Ben Eltham on the Australia Council

In Overland 200, Ben Eltham makes a provocative argument about the future of the Australia Council. Here’s a snippet.

The Australia Council has lost its way …  It has failed to meaningfully engage with the arts practices of everyday Australian artists and no longer enjoys the support of many of those who create art in this country. The time has arrived to seriously re-assess the role of the country’s chief cultural policy body.

I believe it is time for the Australia Council to be abolished.

You can read the full article here.

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  1. A) Overland’s relationship with the Oz Co is not exactly a secret (you might note the Oz Co logo at the bottom of the page).
    B) The opinions of an individual writer are not necessarily those of the magazine as a whole. We will be publishing articles arguing quite different perspectives about the Oz Co and arts funding in OL 201.
    C) Quite obviously, the Eltham article is more-or-less explicitly an argument against the kind of funding the OL receives — and, to a certain extent, an argument against the kind of old school literary project that OL represents. It’s not, therefore, in our interest to publish it — but we thought that it represented a legitimate and interesting perspective on these questions, and so deserved to be heard.
    C) The implication of your comment seems to be that organisations that receive arts funding should not publish commentary on arts policy. Is that really what you think?

  2. A) Not insinuating it is a secret. But given the subject I thought it should be explicit.
    B) True. But it strikes me as disingenuous for Eltham to go after, say, Opera Australia, as ‘elitist’ while directly benefiting from publishing in a journal that benefits from the same funding.
    C) It could be construed as in your interest to publish it as it lends the publication a bad boy edge. You know like when Malcolm Turnbull wears his leather jacket. 🙂
    D) Not at all the implication. It’s just that the omission is glaring.

  3. It says a great deal about Overland that it is prepared to publish articles it may not agree with or that are not (arguably) in their own best interests. In doing so, Overland shows its commitment to robust debate and discussion. This is rarely the case in mainstream media that either ignore or denigrate opposing views.

  4. I have to agree with ‘bitingthehand’. The article shows the writer’s ignorance about the issue more than it demonstrates his knowledge and research of the issues he raises. Rather than the article showing Overland as an organisation with a commitment to robust debate and discussion, it demonstrates its willingness to publish ill-informed, ignorant, controversial-for-the-sake-of-it, naive, one-eyed rhetoric. The fact that the editor of Overland feels the need to defend the article in this forum adds weight to bitingthehand’s argument.

  5. Paul,
    With respect, that’s not very productive.
    Ben’s argument updates a pretty long-standing debate about the arts and their purpose, one that people involved in the industry (and especially those who consider themselves progressives) must come to terms with. Those of us (and Overland is in this category) who work with art forms that don’t have a mass audience need to be able to answer the question: why should the public support something that they don’t access?
    Personally, I think that the market is not a reliable indicator of artistic or moral value, and that the role of arts funding should be to support precisely those forms that the invisible hand tends to throttle. But that’s the beginning of a position, not the end of one. I’m against a Philistine argument that says the good is simply what’s popular but I’m also against an elitist position that holds the tastes of great unwashed to be a matter of indifference. Negotiating those two stances is not, IMO, an easy thing to do.
    In other words, I think there’s a real argument to be had, and your blanket dismissal of the whole debate doesn’t help. For myself, I don’t believe that the digital revolution negates the value of traditional forms, but I do think that it raises difficult questions and difficult choices. If you feel that the issue is simple, well, perhaps you could explain how.
    As for whether we should have published the piece or not, to be honest, I can’t really believe this argument has come up. Are you really saying that, because Ben’s essay challenged the basis on which Overland is funded, we therefore should not have published it, that we should have, in other words, let our own financial interests determine the positions we published in the course of a genuine policy argument?
    As for the idea that government funded organisations should not publish work that criticises government policy, well, again, this flabbergasts me.
    Our brief — and the Oz Co understands this — is to publish poetry, stories and essays. Federal funding does not mandate a particular line about federal policies, anymore than grants from Arts Vic require certain attitudes to the state government.
    Again, I understand that Ben’s argument will upset people. But rather than suggesting we shouldn’t have published it, I suggest you use either this forum or the journal itself to outline a better argument.

  6. Ben Eltham’s call to ‘let the debate begin’ is valid. It is also timely as the country emerges somewhat successfully from the GFC and hesitantly from the election. The way we have come to accept the allocation of government money has transitioned the past few years. Introductions, reviews or changes to significant issues such as maternity leave, first-homebuyer incentives, retirement age, pension rates, environmental and sustainability incentives, fuel subsidies, grocery watch, and the direct stimulus handouts have all influenced a shift in our expectations of government support. In this context, a call for review of the Australia Council model seems perfectly rational. So to, in the context of a growing call for a national cultural policy does it seem fair to question the role of Australia’s arts funding and advocacy body.

    But this is perhaps where Ben’s argument becomes a little confusing and ineffective. Australia, as other nations, has a broad and multifarious culture. While a whole of government approach will certainly be the best way to ensure that cultural interests are upheld in conflicts such as intellectual copyright and liquor zoning, it is currently not the role of the Australia Council to do so. ‘The Australia Council for the Arts’ to use its full title (and yes, that is a capital A for Arts), advocate and fund one, and I would argue central, area of Australian culture. Other agencies fund and equally advocate for the priority of their discipline areas such as film, heritage and multiculturalism (to list a small few) which contributes to the diverse mix of culture that we observe and experience everyday. To hold the Australia Council against a scorecard that judges them on the performance of the broader national cultural, or cultural policy, environment is not feasible.

