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Keith Gallasch

Platform Paper 6

Rethinking the Australia Council

Keith Gallasch

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Are most artists bottom feeders, scavenging the leftovers of the major organisations, the arts omnivores? Most live at the bottom end of the ‘small-to-medium sector’ of the arts hierarchy, yet they produce the most innovative and relevant work. So writes Keith Gallasch, in this study of the Australia Council’s declined interest in the new. Ten years ago the Council was active in support of emerging forms. This year, in a leap back to the future, it dismantled the New Media and Community Development boards, catering to its most vital sectors. ‘New media arts practitioners come from many backgrounds—film, biology, communications, physics, architecture, performance, music, sound art. New forms offer opportunities to revitalise the way we think, talk and write about art. Like the universities, like industry, the arts have a responsibility to a future Australia. Have we become complacent about our capacity to invent?’ Arts practitioners are disappearing from the ranks of the Australia Council in favour of appointees with a ‘general interest’ and a free-market rationale, writes Gallasch. ‘If you deride a nation’s artists and if you turn the Council into a machine driven by economic criteria it can easily be dismantled in those terms.’ It’s time to rethink the Australia Council, he says, to make it less a grant-processing machine and more a spur to creative innovation and relevance. ‘After thirty years of development surely the arts are sufficiently mature to embrace this?’


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About the Author

 Keith Gallasch is Managing Editor of the arts magazine RealTime. He co-founded the performance company Open City, and created new works at Sydney’s Performance Space 1987–96.

This essay is about the interplay between a set of emerg­ing art practices and the system that has both accommo­dated and countered it. It is about an organisation within the arts system, the Australia Council, and its attempts to manage that system and its innovations. At the same time it is about individual artists and managers, agents in the system, who have played a role in its making. 


Sue Beal with some arts funding history

Keith Gallasch's 'Art in a Cold Climate: Rethinking the Australia Council' (Platform Papers No.6) raises many questions in his essay that I could get my teeth into but I only have the space and time to address one. I've chosen, 'Could it be that the Major Performing Arts Board skews the functioning of the Australia Council?'

I joined the Theatre Board in 1984 and the first decision made during my membership was to place a ceiling on the funds allocated to the State theatre companies. It's not unreasonable to believe that the hysteria this provoked within these institutions was a significant factor in the creation of a special place for them which would indulge their belief of artistic superiority. And Keith is absolutely right: the buffering of the large companies against critical artistic analysis is one of the many ways that the OzCo, originally envisaged as a nurturer of creativity and innovation, has transformed itself into a bureaucracy that appears to see itself primarily as a supporter of good business practice.

That the brave move to limit the profligacy of large companies may have partially contributed to them receiving even more favoured treatment than in the past does nothing to erode my pride in being associated with the attempt. The Theatre Board had a limited budget and a clear vision. The constantly increasing demands of the majors were putting more and more pressure on the ability to realise this vision. For us to be able to support the new, the difficult, the risky and the emerging we had to find a way of limiting our support of the institutional. Worthy as they might be, they weren't the only ones producing the work our Board believed it had been created to support.

My pride in being part of the decision to limit the Board's function as an agent of 'industry' assistance is balanced by my embarrassment at the part I played in elevating the performing arts to industry status. As an Actors Equity official with the best of intentions, I argued strongly for the recognition of the arts as an industry, believing that this would result in an improvement to artists' conditions. Well, it did improve the conditions of some, but it also provided the arguments used by the majors in their never-ending demands for increased support from the Theatre Board. It also paved the way for the economic rationalists who soon moved in with their mantra, 'If it can't be counted, it has no value'.

Cash flows, attendance projections, sponsorship deals, business plans, burgeoning 'infrastructure', marketing consultants, accountants negotiating with accountants-all in the name of 'best practice', and often producing bigger deficits-this became the milieu of the majors. Vision, imagination, artistic risk, innovation, experiment, obsession became peripheral. The bottom line was deified. The worst possible skewing one could imagine.

And it could have been so different. Within days of the Labor Party coming to power in 1982, Pat Galvin, the Secretary of the Department responsible for the arts, suggested to the OzCo that he could take over the funding of the majors and cocoon them in a corner of the department, give them CPI and leave them to their own devices. Thus leaving the Council to pursue its real agenda. I shamefacedly confess that I was one of those who argued against this, in hindsight, visionary proposal. The OzCo came up with a thousand reasons why they shouldn't be handed over. Of these the most honourable-and silly-was the belief that these companies would benefit from a critique of their work from an artistic perspective.

