Time to reframe the Australian arts and culture debate?

Advancing Society and Culture

A Deakin lecturer has called for a wider debate on the true value of arts and culture to Australian society.

Arts funding is a contentious issue in Australia, particularly since what has become known, in some circles, as the “excellence raid” on Budget night 2015 when substantial public funding was withdrawn from the arts sector.

As a result of the cuts, when the Australia Council for the Arts, the Federal Government’s arts funding and advisory body, released the results of its “Four Year Organisation” grants in May 2016, 65 arts organisations around the country were defunded and more than 100 applications for funding were unsuccessful.

Now, Deakin University researcher and lecturer in the School of Communications and Creative Arts Dr Ben Eltham has published a paper exploring the state of cultural policy in Australia and how the concept of excellence in arts has been transformed from “an aspiration to a commodity”.

“When the goal posts move: patronage, power and resistance in Australian cultural policy 2013-2016,” was released this month as a Platform Papers quarterly essay by Currency House.

The “wide-ranging” paper examines the role of Arts Ministers and the Australia Council in arts funding, the important function that smaller cultural organisations play in our society and how the current debate on arts funding can be linked to the narrowing of public debate in Australia more generally.

“We’ve forgotten how to discuss public value in collective terms,” Dr Eltham said.

“We can only talk about it through the framework of economic individualism and the bottom line.

“Even in the higher education space we talk about the economic gains for students in terms of their future careers and the benefits their learning will have for the economy when they graduate. We’ve lost the discussion about the broader public good of education, the benefits to all of us in being an educated society. It’s the same with culture and arts – we struggle to articulate their value without using economic terms.”
Dr Ben Eltham
Dr Ben Eltham School of Communications and Creative Arts

He argued that it is this lack of appropriate language to describe the value of culture that causes difficulties for those who champion public funding of the arts.

“In crafting a response, the [arts] advocate can find herself … boiling everything down to empty abstract concepts like ‘excellence’, ‘beauty’ and ‘truth’, when in fact there are sensible and practical reasons to support the arts and culture that are closer to street level,” he wrote.

“… Beauty and truth can indeed be properties of many works of art, but justifying this to a skeptical arts minister or campaigning tabloid newspaper can be a tricky business.

“Faced with this difficulty, it can be tempting to stick with the established terms of current policy debates, and stress the benefits of arts funding in economic terms: creating jobs, earning exports and supporting the growth of cultural industries.”

Dr Eltham believed funding, and the wider discussion, would not improve in the near future.

“I think in the medium term we’ll continue to see erosion of public values and public debate, and probably further cuts to funding,” he said.

“In the past I have been vocal in calling for the abolition of the Australia Council, so it’s ironic that all this has caused me to be a more vocal supporter.

“If we lose the Australia Council, we’re not likely to see it replaced with anything better and it does have a role in funding individual artists and the small to medium arts sector.

“It also holds the institutional memory of what public culture means. If we lose it, we’ll lose an important thing.”

Dr Eltham, who has argued previously that there is a “considerable evidence base from which to form policy decisions in Australian arts funding,” said his research focus now is to “expand on ways to encourage Australian culture and work up a new framework for talking about it that captures its true value in a democracy.

“We should be able to discuss the intrinsic public value of art and it’s hard to do that in an increasingly inhospitable intellectual climate for the public support of culture,” he said.