Sharing the luck

Cultural policy in Australia

51 Comments 05 July 2010

by Ben Eltham and Marcus Westbury

Policy context

In early 2010, more than 15,000 people gathered on Bourke Street in front of Victoria’s Parliament building to register their protest against an unpopular government decision.1  The colourful crowd chanted and marched, sported placards and banners, and listened to speeches by local identities.

What were they protesting about? Climate change? Refugees? The war in Afghanistan?

No, they were protesting about a decision by Liquor Licensing Victoria to enforce onerous security requirements on live music venues in Melbourne. The new regulations had led to the closure of one of Melbourne’s best-loved rock venues, a Collingwood pub named The Tote. Many other venues were threatened with the same fate.

This was a protest about cultural policy.

“Cultural policy” is not often thought of as an important topic of public affairs. That’s odd when you consider that culture touches on many of the things that Australians do, see, hear and engage with everyday. Watching television, reading a newspaper, playing a computer game, updating your Facebook status, sending a tweet, going to a bar to see comedy, even things like gardening and cooking: all of these activities are explicitly cultural.

“Culture”, as English critic Raymond Williams once pointed out, “is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.”2 Culture in Australia is no exception. It’s simultaneously broad, diverse and multi-faceted. It ranges from the oldest continuous cultural traditions in the world, to be found in the art and culture of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, to the newest digital forms of cutting-edge expression. It includes the highly trained professionals in our nation’s orchestras, operas and dance companies, as well as the “weekend warriors” who dust off their guitars for a weekly neighborhood jam session. It encompasses some of the most popular types of entertainment media, to be seen on top-rating TV shows like Masterchef or So You Think You Can Dance, as well as obscure community arts projects and folk crafts. Culture is about learning a foreign language, sharing thoughts, words and images with a friend on Facebook and listening to your iPod on the way to work.

But all too often, when we discuss government policies towards “culture”, what we actually mean is “the arts” – and only a small subset of the arts at that. Indeed, when we think about cultural policy in Australia, we often think simply of grants to artists, or government cultural agencies such as the Australia Council, as though these are the principal aspects of government policy towards culture.

In fact, cultural policy cuts across many government portfolios and encompasses a vast swathe of everyday life. It’s as much about the rock band at your local pub as it is about the Sydney Opera House, as much about popcorn during the movie as chardonnay after the ballet. Cultural policy is about what you can and can’t watch on free-to-air TV or view on the internet, whether you can exhibit photos of naked children in an art gallery, or when and where a band is allowed to play.

The size and scope of culture

Culture is all around us. Millions of Australians engage in cultural expressions for their own pleasure every day. For every Hugh Jackman, there are tens of thousands of unknown but passionate artists in hundreds of different artforms, all grappling with the age-old challenges of making art that someone, somewhere will want to experience and engage with. In comparison with this vast cultural universe, the kinds of activities supported by the Australia Council – and by extension that are within the policy brief of government – are a small and dusty room.

One way of taking in the size and scope of culture in Australia is to examine the size of the so-called “cultural” or “creative” industries. These are a far bigger share of our economy than many people realise. The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us that there are nearly 300,000 Australians working in a cultural occupation as their main job; more than car manufacturing and mining combined.3 In June 2006, there were more than 77,000 registered cultural businesses contributing a total cultural output approaching $41 billion.4  In 2003-04, Australian households spent $14.6 billion on cultural items like books, CDs and pay TV. Culture is also a big part of our daily lives: watching television is Australians’ most important leisure activity, and the movies are our most popular destination when we go out. More than three-quarters of Australians read for pleasure, while nearly 14 million of us attend a cultural venue or event at least once a year.5 More importantly, the impact of culture is beyond economics. It’s at the heart of our identity and way of life.

So it’s quite a surprise when you realise Australia has no formal cultural policy, and hasn’t since Paul Keating’s Creative Nation policy of the 1990s. Cultural policy has evolved as an ad hoc series of decisions by governments of all levels. The result is that there is no coherent set of principles to underpin the way our governments at all levels support and regulate culture. Rather, a set of de facto policies has evolved, often haphazardly, which are inconsistent and contradictory.6

One of the biggest problems is that the current framework views cultural policy almost exclusively in terms of arts funding, rather than the much bigger area of cultural regulation. Things such as copyright laws, media regulation and censorship, urban planning and public liability laws that impact upon the viability and diversity of cultural expression are beyond the reach of the current paradigm. Though they have a far greater impact on cultural life than the funding of any individual company or initiative, they are beyond the scope and responsibility of our cultural agencies.

When you look at Australian culture in all its richness, the inconsistency of policy responses reveals the ad hoc nature of the current approach.

For instance, the Australian taxpayer spends hundreds of millions a year supporting Australian films, but not Australian computer games. We enforce some of the most stringent and punitive copyright laws in the world, without examining the costs of these special industry protections to consumers, schools, libraries and the public sphere. State governments promote contemporary music policies (“Victoria Rocks”) at the same time as imposing crippling regulations on the live venues that support that contemporary music (such as the laws that shut down The Tote). We create powerful economic incentives to replace live venues with poker machines without any evaluation of cultural consequences. We create regulations such as building codes, zoning and planning approaches without regard to the capital constrained nature of cultural practice. We maintain inconsistent and incoherent approaches to media regulation that means adults can watch an R-rated movie, but not experience similar material in video games, and perhaps soon, not on the internet either.

Another consequence of these inconsistencies is a sustained lack of funding and support of Australia’s indigenous cultural expressions. In cultural funding terms, the “great Australian silence” towards the richness and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, first criticised by anthrolopologist W.E.H. Stanner in 1968, still continues today.7 While some of the oldest living forms of music in the world slowly die out in central Australia, the Australia Council gives more than five times more money to Opera Australia than it does to its entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board.8 Opera is a valuable part of the western tradition. But Australia’s indigenous cultures are a unique, rich and valuable set of traditions that are both vulnerable and potently powerful symbols of Australia around the world.

But our cultural policy debate rarely discusses these issues.

Where do we weigh the balance between expanding the choices and options for media consumers and small producers, rather than the industry protections of media proprietors? Where in debating copyright frameworks do we balance the rights of copyright holders (generally big media companies) with copyright users (generally consumers and public institutions like schools and libraries) in line with the realities of contemporary cultural practice? Where do we weigh the merits of supporting living artists making original new work against the heritage artforms and traditional European genres that we overwhelmingly fund?

The Rudd-Gillard Government’s cultural policies

While the Rudd-Gillard Government under Minister Garrett has begun the important task of developing a National Cultural Policy, in practice very little has changed since the Howard era – continuing a lineage of ad hoc policies and evolving misallocations that stretch largely unbroken back to the Whitlam era.

In developing a national cultural policy and in taking submissions about what it should be, there has been a notable step forward. The Howard Government did no such thing in 11 years in office. However, whether the need to engage comprehensively with the policies that affect culture can be reconciled with a powerful inertia pushing towards a policy that is purely about funding for the arts remains to be seen.

In calling for submissions on a new national cultural policy, Peter Garrett at the very least encouraged us to examine the way things actually work – or fail to work – already. Arts and cultural debates in Australia often devolve into a contest between those opposing government funding, and those seeking to increase it. Cultural regulations are generally ignored. By focusing debate on our current policy settings, we now have a chance to advance some much-needed options for reform.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a coherent cultural policy framework, much of the cultural policy action has taken place outside the Arts portfolio. In the Communications portfolio, the development of a National Broadband Network promises the largest cultural infrastructure project in the nation’s history – despite rarely being described and evaluated as such. Indeed, there appears to be little if any discussion of the cultural impact of the regulatory, technical, economic rules that will govern such a network.

Equally, the proposal to censor the internet through an unworkable mandatory filter is a decision with profound cultural consequences. This $125 million effort must count as one of the strangest policies of the Rudd-Gillard Government. While the filters are unlikely to prevent predators and pornography, they will have major consequences for freedom of speech and expression. The policy abandons our Western liberal tradition to follow a precedent established by totalitarian countries such as Iran and China. It’s hard to think of a more counter-productive policy for Australian culture.

Why the Australia Council needs to be reformed

The Australia Council for the Arts is the Australian Government’s dedicated arts policy and advisory agency, so it’s a good place to start when we examine cultural policy.

The Australia Council was formed in 1973 by Gough Whitlam’s government. It introduced meaningful support for artists and organisations working in artforms such as theatre, dance, visual arts and literature for the first time.9

Unfortunately, the Australia Council’s structure and artistic focus has changed little since the 1970s. In this time, driven by new technologies such as the internet, art and culture has changed radically.

