A national arts and cultural emergency for young Australians

By Associate Professor Sandra Gattenhof

When we look at the Australian cultural landscape not everyone’s story has a place within the cultural conversation. Scott Rankin’s recent Platform Paper Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive is a powerful and timely tale for this time. He says, “The neglect of cultural rights can have a catastrophic effect … Every one of us should have the right to participate, be represented in and consume their country’s culture, to have a voice in the cultural discussion, to be visible in the narration; because it is our cultural right”[i].

Gough Whitlam brought to the leadership a passionate belief in the importance of the arts. Whitlam himself said of his government and the Arts, "[i]n any civilised community, the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place ..."

Rankin’s text explores a story about art and cultural participation for all Australians, but more accurately the barriers to participation, that is not just rooted in economics. As the 1970s television scientist Julius Sumner Miller frequently asked, “why is it so”? To be blunt, there is the lack of a coherent federal arts and cultural statement. There have been a number of attempts to establish a federal position. Under the Julia Gillard Labor Government there was the development of a national cultural policy titled Creative Australia (2013)[ii] that had its roots in Creative Nation [iii], launched in 1994 under the Keating Labor government.

To date, the current Liberal Coalition Government has not released a position on the entitlement of all Australians to arts and cultural participation. In 1994, the same year that Creative Nation was launched, the federal coalition released a document entitled The Cultural Frontier, Coalition Priorities for the Arts. However, found in both The Cultural Frontier and Creative Nation is the position that cultural “egalitarianism and fair play seem to come second to honouring the talented few at the expense of the many”. [iv] Or in the words of Scott Rankin, “[b]ecause of the power of culture, we need to pay attention to it, and be vigilant about everyone’s rights, not for the few, or many, but for all. Because if we don’t, it can be used against sections of society, demonising them or rendering their story invisible and citizenry vulnerable”[v].

Labor’s work in this space was significant under the prime ministership of Gough Whitlam, including the establishment of the Australia Council for the Arts. In December 1972, the Australian Labor Party won office. Gough Whitlam brought to the leadership a passionate belief in the importance of the arts. Whitlam himself said of his government and the Arts, “[i]n any civilised community, the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be seen as remote from everyday life. Of all the objectives of my government, none had a higher priority then the encouragement of the arts”.[vi] Given the current political climate in Australia the contemporary relevance of these words is profound.

This statement explicitly supported the inclusion of an arts entitlement for all young Australians through the activation of the Australian Curriculum: The Arts by mandating that "every student has the opportunity to receive an arts education" ... Yet, the Australian Curriculum: The Arts has not been consistently adopted across states and territories.

In the contemporary sphere Rankin echoes Whitlam’s position by saying, “… culture is far from recreational, elitist or optional. It is an issue of justice, which plays out in pragmatic ways, as an essential service, like education, health.”[vii] If we take a deep dive into my particular area of interest - children, young people and arts engagement - cultural rights are seen in sharp relief.

Contained in the current Australia Council for the Arts document, A Culturally Ambitious Nation: Strategic Plan 2014 To 2019[viii] is an opening statement that says, “[c]reativity starts with childhood curiosity. It continues through our lives. A culturally ambitious nation embraces the arts in everyday life … We want to be a nation where artistic enterprise and respect for culture are entrenched”. I applaud the approach such an approach life-long arts engagement. But the fact remains that at this moment there is no dedicated statement about the arts as it applies to children and young people.

The current state of play is that there are lapsed policies specific to children, young people and the arts. Federal policy, articulated through the Australia Council for the Arts, culminated fifteen years ago in the publication of Young People and the Arts[ix]. This policy built on the Council’s earlier Framework for Youth and the Arts[x] and the work of Australia Council’s Youth Panel in the two years previous. “The policy [was] about the Australia Council’s role in supporting, promoting and raising the profile of artistic and creative work by, for and with young people and children”.[xi]

Tracing through Council’s A Culturally Ambitious Nation: Strategic Plan 2014 To 2019 reference about arts and young people is captured under Goal Three as being “We will strengthen artistic experiences by, with and for children and young people by facilitating collaboration between young people and more established artists to create new work”[xii]. This is about developing artist product, not about inclusive arts engagement.

The Australia Council for the Arts has always had as a primary objective the support of excellence, but the invisibility of young Australians in this policy statement is stark and we are no closer to a dedicated strategy about the arts for children and young people. In the last attempt at a cohesive national cultural statement in 2013, the intersection of young Australians and the arts was located in a statement that read, a universal arts education for lifelong learning and to drive creativity and innovation”[xiii]. This statement explicitly supported the inclusion of an arts entitlement for all young Australians through the activation of the Australian Curriculum: The Arts by mandating that “every student has the opportunity to receive an arts education” and that “creativity in schools is considered as a vital 21st century skill to drive innovation and productivity[xiv]. Yet, the Australian Curriculum: The Arts has not been consistently adopted across states and territories.

The lack of a dedicated federal arts policy for young Australians may be interpreted to mean that children and young people are not important. And even more, the provision of arts and cultural access for young Australians does not need further attention. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps it is time to declare a national arts and cultural emergency for children and young people in Australia. Experience tells us that policy equals action, and with action comes funding for implementation. We know that without the minimum entitlement for all young Australians, no matter where they live or their economic background, being enshrined in federal arts policy, children and young people will not be given equitable right to arts and cultural engagement.

[i] Rankin, Scott. (2018). Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive. Platform Papers No. 57. Sydney: Currency House, pp. 8-9.

[ii] Australian Government. (2013). Creative Australia. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

[iii] Rankin, Scott. (2018). Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive. Platform Papers No. 57. Sydney: Currency House, p. 3.

[iv] Gardiner-Garden, John. (2009). Commonwealth arts policy and administration – Parliament of Australia Library Background Note, p. 44.

[v] Rankin, Scott. (2018). Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive. Platform Papers No. 57. Sydney: Currency House, p. 3.

[vi] Gardiner-Garden, John. (2009). Commonwealth arts policy and administration – Parliament of Australia Library Background Note, p. 5.

[vii] Rankin, Scott. (2018). Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive. Platform Papers No. 57. Sydney: Currency House, p. 3.

[viii] Australia Council for the Arts. (2014). A Culturally Ambitious Nation: Strategic Plan 2014 to 2019, p. 1.

[ix] Australia Council for the Arts. (2003). Young People and the Arts. Strawberry Hills, Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts.

[x] Australia Council for the Arts. (1999). Framework for Youth and the Arts. Strawberry Hills, Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts.

[xi] Australia Council for the Arts. (2003). Young People and the Arts. Strawberry Hills, Sydney: Australia Council for the Arts, p. 4.

[xii] Australia Council for the Arts. (2014). A Culturally Ambitious Nation: Strategic Plan 2014 to 2019, p. 6.

[xiii] Australian Government. (2013). Creative Australia. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, p. 77

[xiv] ibid.


Sandra Gattenhof is Associate Professor and Director of Research Training in the Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology. She has been Discipline Leader - Dance, Drama, Music (2017), Head of Drama (2010-2016) and is founding leader of the Creative Education and Creative Workforce theme in the Creative Lab at QUT. Sandra is a leader in the field of arts and cultural evaluation and is a member of National Advocates for Arts Education (NAAE). Sandra is a Drama Queensland Life Member awarded for Longstanding Contribution to the Drama Community.