    IMO, the article simplifies the funding decisions and activity of the Australia Council. Perhaps this was done consciously for the sake of brevity, but in doing so the argument against the Australia Council loses robustness. As Ben has suggested, the largest performing arts organisations are already administered in the Major Performing Arts Board. Separate to MPAB are the competitive fields of Key Organisations, project and individual funding. While the boards that administer these funds are demarcated through disciplines such as dance and literature, an attendance at a Chunky Move performance, an event at a State Library or GoMA/MCA, or reading and responding to Overland online, would illustrate that digital activity has not been ignored, and though it is not segregated into its own discipline it is certainly integral to the ‘Arts’. From my past experience and what I can read online, funding decisions are made in response to applications. The Australia Council does not set a detailed mandate in terms of what it will be funding in the Key Organisation sector, ie, digital or traditional, so if there is a lack of mix in the product being produced then perhaps it comes down to the programming choice of organisations, which I suspect is influenced by marketability.

    There is evidence, best presented in the CSI and Arts Qld’s paper, New Models New Money, that opportunities for individual artists are in sharp decline. This is where Australia Council and state counterparts are underperforming. New Models New Money proposes A Foundation for the Artist model which I believe addresses Ben’s request for a body to provide opportunities for Artists outside of organisational structures. There are definitely reasons to call for an examination of the Australia Council model, but let’s first make sure we know what it is doing correctly. And let’s not confuse these functions with the issue of a national cultural policy.

  7. To quote you Jeff:

    “Are you really saying that, because Ben’s essay challenged the basis on which Overland is funded, we therefore should not have published it, that we should have, in other words, let our own financial interests determine the positions we published in the course of a genuine policy argument?”

    Not at all. You have missed my point completely. I am suggesting the article is disappointingly UNchallenging because it is misguided in its take on the issue. Therefore, irrelevant. It feels like Overland has published it to hold it up as a beacon of its identity – that you are ‘edgy’, ‘courageous’ and ‘willing to challenge the system’.

    I don’t mean to disparage what you do because I have huge respect for your journal and for yourself personally, but I believe Ben’s article undermines the good work you do because it feels like you’re using it to brand yourself as ‘free speaking’ when it comes across as ill-informed; as opposed to Marcus Westbury’s Sept 15th article on the same issue, which is far more thought provoking and enlightened.

    Sorry Jeff, just expressing thoughts aloud (online). Thanks for the opportunity to do so.

  8. Paul, I’m just wondering how you arrive at the conclusion that the publishing of Eltham’s article: ‘feels like Overland has published it to hold it up as a beacon of its identity – that you are ‘edgy’, ‘courageous’ and ‘willing to challenge the system’.

    Where is your evidence to support your claim? It seems to me as someone weighing up both sides of the argument. that the very reason this healthy discussion is taking place is that Overland published Eltham’s piece in the first place. Facilitating debate – surely, that is a good thing.

  9. As the director of a small, regional performing arts company, I was the beneficiary of more than ten years of financial support from the Australia Council during the 80s and 90s. With additional support from state and local funding bodies and with occasional financial backing from other federal agencies, we were able to develop new and often very challenging work with a relatively small audience, tour it nationally, mostly on the festival circuit and, on occasion, internationally. I was the recipient of several professional development grants which allowed me to work with and study under some of the world’s great theatre artists. Throughout this period of government subsidy, however, I remained a strident critic of arts policy in Australia and of the Australia Council, in particular.

    The essence of my critique was that arts policy was and remains inherently and unfairly biased towards elite art forms patronised, by and large, by the social class that could best afford to pay more at the box office and in sponsorship to support their own artistic preferences. By that I mean the upper middle class in major urban centres and the corporate business sector who, despite ostensibly subject to higher levels of taxation, remain the locus of economic and social privilege. The levels of financial support provided to the major orchestras, ballet and opera, for example, are disproportionately high, resulting in a two tiered system that grossly favours the elite arts over the rest.

    The fact that my own company received regular if modest project funding was a mixed blessing because we knew that, in the end, we could never attract the kind of support needed to develop a wider audience. At the same time, we saw small theatre companies, mostly from Europe, being programmed by Australian festivals and presenting work of a scope and quality we could only dream of. These were companies that had strong, sustained operational support from their national and regional companies. Their directors were often paid a modest wage for life to practice their craft. Most of all, they had been given the lifeblood of time, time to go through the development process that leads to good work. In short, we were funded to fail.

    As a consequence, scores of highly talented Australian artists choose were and are still forced to relocate to Europe in order to make a living and practice their art form. I came to a point in my career when the only option for advancement was to go offshore, in my case to The Netherlands and Belgium, where experimental art forms were generously supported. The move presented me with some great opportunities but also put considerable pressure on my home and family life. The Netherlands has roughly the same population as Australia. Dutch support for the elite performing arts is very generous and has kept alive some of the finest companies in the world. And yet, the Dutch have been especially tuned to the emerging digital arts and have a rich history of encouraging radical practice across all art forms.

    In Australia, arts policy has atrophied and the malaise is not confined to a lack of recognition of digital arts. At an intellectual level, the Australia Council has become a fossilised site of narrow priorities, limited vision and a culture of favouritism. It has been appropriated by a managerial class of career bureaucrats and its founding principle of arms length, peer review decision making has been gradually attenuated. At a time when most Australians would not question the value of public funding for the arts (and even 20 years ago this was not the case), arts policy has dropped off the radar as a political issue, as was evident during the recent federal election. Culture is political. The manner in which the state engages with cultural practice, and with the intellectual and creative forces that drive it, is an indication of the health or otherwise of the polity. Clearly, it is time the debate was reopened.

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