The result is that the Australia Council is increasingly irrelevant to culture today. The act under which it operates defines both what culture is and how it should be administered in ways that are hopelessly out of date. For example, the Australia Council has had little meaningful engagement with digital and new media arts, social networking, or gaming. In a decision driven by internal bureaucratic politics, the Australia Council abolished its New Media Arts Board in 2005.10

In a tale familiar to students of public policy in other spheres, the Australia Council has also been “captured” by the arts organisations it funds. Although it contributes small but significant amounts of funding to smaller companies and individual artists, the Australia Council now exists largely as a conduit to funnel money to a small number of large, privileged arts organisations. Its supposedly important functions of peer-review, advocacy and arms-length policy analysis have withered away to almost nothing. In monetary terms, the majority of the grant dollars it distributes are not peer-reviewed at all.

The Australia Council is the cultural equivalent of the National Trust. For instance, while the Australia Council devotes approximately $90 million to music funding, only two per cent of this goes to jazz, rock, pop and other contemporary forms of music.11

The heritage aspect of the current Australia Council’s role is an important function. But it should not be at the centre of cultural policy. We desperately need a planning and development agency whose primary concern is contemporary cultural dynamics, opportunities and developments, and not merely heritage preservation.

The problem: the need for a holistic approach to culture

We are a long way from a joined-up approach to culture across and within Australian governments. In fact, Australia’s cultural policy is hopelessly fragmented across many agencies, leaving great gaps.

A glance at the way screen and broadcasting policy is handled in Australia illustrates this point. Australia’s federal Arts portfolio under Peter Garrett includes Screen Australia, the national film and television development agency. But Screen Australia plays no role in screen and broadcasting regulation, which is governed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, part of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Copyright law and the Australian Classification Board are the province of the Attorney-General’s department. Digital content innovation and R&D is under the purview of a fourth department, the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. University film schools such as the Victorian College of the Arts are the responsibility of the Education Department. Film festivals are generally funded by state governments. The permits and regulations for film-makers wanting to shoot in a particular location are imposed by local governments. There is no national screen policy that seeks to join up all these dots.12 Indeed, as film and video production becomes more decentralised, many screen-based practitioners are working in areas such as online video, gaming, and non-broadcast based media that have little or no engagement with, nor are consulted, by any of these agencies.

Australia’s cultural agencies were largely devised when the number of places in which cultural production and distribution took place was small and relatively fixed. At their core they are still rooted to the idea that a small number of elite artists produce and present large-scale culture through major institutions based on a classical European model or – in the case of film – major commercial producers and distributors.

In contrast, society is becoming more culturally diverse. Immigration, demographic change and new technologies and communications media have transformed the spectrum of cultural choices available.13 The large-scale infrastructure and mass subscription model that underpins the logic of many funded arts organisations is poorly equipped to respond to the plethora of new artists, artforms, audiences, genres, and sub-cultures emerging in a rapidly changing cultural dynamic.

The lack of engagement with cultural regulation in the music industry illustrates the counter-productive consequences of this disconnect. In Victoria, the state government has a specific policy for supporting contemporary music called “Victoria Rocks”, administered by Arts Victoria. Contemporary music is largely performed in small, commercial venues such as pubs, clubs and bars – and the proliferation of niche genres, markets and audiences is creating even greater demand for smaller venues. Yet these same venues are closing in response to tighter regulations from another part of the Victorian government that deals with liquor licensing. Nationally, the need to create viable small scale cultural venues – for music and other creative forms – is clashing with policies that are fostering denser urban planning, expanding numbers of gambling venues and poker machines, and requiring capital intensive building codes. Despite the Australia Council’s own research14 demonstrating that contemporary music is much more valued than the orchestras and opera companies that it overwhelmingly funds and focuses on, neither Arts Victoria nor the Australia Council have engaged substantially in these debates.

Our funding-centric approach to culture largely ignores these issues, yet federal issues such as tax, social security compliance, copyright and media policy, state issues like liquor licensing and public liability law, and local government issues like noise laws and urban planning are key cultural policy questions. There has been little or no effort by the Commonwealth or the states to try and adopt whole-of-government policies towards culture. As a result, much government cultural funding is wasted, and the practical needs of most artists, small organisations and even entire cultural industries (such as the design industry) are falling through the cracks.

Case study: Creating space for artists to be creative

One of the biggest problems for artists, who typically have low incomes, is finding affordable space from which they can create, distribute and present their work. While a prolonged property bubble has driven up rents and exacerbated this problem, there are still many spaces within Australian cities that sit empty. In late 2008, the Renew Newcastle scheme was established in the regional New South Wales city of Newcastle to take some of the 150 otherwise vacant commercial spaces in that city and make them available to artists, creative enterprises and community groups. To date, the initiative has placed more than 50 artists in shops, offices, studios, and galleries. In doing so, it has revitalised a once emptying city centre and seeded a series of creative initiatives, both commercial and not-for-profit. It is a model for facilitating low-cost decentralised cultural production that other cities such as Cairns, Townsville, Adelaide and Geelong have begun to emulate.

While the scheme has been a success, it is also a case study in the lack of responsibility for cultural regulation at a national level. The very presence of empty spaces in many cities is a product of both market failure and government regulation: many buildings sit vacant due to complex tax laws and planning regulations that provide strong incentives to owners to leave buildings vacant. As a result, flexible access to these spaces for artists and creators is essentially a policy setting – even if it is not an artform-specific funding issue.

Unfortunately, under the current model, there is no capacity for meaningful engagement with the Federal Government around these issues. The Australia Council’s ambit to fund or support culture is defined in the dated, art-form specific cultural responsibilities defined by its 1970s era legislation, and cultural practitioners who work in ways that don’t fit into this model have no place in such a structure. Further, because the Australia Council is also the national cultural policy advisory agency, these artists and their issues are not represented in the Australia Council’s policy advice.

Iconic institutions or starving artists?

Spare a thought for the people who make Australian culture happen: the artists. The debate about Australian culture often ignores the great achievements of the individuals who create it.

In 2003, economist David Throsby released an in-depth report into Australian artists’ incomes. The title of the report, Don’t Give Up Your Day Job, says it all. The report found that the mean creative income for an independent artist working in Australia was only $17,000 per annum (the average annual wage in Australia in 2003 was about $52,300). But in that year, the Australia Council distributed just 6.3 per cent of its grant funding to independent artists. The remaining 93 per cent went to organisations.15 A recent, comprehensive survey of Australian arts funding commissioned by Arts Queensland found that “grants to individual artists to make work are estimated to be fewer than five per cent of all arts funding.”16

As folk wisdom suggests, choosing the arts as a career can still mean a short road to relative impoverishment. Most artists and creative workers take a huge pay cut just to work in their chosen field of employment, and as Throsby found, nearly all of them need an extra part-time job or two just to survive. Of course there is not necessarily anything wrong with this: people like nurses and teachers choose professions that reward them in non-financial ways all the time.

But the huge imbalance of funding between artists and organisations is the result of a long-term decline in direct funding for Australian artists and creative workers that has damaging consequences for the Australian creative economy. In the absence of direct public sector funding for artists undertaking primarily creative work, the balance of arts funding goes towards administrative positions within funded organisations. The unquestioned assumption that large companies and fixed institutions are at the centre of cultural life has placed the management and maintenance of such organisations at the centre of cultural policy concerns and government expenditure.

In this era, such an approach is neither effective nor efficient. Despite their bohemian reputation, individual artists can often be highly efficient, as they are excellent at leveraging and making the most of scarce resources. They can also be flexible and capable of building appropriate structures and mechanisms to create, present and promote individual shows or projects. Their way of operating allows for small-scale experimentation, innovation and risk taking. Individually and collectively, they are highly responsive to technological change, changes in audience dynamics, and the decentralised environment of cultural creation and consumption. They require little in the way of expensive infrastructure. By contrast, the highly-centralised structures in which we invest most of our cultural resources have high overheads and are often conservative, risk-averse and place comparatively little value on experimentation or the creation of new work.

Individual artists (especially non-famous ones) are the forgotten voice in the Australian cultural debate, even while they provide the bulk of the workforce for our cultural endeavours. It’s high time Australia re-balanced its cultural investments and regulations away from big buildings and big corporations, and towards the creative human capital of the cultural sector. At stake is not the future of artistic achievement in Australia — for artists will always create, no matter their economic circumstances — but the ability of Australian creators to tell their own stories, and create for their own communities.

A new cultural agency for contemporary Australian culture?

The reliance on the Australia Council as the primary agency for cultural policy is inherently unsustainable. Australia needs a new government cultural 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.

The brief should be primarily cultural, not economic – but must recognise that culture has an economic component. Culture is ethereal and beautiful, but it is also subject to market forces, and can bring great economic benefits.

Such an agency needs to work beyond the funding paradigm, to ensure the tax system, intellectual property law, social security regulations, compliance costs in the built environment and other policy areas take into account the needs of contemporary cultural production. It needs to ensure that contemporary Australian culture is funded and resourced at least as well as heritage arts, and that these policy priorities are elevated to at least the same level.

