To be good or to be famous?

Post by , August 27th, 2014

Thoughts on A Culturally Ambitious Nation, the new Australia Council Strategic Plan

Let me state my prejudice. I am an art for art’s sake guy. For me, it is a concern that business, the market, marketing have so much taken over the public realm.

A couple of decades ago, I heard a speaker at an Australia Council seminar talk about how Australian arts might gain audiences in Indonesia. Figure out what would appeal to the Indonesians and create art to suit, he said. This is normal thinking for a manufacturer of widgets but in my late-surviving youthful purity, I found it quite shocking. Artists should, I believed, create the best art they can, according to their own lights. Then figure out how to market that.

The Australia Council has always had as a primary objective the support of excellence and we find it again in this policy statement. The perpetually vexed question is how excellence is to be defined, remembering that upon the answer will depend decisions to offer public support or not. Excellence in high art and excellence in community arts depend upon different criteria.

Excellence in marketing is incidental to the purpose of art. Management and marketing are not the game. They play a supporting if necessary role. Arts policy that puts the market to the forefront has missed the point.

So what is this Cultural Ambition? Is it to create excellent art or is it to impress the neighbours?


The Australia Council strategic plan has four goals.

GOAL ONE. Australian arts are without borders.

The objective is to promote Australian art and artists internationally. It does not appear to mean that Australian creators should abandon a sense of place or local sensibility.

The implication is for a grand vision of Australian arts taking on all comers and being admired and welcomed for their brilliance. While the international experience can stimulate artists’ work, the main thrust here is promotional, a strategic expansion of the market for Australian art. “Captivate global audiences with diverse Australian work”, “Grow the profile of Australian art”. Right the import/export balance.

Accepting the goal, the methods are a big step forward for the Australia Council: encourage artists’ own explorations; develop a worldwide network of partners and collaborators, invest in buyers’ programs, support “signature programs” to showcase Australian work to new audiences.

But in a way, it is surprising that this is the first of the four goals. Given that the plan so far has not dealt with the creation of art, what will this marketing scheme market? What are the criteria for the “signature programs”? Will they be the best art we can produce, or the art that is thought likely to be of greatest appeal to some international market segment?

For instance, would highly original and innovative music expressing the spirit of
Australia (ie strange on two counts) be selected for a signature program – or would it be considered too difficult or unusual to “captivate global audiences”? If you want to captivate global audiences, take a hint from the music industry: give them something familiar with an intriguing hook to it and a lot of gloss and promotion.

Still in the international sphere, we could benefit also from experiencing more foreign artists live in Australia. This has not so far been a matter for government arts policy.

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions urges its signatory states, of which Australia is one, to facilitate touring by artists from developing countries. What is Australia doing about this? Is the Department of Immigration a facilitator or an obstruction? What role could the Australia Council take? This is for our benefit too.

GOAL TWO: Australia is known for its great art and artists

“Known for.” This goal has the imprint of a marketing department nodding in the direction of the international audience. Should the artist’s cultural ambition be internally driven (to be excellent) or externally driven (to be famous)?

But the detail is much more reassuring: build the capacity of artists to make excellent work (oh – and become internationally recognised); foster experimentation and risk-taking; support arts organisations to lead in innovation, collaboration and development of original work; fuel diverse practice from artists of many different backgrounds.

International recognition of course has its good points: it can involve assessment against artists from everywhere and implies a larger audience and income. But take care that we do not reintroduce the cultural cringe through a side door.

The old R&D metaphor is trotted out: “The arts can be seen as the research and development arm of culture: artists are experimenting with new ways to look at the human experience. It is through supporting experimentation and encouraging new and diverse artistic expressions, that public investment supports great art.” Good, and makes the pollies more comfortable by likening arts experimentation to industrial or commercial experimentation.

The emphasis on experimentation and risk-taking has always been a part of the Australia Council credo. We have been given good reasons that it should have very strong support but there are also good reasons that it should not be applied to everything – heritage is important too.

The big question for music is whether the Council will dare to require musical experimentation and risk-taking from the orchestras and opera companies that consume more than half of its total grants budget. Music Trust research shows that this year, only 4% of works programmed by our orchestras are Australian and most of those are not experimental in any significant measure. Very few were actually commissioned by the companies. One Australian work was presented by one of the five main opera companies, which between them produced 34 other works. See the numbers here:

The plan says that the Council will foster diverse practice from artists of many different backgrounds. The Council has had programs to support cultural diversity for many years. An effective program could take up one of our great wasted opportunities: stimulation and invention from immigrant artists from so many cultures. What will the Council do to make this intervention work? There is especially a need to strengthen these arts at the professional level. Multicultural Arts Victoria is a wonderful model that should inspire emulation in other states.

