October 2015


The house loses

By Julian Meyrick
The Australia Council’s history of challenges and challengers

Imagine a house built in 1968, nearly 50 years ago. Imagine the changes that have happened since: new windows, new roof, an extension out the back. But it is the surrounding community that has really transformed. So what to do with the house? Preserve it? Knock it down? Keep renovating so that it suits contemporary needs?

This, in a nutshell, is the problem of the Australia Council. Established at a certain time to do a certain job, it is less that it is failing to do it than the environment in which it operates is now radically different. In 1968, many things we take for granted today – media convergence, multi-platform delivery, wireless communication – did not exist. Others – overseas travel options, consumer goods and services – have grown exponentially. There are more choices to make, more pressure on those making the choices.

Compounding these dilemmas is the agency’s fiery history of partisan attacks, client unrest and organisational upheaval. The nearest thing we have to a narrative of the Council, Justin McDonnell’s Arts, Minister? (1992), is jammed to the eyeballs with controversy and crises. “God help the Minister that mingles with art,” cautioned the British prime minister, Lord Melbourne, in 1830.

McDonnell identifies two ongoing challenges for the democratic support of culture in Australia. First, how to reconcile patronage and subsidy – the former an expression of individual tastes, the latter a functional process. Second, how to align state and federal governments – hardly a problem unique to culture, but one to which it is uniquely sensitive.

This is the backdrop against which the current arts funding fracas should be viewed. In May this year, without consulting either the sector or the Council, the federal arts minister, Senator George Brandis, announced the establishment of a new funding body, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), and took $104.7 million from the Council’s allocation over four years to pay for it. He did so having only recently endorsed the Council’s 2014 Strategic Plan, which drew on Gabrielle Trainor and Angus James’ 2012 review of the agency’s structure and operation. This report in turn incorporated the findings of a government-initiated public survey on whether “the original purpose of the Australia Council remains relevant today”. Thus the NPEA is a further step away from Creative Australia, the panoptic cultural policy document released only months before Labor left office.

The timing caught everyone by surprise. The Council was still grappling with last year’s budget cuts, while its clients were in the middle of a difficult transition to a six-year reporting cycle (postponed until further notice). A further aggravation is that subsidy to the major companies has been ring-fenced, forcing the agency to reduce its already slender support of individual artists and smaller organisations.

For all the outrage the changes have provoked, however, nothing in this story is new. In cultural policy, form does not follow function. Instead, it resembles the opening credits of Game of Thrones, a rapid building and rebuilding of resources, positions and strategies. Thus far, and remarkably, given the strength of feeling against it, the Australia Council has pulled through.

The agency’s history can be divided into four periods. In the first, there was more money than people to give it to, and the focus of criticism was lack of return – “the arts of freeloading”, as one apoplectic journalist dubbed it. “Fewer jobs, higher taxes, dearer petrol and fares … this is the bleak outlook … But dahlia festivals, pipe bands, puppets and potters all score in million-dollar handouts in arts grants announced last night.” That could be the arts minister today, but it was the Daily Telegraph in 1975.

After the Dismissal, the economic mood darkened and the arts sector acquired a complex administrative structure that governments equate (or confuse) with being professional. The Council followed the trend, extending its submission and audit procedures, and stressing the need for artists to be publicly accountable for the money they received.

During the 1980s, there was conflict over so-called “ceiling funding”, an upper limit on all annual grants that hit the major organisations the hardest. This went pear-shaped when those same companies went to the arts minister looking for direct line appropriation, circumventing the Council entirely.

In 1995, the Major Organisations Board was formally established, splitting the client base into two. This inaugurated a fourth period of operation, one we are still in, where smaller companies append one side of funding guidelines, major companies the other.

The same year, Paul Keating established the Australian Foundation for Culture and the Humanities, and financed it in much the same way as Brandis – by taking money from the Council. In 2000 it was incorporated into the Australia Business Arts Foundation, which has now been subsumed by Creative Partnerships Australia. And so on. The NPEA is another addition to our spectral list of cultural acronyms, a procession of bright ideas that blip into public consciousness and are later discarded.

Since the late 1970s the biggest problem for the Council has been freeing up money for new and emerging artists. Its annual allocation is tiny – 0.044% of federal government expenses, and only 3.7% of our total cultural sector spending.

So why whip up another storm in a cultural teacup, and why instigate an expensive Senate inquiry, ‘Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget Decisions on the Arts’, examining the barometrics?

Because art matters. Despite attempts to frame it in terms of the economy, diplomacy, social integration and personal wellbeing – anything, really, other than art – it remains intuitively clear that art has a place and value of its own. If nothing else, the present stoush is a wake-up call for a sector that has been taking arts subsidy for granted. The issues it involves must be better parsed.

These remain much as McDonnell saw them in 1992. There is the vexed question of how to decide which artists and companies to support. The Council’s peer review process is again under fire, for obvious reasons: when you reject four out of five applications, the number of people who feel slighted quickly clocks up. Regardless of the reality, the perception its grant procedures can be gamed is understandable. However, this is something the 2014 Strategic Plan has in its sights. The intention is to increase the number of peers and strengthen the role of the minister in determining final outcomes. Will it work? Moot point. Still, the minister gazumped his own reforms, ones that were tending his way anyway.

The issue of federal and state support is also a hardy perennial. Too often arts funding is framed in a redistributive way when absolute levels also need debating. Do we want to fund major companies or individual artists? Publishing companies or performing arts precincts? A national broadcaster or a national ballet? Australian films or Australian paintings? Popular culture or oppositional art?

It’s a false choice. We want to fund both, and in economic terms they are complements, not substitutes. But culture has got itself mixed up – again – in the ideological sinkhole that is Canberra politics, and a government thus far determined to adopt a fractious approach to as many policy domains as possible. In her 2013 Platform Paper It’s Culture, Stupid!, Leigh Tabrett, a former director of Arts Queensland, calls for a “whole of government” approach to the cultural sector, for co-operation “across departmental structures and silos to achieve major policy reform”. The NPEA proposal is an indication this won’t be happening soon.

What about “excellence” then? Has the minister got that right at least? In 1985, shortly after he became Council chair, that tireless propagator of sense Donald Horne remarked, “Excellence is the motherhood word of arts-support policy. Everyone is for excellence. No one says, ‘What I stand for is determined mediocrity.’”

Funding for “excellence” is not straightforward. It must be part of a risk-based vision for the sector, not pre-determined by consensus view. Otherwise the only art we would ever see is the kind we’ve seen before.

This was the rationale for setting up the Australia Council in 1968. Whether it remains the right mechanism for addressing the systemic problems in arts subsidy today is the main issue. A “whole of government” approach means more than cost savings. It is a key to sustainability, to helping artists and companies find a better balance in what is blandly called “the funding mix”. When Senator Brandis brought in his changes, one might have expected an emphasis on capacity-building, on achieving exactly this kind of co-ordination across the sector. The NPEA instead appears to be a duplication of the processes of the Australia Council, just a different edifice, with similar processes and aims.

In the rapidly changing arts community, the walls are getting higher and the neighbours increasingly stressed.

Julian Meyrick

Julian Meyrick is Strategic Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University and artistic counsel of the State Theatre Company of South Australia. He is the director of many award-winning theatre productions, and has published histories of the Nimrod Theatre and the Melbourne Theatre Company, two Platform Papers, and numerous articles on Australian theatre, culture and cultural policy.

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