The key policy goal should be primarily concerned with the creation and promotion of contemporary Australian culture – in all its diverse forms. To do this, we must recognise that most Australian artists and creators do not work for or in large funded arts companies, and that therefore we need to promote policies that support and respect this reality.

One of the ambits of this agency should be to review and make recommendations on Australian industry and market regulations for the cultural industries, from a cultural as well as an economic perspective. The design of cultural markets, the rules and regulations that govern them and the incentives that they provide are often created by government, and have profound cultural consequences that no agency is currently charged with addressing. This role should not necessarily lead to public subsidy for commercial markets or protectionism, but it should recognise that the market fails to support many artforms – not just orchestras and arts centres.

The false divide between “high art” and “popular culture”

Cultural policy has long been bedeviled by a false distinction between what is sometimes called “art for art’s sake”, and for-profit cultural products created by the entertainment industries. Public funding for the so-called “high arts” is often justified by the artistic merit of artforms such as literature, theatre or orchestral music, and by the supposed inability of these arts to exist if left to the workings of the free market. In this world view, government support for popular culture is often frowned upon as a “dumbing down” of standards, and in any case unnecessary, because the market already provides these products.17

In the real world, this is a false divide. The “high arts” can often be boring, unoriginal and pretentious, while so-called “popular culture” can display high standards of creativity, originality and artistic craft – and vice-versa. Similarly, heritage artforms such as Wagnerian opera or Shakespearean theatre can be immensely popular and highly remunerative, while many types of popular culture can be very unpopular indeed.

In developing a new cultural policy, the age-old dialectic of “high arts” versus “popular culture” should be abandoned. Artworks are not good or bad just because they are popular or unpopular, and valid and original work can be found in every artform and genre.

Five policy solutions:

1. Recognise that “cultural policy” is about more than funding for the arts. It’s about policy frameworks across government including media policy, education, copyright and censorship law, tax, urban planning, liquor licensing and R+D.

2. Abandon the false divide between high art and popular culture. Art and culture of all different genres and types can be popular or unpopular, and good or bad. Cultural policy should not be based on preconceptions about which artforms are “worthy” of public support, but on cultural values that can manifest themselves in many ways, across many forms and genres.

3. Create a new cultural agency for contemporary Australian culture. Australia needs a new government cultural 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 global cultural pool. The Australia Council is not an organisation capable of this, or of becoming this.

4. Cut the red-tape that affects culture. Many artists and cultural organisations are constrained by access to appropriate infrastructure, like venues and work  space, as well as capital. The ability to put in place policy settings that allow them to perform, present and produce with limited capital is more important (and effective) in ensuring their success than direct subsidies.

5. Fund artists and production, not institutions. Ordinary working artists are the forgotten people of Australia’s cultural policy debate. Their average income is well below median Australian wages. Yet individual creators and artists are the life-blood of Australian culture. Where new funding is created, it should be directed towards individuals and small companies – not large institutions. And because so many artists are so poor, small amounts of funding can go a long way.

Photo Credit:  Angelica Jellibat,


  1. Donovan, P. (2010) ‘‘They can’t shut us down’: thousands rally for live music’, The Age, 23 February 2010. Available online:
  2. Williams, R. (1976) Keywords, Hammersmith, Fontana, p.87.
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) ‘Employment in Culture, Australia, 2006’, Cat. No. 6273.0. Available online: latest ABS figures are for 2006, when 284,793 Australians worked in cultural occupations as their main job.
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) ‘Australian Industry, 2005–06’, Cat. No. 8155.0. Available online:; Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) ‘Counts of Australian Businesses, including Entries and Exits, June 2003 to June 2006’, Cat. No. 8165.0. Available online:
  5. Cultural Ministers Council (2008) Statistics Working Group: Arts and culture in Australian life: A statistical snapshot, Canberra, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Available online:
  6. See: Craik, J. (2006) Re-Visioning Arts and Cultural Policy: Current Impasses and Future Directions, Canberra, ANU EPress. Available online:; and Throsby, D. (2006) Does Australia need a cultural policy?, Strawberry Hills, Currency House Press.
  7.  Stanner, W.E.H. (2009) The dreaming & other essays, Melbourne, Black Inc.
  8. In 2009, the Australia Council distributed $3.7 million to its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board, and $17.9 million to Opera Australia. See: Australia Council (2009) Australia Council Annual Report 2008-09. Available online:; and Opera Australia (2010) Financial Report 2009. Available online:
  9. See: Gardiner-Garden, J. (1994) Arts Policy in Australia: A History of Commonwealth Involvement, Canberra, Australian Parliamentary Library.
  10. Gallasch, K. (2005) Art in a Cold Climate. Rethinking the Australia Council, Strawberry Hills, Currency House Press.
  11. Clayton, J. and Travers, M. (2009) Arts Plus: New Models New Money: Australian Survey, Kensington and Brisbane, Centre for Social Impact & Arts Queensland, p.15.
  12. Eltham, B. (2009) ‘Australian cultural and innovation policies: Never the twain shall meet?’, Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice, 11(2): 230-239.
  13. See: Holden, J. (2007) Logging On: Culture, Participation and the Web, London, Demos; and Hesmondhalgh, D. (2007) The Cultural Industries (2nd Edn), London, Sage Publications.
  14. Australia Council (2010) More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts, Strawberry Hills, Australia Council.
  15. Throsby, D. and Hollister, V. (2003) Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: an economic study of professional artists in Australia, Strawberry Hills, Australia Council; and Australia Council (2004) Annual Report 2003-04, Strawberry Hills, Australia Council. Available online:
  16. Clayton, J. and Travers, M., op. cit., p.19.
  17. The best discussion of this false dichotomy is by economist Tyler Cowen, in Cowen, T. (2006) Good and Plenty: The Creative Success of American Arts Funding, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.


Ben Eltham and Marcus Westbury

Your Comments

51 Comments so far

  1. Gillian Gardiner says:

    Hear hear. Wherefore art thou national cultural policy? Though as someone who’s been working within the various bureaucracies for over a decade now I think it will need to be some sort of distributed model to really work. ie the new govt body you propose shouldn’t be established as yet another $140M+/yr monolith in Sydney or Melbourne.

    I think part of the problem has been arts bureaucracies functioning as pseudo policy makers at best. In addition to the money funnelling function you describe, they’ve also been very effective as defacto employment services for frustrated artists. Might sound harsh, and I am seeing this changing in the last few years, but that sure is a slow process.

    Anyhow, bring on the revolution. You guys are clever – love your work.

  2. Lizzie Hall says:

    Fantastic analysis. I believe another result of this type of funding is competition between artists who should instead be collaborating and supporting each others practices. One can only get money at the expense of many other artists getting none. A different approach, as you suggest, can offer many more artists a more conducive field of opportunities (thats poorly worded) that can create sustainable careers. Stuff like the tax office and centrelink, the way that these bodies understand and define employment, based solely on income generated, without taking into account the cultural value (which can translate into tourist dollars) of art practice.
    A chunk of cash is very useful but runs out, and another is required. Isn’t there some useful old saying about giving a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, give him a fishing rod and he’ll eat for a lifetime…

  3. Moira Corby says:

    It is beyond belief- that archaic, narrow focus on preserving out-dated artforms is the basis of current cultural policy.
    As you have written, creative cultural producers are adaptive, frugal & inventive in making our stuff- we will do it because that is what we do.
    Platforms, technologies, audience have never been more out of sync w Australia Council.
    Hooray for your thoughtful essay!
    Marcus Westbury hope you can have a conversation with Peter Garrett sometime soon.

  4. Terry Flew says:

    I’m in agreement with a lot of this. I’d throw in three comments for consideration.

    1. I don’t think that culture as an object of policy can be as all-inclusive as culture as an object of analysis, without diluting all possibilities of policy effectiveness. For example, sport is clearly a part of Australian culture, but I don’t think there is much to be gained – for sport or culture – in bringing sport within the cultural policy remit. Sport is better as a sports policy object than a cultural policy object.

    2. The biggest issue you have identified here is the damaging legacy of the arts/media policy divide, that both preserves a high art/popular culture distinction and militates against responding to digital convergence issues such as copyright. My sense – and I’m picking up on Jenni Craik’s work here – is that this is quite an Anglosphere thing, that is not so apparent in Europe. It also means ignoring what have been quite successful cultural policy interventions that are not named as such, such as the Australian content quotas for commercial TV and radio. Masterchef is in a roundabout way a product of this kind of cultural policy intervention – Underbelly is more explicitly so – although we do not identify these successful popular culture products as the outcomes of cultural policy.

    3. I’m therefore a bit wary of a single Ministry/Department responsible for culture. If it largely involved importing the ethos from established arts agencies across to other fields, it could generate new problems in the name of trying to solve older ones. The idea that the only way to support culture is to give money to people according to some set criteria or formula, for instance, is as you rightly point out a legacy of a previous era, but arises out of what is a deeply embedded institutional mindset.