GOAL THREE: The arts enrich daily life for all

This is the access and equity goal which also has been a part of the Australia
Council credo since its Community Arts Board led thinking and action on community arts in the 1980s. In those days, there was a big shift from supporting presentation of professional (often touring) arts to local audiences, to encouragement of art-making by non-professional citizens. It was called by some “democratisation of the arts”.

It can be inferred that the new plan includes citizen art-making. Certainly, art-making by children and young people is specifically included, but this in a way points to the fact that art-making by everyone else is not. Everyone should have access to the arts: “Infuse everyday life with the arts by helping the arts to reach new audiences in unexpected places, events and communities.” Reaching new audiences. It’s that marketing view of the world. Citizen involvement is passive.

GOAL FOUR. Australians cherish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and culture

Some more elaborations from the plan: Embed ATSI arts and cultures into Australian arts; boost investment in artistic excellence; increase Australians’ experience of ATSI arts and cultures; support ATSI young people to practice and experience their culture. All good.

The Australia Council strategic plan has the title A Culturally Ambitious Nation.
Such a title: is it a description, or an objective? The first page describes the culturally ambitious nation, beginning:

Our Culture is unique. It is a culture that is deeply shaped by more than 70,000 years of continued unbroken indigenous story-telling. It reflects Australia’s two centuries of settlement from around the world. We are a diverse community of diverse identities, faiths, individual differences and pursuits. Yet we have many shared values and our sense of nation is strong.

This reads as a description. The second sentence is then troubling. For those of us who are not indigenous, the culture around us is barely touched by that 70,000 years of indigenous story-telling and we should not be free-loading on it.

How are we to “embed” ATSI arts and cultures into Australian arts? We accept without question the adoption by indigenous artists of mainstream arts and they can introduce indigenous practices freely as they wish. But we take a dim view of non-indigenous artists producing, for instance, dot paintings in indigenous styles; we may feel discomfort when a Caucasian musician performs on the didgeridoo. In the circumstances, it seems right to maintain such a tabu.

In that case, indigenous art maintains identity as a separate and parallel stream to non-indigenous art. To “embed it” can go no further than to accept, appreciate, sustain it on its own terms. There is reward to be gained from this separate existence but also, perhaps, a limit inasmuch as the non-indigenous population cannot participate in indigenous art-making. Is that what the Australia Council conceives?

This is what it says. “We will embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and cultures into Australian arts by creating a brokerage service to support organisations to collaborate and program indigenous work.” Will that take us forward?


The art form boards, therefore the art form “silos”, are gone. Artists will apply for support under a small number of categories of work which are not defined by art form. Assessments will be made by members of a large pool of artist peers. Presumably, if you are an Indian sitarist, you will be assessed by peers with a professional knowledge of sitar performance. Is that the case?

The new arrangements are intended to allow artists to propose projects that fit exactly their artistic intentions and are not twisted to fit unsympathetic categories and rules. This should be a good thing and may invigorate arts practice. Matching the proposals and the peers will be, should be, a complex proposition.

Under the recently disbanded Australia Council structure, there was a “nexus” between arts policy and arts funding, and this nexus was found through linking the experience of assessing funding applications to the formation of funding policies. The assessment experience was taken up by the art form boards, comprised of about seven artists who were among the peers but also met separately to discuss their observations; policies then were adjusted to better reflect what artists were doing.

With the boards gone, the people who will have experience of the applications are the peers, possibly engaged for single grant rounds. Will there be a process that seeks to get their impressions? Will they be alert to issues that might be relevant to policy? How would that happen?

Who would collect this information and utilise it? On the face of it, there is no-one there but the staff. The Directors are at too great a distance. What skills will the staff bring? What influence will they have? Since they are permanent, will there be an entrenchment of a particular set of viewpoints?

The abandonment of art form structures has already taken place in state arts departments. Some of the personnel in those departments have, to put it tactfully, very limited professional artform knowledge. How will the Australia Council handle this important matter?


The Australia Council is required by its new legislation to have a strategic plan. That’s a good thing. It will mean that periodically it will need to consider its role and the way it is being carried out. There will be a scheduled, periodic review which perhaps can pre-empt the situation to date where every time there was a change of Chair or CEO, the place was restructured. Restructuring sometimes seemed like the main activity.

Obviously, one can have some reservations about this first plan. But setting those aside, there is much to admire and some new and important opportunities have been set out for both the Council and the arts. It will be interesting to watch this new game play out.



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