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Arts issues

From: Art in a Cold Climate

Keith Gallasch

Earlier this year I was approached by Currency House, the performing arts think tank and publisher, to write an essay about the ramifications of the recent restructure of the Australia Council, particularly for the Council itself. Currency House publishes its Platform Papers quarterly, contributing to much needed debate on the arts in Australia. To date the series of 6 essays has included Martin Harrison on the ABC and the arts, Julian Meyrick on the crisis in the theatre and Robyn Archer on mainstream dominance in thinking about the arts. In my essay, I wanted to look at the evolution of the Australia Council’s engagement with innovation over the decades and also to attempt to go beyond the prevalent managerial model of dealing with the arts, and much of the rest of our lives, by playfully employing a notion of cultural ecology. What follows is compiled from excerpts from Platform Papers No 6, Art in a Cold Climate, Rethinking the Australia Council. I hope you’ll read the whole essay and contribute to the rethinking of Australian attitudes to the arts.

On December 8, 2004 the Australia Council announced an internal restructure in the terms proposed by its Future Planning Task Force. Given that the restructure was internal no consultation with clients, stakeholders or the public was offered. Recognising that the proposed internal changes, including the dissolution of the New Media Arts and Community Cultural Development Boards, would have serious external ramifications, artists and arts organisations met across Australia. Protests ensued and new lobby groups formed. Council conceded to consult, but only about how to best effect the restructure which was formally accepted on April 8, 2005.

The formation of the New Media Arts Board in 1996, although not without controversy, was widely seen as enlightened. Here at last was an Australia Council Board that could formally address experimentation and innovation in the form of the hybrid and new media practices that had been steadily developing over two decades, work that had been difficult to categorise and, consequently, was often neglected or under-funded. But in 2005 the board has been dissolved, its ‘clients’ dispersed to the traditional artform category boards, Visual Arts and Music.

At a time of great cultural diversity and burgeoning new arts practices which connect unprecedentedly with our everyday lives, it is astonishing that the Australia Council has reversed its own evolution. The authoritarian manner in which it effected this change, the further diminution of the role of artists as peers within Council and the silencing of new media arts—no longer represented on Council—sadly parallel the deliberalising of democracies the world over. While there might be enormous diversity on the ground, the ideological push to centralise and to control threatens to yield a monoculture, a condition to which the Australian arts has institutionally been too long inclined.

A significant manager in the arts system, the Australia Council is not only attempting to wind back the clock of artistic evolution but also to usurp its partners, leaving ‘clients’ and ‘stakeholders’ out in the cold. Declaring itself ‘leader’ of and ‘catalyst’ for the arts, the danger is that the manager will lock into autocatalysis and use up available resources to keep itself alive. The restructured Australia Council positions itself above the arts ecosystem of which it has long been a part, albeit in an increasingly difficult relationship, its funding levels essentially frozen, its roles and functions multiplying, its structure rigidly top-down, and less and less responsive to the bottom-up emergence of new ideas and forms that regenerate the arts.

Hybrid and new media arts are part of an internationally admired Australian inventiveness, but if the Australia Council’s absorbing them into traditional artform categories dilutes their standing and their funding, as well it may do, we stand to lose a great deal. We are culturally poor if we cannot live with the paradoxes inherent in new forms. Our cultural ecology includes long-lived species (heritage arts), some of them protected (the major performing arts organisations), but there are others, like new media and hybrid practices, in the throes of emergence. The Council’s Future Planning Task Force declared that new media arts do not constitute an artform. However, they comprise a field of broadly aligned practices that require artistic sensibility, skills and often considerable technical or scientific knowledge. As John Smithies, former head of ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne) has eloquently argued, like any emerging artform these practices already involve a developing ecology of new tools, new channels of distribution and broadcast, extensive new networks, new audiences and new patterns of remuneration.

