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Peter Garrett, Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts Peter Garrett, Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts
WHEN THE RUDD GOVERNMENT WAS ELECTED IN 2007 THE VAST MAJORITY OF ARTISTS IN AUSTRALIA SURELY LOOKED FORWARD TO THE PROSPECT OF PETER GARRETT AS MINISTER FOR THE ARTS, DESPITE THE FORGETTABLE ARTS POLICY THE ALP TOOK INTO THE ELECTION. A RESPECTED, PRACTISING ARTIST AS WELL AS NOTED ACTIVIST FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND INDIGENOUS RIGHTS—HELL, HE’S ONE OF US!

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 (http://nationalculturalpolicy.com.au) 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.


Canberra-based Gavin Findlay wrote in RT93 and RT94 on the challenges for performance and other aspects of the arts in that city.

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 8

© Gavin Findlay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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