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Australia Council Restructure

Open Letter to the Australia Council: Harkin

Brendan Harkin

Ms Jennifer Bott
General Manager
Australia Council for the Arts

March 17

Dear Jennifer,

I write to you as a long-time admirer of your outstanding professionalism, and your enthusiastic commitment and devotion to the arts communities especially in the areas in which I operate, the digital media industries. As I have been involved in many major public initiatives in digital media, across government, industry, commerce, and culture, for over a decade I feel that I am at least qualified to offer you, with every due respect, my professional perspective on the proposed changes at the Australia Council concerning "new media" art.

I strongly and sincerely believe that a commitment to a formal, specific, new media entity within the Australia Council, explicitly denominated as such and with a dedicated budget for funding "new media" initiatives, is absolutely necessary for the successful development of Australia’s commercial new media industries.

Within the project teams and small businesses that have participated in X|Media|Lab every team and project has, or is looking for, the creative difference that changes mere technology into a feasible business proposition. For example, the Director of Programming at Foxtel told me "nothing is going to happen in this industry [interactive television] until the creative people have the chance to play with the new technologies and start coming up with great ideas. If I hear from one more technical person with a great creative idea, I’m going to scream! It has to be the other way around".

The Digital Media Arts are clearly one of the essential nodes in the new media economy. The art, skills and creativity of digital media practitioners is a decisive input, probably the decisive input, in the successful development of national, sustainable new media industries. Because of digital convergence, these industries include not only the entire span of traditional entertainment, film and television, but also now shape all educational content, electronic publishing, the entire information industries, the internet and broadband content, the music industry, computer games, animation and the whole future of mobile telephony and telecommunications.

The issues involved are of national critical importance, and are recognised as such. The Commonwealth government has committed to the development of a fully-scoped Digital Industries Action Agenda. This Agenda will certainly contain recommendations concerning the creative skills, training, and national innovation systems needed for Australia to succeed in these vast new media industries. The Australia Council’s input into these considerations is vital and anything less than a full-scale commitment to the new media arts will appear, in my opinion, inexplicable.

An explicit, full-scale commitment to developing and funding the new media arts is perfectly consistent with the cross-support mechanisms between the Digital Arts and Commercial Media industries I have seen in the past year in Singapore, Canada, the UK, the US, throughout the European Union, and, most strikingly, in China. The explicit commitment and support for the value of the Digital Media Arts is not only front-and-centre, it is the subject of significant increases in both financial support and visibility.

One small recent example amongst dozens: within two weeks of returning to Los Angeles from the last X|Media|Lab in Melbourne, where she was one of the international Mentors, the Director of the American Film Institute’s (AFI) Enhanced TV Workshop changed the name of the AFI’s entire undertaking to the "Digital Media Creative Lab" in direct response to her Australian experience, whence she saw how we assume the inclusion of digital media artistic skills, perspectives and sensibilities in the development of commercial new media projects. Creativity is the heart and soul of success in the new media industries.

The future of the new media industries does not lie in technologies and gadgets; it lies in creative skills. The Australia Council’s explicit commitment to new media arts, artists, skills, projects, experiments and collaborations, internationally and between art and commerce, is a vital contribution to Australia’s immediate and eventual economic development in these industries.

Recently I have been involved with a number of industry bodies in having the interests of new media producers and practitioners included in any proposed Cross Media Ownership law changes. Our goal is to work towards a new media industry framework that: 1) enables satisfactory commercial opportunities and returns for Australian media and creative professionals, and that also 2) provides access to capital and funding for media producers, 3) creates demand for quality local content, 4) fosters skills and industry development as part of an overall creative economy agenda, and 5) provides careers for practitioners, along with 6) the chance of export success in the global media marketplaces.

The Australia Council has a role to play in every one of these objectives. But without explicit recognition, without funding and resources, without opportunities for professional development, and without the prospect of meaningful, successful careers as new media artists, not only will the creative practitioners in these ascendant new media industries wither and disappear, so will the prospects of developing local new media industries, and, along with that, any chance of Australia’s economic success in these vast, pervasive industries.

Australia has an excellent and steadily improving reputation in these emerging industries. Whenever a round of international mentors comes to Australia for X|Media|Lab (and there have been more than 30 of them now, from all over the world), I make sure that they all receive the latest copy of RealTime. The response is always the same–straightforward and genuine admiration. Not only for the obvious world-class quality of the publication, but also for the extent of Australia’s engagement, the high standards of work, the level of intelligent analysis and self-criticism, and the creative excellence of new media arts in Australia.

Regarding the organisational form of the existing New Media Arts Board, I have no comment. If it needs to change, by all means change it. It’s not the Board per se that counts; it’s the extent and the explicitness of the Council’s commitment to the art form that counts, both financially and formally.

To be frank, the extent of funding for new media arts in Australia is truly appalling! By international standards, funding for new media arts in Australia is virtually non-existent. If we compared new media arts funding in Australia to any European Union nation, to Canada, the UK, or anywhere in Asia (including, for example, even Thailand and the Philippines), our record is abysmal. As the primary advocacy body to government, the Australia Council needs to review its whole discourse on new media arts. Quite simply, Australia should be investing magnitudes more funding support into new media arts.

The Australia Council should consider investing in some hard statistical research into: 1) comparative national funding levels for new media; into the nexus between creativity and the innovation industries; 2) the economic importance of the digital media industries (in their ever increasing scope and reach); and 3) into developing appropriate strategies for investing significantly in innovation systems which productively combine scientific, technological, and artistic experimentation, on both grand and small scales, and which may eventuate in things which find markets and audiences.

I am convinced that we could radically alter the funding commitments to new media by re-casting and re-presenting these kinds of understandings and perceptions. We, the practitioners and the industry, really must work together with the Australia Council to reformulate a whole, new, invigorating discourse that is heard and understood in Canberra.

Viewed strictly as economics, these issues become even more potent. Australia runs an ICT trade deficit in excess of $16 billion per annum, and a Cultural Products trade deficit in excess of $4 billion per annum. To put this into the perspective, this means that we will spend the entire proceeds of the proposed T3 sale on our ICT and Cultural deficits alone in just 18 months. It is vital that we give the new media industries and new media arts their proper weight in this knowledge economy, based equally on skills and creativity.

In summary, I ask that you take into your consideration the views of someone who has chosen to work deliberately betwixt the strictly economic requirements of the commercial new media industries, and the creative skills and talents upon which every success in these new industries depends. Australia does not manufacture hardware or equipment; it manufactures talent.

As far as I can judge, removing the specific new media focus and its associated dedicated funding mechanism will inevitably come to be regarded as a poor policy choice, and a poor legacy. The only places it will be welcomed are in those economies and markets that are pouring investments into developing creative skills in the new media industries much faster, and with far greater determination, than we are.

May I conclude by saying, with all due respect, I know that you personally, and the Australia Council Board, undoubtedly possess the fair-mindedness and the rectitude to re-consider this particular aspect of the proposed organisational changes if you believe that you should do so. I therefore ask, that after you take all submissions into account, and with the benefit of your recent consultations, you conclude the consultant’s report to be in error on this particular matter; and that you make a commitment to the formal establishment of an explictly denominated new media entity within the Australia Council, with its own budget dedicated to funding new media initiatives. Such a decision will be welcomed as sensible, responsible, and forward-looking by all; and it will be a victory, not only for genuine leadership, but for the prospects of Australia’s economic and cultural future in these new media times.

Yours sincerely,

Brendan Harkin
Director, X|Media|Lab, Sydney

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 7

© Brendan Harkin; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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