Finding a place on the Asian stage

Australia has to take the initiative if we want to build a relationship with Asia based on the arts. AAP

WHAT IS AUSTRALIA FOR? Australia is no longer small, remote or isolated. It’s time to ask What Is Australia For?, and to acknowledge the wealth of resources we have beyond mining. Over the next two weeks The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW, is publishing a series of provocations. Our authors are asking the big questions to encourage a robust national discussion about a new Australian identity that reflects our national, regional and global roles.

Australian jobs and security depend on the health of our relationship with Asia, a reality made even more apparent by the current Euro-American financial meltdown. Such relationships need to be built on more than the profit-driven, transactional nature of commerce or the diplomatic balancing acts of political calculation, important as these are. It is the “people-to-people” links that give a relationship resilience, depth and understanding, and allow it to weather the inevitable and usually unpredictable setbacks of business and politics. Cultural engagement is at the heart of this.

It is not easy for people in Asia to access our arts by themselves: distance and expense get in the way. And what reason do people from Asia have to search out our arts when we can be perceived as having a largely derivative culture? We have to take the initiative, to invite and encourage, to knock on doors and “be out there”. We are fortunate that we have the capacity to do so: a robust economy and a vibrant arts sector strongly supported by government. Yes, it is.

Some of the lessons drawn from those who do work with Asia are clear: the commitment to developing real partnerships; the exciting and often unpredictable outcomes of shared creative inputs across cultural difference; and the value of long-term commitments in order to build real legacies.

Let us look at the public record and see what some real numbers can teach us. How have government agencies managed our cultural policy on Asia since the Keating Government took the initiative in 1991?

The Australia Council is the key organisation for anyone working in the arts in Australia. The major focus of our attention is on the percentage of funds spent across two decades for performing arts projects to or in Asian destinations, as compared to expenditure directed towards the “Rest of the World” (this is mostly Western Europe, including the United Kingdom, and North America, with only a tiny sum spent in other places like South America and Eastern Europe).

The first thing that strikes us about these figures is that broad policy decisions can have very specific outcomes. Following the Australia Council’s decision in 1990-1 to apply at least 50% of their international funding towards Asia, this is what actually happened. Indeed for most of the early 1990s it was well above that. As the Council itself said:

Since the Australia Council announced a shift in its international cultural relations policy three years ago, in recognition of Australia’s place in the Asia Pacific region, there has been a 250 per cent increase in funding for projects focused on the region.

Prime Minister Keating announced the major cultural policy document, Creative Nation, in 1995, reconfirming the 50% of international funding allocated to Asia. In the decades since 1996 (when Keating left office) the proportion of funds “for Asia” sank to and has remained at 10–30% of the Council’s total international expenditure (details are available in our full paper). Analysis shows the general downward trend of funding to Asia versus funding to the rest of the world and the areas of Asia which caught the Australia Council’s attention.

  • The Australia Council’s own policies and, more broadly, the Federal Government’s stated and unstated priorities, have had a direct bearing on the Council’s commitment to Asia.

  • Funding for the countries of South East Asia have fallen away over the last ten years. Only Singapore has coasted along in a small way through the two decades.

  • The countries of North Asia have almost always received the lion’s share of funding. Japan was the standout over the two decades though support there has declined in the last few years as spending in Korea has risen.

  • Activity in South Asia was restricted to the New Horizons promotion in India in 1995–6.

  • Expenditure on China has been fairly constant but low.

So what might these conclusions mean?

Public funding has clearly leant towards those countries that might offer at least a partial box office return: Singapore, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. This has become particularly clear since the Audience and Market Development division of the Australia Council came into being.

While a focus on financial viability is part of choosing where to tour and perform, it has a downside. We are losing access to, and creative engagement with, many dynamic and exciting cultures of Asia, including India and Indonesia. Both of these countries are of high strategic importance to Australia, both have wonderfully rich and diverse cultures, so it is certainly Australia’s loss to pull back from cultural engagement with them.

The key point is that leadership really matters. After Keating there has been no political leadership endorsing broad cultural links with Asia. Government agencies, as well as the majority of people in the cultural and educational sector, have responded accordingly. Is cultural engagement with Asia such a low priority because politicians think there are no votes in the arts, let alone in artistic engagement with Asia? Or is it because the arts community itself is too uninterested to use their potentially powerful voice to tell them otherwise?

A key part of the Asia agenda ought to be what we learn about Asian culture, especially as part of our secondary and tertiary education, and in particular, in specialist arts areas.

Australia’s tertiary performing arts courses can and do include small elements on Asian performing arts in their programs, but in none is it core curriculum. The Australian university funding model has pushed our tertiary institutions to chase high-fee-paying students from Asia to sustain their core operations; isn’t it extraordinary and depressing that no Australian tertiary institution has made any serious effort to develop core curricula offerings around the arts of Asia?

We need action — action backed with sticks and carrots — or we shall continue to undermine our collective and creative interests.