    Good luck with the endeavours here.

  5. Luci Temple says:

    Just wanted to say great post – there’s a lot to take in there :) I agree wholeheartedly with most of it – the need to value culture in every facet, not just within the ‘arts’ (and same can be said for a lot of other values, as everything is interconnected).

    I would add though that some of the organisations that receive the government funding give much needed help to artists in terms of arming them with skills and resources they couldn’t otherwise afford (even if they were given a cut of that money).

    I say this while being a multiplatform writer/filmmaker: I would love money coming directly to me, however I have also benefited enormously from funded/subsidised initiatives such as MEGA’s Entrepreneurship Masterclass series, MetroScreen’s Raw Nerve, networking events & information panels, etc.

    One of the most important things I’ve only just got my head around in the past couple years is the need for people like me to spend more time understanding how to make our art more financially sustainable.

    How did I learn that? Not by chewing the breeze with other artists (who focus on lack of money, not enough support, who has a right to say what is or isn’t Australian ‘culture’ etc) – but rather by taking more note of what other industries do, particularly cutting edge musicians who are beginning to develop an online relationship with their audience, bypassing the middle men, and earning a living through their art.

    And what helped me learn the skills to develop solid business plans (that determine the steps to get my ‘art’ to the right audience and in a way that will pay my bills)? The MEGA tech-related business course, funded by the Australia Council for the Arts.

    While the main gist of the Australia Council is a bit high falutin’, Fee Plumley is doing an excellent job with the Digital Era strands, a good step in the right direction. Screen Australia supports film & tv, and has dipped into games development. I know we want them to do a hell of a lot more, but hope not to throw the baby out with the bathwater as any kind of funding to artists still needs an organisation to decide who, for what, and how much. And we will likely all disagree on the outcome of who gets the money over who doesn’t regardless of criteria drawn up.

    I completed the MEGA course late last year, and I don’t pretend to suddenly be in a great financial position as a result, however I can see a future where I won’t need arts funding. It’s the old ‘teach a man to fish’ thing. Except I’m a woman. And I don’t fish. But I am getting pretty good at arts business plans.

  6. Nick Rose says:

    Not totally convinced guys but I agree with the motivation, please forgive the devil’s advocate role here. The arts and culture “industry” is one of the few remaining where government involvement is fairly limited (beyond the heritage factor) and I personally consider this a positive thing.

    The Australian culture doesn’t seem to want to include the artist as a “battler” or as an underdog. They’re a wanker or unimportant in the eyes of the majority and it is this distinction that needs to be addressed before there is any benefit from culture development.

    We need to want art and want music beyond the corporate or institutionalised main-stream before it’s given to us by the government. Otherwise it’s just another case of being force-fed a big waste of taxes that we don’t want.

    Centralising anything in this economy will only wind up costing the taxpayer and bogging down results in ineffective over-management. This is just the by-product of democracy in action and it is doubly so in Australia where sport stars are more important to national identity than artists (something I personally detest).

    Your solutions are purely policy and government focused and that is where I find the most issue. It is a problematic debate to prove but I am of the belief that policy cannot change Australia, it just reacts to changes that are already happening or, in the case of liquor licensing, are perceived to be happening.

    Drumming up media support for the Arts will be almost impossible with every paper, magazine, blog or radio show already dedicating pieces and entire sections to an arts and culture focus. So you can’t excite the community via the media. Yet.

    Before attacking the economic focus of the Australia Council let’s not forget that their most famous purchase, Blue Poles, still divides the art community on its merit. However everyone is very, VERY, satisfied with its subsequent increase in value.

    Contemporary art, both performed and otherwise has a very transient form of value. There is little real benefit to the general population, in fact it is hard to say there is benefit for anyone but the individual artist if the funding for such work came from public coffers.

    However there should be a place for contemporary, transient and developing art. There has to be venues and events and exposure or else society becomes a culture parasite as you suggested.

    If not government then who?

    Three words, possibly the most important three words for the second decade of the new millennium: Corporate Social Responsibility.

    This is a real force and it is one that will dominate a lot of the real-world in years to come. It means far more than making sure the environment is ok and giving money to kids with cancer, it is about community, culture and fostering mutual respect in the community.

    Frankly the Australian culture of tall-poppy syndrome and rooting for the underdog (unless its a sports star with “natural talent”) has reached a point of disgusting excess. Corporations are all “evil” enough in the minds of the western world without our national identity issues adding “try-hard” as well.

    They will soon need a way to engage in community movements without any direct benefit, be it tax rebates or goodwill banking as we say in PR. Your push for funding of the transient contemporary culture and arts movement is the perfect platform for regular corporate involvement.

    The more we push for governments to risk voter backlash for our cause the less likely we are to achieve any real change, it’s already in the “unimportant bin” don’t risk pushing it to the “too risky bin”. However if we allow our culture to develop with local community focuses and call for big business to directly involve themselves then government can only follow these steps and offer protection and expansion for those artists and projects that prove their cultural value.

    Governments are legislators not innovators, we don’t vote them in to take risks (unfortunately). Turn it into a real industry by establishing the independent middle-man between corporations and the arts and you have an institution that can deal with market, cultural and political forces on an equal pegging.

    Even Tony Abbot will give additional funding to an institution that is already working and has community support.

    I know this isn’t really commenting on most of your issues; intellectual property, appropriate industry stimulation etc. I agree with these positions completely. I just don’t totally agree with, as Dennis Denuto said, “the vibe of the thing”.

    It’s time to look beyond federation and beyond government for social solutions. Sports have had corporate sponsorship and development for decades now with little direct return on the investment. Why not culture too?

    Just a thought.

    Great article though, as you can see it really got me thinking. Cheers

  7. Lex VV says:

    I disagree that a new agency needs to be created. The top-down approach will inevitably groan to a halt under its own weight. There is already a structure in place to adequately handle new funding: local councils across Australia. They should be empowered to employ the cultural policy they see fit for their region – councillors are closer to independent artists than any other level of government. Federal funding for local councils has the power to transform the cultural landscape.

  8. Peter Giles says:

    Great post, you put forward some arguments which unfortunately don’t get talked about nearly enough in this country. The bureaucratic strangulation of culture is definitely a concern to anyone who has had to deal with our funding bodies – state or national. This is partly a matter of outdated guidelines which lag behind practice in the real world and overbearing compliance procedures which bog institutions in process rather than meaningful thought. I really believe it’s imperative to provide alternative avenues in Australia recognise and kick start innovative new work and assist artists working in emerging forms of practice. What we don’t want is what the French government once established – a ministry for ‘rock and roll’ – and we all know how good their popular music is. I’m all for decentralisation of overbearing institutions but the model for doing this effectively is not yet clear to me. Maybe we need to a kind of cultural ebay where project funding is at least partly decided by the crowd.

  9. Thanks everyone for the comments. So much to respond to that i’m not sure where to start.

    One of the interesting themes emerging from the comments is the question of how do you build a cultural agency – or any other government agency – without succumbing to the myopia, bureaucracy and centralisation that often accompanies such things. That is of course a whole other issue so my apologies if i don’t answer that in depth in the comments here. I think Ben and I see this as the beginning of the discussion and not the end of it so these issues will inevitably prompt much discussion which we’re quite keen to engage in.

    @Gillian. Thanks for the comments and I appreciate you have much more inside knowledge on many of these things than either Ben or I so if the analysis is in the ballpark i’m relieved to hear it.

    Your comment that arts agencies have “also been very effective as defacto employment services for frustrated artists” is somewhere near the nub of the problem in two respects. Arts administration is full of people who would much rather be making their own work – both within the institutions and within the funding agencies. It has two equally unfortunate consequences: 1. is that they are not making their own work – as in many cases the best and the brightest are doing the paperwork and consoling themselves that they are at least in “the arts.” 2. They aren’t always the best people to be doing policy and administration. We have created a situation where the only viable career paths in the arts are in administration and that’s incredibly problematic for a range of reasons.

    More comments to follow.

  10. @Moira I’m sure i will have an opportunity to have a conversation with Peter Garrett some time soon. I’ve been on his Creative Australia advisory group for the term of this parliament – not sure whether than body will continue to exist or whether i’ll be invited back in the next term.

    I’m not going to dump on Peter Garrett here. I actually think he has been pretty good in my experience. But this isn’t an argument about Peter Garrett any more than it’s an argument about any of the others who have held that role since the 1970s. Nor is it an argument about Kathy Keele who is the current CEO of the Australia Council and any of her predecessors.

    [Ben may disagree - i know he's harsher on some of the individuals involved than me].

    My point is that this is a systemic argument not a personal one. We have the wrong system. The people involved are operating to the wrong brief, with the wrong tools, and often going about the wrong task. That’s not their fault. Yes in some cases they could do more but i’m reluctant to blame the individuals for that.

