Kathy Keele,  Australia Council CEO, responds to Ben Eltham’s Overland 199 article

Ben Eltham’s article raises a number of important issues worthy of further debate. I welcome his passion for the vitality of the arts in this country and the need for a dynamic approach to cultural policy.

I agree completely that culture is much bigger than the arts and indeed that the arts are bigger than ‘what the Australia Council funds’. We made this point in our submission to the National Cultural Policy consultation process. How we set the parameters of ‘culture’ so that it yields a policy that’s workable for government is a good topic for discussion.
But there are a number of points in his essay that need to be corrected.

One of Eltham’s key criticisms of the Australia Council is that its view of the arts is antiquated, remaining largely unchanged from the 1970s. As examples, he names arts practices that are not supported by the council’s art form boards – gaming, genre fiction, online writing, and musicals, to name a few.

The problem is that this isn’t true. For a healthy debate to proceed, it’s important to correct these and some other factual inaccuracies.

  • He states that the council ‘funds opera but not musicals (except when opera companies mount musicals)’. This is incorrect. The music and theatre boards have an initiative called Music Theatre which supports the development of musicals.
  • He argues for the artistic importance of gaming, and asks ‘why doesn’t the Australia Council support gaming?’ It does. The council has over many years funded artists who create game art works and explore game culture as an artistic practice.
  • He states that the council supports ‘serious novels, generally, but not genre fiction or online writing’. Not true. The Literature Board has funded genre novels, interactive media writing, websites, iPhone apps and graphic novels through our New Work and Write in Your Face grants programs. The board recently completed a three-year initiative called the Story of the Future and published the Writer’s Guide to Making a Digital Living.
  • Eltham states that the council ‘funds companies that only produce a few works a year but not festivals that produce hundreds’. In fact, each year the council funds dozens of works that are presented at festivals all over the country. We also fund the Major Festivals Initiative which commissions new Australian work for presentation at the seven capital city festivals.

Questioning the amount of funding allocated to these various new art practices is one thing. I worry, however, that his critique is based on an idea that the council doesn’t fund these arts practices at all.

What I want to make clear is that many ‘new’ art practices are currently funded by the Australia Council from within the existing art form boards, through our inter-arts section and, indeed, through programs and initiatives across council. The key criterion, no matter what its form, is that the art is excellent.

I also need to correct the impression left by Eltham that abolition of the Community Cultural Development Board in 2005 demonstrated that the council ‘turned its back on community arts’. He fails to mention that the Community Partnerships Committee, with an upgraded remit to support community arts practice across the nation, was formed the following year. This year Community Partnerships will be allocating approximately $10 million in funding.

Eltham also notes his objections to the funding allocated to the major performing arts companies. It is useful to note that while the Australia Council manages the distribution of this funding, decisions as to which organisations are funded and by how much are set by the six state arts ministers and the federal arts minister.

In spite of these errors and misunderstandings, I do believe Eltham’s piece raises a fundamental question: how do we most effectively fund the ever-changing way that art is created? This question needs to be constantly revisited by those sitting both inside and outside our arts funding agencies.

Kathy Keele

Kathy Keele is CEO at Australia Council for the Arts.

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