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Australia Council unplugged

Keith Gallasch

At the meeting convened by ANAT, dLux media arts, Performance Space, Experimenta, MAAP and RealTime at the Paddington RSL, Sydney on January 24 we hoped to hear from Australia Council staff why the Taskforce’s proposed restructuring of the organisation entailed the dissolution of the New Media Arts Board (NMAB) and why there had been no consultation with the sector and, at the time of the December press release, none offered in the future.

Over 200 people gathered at the RSL, including many new media and hybrid artists, artists from other fields including music, visual and community arts, academics, curators, managers, a range of Australia Council staff, AFC staff and members of the press. Kim Machan, director of MAAP flew in from Brisbane, Artrage director Marcus Canning (also on the NMAB) from Perth (carrying a detailed response to the restructure from WA artists and BEAP), Fabienne Nicholas, manager of Experimenta, from Melbourne and visiting artists from the UK all attended. The mood of the meeting was serious, often emotional as concerned artists tried to express the depth of their feelings.

ANAT director Julieanne Pierce hosted the meeting, outlining the issues she hoped the Australia Council’s CEO Jennifer Bott and Acting Executive Director, Arts Development and NMAB Manager Andrew Donovan would address. She then introduced 3 speakers: artist and academic Anna Munster, artist Lynnette Wallworth and me. I spoke about the field’s response to the restructuring from replies to RealTime’s December email and other documentation.

I looked at the language of the response to the proposed changes, how the impact was felt viscerally and how metaphors of blindness, lack of vision, short-sightedness were used by correspondents to describe Council’s actions along with images of regression, of their “going off the map” and “back to the dark ages.” The second strongest feeling I reported was of betrayal, that the Xmas-time announcement and lack of consultation amounted to “a pre-emptive strike against innovation in the arts.” Above all there were feelings of imminent loss: of identity (new media and hybrid arts were being un-named, un-represented by an artform board and at Council level), of expertise (the accumulated knowledge of NMAB), of coherence and continuity (the forms scattered to other artform boards). Finally, the restructure was felt to parallel the growing conservatism of Australian society, here with the return to the fundamentals of traditional artform categories. I described the key issue as not being about money, after all the Council was saying that the same money, even more, would be spent on new media and hybrid arts, but the very standing of the forms was at stake if their names were to be erased or relegated to the small print.

Central to Anna Munster’s talk was the significant role of the NMAB in building an experimental arts culture in Australia. She also pointed to the careers enabled by the AFC’s short-lived but highly significant Interactive Fund. New media art might not yet have the commercial outcomes some had fantasised for it but, said Munster, its social potential was strong, its place in universities and other institutions growing. Why then should the Australia Council demote it? She felt particularly for graduating students utterly familiar with new technologies but having no place to turn to where support for experimental art would be visible. Overall, Munster saw the Taskforce “turning away from delivery to outcomes” at the same time as university research was being impelled into dull empiricism and homogenisation. She forecast an arts brain drain of the very same kind as has happened in other fields where the costs of reversal are already high.

Lynnette Wallworth described new media art as an emerging form, impossible to categorise in simple terms because it requires knowledge of and responsiveness to the constant changes in technology. Wallworth, like Anna Munster thought the restructure would cut off the possibilities for emerging work by denying artists a board responsive to change, a board ready to fund unknown outcomes, a board ready to dialogue with artists.

Michael Keighery, chair of the National Visual Arts and Craft Network (NVACN), spoke briefly from the floor, reporting that the network was perplexed by the proposed restructure and sought clarification on how the model had been researched and analysed, whether other options had been considered, and on the attitudes of Australia Council staff. NVACN looked forward to meaningful discussions with the Australia Council, and other parties like state and local governments who would be affected by the changes.

Jennifer Bott declared that the Taskforce’s recommendations “had been made with the best of intentions” and for strategic reasons in the “competition for the public dollar.” She explained that the Taskforce had not been consultative in the way that Nugent, Myer and the Small to Medium reports had been because those had been strategies of Council, not an assessment of the Council and its workings as a whole. In other words, this was an internal report. She said that the Taskforce had noted the significant reduction in the value of grants over the years and that to ignore that was to “put our heads in the sand.” The report was developed from May to October, its delivery delayed by the federal election and “not for any sinister reason.” Council, she said, “was unanimous” that the Taskforce’s recommendation was the direction in which it wanted to go. Central to the plan was the belief that to get increased government support there was “a need to do bigger projects that would show what art could do for Australian life” as opposed to offering “more small grants.” Pivotal to Council’s planning was its own forthcoming application to government for triennial funding. Clearly it is hoping that a restructure and some big public outcomes will attract additional funding or at least the long-term possibility of it.

