Arts and culture priorities? Academic leadership in a policy vacuum

By Esther Anatolitis

A nation’s cultural policy is its most confident document.

It empowers artists with the courage to make work that the entire nation welcomes. It outlines all of the means available to government to stimulate this work, without privileging any artforms or platforms that would prescribe the work. It legislates artists’ rights to fair pay, working conditions and intellectual property, as well as peer-led decision-making to protect arts and culture from politicisation. It offers regulatory and investment frameworks for arts bodies to collaborate and extend beyond. It situates the arts within an industry context that encourages both creative and entrepreneurial risk, with incentives for collectors and philanthropists. And it expresses a confidence in the expert generation of ideas that exceed government’s own remit. More than any other area of policy, it’s a statement of exactly what government is for.

It’s no surprise, then, that right now Australia lacks such a policy.

... the Ministry for the Arts and the Australia Council operate without an overarching policy to guide their cooperation and effectiveness ... While the Australia Council updates its strategic plan every five years ... cultural policy in Australia has never survived changes in government.

Confidence in expertise beyond their own is not the way anyone would characterise today’s political culture. Political interference in grant rounds already assessed by independent peer experts at both state and federal levels is the latest manifestation of this insecurity.

So in the absence of policy, how do governments at each level determine their strategic priorities in arts and culture?

Local governments own valuable art collections and galleries across regions and suburbs, as well as employing dedicated staff in venue-based, community and wellbeing work, and so many councils update their policies on a regular basis. There are better and worse ways of going about this, and the Cultural Development Network’s Framework for Cultural Development Planning sets the benchmark. State governments vary in their approaches to the arts, with some focusing on comprehensive creative industries frameworks while others devolve arts programs across multiple portfolios and policy areas.

At the federal level, the Ministry for the Arts and the Australia Council operate without an overarching policy to guide their cooperation and effectiveness, and there’s considerable overlap in their stated scope on programs, excellence and participation. While the Australia Council updates its strategic plan every five years – the next one will be released in early 2019 – cultural policy in Australia has never survived changes in government.

... an arts minister took $105m away from the Australia Council ... in order to establish a funding program of his own that was not open to artists ... The interpretation of that disruption as anything other that deliberate is a difficult one to make.

Our first cultural policy, Creative Nation (1994), announced it was “time for government to elevate culture on the political agenda, to recognise that it has a natural place in the expectations of all Australians.” It was quietly shelved following a change in government. Our most recent national cultural policy, Creative Australia (2013), offered a renewed focus that “now recognises the centrality of creativity and culture across the whole of society and all of government, and identifies ways government can enable it to flourish.” It was somewhat less quietly shelved when, following a change in government, an arts minister took $105m away from the Australia Council that he was unable to secure through collegiate negotiation in order to establish a funding program of his own that was not open to artists. This program failed and some of the funds were returned to the Australia Council, however the deliberate disruption to the entire arts sector continues to be felt.

The interpretation of that disruption as anything other that deliberate is a difficult one to make. It took place on the eve of the implementation of the Australia Council’s new strategic plan, whose centrepiece was the provision of long-term funding for leading small-to-medium arts organisations that would begin to redress the disproportionate and unconscionable focus of 62% of the Australia Council’s budget to the Major Performing Arts. It resulted in a 70% drop in funding available to individual artists in the first year alone – right after the year when individual artists asserted their own power to challenge the ethics of Biennale of Sydney’s sponsors. And it ended federal funding for an array of organisations who began as Australia Council initiatives in cultural diversity, young, emerging and experimental arts.

The development of Australia’s next arts and cultural policy raises many questions for researchers to consider. How will it put First Nations first? Should it be an artist policy, an arts policy, a sector policy, an industry policy or a cultural policy? What is gained and what is lost if the focus is on artists’ work and rights, or artform development, or supporting a healthy ecology, or stimulating economic value, or fostering all of the practices that express identity, connect communities and make meaning?

These aren’t mutually exclusive areas of focus, but policy rarely distinguishes between them – and neglecting these distinctions tends to result in the greatest disadvantage to the artists who should of course be at the very centre of any policy approach. Despite the growing sophistication of the arts as an ecology, a sector and an industry, artists’ fees, rights and working conditions are declining. Reduced public investment in artists in the absence of policy will continue to worsen working conditions, diminish environments for creative risk, and stifle radicality.

Researchers and academic leaders have a tremendous opportunity to lead the way, offering much-needed criticality and rigorously developed visions for a contemporary arts sector that’s ambitious and fair. Australia needs your expertise – in teaching, in published research, in government submissions, in the media and in our daily life. Let’s offer the confidence that Australia’s leadership will embrace.


Esther Anatolitis fosters local, regional, national and international perspectives on contemporary arts issues as one of the nation’s leading advocates for the arts. Her practice rigorously integrates professional and artistic modes of working to create collaborations, projects and workplaces that promote a critical reflection on practice. With a strong background in visual arts, design, architecture and media, Esther has held leadership roles including Craft Victoria, Melbourne Fringe, SBS and Express Media, and most recently with Regional Arts Victoria. She is Deputy Chair of Contemporary Arts Precincts and has served numerous board, policy, advisory and juror roles.

Esther is a former curator of Architecture+Philosophy, Digital Publics and Independent Convergence, and has taught into the studio program at RMIT Architecture, as well as at UNSW and the University of Sydney. A writer and critic, Esther’s work is regularly published and collected at estheranatolitis.net