It’s Culture, Stupid: Reflections of an Arts Bureaucrat

Leigh Tabrett
Books, Cultural Policy
Strawberry Hills, Currency House 2013. 69pp.
ISBN 9780987211439
Reviewed by , April 25th, 2014

 Leigh Tabrett has made a thoughtful contribution to Platform Papers quarterly essay series. Tabrett’s It’s Culture, Stupid: Reflections of an Arts Bureaucrat identifies some serious funding and policy issues that challenge the Australian arts sector. Tabrett was at the helm of Arts Queensland from 2005 to 2012 and her insights reflect the thinking of someone who came to arts bureaucracy through the education sector, having run the State’s Office of Higher Education for eleven years.

Taking on the headship in 2005, Tabrett was stunned to find there was no legislation setting out what was expected of Arts Queensland by the Government. There was a 2002 whole-of-government cultural policy, though it was generally ignored. Arts Queensland was the subject of almost continual audit and barely able to chart its own destiny, never mind steer an integrated cultural strategy through all the other government departments.

It's Culture, Stupid.AUTHOR (Leigh Tabrett)

Tabrett says funding remains a key issue for the sector. Arts funding is seen by some in government as little more than the provision of a subsidy for an unviable industry with a limited clientele. Ministers sometimes ask, ‘Why do we keep giving money to the same people year after year? When are they going to be able to stand on their own two feet so we can give someone else a turn?’

Under Tabrett, Arts Queensland carefully redeveloped its funding program and approach, leading to the cessation of funding for seven (out of fifty) companies, and support for four new companies. The outcome was not applauded and led to a very difficult few months for the agency, which was seen as a pariah by some for causing a bombardment of negative press.

For Tabrett, the big challenge for the arts sector is the need to move beyond a development paradigm towards one that places an equivalent emphasis on public engagement (something far beyond a supply-driven ticket sales strategy). Tabrett believes Australia needs a framework for thinking about cultural engagement at a policy level, accompanied by a more effective language for representing the value of culture to the well-being of individuals and communities. Until there is a better model for recognising the value the Australian community derives from engagement with its own culture, funding will remain at the whim of Arts Ministers and their ability to keep arts funding on the political agenda.

It’s a challenge not really addressed by our new National Cultural Policy, which allocates considerably more space to sector development and spending initiatives than it does to a framework for public engagement with the culture of Australia.

It’s the Culture, Stupid! is a provocative challenge from someone who is clearly sympathetic to the needs of the arts sector, though frustrated by the way current arrangements get in the way of better outcomes.

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