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IT'S CULTURE, STUPID!

Leigh Tabrett

Platform Paper 34

Leigh Tabrett

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In 2005, with a lifelong interest in the arts, a career background in higher education and no professional experience of arts administration, Leigh Tabrett was appointed to lead the Queensland Government’s arts agency. In a trenchant reassessment of these years, in which she undertook a complete overhaul of its arts policies and programs, she explores how the lack of clarity about the core purposes of government funding had reached deep into the thinking at both state and federal level. ‘We don’t have a system of funding for the arts in Australia’, she writes. ‘We don’t have a consistent view of the role of government in funding the arts; and even when we do have well considered approaches, they highlight more questions than they answer.’

This is a fundamental clash of cultures, she concludes. How can we have a national system of public support for the arts in the absence of any clear sense of purpose for such a system? This paper offers some suggestions for a better way.

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About the Author

LEIGH TABRETT was Director of the Office of Higher Education before being appointed Director General of the Department of Premier and Cabinet and Head of Arts Queensland in 2005. She has been influential in a variety of public initiatives on the arts, including the National Cultural Policy.

Without a fundamental agreement on purpose, cultural policy is destined to re-work the same debates, and to be captured by the language of other policy agendas. The design of structures and support systems which are ‘fit for purpose’ will continue to be elusive.

 

Comments

DEBORAH MILLS is a freelance consultant working in the areas of arts and cultural policy and providing strategic advice and support to the not-for-profit sector.

I am delighted that someone of Leigh's position and experience has written an essay which should provoke reflection on why Australian governments behave as they do when it comes to funding art.

Her advocacy for the rights of citizens as participants, makers and advocates of their own culture echo the words of the late Donald Horne which made their way into the preamble of Keating's Creative Nation: an earlier attempt by a Labor government to establish a cultural policy for Australia.

I strongly agree with Leigh's statement as to the reasons for the geographical imbalance of Australia Council funding, namely that:

...these questions arise because of systemic failure to place culture, and the right of the citizen to cultural expression and engagement at the heart of our thinking about why and how governments fund the arts. However, the imbalances referred to by Leigh go deeper than geography. Arts policy makers in Australia have been allowed to ignore the fact that despite the high level of engagement and participation by Australian citizens in a range of popular, 'sub-cultural' and 'high' arts activity the vast majority of them do not have an opportunity to engage with the output of subsidised arts and cultural institutions. We see a marked distinction between those who attend, who have attained tertiary levels of education and those who do not attend, who have not. The message for governments, policy makers and administrators is clear. Government policies must translate into removing the educational, financial, social and cultural barriers to citizens' active and critical engagement with new art and with their cultural heritage.

Leigh proposes a well-reasoned, rationalist and technocratic approach to policy making. However, policy making by government is usually opportunist and is really informed, sometimes unconsciously, by values rather than evidence. The role of values in arts and cultural policy is clear from the different ways in which governments in Australia treat art and mass culture. Why do they have different organisational relationships for the support of art and mass cultural product and different assumptions about its distribution and audience potential?

While it can be argued that these distinctions are based on assumptions about market failure, I am arguing that they are equally based on making moral distinctions between different forms of creative production. The Australia Council, for example, privileges certain forms of cultural production over others because it sees them not just as different, but as better and worthier than other forms. The Council appears to truly believe that with some effort at education and, in the last 20 years, marketing, subsidised arts activities will be universally admired and enjoyed.

This double standard is based on beliefs and values which have held sway for more than 150 years and which continue to underpin and drive the current arts policy 'moment'. Unless we can analyse and interrogate these values then we will never construct an internally consistent cultural policy.

Utilitarianism and a belief in the civilising influences of the arts and culture precipitated the development of Australia's public cultural institutions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These beliefs are evident in the assumptions in the consultation draft of the current cultural policy and are even more evident in the report of the recent review into the Australia Council. Here the authors make a spurious distinction between excellence and access and propose splitting these responsibilities between two agencies, thereby making it even easier for the Australia Council to perpetuate the imbalances in its funding decisions.

These assumptions are grounded in a belief in the distinction between those who appreciate art and culture and those who do not, and in the need to address this 'cultural deficit' through remedial action such as funding for touring or audience education programs which will attract people from less enlightened socio-demographic groups.

The Australia Council was established in 1975 to support excellence in the arts and to ensure that all Australians have the opportunity to engage with the arts and enjoy a rich cultural life. How Australians 'engage' has been interpreted by government arts agencies as encompassing both access to the arts and participation in them. During the last thirty years there has been a clear distinction between government policies and the activities of arts organisations which aim to give Australians opportunities to critically 'engage through having access' to their cultural heritage and to new art, and those polices and activities which aim to provide opportunities for individuals and communities to 'participate' in their own forms of intellectual and art production. On face value these policies and activities do not appear as polar opposites. However, the values underpinning them are very different.

The values of engagement are associated with conventional 'high' culture and the desire to give people better access to it. The values of participation are associated with valuing a diversity of cultures and an understanding that popular and marginalised cultures can invigorate 'high' culture.
 
The values of engagement are associated with a singular view of citizenship and nationhood. The values of participation are associated with diversity rather than singularity and a belief that people can belong to different cultures simultaneously.
 
The values of engagement are associated with an elite of institutionally recognised artists. The values of participation are associated with many different definitions and interpretations of virtuosity.
 