    What i am trying to do over coming months (years?) is demonstrate a constituency for reform. That’s whats missing. A small number of very well funded companies do very well out of the current system and they behave as though they are the one and only constituency for “the arts”. As the Tote example demonstrates, they aren’t. They are a tiny (but legitimate) fraction of it but the much larger actual cultural constituency is very fragmented and not easy to see. Hopefully that will become more apparent and Peter Garrett or whoever the next arts minister is will see the value of working with that broader constituency.

  11. @Terry. Thanks for engaging. In response to your specifics:

    1. I think you’re right that culture as “everything” is serious danger of disappearing into uselessness and i wouldn’t advocate it here. Probably one of the dangers of this essay in reading it back is that we have underdone the question of how you draw the boundaries around the brief. Again, that’s a whole essay in itself but i think we have an obligation to explain that better than we’ve done here.

    However… I think there’s a lot of room between culture as everything and the 1970s Australia Council Act that most people would broadly agree upon. My argument is that we should start with the values that we want to nurture – or where the role of the state can be effective – rather than forms and i think we’ve said that somewhere.

    I’d add that there is an enormous amount of work to be done that is effectively form neutral. Addressing questions of the supply of space, public liability laws, compliance costs, how hard it is to set up a performance venue, etc are all ones where a huge number of artists, creators (and even sports peripherally) could benefit from policy settings that make it easier to create space for communities to come together. That requires a shift in thinking rather than argument about artforms.

    2. Agreed. Not much to add without taking us down many other paths!

    3. I understand your concerns and i think the risk you identify is real. The larger concern that we start with here is that under the current system almost everything we have identified in this essay is effectively no one’s job. It needs to be someone’s job or we will continue to a colossal failure of responsibility. That could be an agency, a network of agencies, or some other form but i’d argue that it can not be the Australia Council who are by default the agency with the closest brief and the one we mistake for having this role. It is not in their DNA and indeed it would actually be quite detrimental to what they do well if they were expected to become that. Indeed, the Australia Council as counterpoint to a contemporary cultural agency/ strategy would be a very good thing.

  12. @Luci I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I don’t think either Ben or I are arguing that we should throw out everything and start again. We’re also both big fans of Fee’s work [i assume we've just crippled her promotion prospects for life - sorry Fee!]

    But you need to look at this sort of thing in context. The Australia Council has a fascinating history of experimenting with useful and worthwhile schemes over and above what they are obliged to do under the act. They also have a history of shedding them the moment they are politically inconvenient, financially difficult or some other fad comes along. The whole history of the New Media Arts Board is a case study in this but it was that was replicated over and over again across many initiatives.

    A similar tale can be told about Screen Australia and it’s predecessors in relation to games and multimedia.

    If you read the Australia Council Act the reason it behaves like this is obvious. It has things it has to do and things it doesn’t. All the stuff you are describing is optional and it comes and goes with the fashion of the day, the management of the OzCo and whoever’s in government. Again, i go back to the systemic problem that a lot of this isn’t really their job – so they do it when they feel like it and dump it when they don’t.

    The Arts in the Digital Era strategy is the 3rd or 4th time it’s been picked up in my memory. Unless the political pressure keeps up it will be dropped again and rediscovered in 2022 and the cycle is doomed to repeat itself.

  13. @Nick. There’s a lot i could jump in on there but my fingers are starting to hurt from all this typing. I think you’re confusing some different issues there.

    What i would say is this by way of example…

    I think the single biggest thing that governments of all persuasions could do in the performing arts is make it much easier to put on live performances. It involves changing in a measured but not reckless way the rules that govern live performance, making it easier and cheaper to rent buildings, making in simpler to use a park, and putting in place sensible but achievable guidelines on what you can and can’t do that are actually possible to meet with a limited amount of your own (not the government’s) money. It may also involve some changes to liscensing laws in some jurisdictions if you want to make it economically viable to do so.

    Apart from the brain work that would cost the taxpayer almost nothing. It would inevitably lead to an explosion of live performance across all genres from dance, to theatre, to every form of music imaginable. No argument about what is good or bad art necessary.

    There’s a million other similar examples. There’s only one problem: it’s no one’s job to do that. They’re all no one’s job.

  14. @Lex VV. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this. First and foremost our argument is about policy and responsibility more than funding. We’re not suggesting we centralise arts funding.

    Secondarily, in my experience of working with councils they are as much the victims of bad policy setting by state and federal governments as anyone.

  15. @Peter – we aren’t suggesting we centralise all cultural delivery, only that we create a role and responsibility to look at the whole ecology and how it all interacts. There’s a giant hole their now.

    I’ve actually tried to steer away from discussing funding in this piece for lots of reasons. What i would argue about funding though is that it is best delivered in a variety of ways that mirrors the variety of cultures, priorities, and experiences of the community itself. It is best devolved and spread through a variety of mechanisms and dynamics. It is, after all, an ecology. I think community support for funding of the arts is also to some extent dependent on them seeing their own cultural policy priorities reflected.

    That’s a whole other discussion though!

  16. Lisa Philip-Harbutt says:

    Dear Ben and Marcus,
    It is great to read the ‘thoughts in action’ in your document and peoples responses. It is like chasing ideas around the screen enjoying them at an intellectual level and then stepping back and enjoying the marks burned into my retina from the journey and the intersections points where the colours converge. So thank you.
    I would just like to add two things at this moment:

    Margaret Wheatley writes about the mismatch between organisational structures and the science of the day…highlighting that many of our decision-making structures are based on an industrial revolution science of cause and effect rather than the current sciences of quantum and chaos. What better place than with those exploring ‘arts and culture’ than to also consider whether an organisational structure can be developed that is more about what we want to achieve with the organisation than about how bureaucracies can fund and manage the organisation.

    Years ago I wrote that the answer to ‘what is art?’ for me is that ‘art is a verb’. An action word and that although artefacts came from the process for me it was the action of art making that was the most important. At this moment it is almost as if a discussion of ‘Culture as a verb’ would be interesting. Policy documents like definitive statements are often out of date before they hit the printer. Should we instead be considering an aspirational Vision Statement and a Cultural Action Plan? A ‘what we want’ and ‘how we could get there’? Or am I just now playing with words?

    Anyway thanks for inspiring some new thoughts,

  17. Chris N says:

    You pose the question “Iconic institutions or starving artists”.Perhaps a far better question is “Why not Iconic institutions AND starving artists”

    It’s like the old arts vs. sport thing – “all that money going to sport when it should be going to art”. Why not sport AND art?

    Also your discussion under “The false divide between “high art” and “popular culture”” is confusing and confused. Your statements about value and popularity seem to contradict your argument for supporting or not supporting “high” arts or heritage.

    The “high” art and heritage arts in this country helped form the arts world here today. The contemporary artists of today (and for that matter tomorrow), learned from and about the artists of yesterday. It’s not called ‘heritage’ for no reason – it is OUR heritage – and you have no cause nor right to run it down.

    I suspect that one or both of you has little time for anything that is NOT contemporary, begrudgingly accepting the popularity of Wagner and Shakespeare (and a few thousand others).

    But it IS important. For so many reasons. Please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater in your vociferous vendetta against the Australia Council. Millions of Australians very much enjoy what you put down as old, antiquated and arcane in art.

  18. Hmm, Ben and Marcus; we clearly don’t live in quite the same Australia. Have a look at the Casula Power House book on its Australian exhibition; here you see the raw creativity of cultural diversity at work, where cultural difference forms the flow that generates innovation and change in the arts. I would say that the Rudd/ Gillard government and Peter Garrett in particular, has been an appalling failure in the area of cultural diversity and the arts, The Australia council killed its multicultural arts advisory committee, and has allowed its funding for culturally diverse arts and artists to Peter out. It’s a signal of how white bread the arts debate (apart from Indigenous) has become, that Ben and Marcus make not one mention of the cultural diversity issues that abound. So it’s a policy discussion paper for the 60% of the population who (Ben and Marcus) don’t see (themselves) as having a stake in enhancing multicultural arts practices; but not for the 40% or more who do.

  19. Chris Hudson says:

    Well done Ben and Marcus getting debate fired up.

    What’s really at the core of the problem with Australian cultural policy? It’s that we persist in ranking art and personal taste. Throughout history, various cliques and cabals have long worked to promote their particular set of tastes as being superior to others. In Australia, many have been able to institutionalise their agreed aesthetic under the banner of ‘excellent’.

    There is a very liberating and inclusive alternative, which says that everyone’s cultural tastes and affinities are as valid as everyone else’s – as long as human and other rights are not being infringed. This enlightened understanding can remove a lot of fear around arts, and validates the common view: ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’.

