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Cultural policy in Australia: institutions, audiences and communities

By Deborah Stevenson - posted Monday, 22 November 2010

In a speech to the National Press Club in October 2009, the then-Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett announced his intention "to facilitate a national dialogue ... to hear people's view on the priorities for a national cultural policy". Minister Garrett went on to identity three key themes that would be emphasised in this proposed cultural policy framework - "keeping culture strong", "engaging the community", and "powering the young". On closer inspection these themes, which can be summarised as being concerned with institutions, audiences and communities, are broadly consistent with those that have long shaped the agenda of arts and cultural policy in Australia.

Federal, state and local governments in Australia all provide direct and indirect support for a range of cultural activities and organisations. Most have specific ministries, quasi-autonomous bodies, and/or funding programs for the arts. But public intervention in the arts is fraught with tensions and contradictions not least of which are those associated with the arbitrary aesthetic hierarchy that is legitimated by arts funding programs and organisations. This hierarchy - premised on the split between high art and popular culture - continues to privilege a minority of cultural practices and products as "art" whilst the rest are classified by implication as inferior or less serious forms of entertainment.

Although the boundaries of the official hierarchy are rarely fixed or made explicit, with popular cultural forms, such as rock music, receiving funding from time to time, high cultural practices comprise the symbolic, creative and financial core of the hierarchy. And it is with reference to these artforms that the priorities of government are determined. Consequently, arts policy and public funding programs have become powerful tools structuring both cultural and social inclusion and exclusion - the sanctioned core and the marginalised other.


The organisational structure of the arts in Australia is a tripartite one with non-profit and governmental organisations being the primary supporters of high arts practices and organisations, while commercial enterprises have principal responsibility for the production and distribution of popular cultural forms. This separation also involves processes of voluntary cultural entrepreuneurship, and the framing of new interpretative relationships between audiences and the "arts". Persuasive rhetorical and discursive devices are required to explain and justify the institutional divide between high art and popular culture as well as to legitimate the role of government as a pivotal organisational prop in the production and consumption of the arts.

A number of discourses have emerged as the primary organising frames of contemporary arts policy. These include the support of excellence, the fostering of national, local or regional identities and economies, and facilitating cultural/creative industry development. Given that the arts policy and funding process is far from straightforward, it is necessary to consider the initiatives and ideological priorities of each level of government in order to see connections and appreciate the complexities. This should be the first task of any "dialogue" on developing a national cultural policy.

Creative Nation the Keating Labor Government's much hyped cultural policy statement released in 1994 remains perhaps the most significant Federal arts and cultural policy initiative of recent decades. Not only was Creative Nation a political response to a rapidly changing arts environment, it also became a catalyst for examining the place of the arts in Australia society and highlighting the connections between different cultural forms and government. With Creative Nation the Federal Government also acknowledged the important role being played by Indigenous cultures and arts practice in shaping the cultural landscape of the nation.

Creative Nation formally highlighted another trend that had been gaining momentum throughout the 1980s and into 1990s - the linking of arts promotion to tourism policy. This articulation was occurring, in part in response of the importance of Indigenous arts to tourism, but also as a strategy for pressuring established and emerging arts organisations to canvass innovative ways of attracting new audiences. Cultural tourism has been embraced by the three levels of government and touted as an arts and tourism strategy that can benefit arts organisations, and foster the promotion of the nation as well as individual states, cities and regions to international and domestic tourism markets.

Indeed, cultural tourism is itself a response to what was one of the most significant of changes in the orientation of arts policy, and that is the adoption by governments of a cultural industries approach to the arts. This approach is underscored by a shift away from so-called "supply" side funding programs that focus on artistic and creative production and development, to implement those emphasising audience development, consumption and "demand". Thus the language of subsidy has gradually been replaced by the language and philosophy of economics and accountability - the long-term implications of this shift for the arts and existing funding programs can still only be guessed at, but one outcome may be an undermining of the artform-based approach to subsidy that is a feature of most arts funding programs. In other words, such a shift has the potential to challenge the hegemony of the high art/popular culture split.

It is undeniable, therefore, that government policy initiatives and changes in the rhetoric of funding have had a profound impact on all arts organisations, including on the operation and legitimacy of "flagship" arts companies. In response to government funding priorities, these companies have increasingly looked not just to tourism but also to the private sector for sponsorship, and to the staging of "blockbuster" exhibitions and the performance of popular musicals and plays to ensure financial viability.


For instance, the Australia Council has been reorienting its operations for some time in response to various changes in government priorities and it now actively fosters programs for the development of new audiences as well as playing a significant role marketing the arts to the corporate sector. The overarching aim is to reduce dependence on government funding through the development of new forms for arts patronage and new audiences. The Council simultaneously now markets the value of both the arts and itself. The shift in its public profile and in the relationship between the Council and the arts are outcomes of significant restructuring and government evaluation of the Council since the mid 1990s. Variations in the nature of the cultural industries and the context within which these industries and individual arts practitioners operate have also been influential.

Community arts is one funding area which has been significantly affected by changes to the Council's structure and operations. This is a field that was always marginalised by the constitutional and in-practice importance given by the Council to elite artforms and the hierarchy of aesthetic excellence. And it was partly in an attempt to move away from having a responsibility for community arts and local cultural development that the Australia Council spearheaded the promotion of cultural planning initiatives to metropolitan and regional local governments and shires. Drawing on British and North American models, Australian cultural planning offers a blueprint for local governments first to rationalise their involvement in arts and cultural provision and activity, and second to assume a premier role in local cultural development.

The objectives of cultural planning are vast, defining a new role for local government in the arts at the same time as drawing more overt connections between this level of government and the cultural policy agencies of state and federal governments. Cultural planning also has the potential to challenge existing organisational cultures and strategic practices of local governments in ways that make it, in principle, a radical approach to cultural provision. Most significantly, cultural planning is underpinned by a definitional framework that calls into question the established aesthetic hierarchy and advocates the equality of all creative and cultural practices.

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About the Author

Deborah Stevenson is Professor in the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney. Her publications include the books, Art and Organisation: Making Australian Cultural Policy, Cities and Urban Cultures, and Tourist Cultures: Identity Place and the Traveller.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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