The values of engagement support a singular, dominant cultural heritage. The values of participation see many cultural heritages conversing with each other.
 
The values of engagement value the negotiation that takes place between artist and audience around that engagement. The values of participation value the capacity of communities to be active participants in the making and management of their creative and cultural development.
 
A robust discussion about the values shaping arts policies and the clear articulation of the cultural rights of all Australians could do much to inject a new transparency and accountability into the arts polices and the behaviours of governments and their arts agencies.

JULIAN MEYRICk is a theatre director and critic; and Srategic Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University.

As the saying goes, if the Archbishop of Canterbury tells you he believes in God, it's all in the way of business; if he tells you he doesn't, you know he means it. Leigh Tabrett's Platform Paper puts its finger on all the major issues facing the development of the cultural sector from the Government's point of view at the present time. Her track record as a senior public servant in both education and arts portfolios makes her scepticism of current arrangements worth significant attention. Her grasp of the issues is sure; the tone is right - sympathetic to artists and arts organisations but aware there is a big picture to take into account.

That big picture has big problems. The bureaucratic regulation of cultural goods and services is a dissonant activity. The whole point of culture is its particularity, its subjective appeal. How can something so personal be captured by the idiom of functional provision? 'Negotiated framework'; 'decision-making logic'; 'evidence-based outcomes'; 'whole of government approach': these are the catch phrases of utilitarian public policy. But think of the last cultural event you attended. Do any apply in describing it? For the cultural sector, the division between the language of administrative support and the language of individual experience is extreme and disorientating. Calling it a 'clash of cultures' isn't the half of it. It's more like a war of the worlds.

Leigh's overview of the dead ends and black holes of our funding system is masterly. Australian cultural policy has been accused of being ad hoc before, and for good reason. Since the Reconstruction Government of the 1940s considered, but did not implement, a national cultural agency, it has unfolded like a French farce without the laughs. There's been rhetoric without financial commitment (Chifley); financial commitment without policy vision (Menzies); policy vision with no administrative foresight (Whitlam); and administrative reform minus operational intent (Keating). In this saga of meddle and muddle, culture is forever contested because no one has any idea what the word actually means, and there are no guarantees the responsible Ministers believe it means anything at all. Leigh talks about a regulatory 'sweet spot' blending social planning with flexible response. It is a laudable goal, but a change of attitude will be needed by all parties to realise it. Artists need to learn how government works, yes. But equally, governments need to realise that intervention in culture will misfire unless they have detailed knowledge of its individual subsectors. Measuring cultural outputs is all very well. The challenge is to understand how diverse creative practices generate them.

Leigh is right to insist on a balance between access and excellence, to argue the good is not the enemy of the best, as Voltaire imagined, but its interlocutor. Whether this should be expressed in a focal split between the Australia Council and the Office of the Arts is another matter. It would leave the Council nursemaiding the major organisations (who claim 75%+ of its annual allocation) without giving it an incentive to seek broader acceptance of that work. And having access programs under Canberra's sway again is concerning. Recall how shamelessly, in the dying days of the Howard Government, Playing Australia was pork-barrelled to improve its standing in marginal seats.

Likewise, the opposition between 'culture' and 'the arts' needs careful handling if it is to have beneficial effect. For the Council and the traditional arts, the implications are clear: they need to broaden their idea of cultural activity, stand down from an assumed elitism and admit the value of popular, heritage and community forms falling outside the scope of their inherited disciplines. But the traffic flows the other way too. There is a need to stuff substantive content into the term 'culture', to show that it isn't a cheese-word for any leisure activity claiming merit or good status. Every right implies a duty. So it is with cultural rights. If culture is important, then it deserves thoughtful definition. Rich critical vocabularies exist in spades around the traditional arts, and culture can take a leaf out of this book in toughening up its own categories.

Leigh's overview comes from close contact with the creative field and a grasp of the aggregate data. Fans of the Cultural Ministers Statistical Working Group, like me, find their estimation of its work rising further. It is worth pondering, however, why its 2010 report Vital Signs fell on deaf ears. Could it be that cultural reporting- the blood supply of cultural policy-needs reforming before anything real gets done? Leigh touches on this in her consideration of the execrated position of smaller arts organisations-asset-less, beholden, vulnerable to any misalignment between support agencies. But their most crushing burden is surely the endless reports they must generate to justify their tiny amounts of assistance. Modern governments have made a religion of accountability. But in culture's case it lacks a viable god. The constant audits, acquittals, business plans, performance reviews and so forth are not a response to an official interest in culture but the result of a suspicion of it. Over-reporting fulfils no real informational need. And it is expensive, chewing up the time and attention of artists and bureaucrats. The cost of compliance is something that should be estimated next time another set of funding guidelines generates another set of onerous reporting requirements.

What are the implications of all this for cultural policy research? The cultural value project I am involved in at Flinders University is not averse to number crunching. Far from it. It deploys the latest contingency value methods in estimating the economic and social impacts of a variety of arts events. However, quantitative techniques are of limited application without a qualitative dimension giving them a context and expressing their implications in a language commanding consensus from government, artists and public alike. This, surely, is the ambition of the Federal Government's long-awaited national cultural policy. Leigh has laid out all the reasons why it can't appear too soon.