    This understanding does not mean groups shouldn’t form around what they like, but it does mean that governments should not favour any of these groups above any other, which is what happens now.

    When cultural policies acknowledge that all personal taste can be viewed as equal and that there is great value in the creative process itself, not just the outcome, government support can more equally flow to participatory and local level cultural development. Funding does not have to come at the expense of ‘heritage arts’ – it can come from social and other agencies not typically known for arts funding.

    Art and the creative process can provides us solutions for the dangers of compartmentalised thinking, which gives rise to the silo problem in organisations. This answer here, which focuses on the connections between things, is well illustrated by Chris Dessar at Chris shows how arts practice can lead in joining things up. This is what we need to apply to government, to move towards ‘whole of’ and ‘joined-up’ government.

    For this to work properly, extensive public sector structural reform is needed. It’s not just arts that are hamstrung by red tape, it’s all types of activities. There’s a practice that governments need to undertake, if we’re to get anywhere with the whole of government idea. It’s called subsidiarity – and it’s the principle that government power ought to reside at the lowest feasible level.

    The worry some commentators here are feeling about the super arts department idea, is the real danger government will end up using it stifle creativity, especially that which threatens power structures. Maybe a time-limited agency with a reform mandate for bringing the three spheres of government into alignment would work. Both Lex VV and Marcus are right – Local Government based support for arts can work well, and major public sector reform is needed to make this happen.

    Perhaps Peter G’s cultural ebay idea could work – except in reverse, so that new ideas and emerging artists not participating in the market get government support until they can.

    Absolutely let’s reform ozco, but let’s not fall into the heritage and other arts dichotomy trap. Focus on process and participation – helping more people make more art more often. And not judging it.

  20. I ran extract from this essay in The Age yesterday and The Age today ran this extract of an essay by Richard Mills (commissioned by the Australia Council) in response.

    Worth a read for an insight into the logic of the status quo:

  21. @Lisa – thanks! I agree largely with the idea of art as verb. Although i know that once i get into the what is art argument here we will never recover the conversation.

  22. @ Chris N. I don’t think we’ve said it’s not important. I think we’ve said it shouldn’t be central to our cultural policies and funding priorities. There’s a huge difference between those two positions.

    Right now there is a large and reasonably well funded infrastructure to support the major performing arts in this country. There’s isn’t for everything else.

    To give you one example: In 2007-08, Opera Australia and the associated Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra received $17.5 million of Australia Council funding. By comparison, the Australia Council’s competitive funds for literature, music, theatre and visual arts between them had a combined budget of $21.8 million spread over 916 separate projects, organisations and individuals.

    Opera Australia receives the equivalent of half the total allocation for competitive funding for all the works by all the artform boards. That’s almost all the people making original work in Australia combined!

    I argue that the emphasis there is wrong. I’d like to think i can make that case without being accused of wanting to destroy the collected history of Western civilisation.

  23. @Andrew Actually we do mention it. We explicitly argue that it is a key factor that the current policy approach has failed to respond to.

    “society is becoming more culturally diverse. Immigration, demographic change and new technologies and communications media have transformed the spectrum of cultural choices available. 12 The large-scale infrastructure and mass subscription model that underpins the logic of many funded arts organisations is poorly equipped to respond to the plethora of new artists, artforms, audiences, genres, and sub-cultures emerging in a rapidly changing cultural dynamic.”

    Clearly there’s plenty more that we could have said there. But we have certainly mentioned it. Indeed i think you’ll find the growing diversity of plurality of cultural traditions is a theme that underpins the larger policy and approach based argument that we are making.

  24. Hi – I published on this topic in RealTime 96 recently, based on my submission to the cultural policy consultation. I agree with many of your points but (as a recovering revolutionary myself) calling for the overthrow of the AC is so unrealistic as to be unsupportable.

    ….RealTIme article reproduced below….

    gavin findlay: peter garrett’s national cultural policy discussion


    As we know, Peter Garrett’s time as a minister has been difficult and, for the environmental movement, tainted by the fact that he has had no choice but to publicly peddle the Labor Party line in order to move towards change in the longer term. But his actions in the arts portfolio have been disappointingly sparse. It took until his speech to the National Press Club in October 2009 for any substantial statement about possible reforms to the arts policy vacuum left by the previous government. That speech was clearly delivered by someone who has real passion for the arts. It described some innovations on the agenda, and importantly was not afraid to acknowledge that the national arts funding and institutional structure is in need of a major overhaul.

    The speech also announced the opening of a discussion towards a national cultural policy, an idea taken up from the 2020 Summit. The announcement wasn’t widely reported, and I didn’t know of it until stumbling on the notice on the RealTime website over the holiday break. The National Cultural Policy website ( contains Garrett’s speech as well as a framework document, ten discussion points and access to a comments forum. Submissions to the current phase of the discussion closed February 1. Despite the limited time, plenty of erudite and knowledgeable arts practitioners have had their say in submissions and made very good points. Mine’s number 50 on the list if anyone’s interested, but RealTime has kindly given space for me to summarise my key arguments.

    RealTime readers would know all too well that arts and cultural policies in Australia suffer from a range of problems that reflect, on one side, insufficient understanding by policy makers of what is required to sustain new and innovative arts practice, and on the other, insufficient understanding by creative artists of how to make arguments to government that will result in better policy to support new work. In order to improve this current situation, we need to articulate and analyse things differently. The National Cultural Policy discussion offers an opportunity to put new ideas about arts policy on the agenda.

    Unfortunately at this stage the discussion is being framed on the basis of cultural rather than arts policy. This presents several problems. The first, as Garrett himself articulated in his speech, is that ‘culture’ is a term that defies simple definition. A fundamental principle of policy design is to be able to define the space in which it operates, but culture is such an open-ended term that it is difficult to draw these necessary boundaries. For example, electronic media conveys a huge proportion of what most Australians would understand as our ‘culture.’ Should a cultural policy therefore encompass our media organisations, including privately owned television stations and newspapers?

    A second problem is that the sense of shared values conveyed by the term ‘culture’ will inevitably politicise it. As cultural theorist Graham Turner noted in 1993, it is virtually impossible to discuss cultural policy without ideas of nationalism and a narrative of our cultural history. Peter Garrett claims the ‘culture wars’ are over; I am not so sure. At some future point we will presumably have another conservative government obsessed with settling old scores and politically interfering with the ABC to impose its version of the cultural narrative. Presumably the National Cultural Policy that might emerge could be demolished as was the Keating Government’s visionary Creative Nation. We should therefore, through this policy, seek outcomes that cannot be so easily unmade.

    This brings us to the third problem: the relationship of the cultural policy to the arts is very loosely defined on the NCP website. This seems a significant shortcoming, as the primary policy measures and tangible outcomes arising from the national policy will be in the arts. This is all the more unfortunate because the Press Club speech articulated the relationship between arts and culture quite clearly and seems to give each equal weight.

    Surely we need a firmer foundation than this as the basis for the relation between culture and the arts, especially given that the primary outcomes of any national cultural policy will be changes to policies and funding for the arts. The legitimacy of funding for new work will always be called into question by a not insignificant minority, especially when they don’t like what is being produced. This inadequate approach to cultural policy, therefore, will inevitably risk politicising matters of arts policy as well.

    As Garrett has pointed out, arts funding around Australia, both Commonwealth and State, is largely locked up in supporting a network of arts organisations. Surely it is time for policy that fully recognises that the arts sector and our educational institutions are inextricably linked. No, that’s not strong enough—the arts institutions that are part of our tertiary education sector are the engine room of the arts and cultural sector and should be incorporated fully into any consideration of funding and policy.

    While art institutions perform valuable functions and support many artists, the result, as Minister Garrett notes, has been too little money available to support individual artists or to adequately foster new and experimental work. This could clearly be solved by increasing funding to individual artists, although to truly allow freedom to work outside institutional structures we should seriously consider, as many have suggested, tax incentives for artists or individual direct subsidy for professional artists such as has been successful in Europe.

    The welfare and ‘public good’ arguments for subsidisation of artists’ incomes is well known. David Throsby and Glenn Withers laid it out in their 1979 work The Economics of the Performing Arts, still the benchmark on this subject, and yet the ability of artists to make a living always seems to be at the very bottom of the pile of topics for discussion. This is a serious omission: surely, the first function of cultural policy is to lay the basis for the creative work to thrive, and to do this we must ensure that artists are able to make an adequate living while making their art. All else flows from this. It may be that there is a limit to the number of artists who can make their primary living as artists. So why not, for once, clearly state these objectives in a cultural policy?