We therefore put forward a ten-point plan to redress the focus over the next ten years. We need specific policy, specific money allocated against targets, and a specific body to realise this agenda.

1. Funding quotas: Funding is crucial. So is its intelligent application. Of the Australia Council’s and DFAT’s Cultural Relations budget, we advocate 60% of international funding be allocated for Asian engagement over the next ten years. As noted today the Australia Council’s international funding for Asia is around 20%.

2. Spread of focus: As a broad guideline that reflects relevance and opportunity, we propose expending this 60% as follows:

3.The middle way: The open stage between individual engagement (such as residencies) and the big tours by major companies is where the creative collaborations happen. Collaborations between Australian artists and colleagues in the region should be supported to develop new projects and present them to audiences in the participating countries and beyond. This should be established as a new program with new funding, a minimum of $3 million per annum to be administered by a new Australian International Cultural Agency (AICA)(see Point 8).

4. In-country Australian cultural centres: These should be established in key places, especially in priority countries and where existing local infrastructure is minimal. Start with India and Indonesia. The new centres should be established as independent NGOs at arm’s length from government but with advance funding commitment on a rolling triennial basis for their ongoing operation and programs.

5. Arts management capacity building in Asia: AusAID should establish a program of support to bring arts managers and students from developing countries to Australia to participate in tertiary level arts management programs. An evaluation should also be made of the potential to deliver short-term arts management programs and materials in the region.

6.Cultural directors in key embassies: Australian-based cultural directors drawn from the ranks of professional arts and cultural managers should be reappointed to key Australian diplomatic posts.

7. Major events: The currently favoured model is the year-long Australian cultural promotion program in another country. The funding can be co-ordinated through one agency (see Point 8). It is our view that the very big companies such as the Australian Ballet and the symphony orchestras should only be included in these promotional years when and if they have already built real, long-term creative relationships in the host country, and if they are touring a repertoire that is distinctively Australian.

8. A new Australian International Cultural Agency: Within three years, all related Federal Government funding should be brought together into one new body, provisionally named here as the Australian International Cultural Agency (AICA). The AICA should have government representation but operate at arm’s length from government. Its functions would include:

  • strategic overview
  • linking programs to national priorities and national interest
  • establishing funding priorities
  • developing programs
  • funding major national profiling years
  • promoting a positive international image for Australia, especially in Asia, through many channels including programs that nurture rich cultural exchange, wide people-to-people diplomacy, and the development of Australian Studies abroad
  • recruiting cultural directors to be posted to the major Australian diplomatic missions (see Point 6).

What is the appropriate level of funding for this new cultural agency? A strong starting point would be the funding currently spent by the Australia Council’s international programs, DFAT’s Cultural Relations budget and the budgets of DFAT bilateral councils and the Australian International Cultural Council. More could obviously be achieved with more, but we don’t just need new resources, we need the to be well applied through a strategic framework and coordinated program delivery.

The common arguments against such a body are these:

Cost - but surely the virtues of a clear strategy, co-ordination of resources and forward planning is as valid here as in any other area of activity? Surely it might even save some ineffective expenditure?

Our small population - some say the other countries that have such bodies - Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Korea, China, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Scandinavia - have a much bigger population and GDP than Australia. In many cases this patently untrue. Britain has three times our population, but we would be much better resourced than we are now if we could allocate just a third of the British Council’s budget to AICA.

Unnecessary change - people and organisations always defend their patch. It’s natural. So the most commonly used argument against change is that it won’t be the same. Exactly.

Frankly, even if you accepted the points against change, we would argue that we need such a body more than other countries do. Apart from our geographic proximity to, and our economic dependence on, Asia, we are huge within our own borders and difficult to access externally and internally. We are “confusing” to people in Asia because of our indigenous/British/immigrant/transitional culture. As a nation we aren’t easy to understand, which often tells against us, as do our regular political swings and roundabouts. And then, we criticise ourselves too much. We are not good natural promoters of ourselves. A new body would work to counter these negatives more effectively.

9. Tertiary education: As a prerequisite for funding, all tertiary education programs for arts practitioners must include at least 20% Asian content in their core curricula. This should include Asian histories, cultures and art forms, as well as practical sessions with visiting Asian artists and teachers, and collaborative projects with Asian creative colleagues. This matter should be monitored and coordinated by each education provider’s Academic Board.

10. A major review: A first step towards establishing a new Australian International Cultural Agency could be for the Government to initiate a major review or inquiry into the delivery of our overseas cultural engagement and especially with Asia. It could appoint a small, senior review panel backed by staff and resources. The panel’s terms of reference should include a review of the current situation, a comparative examination of how other countries conduct and resource their cultural engagement programs, and recommendations to government on how things could be improved for Australia’s benefit.

As Mao Zedong said, we learn from the past to serve the future. Let us learn and act.

A longer version of this article is available at Currency House.

Read more provocations at Griffith REVIEW or at The Conversation.