The Australia Council has always set great store by innovation. As a consequence, it has supported a great deal of remarkable work over its lifetime. However, its decision to dissolve the New Media Arts Board represents the destruction of a vital part of the new media and hybrid arts habitat. This at a time when the field is still emerging, when important loops between its discrete organisms are still being formed, when its international reputation is high—overseas institutions and artists were astonished at its demotion—and its potential is strong in the long term for developing markets and audiences where the digital is pervasive. The restructure was an anachronistic adaptation, an act of regression and, like previous restructures, an admission of the Council’s failure to secure adequate funds for its clients, but a failure for which its constituency will pay.

But this is more than the story of Australia Council maladaptation, it comes at the end of a decade of cooling climate for the arts, in which artists have been portrayed as a backstabbing, self-serving elite who have been outed and the Council wrested away from them. More than that, they have been cut adrift. An ecosystem functions via the many loops formed between its organisms. The loops that link the arts with the universities, the ABC, the Australia Council and the federal government have been steadily cut over the decade. At the same time the funding for basic arts resources, for survival, has seriously diminished in real terms despite state governments attempting to make up the difference. New loops forming with the corporate sector (eg through the Australian Business and Arts Foundation) and private philanthropy are slow to form, less systematic and come with conditions that will not necessarily favour innovation, let alone provocation.

Diversifying resources and manufacturing has not been an Australian trait: the result, agricultural and mineral monocultures. It’s not dissimilar in the arts, where large omnivores consume most of the resources. The difference, however, is that they are rarely exportable; they are stay-at-homes. Even the national companies, Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet, move about very little. Meanwhile individual artists and small companies disperse to find new niches here and overseas, embodying work that is idiosyncratically Australian and widely applauded. But they are kept poor, so that the cultural ecosystem remains predominantly a monoculture.

Could it be that the Major Performing Arts Organisations Board skews the functioning of the Australia Council? Within the ecology of the Council, the Board is self-contained, operating on quite different criteria from the artform boards, where peer assessment is critical, where quality, purpose and, often, originality are paramount. The major performing arts organisations are treated as if they are not part of the greater ecologies of dance, music and theatre. They are assessed as businesses. Meanwhile, the gap between these large companies and the rest of the performing arts field simply grows and grows.

What if Council were to be relieved of the administrative and financial burden of servicing these organisations, who could be funded directly by government? Would that allow Council to focus its energies on the majority of its clients?

However, the Australia Council intends to introduce another species, ‘large-scale projects’, into the system to prove to government ‘that art can make a difference’ and therefore warrant a funding increase that will flow on to the artform boards. The budget of $9 million for the projects represents the takeover of the artform boards’ intiative funds. In a radical departure from the model of Council as responsive to the arts ecology, the new artform board directors will seek out projects rather than respond to grant applications, and then compete for funds from the full Council. If these big projects do not have their roots in the existing arts ecology, if their goals are functional, they will become an invasive species, throwing the system out of kilter. And the Council will have assumed another role, that of producer with its Councillors as peer assessors. More mutations introduced into the system.

At each stage of the Council’s history over the last 2 decades, the impression is of an organisation in adaptive mode—negative, because it has to downsize to make do with less, maladaptive, because it makes wrong moves, or anachronistic—it regresses to an earlier form. It’s time to re-think the Australia Council. Increasingly, artists have had to adapt to the Council’s limitations rather than Council responding to an evolving Australian arts ecology and to the cultural transformations Australians are living through.

The organisation has become unwieldy, proliferating roles, losing its independence as it it becomes more and more an agent of government, drifting, like the ABC, away from the cultural ecology in which it should play a responsive as well as a creative role. I’m asking here what the Australia Council could do for the arts if its attention and energies were focused on what is commonly called the small-to-medium arts sector, which in my estimation is central to the well-being and future of the arts in Australia and their standing internationally.

My vision of is of unencumbered, empowered contemporary arts practitioners emboldened by hybridity and new media and fostered by a pared-back, purposeful Australia Council. Is this nothing but the green dream of an arts fantasist, or can we begin to imagine once again what might be possible?

Excerpted from Art in a Cold Climate: Re-thinking the Australia Council, Platform Papers No 6, Currency House, Sydney, October 2005. A shorter version of this excerpt appeared in the Australian, Sept 28.

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 2

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

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