Ultimately, it was the accountants' arguments that won the day. If the OzCo lost the majors' huge funding allocation, it would also lose the statutory administrative proportion that came with their funding. Council couldn't countenance a reduction in staff and believed that it could control the majors. That's always been nonsense. The Boards of the majors have consistently demonstrated that their political astuteness is infinitely superior to that of the OzCo. They have succeeded where the OzCo has consistently failed: while most of the majors have built direct, confidential and beneficial relations with Canberra, the OzCo has never been able to achieve what should have been its primary goal-decent money for the arts-but instead spent most of its energies trying to survive threats to its own existence.

This is not really the OzCo's fault, although they could have gone about things differently. Ever since the establishment of a purportedly independent statutory central arts authority (in Sydney) the Canberra bureaucrats have been trying to regain territory they see as rightfully theirs. This struggle has never been acknowledged by either side (and possibly not even recognised by many at the OzCo). Council's attempts to align itself with Canberra were evident from the outset, when the founding Director, Jean Battersby, chose to align OzCo wages with those of the Canberra public service, rather than with those of arts workers, probably in the mistaken belief that grades would engender respect.

For the Council to have built on its original independence, and to have realised the current fantasy of being the leader of the arts, it would have had to make real from the beginning its role as the representative of the arts. What it has become is the representative of the State (nothing illustrates this better than the fact that we are all now obliged to include the Federal Government's coat of arms among our sponsor icons) and the problem with that position is that even there they are not successful. The Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts is the real face of government arts policy; the OzCo has been well and truly sidelined.

Jennifer Bott responds for the Australia Council

Keith Gallasch ('Art in a Cold Climate', Platform Papers, October 2005) uses an excellent extended metaphor of the arts sector as 'ecosystem'. It highlights the diversity and dynamism of the arts, and points to the interdependent nature of all players within the sector. But Gallasch's view of the Australia Council is a conservative one, tying us to the passive role of 'public cheque book' for the arts. And at a time when the artform silos are breaking down, Keith Gallasch is busy building walls.

If the arts sector is like an ecosystem, then the Australia Council for the Arts is an integral agent within it. We do not believe the Australia Council is the arts. We do not own the arts or seek to manage or control them, but we do have a leadership role which we exercise through financial and human resources, dialogue and research. We play a vital role in supporting the sector's growth, in fostering the relationships between different organisms and in building links to the wider social 'biosphere' that is the Australian community.

It is precisely because we are so much part of the artistic landscape that the Australia Council embarked on our first major reorganisation in 1996 and our second last year. We saw that if the arts sector was to continue to grow, new ways of supporting it were needed.

From where does growth come? From new artistic ideas and forms-and these are everywhere in the arts, not the exclusive domain of new media and hybridity. Australian works performed by the major performing arts companies increased from 75 in 1999 to 207 in 2004-which hardly tallies with Gallasch's assertion that such companies play 'a diminishing role in shaping the future of our culture'. The real issue is not stale arguments about hybrid and new media arts versus 'artforms we inherited from the nineteenth century', as Gallasch would have it, but that the Australia Council is positioned to respond to growth and change appropriately.

There is far more value in having Australia's major performing companies-its flagship theatre, dance, circus and opera companies and its orchestras-funded by the Australia Council than directly by government, as Gallasch poses. Far from being 'protected' species in the arts ecosystem, these companies are rigorously reviewed in all measures. Further, the Council's new artform directors are charged with representing their artforms across all areas of Australia Council activity, including the major performing arts, and in doing so give the Council its vital 'big picture' overview of the issues and concerns of each sector of the arts in Australia. The artificial separation of these companies from the rest of our arts infrastructure is the antithesis of the direction in which we believe these relationships should develop-artistic links, mentoring and shared resources are all possible areas of collaboration.

