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Simon Crean’s Excellent Adventure – The Australia Council Review

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Australia Council For The ArtsThe findings of the Federal Government review of the Australia Council for the Arts were released last week with eighteen recommendations in total geared around restructuring, expanding and modernising the Council to align its operations with the needs of the contemporary Australian art industry. The recommendations have been handed over to the arts community to debate and consider, and the early reactions have started to trickle in.

Established as the nation’s main arts funding body over thirty years ago, the Council was charged with developing Australia’s creative industry and doesn’t appear to have been touched since. Although an instrumental force in its early days, it was long left behind by the community it was created to support. Many within the wider arts community have criticised the council’s leanings toward what is considered ‘traditional arts’, leaving the world of technological, multi-disciplined and hybrid art over-looked and under-funded. The suggested dismantling of the funding “silos” that are accused of suffocating diversity by defining and restricting art funding to separate and non-mixable categories such as literature, painting and theatre will surely be a welcomed reform, although some within those classic silos suggest that the dilution of subject matter expertise from the board may cause them some adversity.

A diversity of peer review on a competitive basis is outlined for Major Performing Arts bodies to determine grants, and has been met with a brush of cynicism. Representatives from the large performing arts organisations reject the assessment of their work as non-innovative and flag concerns over which peers would be conducting such assessments and if this can work fairly. Sue Donnelly, executive Director of the Queensland Theatre Company commented on this in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald;

The danger is that people who are involved in small to medium companies work on a different basis and will look at a big company and go, ‘Oh they’re just wasting money, we could have done that 10 times cheaper’

The major arts establishments were also mentioned in a suggestion to increase the funding pool. The reviewers want to provide more funding for emerging artists and recognised that more than half of the annual budget is ‘locked off’ to finance the major performing arts organisations such as Opera Australia and the Sydney Theatre Company. It’s great news however that the suggestion is not about reducing the funding for the big kids but rather increasing the existing budget by $21.25 million to enable this (a heart warming prospect in an era of hardcore budget cuts – just ask any Queenslander!) but a few eyebrows have been raised over how and if this money will materialise.

The resounding tone of the review however is encapsulated in the buzz word ‘excellence’. We are apparently striving for excellence in the arts, but many are left pondering what that actually means and who will decide what is excellent enough to deserve the desired cash prize. A clear definition of ‘excellence in the arts’ in the context of the Council’s purpose, is itself part of the desired outcome of recommendations and this is probably a good things as excellence is the ‘primary measure of Australia Council funding’.

An excerpt from recommendation 2.3

EXCELLENCE Promotion and support for excellence in the arts … is the responsibility of the Australia Council.

Arts Minister Simon Crean has yet to commit to making any of the recommended changes saying he is interested in seeing the reaction from the community first. Responses to the review will be accepted until June 8 and will be considered as part of the Government Response.

There is definitely one reliable outcome however; you can’t please everyone. Has the definition of ‘arts’ become too broad to be sustained by just one body when we have everything from music to craft vying for the same limited but excellent financial attention?

If you’d like to read all of the 18 recommendations or just like a demonstration in how to use the word excellent in every second sentence, you can read the full review here: http://culture.arts.gov.au/sites/default/files/australia-council-review/australia-council-review-report.pdf

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