    There is a fourth and more difficult problem, which in my view is critical for a national cultural policy to address: how to have an open, credible, non-parochial debate about the network of major artistic institutions, including in our education systems, which considers the equity and efficiency as well as the excellence of such institutions, and that aims towards building capacity to take us forward, both recognising heritage and allowing new work to grow. This cannot be left in the hands of politicians or bureaucrats, and neither can it be left up to the arts establishment alone—they will of course act, first and foremost, to preserve the organisations they work for and the structures they are comfortable with. We also need to have a broadly accepted understanding of how to close institutions and companies when their time is done, to allow new ones to grow, and how to better handle the relationship between state and federal funding and what level of support is needed to maintain the agreed institutional arrangements.

    Artistic institutions are subject to the drastic effects of falling below a threshold of ‘critical mass’—policy makers seem oblivious to the fact that a few seemingly small cuts can bring the whole edifice down. When highly respected teaching staff are made redundant at a tertiary arts teaching institution, because the one-on-one teaching model needed to train professional artists is deemed too expensive by university bureaucrats, that city will find (as we have in Canberra) the best students will no longer come.

    The National Cultural Policy should articulate clearly what is desirable for Australia as a framework for our arts and cultural industries; it should mandate in perpetuity an overall level of funding for artists and the institutional structure, including arts education that we as a nation wish to maintain from our taxes. The detail can then be left to the peer funding process along with support from the private sector.

    Overall, the statements of the Minister and the points of the discussion framework have much to commend them. However, the National Cultural Policy discussion will remain flawed if simply focused on a loose definition of ‘culture.’ We can hope, now that Minister Garrett’s responsibilities have been lightened, that he can give the National Cultural Policy the attention it deserves.

  25. @ Chris Hudson. Following on from the argument made by Chris N, i think it’s important to recognise that there’s an enormous amount of work that could be done that is effectively taste-neutral. There’s a lot we could do with the legal, tax, accounting, compliance and regulatory structures that govern the arts that do not require us to make subjective judgements about what is good or bad art or the specific cultures we choose to promote.

    What that needs though is a better understanding of where culture comes from. If you assume it comes largely or exclusively from professionals working in arts centres as our policy settings do then such approaches struggle to gain much traction. if you assume it comes from the actions of many, from the professional and semi professional, from the commercial, and the hobbyist and from people of all walks of life acting individually, collectively and as communities you can do a lot to support it by simply making the system more responsive to their initiative.

    As for the reform of the whole of government – i’m struggling under the challenge of the arts bit just now!

  26. @Gavin Firstly, strictly speaking i’m not calling for the overthrow of the Australia Council. I think Ben is. :)

    Personally, I am simply arguing that there are functions that the OzCo can not do that must be done. Therefore a structure must be created that can do them. If i had my way i would leave most of the Australia Council largely intact and recognise it for what it is: The National Trust of the art world. It simply can not realistically maintain its policy advisory role though both because i think it’s lousy at it and because i think in the interests of checks and balances it can not and should not be both implementing and evaluating its own initiatives. The lack of transparency between funding agency and policy advise has got us into this mess.

    What’s missing in my opinion is a strong policy agency for all the reasons and with all functions outlined above. I have no strong view either way as to who should administer the strategies it promotes and shakes down the funds for.

    I think it would be a shame to lose a lot of what the Australia Council offers. I think it would be greater shame to lose everything else because we refuse to acknowledge its limitations.

    But secondly you said, “calling for the overthrow of the AC is so unrealistic as to be unsupportable.” Unrealistic or undesirable? I agree it may be undesirable for the reasons outlined above. However given the ability of 40 year old agencies to survive in perpetuity without having their structure tweaked is almost non-existent, i’d argue that it is closer to inevitable than unrealistic?

  27. Thanks Marcus

    As you will have seen, I have described a similar but different viewpoint for understanding the problem and some possible solutions. I’d be really interested to know your views on what I said.

    As far as the AC is concerned, I agree it is failing to meet the needs of contemporary arts practice and should be reformed, although that has been implicitly acknowledged by Minister Garrett. But we have a Commonwealth Department and other agencies (e.g. ABAF) that also need to be considered, as well as the institutional structure I have described. I think there is nothing particularly wrong with the AC charter, but it is interpreted by them in terms of the institutional environment that surrounds it. I think it is as important, if not more so to address what our universities are doing.

  28. Cate Gilpin says:

    I really strongly agree with so much of what you say in this article, and then upon reading Richard Mills’ article in The Age I agreed even more.

    Mills’ argument seems to herald major opera and theatre companies as the font from which all culture springs, with blatent disregard for the craft of game design, jewellery design and making etc; which I believe doesn’t require a “reasonable intelligence and a modicum of training” as Mills’ says, but it requires ongoing training, development and devotion to your craft – just as playing a violin or performing Shakespeare does.

    All of this aside though, I am currently travelling round the country including much of rural and regional Australia. The thing that I am realising as we travel is the traditional art practices are so important to many of these regions as there would be very little engagement with culture beyond television, movies (in some towns) and games, if traditional art practice didn’t find its way in.

    I think many of us started to love music by seeing different instruments played; or recognised a love of art making by seeing the works of an amazing artist at the gallery. Perhaps without this exposure to traditional arts through school and weekend activities these passions would not have developed? Therefore perhaps it is the exhibitions from AGNSW touring, or the Queensland Orchestra coming to town (and the funding that allows this) that opens up culture and its diversity for many people outside of cities and regional centres?

  29. Lisa Philip-Harbutt says:

    I agree that this is not the forum for ‘what is art?’ but it is interesting to consider if the current quest for cultural policy creates a similar dilemma that we find when asking this or any of the great philosophical questions in that it is hard to find a singular answer. Policy can be either a definite course and/or plan or it can be method of action. And I guess I am plugging for an action based method of guiding decision-making rather than a definitive document that ends up gathering dust because no one knows how to interact with it.
    Cheers Lisa

  30. @Lisa I think you’ll find both Ben and I are both very grounded in the idea of practical action and not wishy washy policy. But we do need to make structural and systemic changes if we are to be any chance of realising anything.

  31. My favourite cultural activity is exploring history.

    I have just been reading the history of the Tote Hotel (mentioned at the beginning of your article) on its website: I have also been reading on that site about the hotel’s closing, but its gig guide seems quite full at present so it appears that the pub is still running.

    And as your article and the comments show, culture in Australia takes many forms. I prefer my music without amplification, so I am unlikely to appreciate the offerings at the Tote. But I do appreciate the fact that some people are passionate about their own cultural preferences (as long as they respect the preferences of others).

    In demonstrating their views, people show that we do have an unofficial cultural policy in Australia. It is called standing up (or singing, writing, protesting, painting, etc) for what we believe in. Whether one person or production or whatever should be “funded” for doing so is the difficult part.

    I have read The Age article by Richard Mills and understand most of his point of view, especially when it comes to understanding the historical perspective of creativity and the interactive role of education.

    An interesting aspect in this debate may take the Tote Hotel as its example again. Old pubs are part of Australia’s cultural heritage – and its heritage culture for that matter (even if they are not part of your idea of “heritage arts”).

    The pub culture of old is an important part of Australia’s heritage. I sometimes go to the opera and I usually prefer listening to Mozart than to most other forms of music. I avoid pubs if they have poker machines and/or too many decibels, but not if they have character and characters.

    The community and heritage aspects of arts and culture, whether in the pub, the opera house, or anywhere else, are intrinsically valuable. I’m not sure about the funding aspects, as I mention above, as it appears to depends on what is valuable to different people.

    My main wish is that we can find a way to fund arts and culture and heritage as appreciators rather than as “bureaucrats”, “politicians” and “consumers”.

    Thank you to everyone who has contributed so many interesting insights here. Twaklin

  32. Audrey Semon says:

    The gateway to cultural experiences for many Australians is their local public library. Library funding has not kept up with needs for many years. The Australian Library and Information Association ( produced an excellent campaign kit for library professionals. I have not seen any mention of it in my news sources. It would be wonderful if some of your talented contributors would find ways to bring the topic of libraries to the forefront of public discussion.

    I speak as a grateful user of public libraries for 65 years and an active member of my local Friends of Library group for 13 years. Despite all our efforts we have had no success with lobbying State or Federal governments to adequately fund public libraries – an essential part of our culture and democracy.

  33. Chris Hudson says:

    Good on you Marcus for keeping the discussion going.

    You’re right that regulatory, taxation, etc changes are ‘taste neutral’, and they do need to flow from policy changes as you point out in the second paragraph of your response to my first comment.

    My proposition is that for all this to happen we need to adopt of two meta-level policy principles:

    1. The equality of art – everyone’s cultural tastes and affinities are as valid as everyone else’s – as long as human and other rights aren’t infringed.