To suggest that an Australia Council freed of responsibility for the major performing arts companies could then magically get on with tackling 'key issues in the arts' reveals a deep misunderstanding of the Australia Council's role and the nature of the Australian arts. Why would a statutory authority give away half its budget and responsibility for key arts infrastructure? Who has decided that key issues in the arts are outside the major companies? How would the Council's role be enhanced by separating us from the artistic achievements, audience reach, profile and governance strength of the major performing arts companies? We have a duty of care for, and a commitment to add value to, arts infrastructure in Australia-it is one of our key priorities.

The Australia Council is not ambivalent about innovation; it's embedded in everything we support. For example, the Council's Theatre Board defines innovation for its grants programs as 'being intensely attuned to contemporary life to the extent that it affects the work that you make and the way that you make the work … It means investigating, testing and taking risks'. This is a cogent reminder of our mission.

We believe we now have the right structure and processes in place to support this breadth of creativity. By supporting new media and hybrid practice across the Council's Visual Arts Board, Music Board and Inter-Arts Office, we are encouraging cross-fertilisation between all arts practices. Rather than destroying the habitat for new media and hybrid arts, as Gallasch contends, we have morphed to become more flexible in how we support it. The commitment-in funding dollars, in peer assessment, in great initiatives like Synapse, Time_Place_Space and Run_Way-remains in place.

Our support of contemporary arts practices has never been stronger, and our annual budget continues to grow. The investment in the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, following the Myer Report, has resulted in a total of $39 million of new investment on top of existing funds to support contemporary practice. The Council's recent funding outcomes include support for the ongoing financial stability of major performing arts companies ($3.9 million) and renewed commitments to the NOISE youth arts festivals ($5 million), Books Alive ($8 million) and Young and Emerging Artists initiative ($2.5 million), not to mention an exemption from partial indexation of all the Council's funding for the arts. None of this accords with the accusation of 'downsizing to do with less' that Gallasch would pin on the Council.

If biology shows us anything, it is that the relationships between organisms serve to create a whole that is something more than its parts. Everything is connected; nothing resides outside. The Australia Council has changed to better support and foster these connections. We have changed to ensure that Australia's artistic landscape continues to grow, for the arts and for all Australians.

Darren Tofts on charging an active circuit

In a special 2001 issue of Artlink magazine devoted to the 'e-volution of new media', Julianne Pierce, then director of the Australian Network for Art and Technology, observed that with 'innovation and knowledge as key buzzwords of the political agenda, it is vital that this is translated into ongoing support of cultural digital practice within this country'. Nearly five years on, this rallying of support for the emerging practice of new media arts in Australia sounds uncannily prescient in the context of Keith Gallasch's 'Art in A Cold Climate'. Pierce was writing of a cultural moment when the innovative arts practices associated with new and hybrid media were bolstered by what she calls 'an active circuit- a galvanising network of institutional advocacy, dedicated funding schemes (let alone boards), emerging spaces of exhibition and informed critical writing'. The sentiment of Gallasch's cogent account of the dissolution of the New Media Arts Board of the Australia Council is identical to Pierce's admonition. He is invoking a break in the active circuit, a circuit that has been gaining momentum but of which the work is in no way complete. The import of Gallasch's critique of the Australia Council implies the contrary.

Gallasch's metaphor of new media arts as an emerging ecology is apposite and timely. It elevates his overall critique from being an elegy or a critical rejoinder and proffers a vital portrait of the nodal components of the active circuits necessary for fostering innovation in the arts. Gallasch's attention to the discontinuation of the New Media Arts board is the occasion for a broader and insightful reflection on what it means to cultivate the arts. The initiation of dedicated funding for new media arts, such as the Australian Film Commission's No Frills Fund (1985) and the Australia Council's New Media Arts Board (1996) have been vital in sustaining a sense that media and hybrid arts are here to stay and are in no way an ephemeral movement, or minor footnote to the history of art.

Gallasch is quite right to assert that hybrid arts are informed by a range of extant aesthetic practices. He is also correct in arguing that hybridity entails unprecedented forms that require sensitive funding and curatorial protocols; not to mention the thorny issues of nomenclature and the challenges to critical practice and engaged public discourse. We have surpassed the shock of the new in relation to new media arts. However a thriving ecology must always be prepared for the surprises emergence brings. Emergence is beyond prediction and can only be recognised after the fact. Let us hope that in another five years we will not be looking back on a time of irreversible climactic change. It is hoped that Gallasch's constructive thoughts on rethinking the Australia Council will inspire a reconnection of this breach in an emerging system.