evidence that a large proportion of the population are participating in cultural activities of some description, the definition of what actually constitutes such an ‘activity’ seems to becoming distorted, thanks to digital technology. What ABS category does my activity of watching a Beethoven symphony concert via the Berlin Philharmonic app on my Smart TV fall into? Cinema or classical music concert? Or neither because I was watching TV? I suppose the same quandary affects the sports and recreational activities statistics.

  3. Ben, until we Australians, take care of the arts by and for ourselves, and stop expecting handouts from the vote buying politicians, the arts will always be a place where handouts are given out.

    ie. Have you ever wondered why more money is given out to the opera than any other art form in Australia?

    Follow that trail my friend, and stop trying to talk to just the converted. With your access to the media (et al) and those who just support the arts, and/or those who want the handouts, it may just enlighten us all.

    1. I’m sorry Jeff. I’m not sure if you’re an artist or come from some other professional background but it’s clear you have an axe to grind. Like so many people in this country regardless of the topic, be it refugees, mental health or the Arts you want to vent your opinion in response to an article without, it would seem, taking the time to read it.
      Comments like this are a great pointer to all that is so wrong with the public discourse in this country. A tasty extract from a what is clearly a thoughtful paper that makes the very point of condemning the funding of traditional high art at the expense of all else that is then condemned because someone forgot to read it before they decided to type. It makes me wonder, it truly does.

  4. Great work Ben. The whole concept of artistic ‘excellence’ has always bamboozled me, especially when espoused by politicians. And I’ve spent my working life in the arts!
    Interesting to see “Musicals and Operas” grouped in a single category by the ABS. The traditional boundaries of cultural delineation appear to be increasingly blurred and evidently not just by the arts funding bodies. I suppose our ‘national’ Opera Company needs help to justify its HUGE cut of federal funding?

  5. Bravo Ben; what kind of a strange capitalist society are we building that can’t afford to educate its citizens and fund the national cultural estate that underpins democracy but can afford to use taxpayer’s money to bail out the privately owned global banks too big to fail?

  6. Ben, thank you for this – I must buy the full copy. I know that the Arts are necessary for a healthy community. For all within the community.

  7. I’m sorry but this is the same tired argument we have had for decades. This romantic appeal to “domains of the human spirit” sickens me, its so Radio National. The goal posts have moved because Australian Art is Government Art. The vast majority of arts funding goes to the management and employees of the Big Companies, Museums and Art Galleries. It does not go to individual artists. 99% of artists are excluded for the “excellence” of the major institutions. And even if one is “allowed in” (like I was for a while) one can be treated appallingly by people who are basically Public Servants. Why? Because these people control the only endless supply of big money! They basically tell you that.

    So until we realise that the Arts in Australia are in fact a public service travesty of “democracy and ye olde human spirit”; until we admit that the High Arts in Australia are actually an upper middle class comfort zone; that most of the management are kids from Private Schools and that the worst excesses of ABUSE OF POWER are everywhere in the High arts then we should stop this rather sickening slop about “human values”…go tell a teenager in a NT jail about those..instead of admiring some useless activist art that only preaches to the cozy converted.

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