ABOLISH THE AUSTRALIA COUNCIL - QUESTION MARK
By Derek Strahan BA Cantab (Modern Languages, French & Spanish)
Part 1 - BIOGRAPHY - PREAMBLE
This text originates in a talk and discussion prepared as the inaugural event put on by the Australian Creators' Executive, at the premises of the New South Wales Writers' Centre, Rozelle, in Sydney, Australia. Australian Creators' Executive is an embryonic body formed to lobby for the cause of Australian individual creative artists. The talk was also designed as the first one to be held under the umbrella title "Composers Earning money", which is also the heading of the final section of this article. The overall aim of this series is to create a broad context in which to embrace many aspects of this topic, encompassing not only a survey of funding arrangements for composers today, but also of how composers earned money in previous eras. Although the emphasis is on composers, the issues are pertinent to the interests of all creative artists in any discipline. In the first part of this article, I'll touch on how the ways that (for example) composers and writers earn money differ from the ways that painters earn money. The differences are significant, and point up social aspects of how artists in different disciplines relate to society and to people who buy their work.
The first segment of the article presents the overall context, and also refers to the subject matter of future articles. The second segment addresses the topic as advertised - "Abolish The Australia Council ?" - QUESTION MARK. The question mark is important. This is a rhetorical question, in that the Federal Government will always need an arts advisory body whose activities operate at arms length from the government. No government wishes to be directly involved in the arts, any more than you would willingly wade through a pond full of cannibalistic piranha fish. One of the questions explored tonight is whether or not the Australia Council, as it has evolved, is capable of serving the needs of one particular section of the arts community - its individual creative artists. On its own admission, the Council is not able to fund "between 60% and 70% of its clientele.This is an improvement on the statistics of seven years go, when it could not fund 90%. However, is the improvement due to many of its "clients" (such as myself) having given up trying?
Some may feel that if an organisation can only fund from 20% to 30% of its clientele, its relevance is in doubt. On the other hand, the Council has only limited funds at its disposal. The cake it is given to divide is a small cake. Is there any way that the cake can be enlarged without making politically unacceptable demands on taxpayers' money? Probably not - at least not through the Australia Council. So abolishing it and starting again might only result in an equally unsatisfactory result.
This article offers some insights into how the cake is divided, on the basis of correspondence received on this matter from the council. Judgement by committee is supposed to provide protection against bias in funding. But this strategy is self-deluding. No artistic judgement can be unbiased. Bias is at the basis of artistic judgement. The problem is, therefore, that bias can, and will inevitably exist in a system which denies its existence - but only if the system avoids accountability, by refusing to give reason for its decisions. Statutory bodies are required by law to give reasons for their decisions. So how can the Australia council avoid acquitting itself of this obligation? Correspondence from the council itself provides some clues as to how this balancing act is achieved.
The relevant section of this article has already posted on this website under the heading: "No reasons For Saying No." The text has been there for several years. But, as we know, in its coverage of the arts, the press is motivated less by content than by celebrity reporting. Thus, a few years ago, an Australian council reform group was formed, and it attracted a great deal of attention from all media, since the group starred two high profile poets and an even higher profile pianist. The aim here is to attract interest in ideas, in policy, without the aid of celebrities, so, although the press may find nothing of interest in our proceedings, a few seeds of change may be sown.
Other possible methods of enlarging the funding basis are touched upon here with, again, the aim of encouraging discussion about how to enlarge the funding basis for Australian individual creative artists. I don't have any final answers. But I do have some suggestions. The more suggestions we have, the more discussion we have, the more likely it is that we will arrive at a situation where more than 20% to 30% of artists who apply for funding, do get funding, as might artists who no longer think it worth applying.
The 20% to 30% statistic is a blunt instrument with which to estimate the number of individual creative artists who do and don't get funded, since those percentages also include many of the other arts entities which apply for funding. It seems churlish, at this point, to add that a variable of 10% in assessing the success/failure rate hardly inspires confidence in the Council's ability to monitor its own effectiveness. It is significant, however, that the Australia Council does not resisting discussion of the issues. A senior representative did attend the function at which this text was presented, and a lively discussion followed, in which assurances were given (1) that funding of artists from the private section is under discussion and (2) the Council is always approachable to discuss these and other pertinent matters. This is heartening since some of the solutions put forward might lead to the council having a reduced role in the funding process. One would hope that the Council might even welcome a rational sharing of the funding function.
The end result should be, I suggest, to increase Australia 's artistic produce. A term for individual artists introduced for the Creative Nation initiative, put forward by the Keating government, was "Primary Creators". The term quickly passed out of use, I suspect because other members of the arts community, such as arts bureaucrats, did not wish to be reminded that their role is secondary. Such sensitivity was inappropriate. The term "Primary Creators", was clearly derived from agriculture. Creative artists provide primary produce for the arts. But a description that works for farmers didn't work for artists. In agriculture there are eggs. In the arts there is ego. In the arts, ego gets in the way.
It is typical in the arts that an initiative should get bogged down, and lost, by the use or misuse of terminology. So let's sidestep that issue, and ask the question: does Australia want more artistic produce? If so, this must come from the individuals who creative the produce. To achieve greater output than is presently achieved, what changes are necessary?
I would suggest: less regulation in artistic content, and less politicisation of artistic content.
To achieve this end, who should participate in the production process who currently do not participate? In a word - consumers. The general public. Simple. Obvious. But you be amazed - or perhaps not - to discover how many people in the arts regard such a proposition as heresy. Examples will follow. And so to main item on the agenda!
Not that I endorse the use of the word "agenda". I regard it as a suspect term. Explanation follows!
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