Council’s aim, said Bott, would be to use its funds “for maximum impact.” Many at the meeting assumed that existing grants money would be taken from artists and absorbed into these large projects, of which no clear example was given, no joyous sales pitch, or even the suggestion that it was something which artists present could be part of. A reduction in grants is not intended and took a while to clarify, an indication of how unprepared the Council is to sell its new model. What muddied the waters was Bott’s reference to doing big, long term community projects (presumably a Richard Florida-type model involving urban/suburban/renewal), “rather than spending $20,000 each on lots of small projects.”

Bott thought that the new model with its big projects would speak to government and to the public: “as artists we talk to each other too much instead of to the public.” This was going to be a better model and was not, she emphasised, an attempt to get rid of community and new media arts. More money could be invested in infrastructure in the new Key Organisations section and Council itself would be involved in strategic initiatives, using the discretionary funds hitherto allocated to the artform boards. Bott invited the audience to participate in “looking at how we can make [the restructure] work.”

Of the many questions and statements that followed, the assumption that very big projects would have any impact was challenged, as was the increasingly top-down model of Council’s operations. The success of many of Australia’s small to medium projects was pointed to as part of our international reputation. Rachael Swain from Marrugeku Company pointed out that a company like hers already created large scale, long term works with communities (see interview with Swain).

On the matter of political interference or compliance in the decision to restructure Bott was adamant that “all our boards continue to offend and the Australia Council defends them.” As to why the NMA and CCD boards were dissolved, she replied, “It’s not just a board which validates an artform.” She iterated that funding to these areas would be maintained and that the new Inter-Arts Office “flagged an investment in new media arts.” Rachael Swain outlined her concern that without a board specifically committed to new media and hybrid arts her company could not continue the carefully established conversation that had enabled the company’s work: “how can we continue that process?” The projected staff numbers for the Inter-Arts Office are 2 and with no ongoing peer presence the situation looked like “a vacuum.” Andrew Donovan suggested that there would be dialogue with relevant peers and others on specific projects that would provide “a more focussed and targeted assessment.” But, again, the process had yet to be worked out.

Lyndal Jones spoke eloquently, declaring that we were really discussing a conflict between identity and strategy. Here was a strategy that included dissolving the NMAB. The anger which had greeted this was, she said, to be expected as the Council had helped form the new media arts’ identity. Kate Richards thought it too late to turn the clock back and fold the complexities of new media arts into traditional artform categories. Others pointed out that without the branding and the status offered by the existence of the NMAB, artists would find it increasingly difficult to form the partnerships and sponsorships that have been typical of a field that can work with commerce, science and education. A number of speakers were alarmed by the loss of status that the erasure of the board would mean for the standing of Australia’s new media arts both here and especially overseas where Australia is widely regarded as a leader in the field.

Above all, in the face of Bott’s clear commitment to push ahead with the restructure, speakers from the floor wanted assurance that their concerns would be taken to the Taskforce and to Council. Could there be change? Bott only anticipated small changes from working parties and consultations up until the end of February, prior to the March 11 meeting where Council would ratify the plan which would take effect from July 1.

At the end of the meeting, Fiona Winning asked how the current boards would equip themselves for the change in such a short time frame and what staff training would be involved. She called for a lot more time for consultation and asked how we might go about rebuilding trust between artists and the Australia Council.

After the meeting there was little sense that Council’s plans or their rationale for them had been made much clearer. The erasure of NMAB seemed to be solely in terms of cost-effectiveness rather than its success or potential. People were angry at the fixity of Bott’s position constantly reinforced in the manner of the modern politician with the “at the end of the day ...” mantra. There was also curiosity about the new leadership role forecast for the Australia Council. What kind of leadership will it offer? Increasingly hierarchical and less and impinged on by peer assessment? If, as is being suggested, the new Directors (previously Managers) of the artform boards are to go to Council with proposals for the ‘big projects’ as their own initiatives, will their respective artform boards be involved in the process? Will Council, strategically allocating funds to the winning directors, become in effect another group of peer assessors? Is that’s what Council is there for? Will the Australia Council become itself a cultural producer as well as a facilitator? Is that part of its charter?

Pressure is being applied to the Council by organisations across the country to suspend any changes for a year, in which time serious consultation could be undertaken. If Council decides to push ahead (we’ll know this as of March 11), and will not change course, then we need to urge it to visibly commit to the promises currently made about preservation of funding levels for new media, hybrid arts and community cultural grants, and to argue for improved ways of handling these in the new structure. Above all, the terms new media arts and hybrid arts must retain prominence in whatever ways feasible so that their standing and the opportunities that go with it are not lost.

The Australia Council, having done much to acknowledge and nurture new media and hybrid arts must not abandon them or the key role it plays in their development and dissemination around the world. To do so is to betray itself, to be blind to its own achievements as well as those of a plethora of remarkable Australian artists. As a communications industry consultant observed after the meeting, this is a moment when Council should be investing more in new media arts, let alone retaining the NMAB.

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 4

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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