Culture's Value

The new Australia Council Board has a chance to be better than the last

A changing of the guard…will it make a difference? Shutterstock

The organisation Senator George Brandis described as having an “iron wall” around it, is refreshing its sentinels. This week’s announcement of four new appointments to the Australia Council Board represents a change of focus from last year when, you may recall, the agency had other things on its mind.

I once confided to a friend that I could tell the level of political pressure the Council was under by how closely the brow of Rupert Myer, its long-suffering Chair, matched the colour of his shirts. These days, I’m glad to say, it’s returned to its normal shade.

What happened with Catalyst, nee the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, was neither rational nor right, but a misjudgement by an ill-informed Minister who did a deal of damage and made no lasting positive contribution to his portfolio.

With Senator Brandis now displaying as Attorney-General the same pachydermic egotism and semantic chicanery as he did with the arts, the cultural sector can be confirmed in its view that he is a Bad Egg.

What next for the Council? The new appointments come at a time when it confronts a flinty task of redefinition. While the changes that began with the 2012 James and Trainor Review and led to the abolition of its art form boards, have been rung through, the events of last year shook the perception and the self-perception of the sector. In brief: there’s not a lot of trust out there.

The Council plays piggy-in-the-middle between three sets of unforgiving forces. On the one hand, it represents the arts to the government. On the other, it represents the arts to the public. And on a third, perpetually smarting hand, it represents the government to the arts.

Making sense of these varied stakeholder needs is like a cultural version of the chicken/fox/sack-of-corn conundrum. It is the job of the Council to riddle the challenge. What happened last year must be inwardly digested and turned into lasting cognitive capital. The Council must grow a policy memory and the Board must be its best expression. Put simply, what happened under Senator Brandis must never happen again.

The Board is a round dozen of culture types from all over the country. Like most arts boards these days there is an abundance of “suits”. With the departure of Robin Archer as Deputy Chair, it leaves just one senior practising artist. Is that enough? No. You wouldn’t run a hospital board without working doctors on it, or a school board without full-time teachers.

No one would argue that such artists have superior insight into the cultural policy process, but presumably they shouldn’t be left out of it. It would be a good recruiting move, too, for a Council that has to regain the sector’s confidence.

With the old art form boards gone, the Council’s moral and intellectual leadership now lies with its Board. In the 1980s, with James McCaughey as chair of the Theatre Board, Gary Foley as chair of the Aboriginal Arts Board and Dick Letts as chair of the Music Board, there was formidable policy activism at that level.

Today this is seen as a problem. It was seen that way then too – by the government. The art form boards were often autonomous in their opinions and actions, and if they could be erratic, they were also pugnacious. They were difficult for governments to intimidate. If the arm’s length independence of the Council had a hard edge to it, it was to be found in the attitude of these art form boards.

Responsibility for maintaining the arm’s length relationship is now the Board’s, and that means more than Friday night drinks with Liberal staffers and birthday cards to Senator Mitch Fifield (who is 50 next year, the same age as the Council).

It means a genuine vision for the sector – thoughtful, inclusive and operationally valid. It means addressing the locked-in funding problem around the Major Performing Arts Framework that Senator Brandis neither understood nor cared to. It is this Framework that ensured cuts from two successive federal budgets fell solely on smaller arts organisations. It is this Framework the James and Trainor Review was supposed to open up.

Instead, after the election of a Liberal government in 2014, the opposite happened. The resentment and distrust this bred will continue to have a deleterious effect on relations in the sector until an effort is made to understand the problem on its own terms and not through witless buzz words, be they today’s “innovation” or yesterday’s “excellence”.

The Council has no Harry Potter spell to double its cash in the bank. Nor can it walk away from long-standing commitments to major institutions and programs. What it can do is display meaningful understanding of the systemic issues affecting cultural subsidy, and respond with a polite “—– off” if the government comes touting its own “priorities” and treating the agency like a doormat.

Not on. There’s no point in having an expert body unless you allow it to exercise its expert judgement.

As the Board decide how to react to the news that must come eventually that Catalyst funding is being handed back to them (weary resignation or subdued glee?), it should ponder the examples of past Council heads like Jean Battersby, Nugget Coombs, Timothy Pascoe and Donald Horne.

One, possibly two of these people, were conservatives, so it’s not a question of Labor bias. It’s about getting the government out of the Council’s face, so it can pick up where it left off in 2014 and deal with the difficult job that awaits.

Money’s tight, tempers are frayed, and the future is gloomy, but stiff cheddar: when were they not?

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