    2. Value in process – the making of and doing of art is just as important as the product

  34. jo diball says:

    totally agree. I am a contemporary visual artist based and educated in Brisbane. I am one of those artists who couldn’t sustain an arts practice due to poverty and being a woman with teenage kids ($$$) I had to find work, I have been ill too, and this is an almost nightmare without a job and relying on selling a work or paying for expensive tools and materials and the costly market of paying for space makes it almost impossible to exhibit. I was lucky that after my hons degree in fine art i was lucky enough to have part time work as a gallery attendant with the university i studied at. Then after a couple of years of that, i ran the post graduate gallery for artists doing their phD, masters, and coursework masters. I love this, i wasnt paid as much as i should of but it was the love of art that kept me going. I now try to help artists that i know have greatness in them. I curate show, big shows with lots of artists eg. We Make Good Pets which had 45 artists at Metro ARts and and PATCH which had 30 artists. This is what artists have to do…The old solo exhibition is becoming a myth of the past for the average emerging punter or artist. You can pay up to $1500 for a solo or if you divide it by 50 and then with $30 each you dont need the funding. Funding is dying for organizations too, these institutions who have batted for artists for years are at threat of folding…They say QLD has heaps or more money than any other state for funding. If you count what GOMA Bris has taken up and regional arts, us city dudes have had to adapt. The gallery closed due to rent increases and now after 8months i am being reinstated with my job as a gallery goose, oops sorry gallery manager. In QLd there is not as many art sales for the emerging artist, it deters artists from continuing to branch into a career as an artist. It sux. IF you are born into money and have parents or friends with money, you sell, you sell big, unfortunately this leads many to think they are great artists due to sales, it is crazy that they get so disappointed when there are no sales when they exhibited away from home. Sustainable artists usually have some backing and not all artists get taken on by a gallery and this doesn’t guarantee anything anyway. There is so much competition for artists, low self esteem and mental illness is rampant in our community. Anxiety disorders to schizophrenia. I think the stresses of being an artist assists this phenomenon.

    I praise you for your efforts, great essay. I cant wait to watch to see what is the outcome of your comments…

    If there is anything i can help you with anything for Brisbane, I know a lot of artists here ….let me know is my email.
    with respect

  35. Ben Eltham says:

    Today in The Australian, Rosemary Sorensen hasa an in-depth article about this debate and the reaction to it from Kathy Keele at the Australia Council and others. Recommended reading:

  36. dave graney says:

    I see a lot of activity at arts festivals that is totally populist circus gypsy burlesque type stuff and not enough serious high falutin’ , longhair material. Leave roots music to gravediggers and academics.
    I went to the Adelaide fringe. it might as well have been a beer festival.
    In general the arts scene suffers from a lot of constipated, mediocre curatorial arts admin types who all seem to want to cry ( as brian Wilson father Murry was wont to yell at his boys) “I’M A GENIUS TOO YA KNOW!” The Sydney Festival of Leonard Cohen related events is one example. A whole lot of interesting artists have to sing some other arts admin faves tunes. None of their own stuff. Insults everybody. Giving the audience a secure outcome. they might as well not turn up.
    Working artists are distrusted in the scene. Amateurs are pimped. They are considered more real and authentic.
    I think in the case of musicians, we should be given access to health care cards and exempt from paying tax and a license system put in place, run by musicians. No one without a license allowed to perform in a venue and a minimum hourly rate in 4 hour blocks to each player. Treated , in effect, with the respect given to security and bar staff.
    After a number of years, an artist has a card for life…and an income comparable to unemployment benefits…if they need to draw on that…

  37. Eric says:

    @PeterGiles – you’re almost there. It’s easy. Pay on results.

    Almost all arts funding is as a producer subsidy – giving wholly wrong incentives. Agent-based models now show that even small amounts of nepotism in a ‘peer review’ system corrupt the process. In Australia, there’s lots of nepotism. In-crowds from Darlinghurst and St Kilda get government jobs to give money to their friends.

    Pay on results.

    Then we might get exciting ideas like films that have audiences, instead of the smug, sanctimonious drivel from The Well to Little Fish and the dross in between.

  38. Tamsyn says:

    When you consider how many people come here to ‘experience Australian culture’ and ‘experience Aboriginal culture’ you would think that there’d be more spent in those areas.

  39. Kellie Vella says:

    Great article. I’m with Lizzie on the Centrelink angle. How many artists struggle with Centrelink regarding their choice of work? Or define themselves as belonging to other professions- the ones that pay.

  40. Shirley Pipitone says:

    Globalisation is homogenisation, in culture and other things. Is Australian art intrinsically different from the art of other countries? Is Australian performance intrinsically different from performance in other countries? An Australian cultural policy must first try to identify what is Australian culture and which aspects of Australian culture need government assistance to survive.

    A key aspect of Australian culture not yet mentioned on this page is our landscape, which most certainly is intrinsically different from the landscape of other countries. Our landscape inspires artists, not just to paint landscapes but to respond in varied media to the heat and isolation, the blue of the mountain ranges and the red of the inland, the stark, dirty but sparkling white of salt lakes, the brown rush of floodwaters, the cracked earth in drought.

    There is no part of Australia untouched by humans, therefore the whole country is cultural landscape. First Aboriginal people shaped the land, then white people shaped the land. Our cultural landscape includes all the areas we think of as “natural” and all the places we know are influenced by humans – the roadside planting of Lombardy poplars near country towns, the windbreaks of radiata pine sheltering farmhouses, the persistence of Victorian era floral clocks and other plantings spelling out significant local events, the winding old rivers and their billabongs, the city streets rarely defined by anything distinctively Australian, similarly urban and suburban public and private spaces which could often be anywhere in the world.

    Our cultural institutions which display the distinctive nature of our landscape, the more “natural” elements relatively untouched by humans, are our Botanic Gardens, specifically the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra, portions of other capital city botanic gardens, and several Regional Botanic Gardens which focus on Australian plants indigenous to their local area. The Australian National Botanic Gardens in particular has been starved of funding for many years, and subjected to decades of “efficiency dividends” as if plants are able to grow more efficiently and just as beautifully with less funding. Less funding means fewer staff, less weeding, less pruning, less replacement of old or unthrifty plants, less watering, less research, fewer publications and so forth.

    The Australian National Botanic Gardens needs more government assistance to ensure that this aspect of Australian culture can survive. In particular, the Australian National Botanic Gardens should have the same status as other cultural institutions in Canberra in relation to Commonwealth funding for school visits from throughout Australia. Without this, there is a very real risk that future generations will have little or no awareness of Australia’s distinctive landscape, and the current process of landscape homogenisation will escalate in the absence of knowledgeable custodians in the future.


  1. Why we need to reform the Australia Council « A Cultural Policy Blog - 26. Jul, 2010

    [...] We’ve authored a book chapter for an upcoming Centre for Policy Developement book on the issue, which is up on the CPD website in full here. [...]

  2. Hello internet. I’m back. « write on, write on - 27. Jul, 2010

    [...] I think the best thing I can do is just write about whatever elements of that big old crazy industry we call Arts that tickle my fancy or strike a chord. First cab off that rank is this essay on the need for changes to cultural policy in Australia; [...]

  3. Arts, culture and different kinds of humbug | Inside Story - 29. Jul, 2010

    [...] the result, one outcome we can hope for is a robust debate. In a forthcoming series of essays and articles, Marcus Westbury and I are trying to start one up. It is high time we had this debate. [...]

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    [...] is a very good and thought provoking article here about cultural policy in Australia and the need for a holistic [...]

  5. In defence of the Australia Council « - 05. Aug, 2010

    [...] Marcus Westbury and Ben Eltham call for changes and improvements to Australian cultural policy (Cultural policy in Australia). Their main recommendations are that the government needs to formalise its cultural policy making, [...]

  6. The heritage wars heat up « A Cultural Policy Blog - 06. Aug, 2010

    [...] book chapter for the Centre for Policy Development by Marcus Westbury and myself has started to gain some serious attention in the high arts in [...]

  7. Updates from the world of arts policy | marcus westbury - 23. Sep, 2010

    [...] election policy book (and e-book) More than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now. We wrote a chapter on Cultural Policy in Australia was very widely talked about. I’d encourage all of you to read it if you haven’t but [...]

  8. Ben Eltham & Marcus Westbury: The change Australia’s cultural policy needs | - 04. Nov, 2010

    [...] full article is available from On Line Opinion here. The article itself is based on the chapter ‘Cultural Policy in Australia’, from CPD’s book More Than Luck: Ideas Australia Needs Now, which can be ordered here. [...]

  9. Ben Eltham | The political economy of Australian cultural policy | - 11. Apr, 2011

    [...] the Centre for Policy Development’s book More Than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now. This chapter, “Cultural policy in Australia”, co-written with Marcus Westbury, argues that Australia’s frag-mented cultural policy needs to [...]

  10. An introduction to Australian cultural policy | - 05. Jul, 2011

    [...] engagement; the linkages between the arts and the creative industries; and the balance between ‘heritage arts’ and newer art forms. Given the country’s large geographical size, regional infrastructure and access are also high on [...]

  11. Policies for boosting arts demand | - 12. Jul, 2011

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